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August 15, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
by John Avlon
Welcome to the flip side of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
William Jennings Bryan, whose supporters had successfully pushed legislation banning the teaching of evolution in 15 states, defended the traditional biblical teaching of creation as described in Genesis. At stake was the freedom to teach alternative theories to the accepted orthodoxy.
The result was a celebrated show trial, an early skirmish in the culture wars, fueled by a traditionalist backlash to the excesses of the Jazz Age, with reports carried by radio and wire-service instead of via satellite and Internet.
How far we haven't come.
Today the teams on the sidelines and the terms of the debate have been switched, but the debate itself remains distressingly the same.
Playing the victim card
Last week, reporters asked President Bush his position on the teaching of creationism — now repackaged under the label "intelligent design" — alongside evolution in public school classrooms, and according to transcripts, replied, "both sides ought to be properly taught."
While the White House later attempted to downplay the import of the president's remarks, representatives of the religious right couldn't stop crowing.
"We interpret this as the president using his bully pulpit to support freedom of inquiry," the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer told the New York Times. He said it was "extremely timely and welcome because so many scientists are experiencing recriminations for breaking with Darwinist orthodoxy."
In the time of the Scopes Trial, it was the ACLU that fanned the flames of controversy by pleading persecution on behalf of public school biology teacher John Scopes. Now the religious right sees an equal and opposite opportunity.
In both cases, the victim card is being played by an activist group employing the rhetoric of fairness and balance.
The problem is that the two sides are not really equivalent. This is not a matter of choosing Charles Darwin over Jesus Christ. It's a matter of separating science from religion in public schools.
The real issue
Science does not purport to represent a static truth for all time. It is a process of objective inquiry that is supposed to transcend cultural lenses. Science is an ongoing discussion based in study that allows a Hindu and a Christian to have a common language about the physical make-up of the world around us, regardless of whether they go home and offer a prayer to Vishnu or St. Paul.
Opening ourselves up to a "he said, she said" version of scientific debate, with subjective religious belief masquerading as objective inquiry, puts us down a path toward mutual incomprehension.
Like most Americans, I don't believe that religion should be chased out of the public square. America springs from a Judeo-Christian culture. To multicultural activists who would like to rewrite history, those are the facts. There were not many Muslims or Hindus sitting around Independence Hall in 1776.
But religious right activists have an agenda that's far bigger than the Constitution of the United States. And America has evolved beyond the ethnic and religious backgrounds of our Founding Fathers.
Burdened by that pesky original promise that "All men are created equal," we have become, at our best, a melting pot — a universal society open to the best and the brightest from around the world.
Opening the door to an equal alternative schoolroom teaching to evolution that involves the Judeo-Christian God creating the world in six days is inadequate for the realities of our country today. Schools would have to offer equal time to other religions' traditional accounts of the creation of the universe.
Competing accounts of “intelligent design”
Some Hindus, for example, believe that the universe was created from the body of a primal man named Purusa, whose lower half became the earth; the rest became the heavens, and the traditional caste system descended from different parts of Purusa's body: i.e., his arms became warriors, his legs commoners, and his feet the peasants.
Some skeptics will scoff, "Well, we know that's not true. Besides, it's a foreign tradition to our country and doesn't deserve equal time."
Fair enough. But how about opening the debate to the Apache accounts of the creation of the universe, where a small bearded man appeared out of the darkness in a slice of light and imagined a girl on a cloud? Or the Navajo tradition, which has the first man and woman created out of corn?
What is myth to some people is a matter of faith to others. The line between literal belief and inspired metaphorical understanding can be murky. Muddying these heartfelt waters to score political points in a culture war ultimately demeans everybody.
Perhaps that's why, after the original Scopes Monkey Trial, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case, with the wise and curt comment, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."
Toward a common understanding . . . outside biology class
At some time, at some place, I believe that science and faith may come to a common language of understanding about the universe. The Templeton Foundation, for example, supports tremendous efforts in this area.
But the ninth grade public school biology classroom is probably not that place.
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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