A day after “Science Guy” Bill Nye and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham faced off in a discussion about life’s origins – a debate pitting evolutionary science against the belief that God created the earth and all its creatures in six days – the televangelist and political provocateur Pat Robertson called the literalist view of six-day creation “nonsense.”
“There ain't no way that's possible,” Mr. Robertson said Wednesday on his show, "The 700 Club,” taking issue with the "young earth" version of creationism, which holds that the universe is about 6,000 to 10,000 years old. “We have skeletons of dinosaurs that go back 65 million years,” Robertson said. “To say it all dates back to 6,000 years is just nonsense, and I think [it’s] time we come off of that stuff, and say this isn’t possible.”
“Let's be real; let's not make a joke of ourselves,” he said.
He has expressed these views before, in fact, but after the widely anticipated clash between Messrs. Nye and Ham, responses to the televangelist’s comments came quickly on Twitter and other social media sites. Many crowed that even a conservative fundamentalist like Robertson, who helped lead the rise of the religious right since the 1960s, couldn’t agree with Ham’s literalist views. Others saw his comments as a betrayal, if not a form of heresy.
But Tuesday’s debate and Robertson’s reaction underscore the deep cultural ambivalence and complicated history that American Evangelical Protestants have with the science of evolution. Indeed, the issue has haunted the conservative subculture for more than a century, and in many ways it continues to be a touchstone in the diverse intellectual and theological identity of politically powerful Evangelicals.
Today, 1 out of 3 Americans reject evolution, according to a Pew Research survey, including the nearly two-thirds of white Evangelicals and half of black Protestants who say humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
But nearly 1 out of 4 Americans believes God has guided evolution, according to the Pew survey, a position that has sometimes been called “theistic evolution.” And a growing number of Evangelicals, like Robertson, are also embracing this view.
“I think that is the most significant data that emerged from these recent surveys,” says William Craig, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif. “Most Evangelicals still would say that human beings have not evolved, that they’ve always existed in the same form.”
“But what I find very significant is this increasing percentage that is saying human beings and other plants and animals have evolved, but that this process is superintended or guided by God,” Mr. Craig says.
After the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1927 – a media circus and much-watched cultural debate in which the aggressive atheist Clarence Darrow humiliated an ill-prepared William Jennings Bryan, the Evangelical firebrand and two-time Democratic nominee for president who had campaigned against the teaching of evolution – Evangelicals had mostly retreated from public life, only to reemerge in the 1970s, becoming a political force again when they supported Ronald Reagan en masse.
Since then, most Evangelicals have continued to fight the teaching of evolution, or they've insisted that creationism be taught alongside it as an alternative view.
But even as the United States has become significantly more liberal on culture-war issues like gay marriage and marijuana – which Robinson has said should be decriminalized – views on evolution may be changing as well.
“He probably does speak for a lot of Evangelicals who say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to die on this mountain,’” says Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “The science is pretty well established on this, and I don’t see that as a touchstone of faith.”
“I think many Evangelicals, like many Americans, are prepared to say, 'Hey, we can live with this,' ” he continues.
Yet after being criticized Thursday, Robertson felt the need to clarify his Wednesday comments.
"Contrary to how some media and bloggers are portraying these comments, Dr. Robertson certainly believes that God created the heavens and the earth and all that it is in them," said Chris Roslan, spokesman for the Christian Broadcasting Network, which the televangelist founded in 1961.
"He clearly stated in the segment: 'I don't believe in so-called evolution as it is currently presented, as non-theistic. I believe that God started it all and He is in charge of all of it ... but the fact that you have progressive evolution under His control, that doesn’t hurt my faith at all.' Dr. Robertson has long discounted the Young Earth theory and yesterday's comments are not a change of his views on creation."
Other Evangelical intellectuals, too, have argued that biblical faith need not adhere to literalist views and that a belief in the divinely guided evolution is perfectly compatible with faith.
And the literalist point of view, some say, actually has more in common with the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, whom many criticize as having an overly simplistic understanding of religious faith.
“For all their differences, the new atheists and the young earth creationists both agree that the truth of evolutionary theory depends on the nonexistence of God – that it’s inherently atheistic,” says Craig. “And Americans, I think, are not buying into that.”
[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Evangelical participant in the 1927 debate. It is William Jennings Bryan.]