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Santorum on "The Newsroom"

It's always a thrill to see a major TV drama take a detailed swipe at topics like creationism or climate change denial, and I was especially excited to see the lengthy discussion in last night's episode of The Newsroom. In an interview based on the real candidate Santorum's comments, the fake news anchor (Will McAvoy) in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom mixes it up with a Santorum-pumping fake spokesman for the League of Catholic Voters (Randall Dell). The show is set 2 years in the past, when Santorum was a leading candidate for the presidency.

"Newsroom" anchor Will McAvoy addresses Rick Santorum's comments on the Santorum Amendment.Transcript (omitting control room chatter where the guys behind the scenes are pulling up graphics for the show):

McAvoy: The common wisdom is that political candidates shouldn't be asked about their religious beliefs.

Dell: I agree with that.

McAvoy: But what if the candidate makes their religious beliefs part of their candidacy.

Dell: Is there a candidate who's doing that?

McAvoy: The candidate you support is doing that.

Dell: That's not true, sir. Is Rick Santorum devout? Yes. Does his faith guide his actions? Y—

McAvoy: Does he say so every day in campaign speeches? He does. Let's put this quote up on the screen. It's Rick Santorum speaking at a Tea Party event in Columbus. He said this in regard to President Obama's climate change agenda: "It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." Mr. Dell, one of Rick Santorum's problems with the president's plan to combat climate change is that its roots can't be found in the Bible.

Dell: We have a lot of reasons to be concerned with Obama's plans, but you're plainly distorting Rick Santorum's words—

McAvoy: I don't think I am, but let's go to this instead. This is Rick Santorum's statement at the Press and People of Faith in Politics Forum in 2008: "I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution and I do believe it is used to promote a world view that is antitheist, that is atheist. You should have academic freedom in the classroom when teaching about life."

Dell: That was 2008. Mr. Santorum made those remarks when he didn't hold office. He was speaking as a private citizen.

McAvoy: He was speaking in defense of an amendment he offered in 2001 when he was a US Senator, making it a federal law that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution) the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist." By "full range of scientific views," he's including Genesis, right.

Dell: That's right.

McAvoy: It seems like far from objecting to religious views being brought up in political campaigns, he's insisting on it.

McAvoy's (and writer Sorkin's) point is about the shifting role of religion in presidential politics, a reversal from the days when John F. Kennedy argued he could be trusted with the White House by promising not to be driven by his religious beliefs, but by the secular beliefs he shared with the citizenry.

Of course, those of us who follow the creationism/evolution struggle were especially thrilled to see the infamous Santorum Amendment get airplay, and to see the absurd creationism claims about "academic freedom" called out for what they are.

It's important to remember, as we've reported since 2002, the Santorum Amendment never became law. The Newsroom gets that wrong, and while it isn't an important error in their plot, it's important for school administrators and teachers to understand. In many instances, policymakers, parents, and teachers have wrongly claimed that the Amendment represents federal law, and that creationist lessons therefore may not be excluded.

The Amendment was drafted by Phillip Johnson, known as the godfather of intelligent design creationism, and Santorum added it to the Senate's version of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. When science education advocates realized what had happened, they worked with the conference committee sorting out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill to rub out Santorum's handiwork. In the end, the amendment persisted only as a passing reference in the conference report, not in the binding text of the law itself.

Santorum's attempt to smear evolution education has had long-term consequences, and serves as a reminder to us all that vigilance is a constant necessity. While Santorum's role in the creation/evolution battle played little role in the frothy mix of the 2012 presidential race, we can be glad that The Newsroom is not letting that part of the story be forgotten.