Sunday, October 15, 2006


Official Conduct

There is an editorial in a local Montana paper concerning the contretemps between Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and State Representative Roger Koopman, a young-Earth creationist, who amusingly claimed to have arrived at that position not through his religious beliefs but based on his "scientific investigations."

The whole thing started at an event where the Governor spoke to school children, parents and teachers about global warming and, rather strangely, asked how many in the crowd thought the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old and how many believed the planet was less than a million years old. Koopman, who attended the talk, indicated he believed the latter. Only later, in a interview with a newspaper, did Schweitzer bring up Koopman's response, saying he needs support from a state Legislature that will help move Montana's agenda forward, "not people who think the Earth is 4,000 years old."

In this editorial, that I am of two minds about, the Governor is taken to task as follows:

With his scientific background [a Bachelor of Science degree in International Agronomy and a Master of Science degree in Soil Science], it is not surprising that Gov. Schweitzer is not a believer in intelligent design or creationism, but he is governor of all the people including creationists. He doesn’t need to go out of his way to offend people for their religious beliefs or even for their divergent scientific beliefs.

When he said he didn’t want people in the Legislature "who think the Earth is 4,000 years old," he was thumbing his nose not just at Koopman, but at many other Montanans as well (and also mis-stating the age of the earth according to the biblical count, which is more like 6,000 years). Koopman is probably speaking for thousands when he says the governor’s comments were "incredibly bigoted."
First, it needs to be said that neither ID nor young-Earth creationism are "divergent scientific beliefs." They are anti-science positions. That fact renders the the editorial largely wrong:

Gov. Schweitzer is entitled to his own beliefs, but he shouldn’t expect to work with a Legislature that has the same exact philosophy and beliefs as him. He also should not invite ridicule of people for their sincerely held beliefs in any case, unless those beliefs could harm others. Our core strength, after all, is that we cherish our diversity, and rise above it — e pluribus unum.
Anti-scientism can hurt the people of Montana in many ways and should be fought vigorously. Standing up for the best interests, as he sees it, of all his constituents is what Schweitzer is supposed to be doing and the mere fact that people disagree with him on the basis of their interpretation of religious tenets does not make his position bigotry. That is more of the false "persecution" that the religious right claims whenever they are not allowed to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

But it was strange that the Governor would raise the subject in a talk about global warming and then wait until later to comment on Koopman's beliefs in a different forum. It is only natural to wonder if he already knew what Koopman's response would be and set out to make an issue of it.

If Schweitzer asked the question to give himself an excuse to ridicule Koopman and young-Earth creationists, that is wrong. Not that I am saying that such beliefs should not be ridiculed -- Lord knows I do it enough myself. But I am not being paid out of the public coffers and I took no oath to represent all the people. Schweitzer's job is not to be governor of only the Democrats or secularists or liberal theists in the state. Our politics is poisoned enough without public officials unable to muster even basic common respect for the citizenry they rule over.

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