I held a small, private moment of silence last week when I heard that John Glenn had passed away at the age of 95. Glenn’s obituary in the Washington Post grants him the title “ultimate all-American hero,” backing up that accolade with a description of his event-filled life as a fighter pilot, an astronaut (the first American to orbit the Earth), Senator, and presidential candidate. He was, indeed, a remarkably accomplished man, and—a quality now rare to the point of vanishing—a universally liked and respected man. He was also an ardent supporter of science education-and evolution.
I can attest to his affability personally. As it happens, I kind of, sort of, knew Senator Glenn. To be completely honest, I met him several times. We went to church together at the National Presbyterian Church of Washington DC. During the passing of the peace, we often shook hands and chatted briefly. When my children gave talks during the annual Youth Sunday, Glenn made a point of seeking out and complimenting them (I had to tell them who he was; he would never let on what a big shot he was). And I was a member of the congregation that sent him off with our blessings when he returned to space at the age of 77. He spoke that day about how his space travel had deepened his faith.
Glenn was an inspiration to his faith community, and at the same time an inspiration to a generation of science students. He was a forceful advocate for science education while he was in the Senate and beyond. Glenn explicitly called for the teaching of evolution in public schools. He saw no conflict between his religious faith and the science of evolution, saying: “I don’t see that I’m any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that’s a fact. It doesn’t mean it’s less wondrous and it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.”
Who knows how many teachers and students of faith were reassured by Glenn’s forthright acknowledgment that for him, science and faith not only co-existed, but enriched each other? I, for one, am grateful that he took the time to share his views—and for all he did to inspire a generation of scientists and public servants.