First up from the God Machine this week is a look at a religious question that shouldn’t be a perennial political issue, but is.

In May 2007, at one of the first debates for the Republican presidential candidates, John McCain was asked, “Do you believe in evolution?” After a pregnant pause, McCain replied, simply, “Yes.” The debate moderators opened the question to all of the candidates, asking those who reject modern biology to raise their hands. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo did just that. (Later, Ron Paul said he doesn’t “accept” evolution, either.)

The 2012 GOP presidential field has not yet been pressed on this issue, at least not in a debate, though this week was illustrative on the point. Rick Perry doesn’t believe in modern biology, calling it “a theory that’s out there” with “some gaps in it.” Jon Huntsman does accept evolution, whether his party likes it or not.

And what of the rest? Alex Pareene offers a round-up.

Mitt Romney, of course, used to believe in evolution (or at least natural selection controlled by God, the mildest form of “intelligent design”), because he used to govern a very liberal state that contains a lot of well-educated people. But he used to believe a lot of things. Now, his thoughts have … “evolved.”

Michele Bachmann — well, she became prominent in local Minnesota politics running for school board on an anti-science platform. She has actually slightly moderated her language on the subject, as she toned down the end times Dominionist language a bit upon entering national politics. (You can trust Michele Bachmann to tell your kids the truth — she used to call herself a doctor!)

Newt Gingrich used to be fine with it, too, though he doesn’t bring it up much, now.

That this is even a question in the 21st century is a national embarrassment. The very idea that in 2011, a high-profile, major-party presidential candidate can question the foundation of modern biology — and not face endless ridicule — is just sad.

As for whether any of this actually matters — it’s not as if presidents are responsible for writing science curricula — I’m of the opinion it matters a great deal. Whether presidents directly influence what’s taught in the nation’s schools or not, the question speaks to how earnestly a person processes evidence and reasons, which in turn tells us quite a bit about how a candidate would make decisions in the Oval Office.

Four years ago, four of the 10 Republican candidates rejected evolutionary biology. Will the 2012 field be just as wrong? We’ll hopefully find out in a future debate.

Also from The God Machine this week:

* Pope Benedict XVI this week called for a more equitable, fair, and regulated economy, saying, “[T]he economy cannot be measured only by maximization of profit but rather according to the common good.” No word on whether congressional Republicans consider him a radical communist.

* Once in a while, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer goes so far, his own organization issues statements distancing the group from its most prominent official.

* A Roman Catholic priest in Kansas City, Mo., was arrested in May on charges of taking indecent photographs of young girls. We learned this week that church officials knew of the pictures in December, but waited six months before turning them over to the police.

* The Rev. Zachery Tims Jr., a Florida megachurch pastor, was found dead in a Times Square hotel room this week with a “white powdery substance believed to be narcotics” found in his pocket. (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* And proof that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Karl Rove said this week that the notion that America is “a Christian nation” is “offensive.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.