Marco Rubio's Hot-Button Social Issue Swap: Assuage Scientists, Irk Gays

The Florida senator and presidential hopeful puts a flap over the age of the earth to rest, but stokes controversy with comments about homosexuality.

Start getting used to Marco Rubio's face -- you're going to see it everywhere for the next four years, and if Rubio gets his way, the eight after that, too. The Florida Republican senator is already on the offensive for a 2016 presidential campaign. First he went to Iowa. Then he appeared at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner in Washington Tuesday night, where he won a leadership award and gave a speech that focused heavily on helping the middle class and reducing income inequality. That seeming echo of the George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is unusual from a Republican these days, but it suggests a new reading of the political landscape. And finally, he appeared at a Politico breakfast Wednesday morning, where he continued to make news.

First, Rubio put to bed a previous controversy over what he believes the age of the earth to be. In an interview with GQ, Rubio gave a somewhat rambling answer to a question on the topic. Starting with the disclaimer, "I'm not a scientist, man," he suggested that the age of the earth was in dispute, and also said he was unsure whether the earth was created in seven literal days or seven metaphorical days -- the latter, some folks noted, being similar to a stand taken by President Obama years ago.

Now, here's Rubio today:

The answer I gave was trying to make the same point the president made a few years ago, and that is there is not a scientific debate on the age of the earth, it's established it pretty definitely as at least four and a half billion years old. I was referring to a theological debate .... To the extent there is any kind of debate on the age of the earth scientifically, I'm not in a position really to mediate that .... The theological debate is, how do you reconcile what science has definitively established with what you may think your faith teaches. For me, when it comes to the age of the earth, there is no conflict.

That's materially different from what he told GQ, but it's also easy to see how he might have intended to say this and gotten confused. (The "great mystery" to which he referred in that interviews was the seven day question, not the age of the earth.)

What Rubio said next is worth noting, too. His GQ comments aside, the senator is a master of the art of appearing spontaneous while sticking closely to talking points, so it's fair to assume he chose his words carefully when he connected this to education (emphasis added):

I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. That means teaching them the science -- they have to know the science -- but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things the way they see fit.

The clear implication: You can teach your kids creationism at home, but it's got no place in schools.

So, Marco Rubio, crypto-secular-humanist? Maybe not so much. Even while setting one hot-button social issue aside, he managed to create a small furor on another. Politico's Mike Allen also asked Rubio whether homosexuality was a sin. Here's his answer, in which he tries to split the difference between his own deeply held faith and the conservative base on one hand, and his turn toward compassionate conservatism on the other:

Well, I can tell you what faith teaches and the faith teaches that it is. And that's what the Bible teaches and that's what faith teaches. But it also teaches that there area bunch of other sins that are no less. For example, it teaches that lying is a sin. It teaches that disrespecting your parents is a sin. It teaches that stealing is a sin. It teaches that coveting your neighbor and what your neighbor has is a sin. So there isn't a person in this room that isn't guilty of sin .... As a policymaker, I could just tell you that I'm informed by my faith, and my faith informs me in who I am as a person -- but not as a way to pass judgment on people.

That answer is not totally smooth, and Rubio still seems to be fighting against the tide of public opinion of gay rights. His stance is even increasingly isolated within the faith community. A 2012 survey by the Southern Baptist company LifeWay Research found Americans evenly split on whether homosexuality is a sin, but while 82 percent of evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist Christians said it was a sin, while just 29 percent of other denominations agreed. But then again, he's got nearly four years to keep refining it.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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