Some days it feels like 1925–when William Jennings Bryan defended the merits of creationism in the Scopes Monkey trial–all over again.
I’ve written before about how the Right wants to dismantle the achievements of the 20th century–the New Deal, environmentalism, civil rights and civil liberties. But now rightwing social conservatives, our home-grown fundamentalists, are seeking to unravel the scaffolding of science and reason, and this battle deserves attention from humanists of all stripes. One of the most virulent expressions of the rightwing assault on modernity is the war against evolution being waged in America’s classrooms and courtrooms, parks and civic institutions.
Slipping creationism into civic discussions picked up steam in the 1990s. That’s when Kansas issued new state science guidelines in which “evolution” was replaced with the phrase “change over time,” and Illinois made a similar change.
In Oklahoma and Alabama, creationists inserted disclaimers into biology textbooks which cast doubt on evolution. In 1999, school boards in Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Nebraska tried to modify the teaching of evolution, in some cases trying to have it excised from the state standards.
Now, we’re into the 21st century, Bush is in the White House for another four years, and creationists feel emboldened to impose their beliefs on secular America. From schools to parks, creationists are moving aggressively.
The New York Times recently reported that six stores in the Grand Canyon National Park are selling a book called Grand Canyon: A Different View. Its wild theory has no factual basis: God, argues the author, created the Grand Canyon in Noah’s flood and the flood was intended to destroy “the wickedness of man.”
The issue of whether this book should be on sale in park service stores is under review in the solicitor’s office of the US Interior Department. But Interior has been silent for almost a year now, in spite of a scientific consensus that hydrology, over millions of years, caused the Grand Canyon’s formation, not God’s hand. The government should stand on the side of science.
Meanwhile, in Cobb County, Georgia in 2002, the Board of Education unanimously approved the teaching of creationism in public schools. The decision, promised the school board, would provide students with “a balanced education.”
In Ohio, educators and parents are promoting the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools; proponents believe that a higher power created human life. And in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, a school board has just revised its science curriculum to permit creationist teachings in local classrooms. (The science curriculum “should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory,” declared Joni Burgin, the school district’s superintendent.)
The rightwing assault on the Enlightenment extends well beyond putting creationism on equal footing with evolutionary science. The Bush Administration has truncated stem cell research, promoted abstinence-only sex education, undermined Roe v. Wade and supported federal funding for faith-based institutions. “Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more,” Garry Wills recently argued in an op-ed. (Somedays, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before two guests on CNN’s Crossfire are given equal time and equal weight in George Bush’s America to debate the merits of the creationist argument.)
In Texas, just days after the election, the Board of Education approved health textbooks that explicitly defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Two of America’s largest academic publishers–Holt, Rinehart and Winston and Glencoe/McGraw-Hill–capitulated to the board by removing from the text all words like “partners” and phrases like “when two people marry” and replacing them with more traditional circumlocutions like “husbands and wives.”
“We thought it was a reasonable thing to do,” explained a Holt spokesman. (Wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that Texas is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the country?)
Activists must join with the ACLU, People for the American Way and the National Coalition against Censorship (NCAC) in fighting off attempts to turn the clock back. “We work with other organizations to provide background and supporting information [and] are always available to help find the right person to give testimony” before school boards, said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition.
NCAC organized a coalition of progressive groups that signed a statement opposing censorship in sex education. It was sent to every member of Congress and scores of state legislators. The Coalition also stresses partnerships with local groups, encourages letter-writing campaigns to school boards, text-book publishers and local papers and promotes “stirring the pot” to bring publicity and pressure to bear on this crusade against science and reason.
The ACLU, meanwhile, is working with parents to sue the Cobb County School Board in federal district court. Cobb County put stickers in three biology textbooks that warned: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”
The stickers, argues the ACLU, promote the teaching of creationism and violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. “The religious views of some that contradict science cannot dictate curriculum,” said ACLU attorney Maggie Garrett. The Supreme Court has already ruled that teaching creationism has no place in science class, but the ACLU is aggressively re-fighting this battle in Georgia for the sake of religious freedom, knowledge and reasoning.
While creationist groups like the Discovery Institute wage war against evolution in states like Texas, local groups like Stand Up For Science composed of Texas scientists, religious leaders and parents have formed to lead the fight against censoring textbooks there. And the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the religious right, has taken on publishers like Holt Rinehart that put stickers in textbooks challenging evolution.
“Rather than stand up for keeping good science standards in textbooks, Holt Rinehart has compromised the education of Texas students,” said Samantha Smoot, the Network’s executive director, in August 2003.
People of reason must be savvy, and just as tough as the intolerant Right, in defending scientific discovery and the ideal of human progress from the retrogressive forces now rallying behind this White House. With a messianic militarist in the Oval Office, social conservatives are seizing the initiative and assailing the Enlightenment. Time is not on our side.