One reason for this is that elected religious conservatives tend to be white, male Christians, and owing to those groups’ cultural and political position of power, we as a society are freer in challenging the pieties (in both the positive and negative senses of that word) of whites, males, and Christians. By contrast, liberals and conservatives alike tend to be queasier over the idea of hassling members of minority religions, or minority members of Christian confessions (both of which groups tend to lean Democratic), about the details of their faith. This explains why you’re not likely to see an interviewer ask Gabbard whether she thinks we really are in the 156 trillionth year since the last Brahma was born. Is there a familiar whiff of condescension in all this? Sure, but let’s suppose it’s innocent enough and leave it to one side.
Even so, as the number of nonbelievers in political life is vanishingly small, there are still plenty of white, male Democrats who espouse a Christian faith. Why aren’t they asked how old the universe is? (Or better yet, a more loaded version of that question that would be far more revealing: “Do you think God created the universe 4.54 billion years ago?”)
They aren’t asked such questions because the proximate purpose of asking such questions isn’t to start a conversation about metaphysics, it’s to get conservatives to say odd, politically damaging things. Asking Richard Mourdock about abortion in the case of rape wasn’t aimed at starting a theo-philosophical debate about whether the dignity of human life is contingent on the circumstances of its creation. It was about exploiting Todd Akin’s idiocy to generate politically advantageous sound bites. Likewise, asking Marco Rubio about the age of the universe was an invitation to out himself as an anti-scientific rube, not an invitation to reflect on the intersection of religious and scientific truths.
If it was the latter, there are a number of intriguing and learned attempts to square just that circle. Think of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” or the Vatican’s rejection of both “crude creationism” and “intelligent design” and its affirmation that the Bible is not “a source of scientific knowledge.”
Though if I were Rubio, I might have been tempted to mess with GQ, to one-up Young Eartherism and tell them that I held with Bertrand Russell’s radically skeptical lark that the universe was created five minutes ago — fully stocked with fossils and tree rings and ruins, and baiting GQ interviewers.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.