I had a college teacher certain he had found the solution to the problem of creationists, and, at the time, the disturbing news that the Kansas Board of Education would consider a change to their science education standards to incorporate creation-science. “I wrote a letter to the director of admissions,” he proudly told our small seminar, “and I said we should refuse all Kansas applicants.” The school at which this professor reigned was the sort of place whose decisions regarding admissions would make no small ripple, and we sniggered with the imperious pleasure of the privileged. “What an idea!” we hummed after class as we lurked in an archway, circled by our smoke, “Ban the idiots! That will surely show them.”
The commentary surrounding Governor Sarah Palin’s creationism smacks of the same sort of pubescent snort. Indeed, the most cited Palin creationist factoid is a farce, an embarrassment to those who want to protect the methodological scrutiny of science. “God made dinosaurs 4,000 years ago as ultimately flawed creatures, lizards of Satan,” wrote one Internet blogger, satirizing Palin’s imagined fundamentalism. Not long after, many of America’s brightest cultural critics (and, of course, Matt Damon) began using the unverified “dinosaurs” motif as a comic embellishment. This is despite the fact that Palin had said little about creationism, or dinosaurs, other than what reporters borrowed from a 2006 Anchorage Daily News article. In that article, Palin presented a flagrantly nonpartisan position toward the subject. “My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution,” she said. “He would show us fossils and say, ‘How old do you think these are?’” When asked for her personal views on evolution, Palin said, “I believe we have a creator.” According to Alaskan reporter Tom Kizzia, Palin would not say whether her belief also allowed her to accept the theory of evolution as fact, saying instead that she thought both creationism and evolution should be taught in school. “Teach both,” she said in a televised debate. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”
This pose of pedagogical equitability is, of course, a recognizable rally to those in the creation-science movement. But with such limited information, such inadequate first-person testimonial, we can say little, as analysts and observers, about the precise nature of Palin’s Christian faith and correlating evolutionary imagination. “I’m not going to pretend,” continued Palin in 2006, “I know how all this came to be.” Such relatable humility before divinity has been Palin’s main theological articulation thus far. That, plus her taste for martial metaphor, is all the RNC has allowed her to exhibit. Otherwise, she is mere suppositional window dressing, the zealot without yet ostensible zealotry.
But we’ll go after the subject anyway, deriving from scratchy YouTube clips complex preacher postulates and theological profiles. We do this because that’s what we do, squeezing from a single strawberry the dream of a full jar of blatherskite jam. For many academics, this is the precise reason participation in public intellectual work is so problematic, since it tugs one into that problematic process of pressing against nothing (shards of observation in the Anchorage Daily News, for example) for the deadline of something (anything, any thing at all). Yet the appearance of popular epistemologies in the public sphere tugs at academic attention, offering as they do moments of diluted intellectual commentary. To take another example: springtime observers of Senator Barack Obama’s campaign may recall the controversy surrounding his pastor and, in particular, the sense that beneath the veneer of genial Obama lay the raging heart of an Afrocentrist. This impression derived largely from secondhand tirades by Jeremiah Wright, former Senior Pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Chicago. Jeremiah Wright’s recorded race pride reintroduced Afrocentric discourse into the heart of the presidential contest, begging voters to wonder wildly about an epistemological system that seemed (from media representation) at best comically archaic and, at worst, violently provocative. As historians have explained, Afrocentrism is a continuous thread within African American popular and academic histories, with origins in the eighteenth century continuing well into the twenty-first, and including proponents from Olaudah Equiano to Cheikh Anta Diop, George Washington Williams to Asa Hilliard. What binds this long chain of (sometimes) folk narrative and (sometimes) careful historicizing is a commitment to reply, insistently, to Eurocentric outlines of civilization and progress. “The Afrocentric tradition,” wrote Wilson Jeremiah Moses in his 1998 study Afrotopia, “is related to utopian ideas of progress because it promises a glorious destiny for African people.”
The parallels between these two discourses—Afrocentrism and creationism—are not limited to the comedy they supply, nor to the censoriousness they inspire. Both Afrocentrism and creationism emerged from benighted populations seeking alternatives to ideas propagated by the modern (white) research (atheist) university. Both literatures developed heavy historiographies using discourses of reason, evidence, and analysis that mimicked selections from the scientific and historical processes which were being refined (and still debated) in those aforementioned universities. And both Afrocentrism and creationism were unabashed about the social ideologies which their research was to serve: uplift of the race among all oppression, uplift of God’s people among all creatures, great and Simian. Although “creationism” and “Afrocentricism” suggest concepts easily distilled into bullet point ideologies, their animating despair and disgust with white historiography and atheist science have produced wide-ranging and diffuse print cultures, infusing many local knowledge communities with new chronologies, debatable theories of civilization, and clever reworkings of postmodern epistemology.
My college teacher would call these ideologies myths, and would encourage us to seek the rituals concocted to enact (recreate and confirm) the substance of their binary oppositions and fantastical creatures. For our political leaders, a key rite of passage has become an interrogation of how thoroughly their myths, their “worldview” (to borrow from Palin’s language) affects and infuses their legislative actions. Barack Obama was forced to wrestle, publicly, with whether the myths of his pastor were evident in his aspirant political rituals. I remain uncertain as to whether this onslaught, and the sacrificial takedown of Wright, brought dignity or embarrassment to the history of ideas. It seems dangerous argumentative waters to imagine candidates must make transparent all their functioning myths, all their enduring premises. I say this because the correlation between what we believe and what we do (what we govern) has yet to be intellectually demonstrated as coherent or demonstrably consistent, across the political spectrum.
Nonetheless, there was Barack Obama, speaking on March 18, 2008 of his “former” pastor’s “distorted views.” Speaking, too, about the role of race in his own identity formation, in his own political consciousness, and in the history of his nation he wanted very much to lead. Obama’s speech on race was his counter-narrative to the Afrotopias of his forefathers. It was also his to explain how Wright’s Afrocentrism could not be deleted from the record. “To simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
There is something to be said for that command performance, for the candidates forced into a position where they must show themselves as thinkers, as believers, as members of social movements often inexplicable to those outside and estranged from the disappointment and alienation which congeals those enclaves. After all, that is the executive expectation set before their runs toward elected office. Now creationism makes a brief shadowy show, still unsubstantiated, mocked and feared by those flailing in the vagaries of Dover, Pennsylvania and the Institute for Creation Research. Sarah Palin owes it to her constituents, and to her critics, to account for this accounting, for the ways she reconciled her science teacher father and Pentecostal pastor. If she cannot make an argument as to what role her beliefs play in her framing of the world, in her imagination of the American (scientific, political, and evolutionary) possibility, then she will have not only demonstrated definitively (with verifiable evidence) that she should not be the vice president of anything, but also that banning her, from universities or intellectual exposure, does nobody—not her, not creationists, and not the religions that produce it—any sort of intellectual good.