ATLANTA — Having denounced evolution as a lie "straight from the pit of hell," Republican Rep. Paul Broun has won himself a new political opponent: Charles Darwin.
The ultraconservative congressman, whose district includes the University of Georgia, told a Baptist church last month that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were lies spread by scientists out to erode people's faith in Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Earth is roughly 9,000 years old, a view of some literal interpretations of the Bible.
Now scientists are questioning whether Broun, a medical doctor and Baptist from Athens, should serve on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee if he rejects widely accepted scientific ideas. And a talk radio host in nearby Atlanta is trying to rally voters to cast write-in votes for Darwin, the English naturalist who first published his theory of evolution in 1859.
Religious fundamentalists such as Broun damage the Republican brand, said Neal Boortz, the libertarian-leaning radio host who has a strong following among Georgia conservatives.
"It makes Republicans look like knee-dragging, still-tending, tobacco-spitting Neanderthals," Boortz said.
A Facebook page titled "Darwin for Congress" went up Oct. 8 urging supporters to take a stand against Broun. As of Tuesday it had just 45 "likes" — less than half the membership of a similar Facebook group calling for Broun's ouster from the House science committee.
But the laws of political science hold that Broun will likely win re-election to a fourth term. He has no Democratic opponent and Georgia law requires write-in candidates to register by early September. That, and Darwin is long dead.
"Dr. Broun welcomes Mr. Darwin as a challenger and is particularly looking forward to the debate portion of the campaign," Meredith Griffanti, the congressman's spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday evening. "We're sure it will be very lively."
The write-in campaign is tongue-in-cheek, said Jim Leebens-Mack, a plant biologist at the University of Georgia who started the Facebook page. But its supporters hope Darwin gets enough votes to pressure Republicans into removing Broun from a leadership post on the House Science Committee. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
"I'd think the Republican Party would want to put a serious legislator in this seat rather than have Paul Broun," Leebens-Mack said.
Griffanti had previously said the congressman's comments were intended as off-the-record statements about his personal beliefs.
But Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell ended up posting a video of the Sept. 27 speech on its website. Broun spoke in front of a wall of mounted deer heads during a sportsmen's banquet.
"God's word is true," Broun said in the video. "I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior."
Those remarks prompted Mark Farmer, the biological sciences chairman at UGA, and nine other top science faculty members to sign a letter defending the sciences and teachers.
It's not unheard of for politicians to publicly cast doubt on scientific ideas from evolution to global warming. But Farmer said Broun broadly branded scientists as liars with an agenda to destroy their students' religious faith.
"This idea that somehow we are doing this because we are motivated to dispel students of their belief systems is a total travesty," said Farmer, an Episcopalian. "Those of us who are scientists of faith took real umbrage at that."
Equally concerning, Farmer said, is that Broun sits on the House Science Committee, which has direct oversight over agencies including NASA, the National Weather Service and the National Science Foundation. There's no evidence that Broun has targeted scientists or institutions who do not share his beliefs.
Instead, Broun has used his influence to seek help from scientific organizations that support what the lawmaker dismissed as lies. In 2008, Broun asked the National Science Foundation — which hosts a website explaining Darwin's work — to help Augusta State University so it could award scholarships to students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to a letter released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Still, Farmer said Broun should resign his committee seat or be removed if he dismisses the fundamental pillars of physics, geology and biology that tell us how the universe began, how old the Earth is and how the human race evolved over long periods of time.
"In this particular case, if you truly don't understand or accept the basic tenets of modern science, I find it difficult to see how you could be making basic judgments about science policy," Farmer said.
It's not the first time that Broun has made controversial political statements.
In 2008, Broun said he feared President-elect Barack Obama would establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship. He greatly stretched the truth by claiming a proposed United Nations treaty on firearms could legally set the stage for gun confiscation in the United States. He sees the hand of God in his own life, for example, crediting Christ for election to Congress in 2007 in a special election to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Charlie Norwood, who died from cancer that year.
In his recent speech to the church banquet, Broun also credited God with helping him shoot a charging lion in the face during a big game hunt in Africa.
"Frankly, I believe God directed that bullet," he said. "Because if I missed, that lion would have been in the back of the truck with me. I would have been clawed up and hurt badly."
Bynum reported from Savannah. Follow Ray Henry at http://twitter.com/rhenryAP
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company