THE NEWS: Rick Santorum claims that Barack Obama "wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely ... The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country."
THE PROVOCATION: It was bad enough when Republicans became the party of the rich. Now, they're the party of the ignorant.
The presidential campaign began as a debate over tax cuts for the rich vs. assistance for the poor and middle class. But now it has shifted to one that pits faith vs. education. Please don't accuse me of starting a holy war. Santorum did that all by himself when he characterized education as an enemy of faith.
He's hardly the first person to do so. He has plenty of company in the book burners and ecclesiastical power mongers of the middle ages, who kept the masses ignorant - and illiterate - so they could use tithes and indulgences to enrich themselves at others' expense. So it should come as no surprise that the party of the rich also wants to be the party of ignorance: Encouraging blind faith is the surest means of making a quick and tidy profit.
It's much harder to indoctrinate (to use Santorum's term) the educated than it is to manipulate the ignorant. Which is what makes Santorum's argument so ironic. If there are any "indoctrination mills" in this country, you won't find them at universities that encourage people to think for themselves, but rather at fundamentalist churches that counsel blind allegiance to dogma and doctrine.
In the end, however, Santorum is describing a conflict that doesn't - or shouldn't - exist. Education deals with the knowable; faith with the unknowable. Difficulties only arise when one masquerades as the other. Science can't tell us whether there's a god or not. In a universe as vast as ours, it's impossible (in any practical sense) to prove the negative, and proving the positive would require a consensus as to exactly who or what a god might be. Today's holy wars and violent jihads are evidence enough that no such consensus exists.
Similar issues arise when faith saunters into the realm of science. Passing off faith in this or that viewpoint as "evidence" - especially when strong evidence to the contrary exists - is the height of denial. It's a denial that arises from the fear of abandoning long-held assumptions. Earth is not the center of the universe, the galaxy or even the solar system. It orbits the sun. Earth's climate is growing warmer. Humanity has evolved and is continuing to evolve, as are all other life forms on the planet. Homosexuality is a natural phenomenon.
One can certainly affirm all these things while, at the same time, acknowledging that science can't tell us anything about the existence of a god.
But fundamentalists fear otherwise. And there's the key to this entire equation: fear. Indeed, fundamentalists who put themselves on the defensive against science like to invoke "the fear of the lord" - forgetting, it would seem, the first epistle of John (4:18): "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear."
All fear. Including, one must surmise, the fear of education and science. If, in fact, their god is the creator of all things, wouldn't understanding issue forth from him? What would there be to fear, save fear itself?
Nothing at all. Good science - the kind taught at universities - doesn't try to compete with faith or supersede it. On the contrary, its goal is to provide a solid basis for it. Because of science, we can have faith that an eclipse will occur at a certain time, that a storm will pass overhead under the right conditions, that a tadpole will grow into a frog and a caterpillar will blossom into a butterfly. We know how and why these things occur, so our faith is much less likely to be misplaced. Without science, all that's left is blind faith - pure randomness. You'll believe in creationism because your parents or your pastor or your cultural tradition affirms it, absent (or in the face of) any independent evidence.
If you don't, well ... first books get burned, then people do. Any repository of ideas that might deviate from the "truth," as defined by those in power.
This is the kind of faith that Rick Santorum is advocating. It's the same kind of faith that the Catholic Church imposed on its followers in the Middle Ages - the kind of faith that bolsters tyrants and charlatans who enrich themselves at the expense of the ignorant. Can there be much doubt that many of today's corporate board members, shareholders and executives benefit from the same sort of ignorance: blind faith that the food we eat is healthy, the chemicals we use are safe and the environment isn't affected by our actions.
The United States was founded, at least in part, as a reaction against tyranny and an experiment in freedom. Yet true freedom cannot exist without understanding - or at least a desire to understand. The Bible itself, in the Proverbs (3:21-24), extols its virtue: "Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid."
But Rick Santorum and his ilk want us to be afraid. Of Muslims. Of Pagans. Of gays and lesbians. Of secular humanists. Of environmentalists. Of anyone who, in short, doesn't agree with every jot and tittle of a dogma that repudiates science in a false defense of faith. Such people, men and women who call themselves patriots, seek to return us to inaugurate a new Dark Age, a return to fear and feudalism. Indeed, they seek to enslave us to the ultimate tyranny: the tyranny of ignorance.
This we simply cannot allow.