One evening in late September, roughly 150 people filed into the fire hall in Dover, Pennsylvania, to attend a presentation on evolution. The event’s organizer was Jim Grove, a minister from nearby Loganville who views the Bible as the revealed word of God and, like many people in this part of Pennsylvania, believes the answer to the question of life’s origins begins and ends with the Book of Genesis.

“I’m not opposed to teaching evolution in public schools,” Grove, a greyhound-thin man dressed in a neatly pressed suit and leather boots, explained as spectators settled in around the tables in the room. “But I don’t think you want it taught with a bunch of lies.” To that end, Grove played a video, Why Evolution Is Stupid, narrated by Kent Hovind, a former high school science teacher who several years ago opened a creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, called Dinosaur Adventure Land. In the video Hovind performs a sort of creationist comedy routine, standing onstage before a live audience and jokingly contrasting the absurdity of evolution with the plainly more sensible view in Scripture. “Who’s ever seen a Big Bang create order?” he asks. “The Bible said God made the stars, plain and simple.”

The theme seemed to go over well among the spectators in the fire hall, a number of whom chuckled as Hovind delivered his punch lines and, afterward, gave the video a thumbs-up. “I think it’s extremely well done,” Judy Grim, a 60-year-old woman in jeans and a light-blue T-shirt, told me; two friends standing next to her nodded in agreement. Reverend Grove announced that anyone interested could purchase a copy of the video for $9.95. He also fielded some questions, including one from a woman in back who wanted to know why the American Civil Liberties Union went to such lengths to stop the truth from being exposed when communities challenged the teaching of evolution in public schools. Grove explained that the ACLU was “basically a humanistic organization” with “the contacts to bring in the high-powered people” whenever the status quo was under threat.

The specter of the ACLU bringing in high-powered people to thwart a community’s efforts to prevent young people from being brainwashed by evolution is not an idle one in Dover. That very week, in a packed courtroom twenty miles away in Harrisburg, the opening arguments were being heard in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover, a federal trial pitting eleven residents of this quiet community in south-central Pennsylvania against the local school board, which in October 2004 voted 6 to 3 to revise the biology curriculum so that students “will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

With that step Dover became the first community in the country to introduce intelligent design–which organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have dismissed as a form of creationism–into the public school curriculum. The trend appears to be catching on: As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, buoyed by the endorsement of politicians like Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and George W. Bush, both of whom have suggested the jury is still out on the science of evolution, nineteen states are currently weighing proposals that challenge Darwin’s theory. Among them is Kansas, where the Board of Education just adopted a remarkable new standard redefining science so it is not limited to natural explanations.

It is the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending battle over an issue many people thought had been settled decades ago, after the famous 1925 “Scopes monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. In Europe and the rest of the Western world, of course, the debate about evolution has been settled. Not, however, in the United States, where religious fundamentalists, aware that efforts to incorporate creationism into biology classrooms have been struck down in court, have refined their approach. In Dover and elsewhere, opponents of evolution now speak more benignly of “teaching the controversy,” as proponents of intelligent design like to put it–that is, alerting students to purported flaws in Darwin’s theory and exposing them to alternative views, even though in the scientific community there is no controversy about evolution.

As in so many other areas of the culture wars, the shift in emphasis has enabled Christian activists to portray themselves as the victims of a high-powered liberal establishment that simply won’t allow other voices to be heard–and to deflect attention from their own religious motivations. Proponents of intelligent design take pains to avoid mentioning the word “God” in their work. But there is little doubt that God is on the minds of their grassroots supporters. A few days before the meeting at the fire hall, Reverend Grove told me he favored “a balanced view of science” and the principle of “academic freedom.” Then he said of the Dover school board’s action, “This is a crack in the dam of evolution…. The teaching of evolution takes you somewhere–it leads you to atheism.”

There was one person at the Dover fire hall who challenged this view, a bespectacled man named Burt Humburg who raised his hand during the question period to say, “I think that it is possible to believe in God and also to understand evolution.” Humburg had gone to the meeting to pass out literature critical of intelligent design, a gesture that might lead you to peg him as an outsider from a very different world. Yet, as I discovered when I met with him a few days later, Humburg is no stranger to fundamentalism. “I know that language very well,” he said of the video that had been shown in Dover and of the discussion afterward. Originally from Kansas, Humburg grew up in a devout evangelical household, attending what he described as a “charismatic holy-rolling church,” speaking in tongues and learning that the answer to everything, including the story of how the universe formed, is in the Bible. “I used to send money to the Institute of Creation Research,” he told me. As he grew older, however, Humburg developed a love of science, and the more he learned, the more he came to feel that the Bible is not, in fact, a biology textbook. His junior year in college, he joined Kansas Citizens for Science, an organization that challenged the Board of Education’s attack on evolution. Now an internist completing his residency in internal medicine at Penn State University, Humburg has been watching the battle replay in central Pennsylvania.

In Humburg’s view, it is a mistake to dismiss creationists as ignorant rubes, the way H.L. Mencken famously did at the Scopes trial. What motivates them is not a lack of intelligence, Humburg suggested, but fear–the fear that everything they have been raised to believe will come crashing down if they or their children are taught to acknowledge the authority of anything other than Scripture. “The clear implication of what they hear from people like Reverend Grove is that it’s either God or evolution,” he explained. As he pointed out at the fire hall, members of the Dover community are living proof that faith and science need not be juxtaposed this way. “It’s my understanding that the people who are bringing this lawsuit forward are themselves Christians who are very concerned about the move to make certain people’s religious misgivings about verified science the public school’s approach,” he stated.

The comment drew some glares–and an accusation from one woman that Humburg had been “brainwashed”–but it happens to be true. At the trial in Harrisburg, one plaintiff after another took the witness stand to explain that their decision to sue the school board had nothing to do with holding God or people of faith in contempt. Many said they were themselves churchgoing Christians. What offended them was the effort to turn religion against science in a manner that violates the establishment clause of the Constitution and will leave students misinformed and confused.

It is not a view that would be appreciated by the current members of the Dover school board, as Carol “Casey” Brown discovered firsthand. I met Brown one afternoon in a parking lot off Route 74, the main road passing through Dover, after she’d offered to give me a tour of the area. We drove out past some cornfields, a sheep farm, a meadow and a couple of barns, along the back roads of York County, a region where between 1970 and 2000, 11 percent of the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and where in the more rural areas one in five children grows up in a low-income family (in the city of York the figure is one in three). Dover isn’t dirt poor, but neither is it wealthy. It’s the kind of place where people work hard and save what they can. Looking out at the soy, wheat and dairy farms while Brown explained that lots of older people in the area can’t afford to keep up with their mortgages and end up walking away from their homes, I was struck by the thought that this was a part of the country where, a century ago, the populist movement might have made inroads by organizing small farmers against the monopolies and trusts. These days, of course, a different sort of populism prevails, infused by religion and defining itself against “outside” forces like the ACLU.

Brown watched this unfold up close. “What happened in Dover is an example of what happened in the last two presidential elections–the evangelical far right really found its voice,” she said. While Burt Humburg identified fear as the driving force behind the opposition to evolution, what Brown witnessed among the leaders of the charge was intolerance, particularly at school board meetings that began to seem to her like indoctrination sessions. In a pivotal meeting in June 2004, Bill Buckingham, then head of the school board, announced that the new biology textbook the district was set to purchase, by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, was “laced with Darwinism,” adding afterwards, “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity.” (At the trial Buckingham denied discussing creationism at the meeting, but witnesses, including two reporters, recall otherwise.)

A week later at another board meeting, Buckingham’s wife, Charlotte, read from Genesis and asked, “How can we allow anything else to be taught in our schools?” Science teachers like Bryan Rehm, now one of the plaintiffs suing the board, explained that they could not in good conscience balance evolution with creationism–to no avail. On October 18, 2004, the statement making students aware of intelligent design was adopted 6 to 3. Brown was there, and along with her husband, Jeff, who also served on the school board at the time, she voted no. She also announced her resignation, having grown convinced that the voices of people who did not adopt a particular religious view were no longer valued. Brown herself is a Christian who believes God created the universe, but she had little success convincing her fellow board members that such a view belongs in a comparative religion class, if in school at all. “I shall pray for you all,” she announced in her resignation speech, “pray that you will find the wisdom to separate your personal beliefs and desires from the proper fulfillment, within the law, of the duties and responsibilities of your office.” Her husband also stepped down. Both told me they have lost friends and found themselves accused of being atheists (neither is). At the trial Brown testified that Alan Bonsell, another board member allied with Buckingham, told her she was “going to hell.” Bonsell, who was sitting in front of me, insisted this was “absolutely untrue.”

What do the intended beneficiaries of the Dover school board’s actions make of the intelligent design debate? A few days before meeting Casey Brown, I drove out to Dover high school to find out. It was late in the afternoon and a couple of kids were milling about outside, waiting for rides. When I asked them what they thought of the controversy, they looked at me with blank stares that suggested I could not have posed a question of less relevance to their lives. “I think you should leave us alone,” one of them said. “Everyone just sleeps through that class anyway,” said another. I approached a third kid, who was standing alone. Nobody he knew ever talked about the issue, he told me; it was no big deal.

Some students have been affected more directly. In 1998 Zach Strausbaugh, then a senior at Dover High, painted a four-by-sixteen-foot mural for his graduation requirement depicting the ascent of man; two years ago the mural, which included representations of apes, was burned by a school janitor who found it offensive. It is the sort of act one would think a school board would loudly denounce. To the contrary, according to Jeff and Casey Brown, school board members Bill Buckingham and Alan Bonsell told them they believed what the janitor did was right.

For the most part, though, kids in Dover seem perplexed that so much attention is being paid to what happens in a single class. It is a sentiment shared by Pat Jennings, an African-American woman who runs the Lighthouse Youth Center, an organization that offers after-school programs, recreational services and parenting and Bible study classes to kids throughout York County. The center, which is privately funded, is located in a brown-brick building in downtown York, next to a church. “Some of the children we serve have a desire to know Christ,” Jennings, dressed in a violet shirt and gold hoop earrings, told me. “I would say that’s the main reason I’m here.” A deeply religious woman who describes her faith as “very important” to her, Jennings nonetheless confessed that she hasn’t paid much attention to the evolution controversy, since she’s too busy thinking about other problems the children she serves face–drugs, gangs, lack of access to opportunity, racism. “When we are in this building there are no Latinos, blacks, Caucasian children–just children,” she explained after giving me a tour of the center. “But when I go out there”–she pointed to the street–“I’m reminded that I’m different.”

“There’s a lot of kids out there looking for something,” Jennings continued. “They have questions that need answering. They’re looking for someone to trust.” I asked her if she thought schools were providing that thing. She shook her head. “I don’t know if it’s the schools or the parents or whatever, but something is wrong. The kids I see lack discipline. They lack reading skills.” Listening to her, it was hard not to view the dust-up over intelligent design as a tragic illustration of how energy that could be poured into other problems is wasted on symbolic issues of comparatively minor significance.

Why those symbolic issues have assumed such importance in America has a lot to do with the fact that, in places like Dover, the only institutions around that seem willing to address the concerns of many people are fundamentalist churches. Or so it seemed to me after speaking with Judy Grim, the woman who praised the video on evolution shown at the fire hall. When I asked her why she cared so much about the issue, Grim didn’t talk about Charles Darwin. She talked about her fear of living in a society driven by selfishness and a “survival of the fittest” mentality. “If I’m taught that there is a God,” she explained, “then I know that I’m responsible to meet him one day. If I’m taught that I evolve, then I can live my life as I please. I don’t have to answer to anybody, and that’s where our society is headed. And that’s why we have so many problems.”

There was a time when progressives spoke eloquently to such concerns–articulating why, as the historian Richard Hofstadter put it in Social Darwinism in American Thought, “there is nothing in nature or a naturalistic philosophy of life to make impossible the acceptance of moral sanctions that can be employed for the common good.” At the turn of the twentieth century the dissenters from the crude version of social Darwinism propagated by people like Herbert Spencer included not only reactionary fundamentalists but also ministers who preached the Social Gospel and writers like Henry Demarest Lloyd, who stirringly denounced a society in which “the prize we give the fittest is monopoly of the necessaries of life.” It was because of such voices that America turned away from the crass view of society as a random assortment of atomized individuals locked in a brutal struggle for market share toward the currents of thought that fostered the reforms of the Progressive era (ending child labor, cleaning up tenement slums) and, eventually, the New Deal.

You won’t find many copies of Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth in a town like Dover these days. What you will find are places like Harmony Grove Community Church, a large red-brick edifice that Casey Brown pointed to on our drive through the borough. Harmony Grove is where Bill Buckingham worshiped and where he solicited donations so that copies of a book promoting intelligent design, Of Pandas and People, could be bought and donated to the high school (Buckingham passed a check for $850 to the father of fellow board member Alan Bonsell, and the donation was made). It is to such “Bible believing” churches that the task of addressing the fears of ordinary Americans has increasingly fallen, in a manner scripted by the religious right. The schools are failing? It’s because there’s too little talk of God. Crime is rising? It’s Charles Darwin’s fault. Society is increasingly divided? Blame the ACLU.

The irony is that nothing has divided Dover more than the actions of the school board itself, creating a messy legal battle that has turned an unwelcome spotlight on the town–not a few people rolled their eyes when I told them I was a reporter there to cover the trial–and that has clearly alienated more than just so-called liberal elites. In fact, none of the people I spoke with in Dover who oppose the school board’s action fit this stereotype. Some simply seemed embarrassed that their town was being turned into the butt of creationism jokes on programs like The Daily Show because of what they described as a small, albeit vocal, minority. (The fear of suffering similar embarrassment, along with the knowledge that pushing creationism into public school science classrooms has not passed muster in court, is why one rarely hears the religious right’s national spokesmen mention the issue.) The school board’s other opponents are people like Steve Stough, a registered Republican who feels strongly enough about the separation of church and state that he is among the suit’s plaintiffs, and Bryan Rehm, another plaintiff, who described on the witness stand how the controversy has sowed discord among neighbors who used to get along.

The members of the Dover school board argue that, to the extent this is true, it is the plaintiffs’ own fault: They’re the ones who turned a few paragraphs read to high school students into a “train wreck,” Sheila Harkins, current head of the board, told me. But if the issue is so minor, it’s worth asking why the school board hasn’t simply dropped it–why, indeed, it has dug in its heels and risked the possibility that, should the judge rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, a school district that already pays the lowest teachers’ salaries in the county will be saddled with an enormous legal bill (in the form of the opposing side’s attorneys fees).

The latter concern evidently registered among Dover’s voters, who on November 8 swept all eight of the school board’s current members out of office. The incumbents had campaigned on a pledge to “keep out the ACLU and allow academic freedom,” a message that apparently backfired. “I think voters were tired of everything this school board brought about,” said one newly elected member, Bernadette Reinking. Indeed, while plaintiff Bryan Rehm was among those on the winning slate, board chair Sheila Harkins and intelligent design enthusiast Alan Bonsell received the fewest votes of all.