Creationist Bogeymen

Say, did you hear what happened to Senator Kruse’s “Truth in Education” bill in Indiana?

Unless you’re a close personal friend of the Senator, I’m guessing you haven’t.  The career of bills like this one can tell us a thing or two about the cultural politics of creationism.

Senator Kruse garnered some headlines six months ago for his plan.  Kruse, the chairman of the Indiana State Senate Education Committee, promised a new law that would guarantee students’ right to challenge their teachers’ pronouncements.  The barely disguised goal was to allow creationist students to confront evolutionary teaching.

At the time, pundits and scribblers announced Kruse’s plan as the latest offensive in a creationist juggernaut.  Reporters noted the connections to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent-design think tank.  Progressives lamented this latest power play by religious conservatives.  One commenter called the bill the latest effort to “march the education of American children toward the 19th century.”  Another explained Kruse’s new effort as an end run around evolution.

But here’s the problem: Kruse’s bill didn’t do any of those things.  It didn’t do anything.

Kruse’s bill died the quiet death of most legislation.  As House Bill 1283, Truth in Education went nowhere.  But no one reported on that. [**DOUBLE CORRECTION: First, HB 1283 was not introduced by Senator Kruse, but by Kruse’s ally, Representative Jeff Thompson.  Second, the National Center for Science Education, that tireless watchdog of all things creationism, did in fact report on the fate of HB 1283.  Thanks to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for calling our attention to it.]

To be fair, several of the journalists who talked about the looming threat of Indiana’s latest creationist bill wondered if the bill would ever get anywhere.  But a casual news reader could be forgiven for assuming that creationists pass laws like this all the time.  The news media’s hunger for the sensational feeds a skewed perspective on what is and is not legal in America’s schools.

This is not new.  In 1942 Oscar Riddle and his colleagues conducted a survey of high-school science teachers.[1]  They asked teachers if they taught evolution or special creation, and why.  Those answers were illuminating.  Over three thousand teachers responded to the questionnaire.  Those who claimed not to teach evolution gave a wide range of reasons.  One teacher from North Carolina explained that evolution education was “a taboo subject to most people” (73).  A Nebraska teacher said she avoided evolution education mainly due to “Lack of time.”  One California teacher added, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers” (74).  In the stereotype-shattering department, another California teacher from a “large city” explained that he or she didn’t teach evolution because the “Fundamentalist beliefs of majority of our students may not be attacked (negro and Mexican)” [sic] (74).

Most relevant here, lots of teachers incorrectly believed evolution education was illegal in their states.  Since the 1920s, as I detail in my 1920s book, a handful of states really did pass anti-evolution laws or education-department rules.  But a significant percentage of teachers in the 1940s believed incorrectly that their states had also done so.

Why?  My hunch is that anti-evolution bills get much more attention than they deserve.  Any conservative religious lawmaker can earn quick points for introducing a bill destined to go nowhere.  This was the case in the 1920s, the 1940s, and it is the case today.  Senator Kruse’s bill did not change anything for any students in Indiana.  But it did contribute to a widespread notion that creationism is on the march all over the country.

[1] Oscar Riddle, F.L. Fitzpatrick, H.B. Glass, B.C. Gruenberg, D.F. Miller, E.W. Sinnott, eds., The Teaching of Biology in Secondary Schools of the United States: A Report of Results from a Questionnaire (Washington, DC: Union of American Biological Sciences, 1942).

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  1. Tim

     /  May 30, 2013

    I actually spoke in support of one of Kruse’s prior attempts. I’m from Indiana. Here is my write-up on that adventure: ( One of the main problems with Kruse’s bills (and I’ve mentioned this to him) is that he is trying for things that are possibly already legal and do not need a bill to accomplish. Who says a student cannot question evolution already? Why would we think they can’t?

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