Being a creationist conservative in Canada ‘gives your opponents a tremendous amount of ammunition’

Alberta premier Jim Prentice’s hand-picked education minister Gordon Dirks told forum attendees last weekend that he was an “Old Earth guy” — a reference to a doctrine of Creationism that generally rejects biological evolution.

Mr. Dirks has declined to clarify his views. He’s also declined to comment on whether or not he accepts the scientifically accepted understanding of evolution when asked directly by the Post.

“The Minister isn’t going to comment on his political opponents’ purposely manipulated recollections of private conversations…. He supports the existing curriculum and the government ensures schools follow it,” said Mr. Dirks’ spokesperson, David Heyman, who added that questions about creationism were posed by members of the centre-left Alberta party in a bid to corner and embarrass the minister.

It’s an effective tactic; there has traditionally been no shortage of ridicule for politicians who espouse genuinely held religious beliefs on the subject.

Evolution became a toxic issue for Conservative politicians in the early 2000s. Barney the Dinosaur dolls and whistled renditions of the Flintstones theme song met former federal MP Stockwell Day after he expressed his belief in Young Earth creationism in the early 2000s.

In 2009, researchers balked when federal science minister Gary Goodyear declined to say whether he believed in evolution.

More recently, Progressive Conservative MPP Rick Nicholls drew ire from his own caucus in February when he said it was “not a bad idea” to allow students to opt out of learning evolution. That prompted federal Conservative MP James Lunney, who has long openly expressed skepticism about evolution, to tweet his support for Mr. Nicholls.

“I would make the libertarian argument that we should be tolerant of those (who hold religious views) but there is a real political reality which much be addressed,” said Faron Ellis, a Lethbridge College political science professor who has long written about the Reform movement. “It gives your opponents a tremendous amount of ammunition, to the point of not just discrediting your position on any particular public policy, but also by making you look foolish.”

It gives your opponents a tremendous amount of ammunition, to the point of not just discrediting your position on any particular public policy, but also by making you look foolish

Irving Hexham, a religion and politics professor at the University of Calgary, said evolution — like abortion — is a divisive issue among evangelical Christians. If politicians from this background come out in favour of the mainstream view of evolution, they risks alienating themselves from their own religious community.

“The whole evolution thing has blown up in North America in a ridiculous way. I don’t think there is any reason why Christians can’t believe in evolution, and throughout the world, a lot of Christians do,” he said.

However, the topic seems to be remain contentious among fundamentalists, and evangelical Christians in particular.

“American fundamentalism took it as a boundary. You’re on one side or another. If you believe in evolution, you can’t be a true Christian and you’re out of the fold. It’s a litmus test.”

Mr. Dirks is a former Saskatchewan MLA with a long history as educator, trustee, and an evangelical Christian who has served in leadership positions in religious schools that espouse traditional values. Mr. Dirks’ appointment was one of Mr. Prentice’s most overt attempts to win over Alberta’s social conservative base shortly after he took office last year.

Mr. Dirks said at the time that he would “work to balance the rights of all children and parents and teachers,” but progressive critics have grown increasingly wary of the pastor, particularly after he was slow to express his support for Gay Straight Alliances in schools, (Mr. Dirks opened the spring sitting with an amendment in favour of the clubs on Tuesday, months after the issue blew up in the Alberta legislature.)

It should be unsurprising, then, that Mr. Dirks would be goaded into taking a stance on an even more foundational issue; evolution. And, considering how far mainstream attitudes on creationism have diverged from evangelical ones, that Mr. Dirks would be unwilling to commit to a straightforward answer.

Natalie Odd, an Alberta Party member and mother of two, attended an open house held by Mr. Dirks over the weekend, hoping to confront the minister about spending cuts.

“The Gay Straight Alliance is, to me, an issue where if somebody’s beliefs are very socially conservative, if they are in the position of education minister, I believe that is relevant,” Ms. Odd said. After the open house, Ms. Odd said she took Mr. Dirks aside and began to question him about another evolution.

“He said, it’s possible to believe in creation and evolution. I wasn’t getting an answer out of him,” she said. “As we were walking away, he threw up his hands and said: ‘I’m an Old Earth Guy.'”

The comments were confirmed by other attendees, and Mr. Heyman.

Ms. Odd said she had to look the phrase up on the Internet as she was unfamiliar with it.

Brian Alters knows the term quite well, however. Alters is president for the U.S.-based National Center for Science Education, a professor at Chapman University in California and previously on the faculty of McGill University. He said “Old Earth” creationism encompasses a spectrum of beliefs. Old Earth creationists generally accept that the earth is older than 10,000 years. Beyond that, however, beliefs range. Some believe that evolution is the mechanism by which God guides life on earth. Others totally reject the generally accepted scientific theory of biological evolution.

Mr. Dirks declined to elaborate on his view further when questioned by the Post.

“With the education minister, if this is something that he practices in his place of worship with colleagues of similar faith, I think most scientists wouldn’t have the slightest problem,” Mr. Alters said. “The problem is if the education minister says ‘I’m an Old Earth creationist because I think there’s credible evidence against evolution. I find evolution to not be credible.’ Then we have big problems, Houston.”