The political press has raised quite the hullabaloo about Marco Rubio’s recent comments in GQ Magazine concerning the origins of the earth, but one wonders if they missed the point.
Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida and potential 2016 presidential nominee, said in the interview that how old the earth is and how it was created is “one of the great mysteries,” and that there are “multiple theories” and people should be given ample “opportunity to teach them all.” While analysts on the left and right squabbled over Rubio’s perceived disregard for science or the media’s perceived secular attack on the Christian faith, neither side paid much attention to the rest of his answer.
“It has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States,” Rubio stated frankly, adding that, “the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.”
The senator’s pivot toward the economy — and away from a firm religious stance — is indicative of the Republican Party’s new push to rebrand itself after losing the presidential race and seats in Congress earlier this month. Traditionally viewed as the party that defended and upheld the morality of religion and its importance for public policy, Rubio’s answer signals a slight shift for the GOP.
Researchers have found that religious and political polarization has increased in the last three decades. But as Hirschl, Booth, Glenna and Green note, religious polarization has primarily occurred among upper class whites according to their beliefs about biblical authority. Among both Catholics and Protestants, those with a more literal interpretation of the bible have become stronger Republican voters, while those with a more liberal interpretation of the bible have become stronger Democratic voters. Again, this polarization is most pronounced among top earners in white communities.
Where do lower income citizens fit into this divide? Hirschl and company argue that religious politics allow politicians to rally their base and avoid addressing topics like income inequality or policies to alleviate it. While the GOP has typically been the party most likely to engage in religious politics, officials have now tweaked their message. Mainstream Republicans are talking less about religious, socially conservative values and more about policies targeted toward the middle and lower classes. It’s no mistake that Rubio has been recently touting his focus on “upward mobility” policies for low-income citizens.
As Daniel Engber at Slate points out, President Obama made similar remarks to Rubio’s on the campaign trail in 2008. Obama framed his answer in even more explicit religious language and said he was “a part” of the debate in the Christian community over biblical interpretation, though he was speaking at a religious college. Democrats have traditionally focused less on religious politics and more on policies to address income inequality, so Obama was sticking his neck out a bit in ways that might have concerned party elders.
Now Rubio is attempting to do the same but in the other direction. Time will tell if he’s as successful as the current occupant of the White House in crafting a broad-based message.