A small town in south central Pennsylvania has suddenly become the latest flashpoint in the long-running battle over teaching evolution in public schools.
Events unfolding in Dover, Pa., provide a textbook example of what happens when Religious Right activists gain control of a school board.
It’s a familiar story: A slate of candidates ran promising to bring financial discipline to a cash-strapped district. Months later, the board has spent more time furthering fundamentalism than balancing budgets.
William Buckingham, one of the new board members and chair of the curriculum committee, was apparently determined to pick a fight over the teaching of evolution. First, he complained about a proposed biology text, saying it was “laced with Darwinism.” Then he tried to get the board to approve a supplemental creationist book called Of Pandas and People.
The board approved the biology book but rejected buying Pandas. Then, under rather mysterious circumstances, an anonymous donor provided 50 copies of Pandas to the district. In approving their use in school, the board OK’d a new policy promoting “intelligent design” the Religious Right’s latest spin on creationism.
Evolution foes, aiming to advance their personal religious beliefs through government action, cooked up intelligent design after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law mandating that old-style creationism be taught alongside evolution in public schools.
Proponents of intelligent design (ID) claim the idea isn’t religious. Yet the very name of what they’re pushing belies that. ID insists that humans are so complex that they must have been designed by an intelligent force.
What is this force? Well, other than space aliens, ID proponents have no suggestions but God and they aren’t really serious about space aliens.
Phillip Johnson, a leading ID backer, speaks often to fundamentalist Christian groups about his goals. Johnson is personally offended by evolution, insisting that it removes God from the question of human origins. Evolution does not do that, but Johnson is convinced otherwise. He helped formulate a strategy called “The Wedge.” The original idea was to divide the scientific community using ID concepts and, when the doubts were firmly in place, introduce people to the tenets of fundamentalism and convert them. From there it would be a short step to creationism in the schools.
It hasn’t worked out too well. The scientific community remains solidly behind evolution, and ID proponents haven’t been able to get their papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Mainstream scientists, who no longer regard evolution as controversial, branded intelligent design as a pseudo-science.
Frustrated, Johnson and his backers took their crusade to public secondary schools. Unlike colleges and universities, secondary schools remain subject to political pressures. They are governed by elected boards, which, if taken over by the Religious Right, can use the schools for whatever experiment they have in mind.
Sadly, some leaders in Congress have been quick to endorse this crusade. U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had pro-ID language added to the conference report of the No Child Left Behind education bill. Although the language is advisory only, it is being cited by evolution foes all over the nation, who say it gives them the right, and even a duty, to undermine instruction about evolution.
The battle here is political, not scientific. Science regards the issue as closed. ID has no scientific merit. But that does not mean it cannot be forced into the schools anyway. The Religious Right is using the political system to give them something the scientific community will not.
What is the ultimate goal? At the end of the day, if ID proponents have their way, we will be back to where this all started: attempts to teach the Book of Genesis as science in the public schools.
The TV preachers and Religious Right groups that oppose evolution have little interest in the esoteric tenets of ID. To them, intelligent design is merely a bridge to another place a place where children are taught that the earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time and that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood.
Intelligent design was created because the Religious Right had to have it. Efforts to force standard creationism into the public schools had been rebuffed by the courts. The Religious Right first tried simply renaming creationism “the theory of abrupt appearance” and “evidence against evolution.” But after these misfires failed, they simply retooled their ideas, removed some of the more outrageously bad science and sent it out there, hoping some school district somewhere would take the bait.
Dover took the bait. Backed by a Religious Right legal group, the Thomas More Law Center, the board majority is determined to press forward with its plan to introduce this new creationism. Dover’s biology teachers don’t support it. Many parents don’t support it. Professors at local colleges don’t support it. Yet the board plows ahead.
If they win here, religious concepts of origins shared by fundamentalist Chris\xadtians will have gained a foothold in public education. It will be a major blow to efforts to keep mandated religion out of the schools.
The “Wedge” will indeed be in place. And the Religious Right will keep pushing it and pushing it, driving it in until our schools crack.
That’s what the Dover case is all about and why it’s so important.