Among the Republicans who ruled Pinellas County midway in the last century, none was more conservative than Wilda J. Cook, the supervisor of elections.
Deploring what she called “curbstone registration,” she permitted enrollment at only four or five locations. Had she lived to see the Motor-Voter law, she might not have survived the shock.
“We’re all going to be selling apples on the street,” she said to me with a seriously frozen face when John F. Kennedy was elected.
Yet that same face was beaming ear to ear a couple of elections later when she boasted that Pinellas voters had agreed once again to the maximum possible tax levy for their public schools.
She was a childless spinster, by the way.
In that most Republican of Florida counties, her enthusiasm for the public schools was not unique. GOP voters taxed themselves to the max for education in Pinellas and Sarasota, another stronghold.
They understood, as she did, that the public schools were the heart and soul of our country.
Today, however, Republicans everywhere seem to be warring on public schools from every possible angle.
Their propaganda demonizes teachers and disparages schools marked as “failing” by testing regimes that discourage the teaching of critical thinking.
Starvation budgets are part of the strategy.
Another is to bleed the system with vouchers, approved by legislators witless enough to believe or cynical enough to claim that a $4,000 supplement will get a poor kid into a tony private school that charges two to three times as much.
Some of the motives are self-evident. Low taxes. Cripple the pro-Democratic teachers’ unions. Reward the commercial private school industry for its campaign contributions.
But I think there’s another insidious side to it: the growing Republican antipathy to science.
No difference between Republicans and Democrats is more glaring, or irrational.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 43 percent of Republicans believe that the human race has evolved over time, compared to 67 percent of Democrats.
That 24-point gap is more than twice what it was just five years ago.
Another recent Pew poll found that only 50 percent of Republicans, compared to 88 percent of Democrats, agree that there is solid evidence of global warming. Among those who do, only 24 percent of Republicans, against 66 percent of Democrats, agree that it’s due to human activity.
My ContextFlorida colleague Cary McMullen writes that the GOP is becoming the new “Know Nothing” Party.
True. But why is this happening?
The Pew poll found, unsurprisingly, that among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are by far the least likely to believe in human evolution. Black Protestants aren’t far behind. Every other major religious category reflects a majority belief in human evolution.
It’s hardly a secret that the evangelicals have found a home in the Republican Party, with the abortion and same-sex marriage issues as the most talked-about attractions.
They bring with them their objections to evolution and their wish to have their children taught Biblical theories instead.
The courts won’t allow the public schools to teach religion in the guise of science, but those rulings don’t apply to private schools.
Their craving to have their kids taught privately is reflected in the Republican voucher machinations. Whether it’s a causal factor is the lesser question.
What matters more is the outcome: a nation increasingly ignorant of science is ill-prepared for the present, let alone the future.
People who disbelieve in one scientific discipline, especially one as well-established as evolution, aren’t going to welcome a newer one such as climate change. So they’re easy pickings for the mercenary global warming deniers who front for the petrochemical and development lobbies.
It’s no consolation, but the United States is not unique in having large populations who cannot accept that science and faith represent different realms, or that reasonable minds can accommodate both.
In 2009, Great Britain marked the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s historic “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” A poll conducted for the occasion found that only half of the adults in Darwin’s own country believed in evolution.
Another poll found only slight majorities in the U.K. (57 percent) and in the U.S. (54 percent) who agreed that scientific belief and religious faith are compatible.
Argentine, India, Mexico and Russia all scored better.