09/02/2011 02:00 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

Understanding Rick Perry's Texas Two-Step on Evolution

A few weeks ago, the complex issue of evolution had the GOP presidential field struggling to find their footing. Texas Governor Rick Perry, the newest suitor at the big dance, had to dust off his two-stepping skills after leading off a bit heavy on the down beat. In response to an interview question, he first talked about evolution as "a theory that's out there" that "has some gaps to it" and emphasized that they taught both evolution and creationism back home in Texas.

Sensing Perry's possible misstep, rival Jon Huntsman -- one of two Mormon candidates in the race, cut in and lambasted Perry with a post on Twitter that quickly went viral affirming his own view in evolution. Perry quickly jumped back in by recalibrating his position to leave space for the possibility of evolution with guidance from a supreme being.

Perry's two-step highlights the potential difficulty the issue of evolution presents for Perry and the rest of the GOP candidates. On the one hand, it is an important symbolic culture war issue among white evangelical Protestants in the GOP base. On the other hand, Republicans overall and Americans generally hold more nuanced views on evolution.

The challenges for the GOP primary field are highlighted in the results produced by two different questions on evolution conducted in 2009, the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin's birth. Gallup asked a binary question, which found that only 39 percent of Americans said they believed in evolution, 25 percent said that they did not believe in evolution, but notably fully 36 percent had "no opinion either way."

A three-part question from Pew Research Center the same year, however, captured more clearly the complicated terrain. Pew found that a majority of the public said they believed humans had evolved over time with some caveats: 32 percent attributed the process to natural selection, and 22 percent pointed to some form of supreme guidance of the evolutionary process. Approximately one-in-three (31 percent) Americans fully rejected evolution, saying they believed humans had existed in their present form since the beginning of time. In other words, while only about one-third of Americans believe in evolution guided exclusively by natural selection, another one-in-five incorporate a supreme being into their understanding of the evolutionary process.

The Pew data shows that Perry's first statement strongly questioning evolution would have been appealing to white evangelical Protestants, virtually the only major demographic group in the country in which a strong majority (57 percent) say humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time; less than one-in-three evangelicals believe in evolution of any kind, whether by natural selection (9 percent) or helped along by supreme guidance (20 percent). But by the time Perry's other shoe hit the floor, Perry must have realized that Republicans overall hold more balanced views. Nearly half of Republicans believe in evolution either guided by natural processes (23 percent) or by a supreme being (26 percent), compared to 39 percent who say humans have always existed in their present form. And looking forward to the general election, political independents affirm some form of evolution over a creationist position by a margin of two-to-one.

The danger, for politicians, is to ignore the complex ways most Americans negotiate faith and science, particularly on this issue. As I pointed out in a column for "On Faith" last January, most Americans have found a way to reconcile their faith and science; they don't see a need to reject science to be faithful to their religion or to reject their religion to have intellectual integrity. Finding their feet on this issue is particularly delicate for GOP primary candidates, who need to appeal to conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants during primary season, while not stepping on the toes of political Independents in the general election.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones on his new blog "Figuring Faith" at the Washington Post's On Faith section.