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Marco Rubio was caught off guard during an interview by Michael Hainey for GQ. He was asked how old he thinks the earth is.

His response:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

What’s going on? Why would the interviewer even ask the question? And why would Rubio be so evasive?

In many circles, the earth’s age is a test question. For conservative evangelicals at places like Dallas Theological Seminary, it’s meant to determine who can be trusted to sustain the classical commitments of conservative Evangelicalism, not the least of which is a commitment to the propositional inerrancy of scripture. It’s also a political test question, one designed to identify who is willing to line up with conservative populists to resist the cultural control of the liberal establishment.

It’s clear that Hainey knows what’s what when it comes to evangelical politics, which is why he asked the question. And it’s clear that Rubio does as well, which is why he evaded, giving what is in effect a theological version of Obama’s famous response to the question about when life begins: that’s above my pay grade.

Two comments:

Viewed theologically, it’s bad for Christianity when theological questions are reassigned to the political sphere. The long history of cultural conflict over biblical authority in public life—the Scopes trial and much more—makes it understandable that conservative cultural populism sometimes focuses on questions of creation. But that ends up overburdening the question. St. Augustine viewed our reading of the actual duration of the 7-day creation as a matter of theological judgment, not authoritative doctrine. He was surely right, and it compromises the authority of genuinely authoritative doctrines to think otherwise. This is one of the weaknesses of American evangelicalism. It tends to let the contingencies of our cultural and political history in American shape the horizon of the church’s thought.

Viewed politically, it’s fascinating that Rubio adopts what amounts to the “pro-choice” view when it comes to scientific questions. This is the default position in American politics. If there’s one rule a astute politician follows, it’s this: When faced with controversies that are politically costly, speak up for “freedom.”

This works in some cases, but not when it comes to scientific questions. It’s not possible to sustain a culture of truth if we imagine that we can make cosmology or earth science into a “choice,” anymore than we can sustain a culture of life if everybody gets to make up his or her mind about when life begins.

Therein lies our challenge. Christians and cultural populists are right to resist the cultural imperialism of secular liberalism. But we need to be wise. As I pointed out, the genuinely authoritative doctrines of the faith are undermined when peripheral questions are made central. The same thing happens when we allow peripheral and ultimately sterile debates about the age of the earth to displace the genuinely important struggle to preserve the central convictions of a Christian intellectual and moral culture. We need to resist the false doctrine of scientism (for example: materialism), and the ersatz morality of secular liberalism (for example: the cult of “inclusion,” which means the assault on traditional morality). These are metaphysical and moral questions, not scientific ones. In a metaphysically and morally divided country we can make a very strong and legitimate political claim that we need to preserve an open space in public life for people to be shaped by their churches and moral communities rather than state-controlled education.

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