Will Trump’s Presidency Empower Creationists?

There has been a lot of speculation about how President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to run the U.S. Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, might affect the issue of private school vouchers.

DeVos is known primarily for her advocacy of vouchers, and Trump has backed a nationwide plan with a staggering price tag of $20 billion. Many people are rightly alarmed.

But there’s another education-related issue we ought to be concerned about as well: creationism.

Trump’s vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is a creationist. DeVos’ husband, Dick, promoted teaching “intelligent design” creationism during his unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan in 2006. (Ben Carson, Trump’s choice to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is also a creationist, although he can probably do little damage there.)

What does Trump himself believe? It’s hard to say. Prior to the election, advisors told Trump that if he were asked if he believed in evolution or creationism, the safest reply was, “I believe both.”

Truth be told, it almost doesn’t matter what Trump believes or if he has even thought about the issue at all. He has kowtowed to the Religious Right so much that I’m sure he’d be happy to toss Charles Darwin under the bus if it was politically expedient. 

Will the Trump Administration send an anti-science message? 

On the positive side, the federal government doesn’t determine local education policies, and courts have almost uniformly sided against teaching creationism in public schools. Americans United and other groups have a strong track record of success here that will help as we go forward.

But that’s no reason to be complacent. It’s true that Trump and Pence can’t require public schools to teach creationism, but there are other things they can do to get in the way of sound science education. If new legal cases challenging creationism in public schools reach the courts, for example, they can order the U.S. Justice Department to file legal briefs in favor of teaching creationism.

They can also just set a bad tone and use their bully pulpits in ways that threaten proper science education. President Barack Obama was a big booster of sound science education. You can watch clips online of Obama enjoying himself at White House Science Fairs. Obama’s enthusiasm for science set a certain tone and sent a certain message that was pro-science and pro-education.

The message being sent wasn’t just that there are good jobs in science and technology (although there are), but that this stuff matters. There’s a joy in learning about the world around us and how it, and we humans, came to be. The message often projected by the Obama White House was that there is much more to learn, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

The Trump White House can, if it chooses, send a very different message. Looking at the line-up Trump has selected to give him advice and work alongside him on issues related to education and science, we have every reason to fear that a big change in tone is in the offing.