What I want to know is, who walked the Earth first: the dinosaurs or Strom Thurmond?

It seems that the advocates of fast-forward "intelligent design" -- the folks who, by totaling up the biblical begats, believe that the universe was created in 4004 B.C. -- are erecting mini-theme-parks that feature secondhand dinosaur sculptures they've acquired in their scavengings. By putting such Tyrannosaurus Wrecks on display, they mean to prove to the public that people and dinosaurs once roamed the world together, just as their biblical time-clock and that old Raquel Welch movie clearly demonstrated.

Silly stuff, certainly, but at the rate we're going, it may make it into the 2008 or 2012 Republican platform. Now that the president has endorsed intelligent design, the social conservatives and religious zealots who constitute an ever larger and louder wing of the Republican base have been emboldened in their crusades for fundamentalist values and against any science whose findings and methods run counter to their beliefs.

School districts throughout the Bible Belt (and yes, it's time to start resurrecting the coinages of H.L. Mencken, scourge extraordinaire of early 20th-century Bible-Belt boobs) are busy demoting Darwinism to history's dustbin. In late September, a Harrisburg, Pa., court will hear yet another in a seemingly endless string of cases in which a local school board has sought to compel high school science teachers to point out the religious errors in the theory of evolution. The court will doubtless rule against the school board. But now that the president himself has said that intelligent design should be part of the curriculum, too (which gives a whole new, afterlife-specific meaning to the notion of No Child Left Behind), such school board creationism probably will expand exponentially.

After all, recent polling shows that just 35 percent of Americans believe that evolution is supported by evidence, while another 35 percent believe it is not. In a number of red states, of course, the numbers tip more sharply toward creationism. And should this strain of scientific illiteracy pick up more steam, it may broaden its targets from the merely biological sciences. After all, it's the geologists who've demonstrated that Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and the astronomers who've concluded, after measuring the speed of light (was that calculation really necessary? helpful?), that the universe has been around for roughly 14 billion years. Yet our tax dollars are still going to support that Hubble Space Telescope, which keeps discovering stars that are billions of years older than the universe itself, according to the short-order cosmologists of creationism.

I'm going to assume -- a clear leap of faith on my part -- that none of the Republican presidential hopefuls in 2008, with the possible exception of Rick Santorum, actually believes this stuff. But what they believe and what they feel compelled to say to get through the Republican primaries and caucuses may not be one and the same. Already, to curry favor with the faith-above-science right, Bill Frist has hemmed and hawed about the transmission of AIDS and diagnosed Terri Schiavo as no more than inattentive. Mitt Romney and George Pataki -- Republican governors of the bluest of states, but also budding presidential candidates -- have vetoed bills legalizing "morning-after" pills in their states, lest they incur the wrath of the zealots in the Iowa caucuses or the South Carolina primary. And George W. Bush's Food and Drug Administration simply refuses to make a ruling on those morning-after pills, its data validating the safety of the medication trumped by the political need to placate the religious right.

So let the first presidential primary of the Dark Ages begin! I want to know if George Allen believes in the Rapture, and whether he thinks such likely primary rivals as Rudy Giuliani will be left behind. I want to know if that well-known dinosaurphile, Newt Gingrich, is dangerously geologistic, if he really believes that the big lizards have been extinct for millions of years. I'm waiting for Bill Frist to deny, if pressed by an indignant Iowan, that blood circulates. And I wonder if John McCain believes Rick Santorum is descended from apes. And if yes, how far?

Republicans often gloat about Democratic voters driving their presidential hopefuls to the left during primary season. But at this point in American politics, it's the Republican base that is galloping both rightward and dumbward simultaneously. It could make for an interesting -- make that, Menckenian -- primary process. And a dimmer, diminished United States.