Is the debate over evolution a political question? Surely it is, first of all, a scientific question. And yet, it is a sign of how far we have strayed from our common sense as citizens that the implications of evolutionary theory for our project of self-government are almost never seriously considered. The American nation and our way of life were founded on an articulated and explicit moral premise – one which the doctrine of evolution directly contradicts. We better start thinking about this.
What is unique about the origins of America? Nations come about in all kinds of ways. By and large, they have been the consequence of a mingling of accidental causes: co-location, circumstance, conquest, sentiment, geography, kinship and others. Whatever hold they have on our feelings and sympathies, such causes have little or no real moral significance. But America had a beginning that we can clearly identify, and that beginning included a rational and explicit effort to found a polity on stated principles of justice, to forge institutions that, however imperfect, would reflect those principles.
Such a beginning required that the principles of justice be stated from the very outset. Our Founders stated them clearly, among other places, in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is very explicit about the universal foundations of human justice. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those stated principles remain the moral premises of our way of life, and it is on them that we base our commitment to due process, and voting, and representative government and the truth that every human being has rights and an indefeasible dignity that government has to respect.
And what, according to the Declaration, is the absolutely first principle of justice that our political order respects? It is our common duty to acknowledge the will of the One who made us. The reason that it is necessary to establish government on a basis that limits power in accordance with respect for human dignity and human rights is that those rights and that dignity come from the Creator – God. That’s clear. It’s straightforward. It’s simple.
Without that invocation of divine authority, America would not have escaped the age-old premises of human polity – that justice is simply our acceptance of whatever results history serves up, that might makes right and that justice is the good of the stronger.
Our polity was founded on the belief such “justice” is not justice at all, however venerable its forms. It is rather a mask for injustice and leaves those who are weak to be preyed upon, those who are defeated to be abused and those in a position of disadvantage in fear that their disadvantage will be exploited to their destruction. The tragedy is completed when the oppressed manage to acquire power, in their turn, and cannot resist the temptation to identify justice with their own long-awaited opportunity for revenge and retribution. By and large, such has been the cycle of human events throughout human history.
By a providential gift of Almighty God, at one moment in history a different understanding of justice broke through. It emerged not merely in a philosopher’s mind, but in a context that translated a more universal and general principle of justice into the practical basis for institutions through which people would actually govern themselves. This is the significance of the American founding and of the moral principle at its heart – that God establishes a basis for justice beyond human events, a basis for justice beyond human will and circumstance and strength and relationship. By implication, this basis for justice reflects the mind of the supreme being and is, therefore, reflected in the nature that surrounds us and, of course, in our nature as creatures of this almighty Creator.
It was an appeal to the authority of that Creator, then, that began this nation. It was upon that same appeal that everything we take seriously in forms of government and institutions was founded. But if the assertion of rights began with an appeal to the authority of the Creator, what happens to that assertion if and when the Creator’s authority is denied? A claim based on a non-existent or false authority is itself non-existent and false – its foundation is utterly removed.
And this is particularly true when empirical evidence apparently fails to support the claim in the first place, as is the case with the claim of the weak to mercy and fairness. The empirical evidence, which is just “the way things turn out,” does not generally support the claim of the weak, the conquered, or of anybody except those favored by circumstance, and confirmed and affirmed in the result. If our sense of justice relies on “the empirical evidence,” there is no compelling case to be made that justice requires respect for the dignity and the rights of any except those who have the power to defend themselves, or to assert their claims and make that assertion stick.
Without appeal to an authority above human will, the only authority left is the course of events itself, grounded in the force of arms or of circumstance. And so there is no basis for justice except that force. We should thank God every day that this nation was not founded on that principle of force – it has been our great blessing that over the course of American history another understanding of justice was available to inspire the consciences and encourage the actions of our decent people. Clearly many great advances in American history depended on this. The fight against slavery, the battle for civil rights, for women’s rights: Each required consciences that were animated by the conviction that justice demands respect for the dignity of the weak, the dignity of the conquered, the dignity of those who have not been endowed by circumstance with superior power.
And it is but common sense that the whole structure grounded upon our acknowledgement of this transcendent authority and its relevance for our justice disappears when that authority is denied either in its significance or its very existence. I marvel at the nonchalance that is often shown, even in religious circles, when dealing with the subject of evolution. One simply does not have to be a scientific expert to see that it is necessary to take seriously – in a way that many people do not – the challenge posed by evolutionary theory. The understanding that evolution represents of the world, and especially of ourselves, utterly undermines the possibility of an unchanging basis for human justice.
In its simplest form, evolution represents the view that the ordering principle of reality is “the survival of the fittest,” or that outcomes validate themselves simply by occurring. So if there is any standard at all, that standard is simply “what works.” Whether you want to call it survival, dominance or superiority, the standard is simply “what works.”
Whatever works for you! That summarizes the standard that is implied by evolutionary theory. It is no accident that this understanding has been bidding for some time to become the popular basis for most aspects of life in America. Whatever fancy labels we put on it – relativism, situational ethics – it boils down to this principle: Whatever works for you.
Now, of course, letting the strong improvise principles of social justice that suit them can be a problem for the rest of us. It was a problem once before in American life – John C. Calhoun spoke for the strong who believed that slavery worked for them. His message to my ancestors was that “slavery works for us, so you work for us, and that’s all we need to say.” And as long as defenseless children are killed by the millions in the womb, because “it works” for those who kill them, the anti-Declaration principle that might makes right threatens us still.
The effective challenge to this false understanding of justice requires appeal to the belief that true judgment of rights and wrongs is not based on mere results – not decided by who has the whip hand – but instead rests on principles of justice beyond the reach of human will and circumstance. And yet, the possibility of any such principle is inherently denied by the irrational materialism at the heart of evolutionary theory.
Whatever one may think about the scientific truth of evolution, Americans must take the question of its implications seriously. If we are a people whose understanding of justice derives from the belief that all of us are created equal, and that the will of the Creator therefore has authority in determining human justice, then the question of creation vs. evolution is not just a question of scientific theory, it is a question of the utmost political significance. Evaluating the scientific discussion about evolution is sometimes difficult for the non-specialist. But the importance to our political and moral lives of facing the question should be immediately evident to anyone who remembers what it means to be an American, and who hopes to see justice prevail over the rule of tooth and claw.