How Creationists Win

For those of us who want secular public schools and mainstream evolutionary science only in public-school science classes, the news from Arizona could be either a glass half-full or half-empty. Either way, though, it serves as a clear reminder of how creationism wins.

Here’s what we know: In Arizona, the superintendent of public instruction picked Joseph Kezele to serve on an eight-person board reviewing state science standards. Kezele is the president of the Arizona Origin Science Association. He is an ardent young-earth creationist. In his work on the board, he has nudged the standards toward more skepticism about mainstream evolutionary theory.

To this reporter, the story reveals the most important reason creationists win. As I’m arguing in my new book, it’s not really about evolutionary science itself. Before we get to that main reason, though, let’s look at some of the contributing factors:

1.) Creationists win by being polite.

Kezele’s fellow board members don’t like his radical creationism, but they do like him. As the University of Arizona’s William Roth told the Phoenix New Times, in all their interactions Kezele was “polite and thoughtful.”

2.) Creationists win by taking advantage of their grandparents’ work.

In this case, Kezele has credentials as a faculty member at Arizona Christian University. A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education specifically identified Kezele’s faculty status as the main reason for Kezele’s inclusion on the board.

Though Arizona Christian University itself was founded only in 1960, it is part of the evangelical higher education network I described in Fundamentalist U. Since the 1920s, creationists founded their own network of universities specifically, in part, to provide a home for creationist scientists like Kezele.

These days, creationists like Kezele can only have higher-ed credentials because of the work of their parents, their grandparents, and in some cases, their great-grandparents. The fundamentalists who stormed out of mainstream colleges and started their own schools built a network that is still providing credentials and paychecks to radical creationists today.

3.) Creationists win by not asking for much.

In Arizona, according to Professor Roth, Kezele never tried to “foist any kind of creationism” on the committee. As Roth put it,

I never got the impression that he was really arguing for the inclusion of creationism in the standard. . . . I think he was pretty aware of the court rulings that religion is not going to be taught in science class.

Kezele did nudge the committee, though. For example, Kezele put his feet down to insist that the language be changed. Instead of explaining evolution as “THE” explanation for speciation, the new standards call evolution “AN” explanation. It’s a huge difference, to be sure, but worlds removed from actually adding any specific creationist content to the standards.

Historically, compared to the anti-evolution campaigners of the 1920s who sought to impose theocracy on America’s public schools, today’s creationist activists are fighting for curricular scraps and crumbs.

4.) Most important, creationists win these days for reasons that have nothing really to do with evangelical theology or evolutionary science.

It’s just politics. The superintendent who appointed Kezele wants creationism and evolution both to be included in public school science classrooms. But if she had not been elected, someone else who also favors creationism probably would have. As Arizona Central reported, Superintendent Diane Douglas was re-elected sought re-election from among a field crowded with creationism-friendly candidates. [Thanks to GB for the correction!]

Of the five Republican candidates for the job, four ardently supported teaching some sort of creationism in public schools. They may have had their personal reasons for wanting it, but they also made an obvious political calculation. If anyone is going to be elected in Arizona, that is, she must promise to make public schools creationism-friendly.

The reasons the candidates gave for supporting creationism in public schools were all about culture-war politics, not theology or science.

Candidate Frank Riggs, for example, argued that students needed creationism to be good Americans. As he put it, high-school students

should know what our founding fathers believed and put in our founding documents . . . “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” . . . We can’t skip over that, or we do a huge disservice to our students.

Another candidate, Tracy Livingston, poured some unadulterated MAGA rhetoric into the mix. Why should public schools include creationism? In her answer, Livingston bemoaned the “fact” that

Schools don’t even allow Merry Christmas anymore.

Why support creationism in public schools? For candidate Livingston, at least, it was part of a culture-war playbook. To Make America Great Again, schools needed to give Christianity a special spot. Children needed to be taught in a vaguely Christian atmosphere, one that included creationism.

It’s not science. It’s not even really religion. Instead, the main reason for creationist victories is simple, ugly, culture-war politics.

How do creationists win? Lots of reasons. They win if they are polite. They win if they take advantage of the long work of previous generations, establishing creationist institutions that can provide credentials. They win if they don’t ask for much, but insist on a little.

Most importantly, though, they win because they own the Republican Party in some locations. To win election as state superintendent of public education, candidates raced to out-creationist one another. Creationism has become yet another culture-war red flag. It’s not really about theology or science, but about what side you want to be on.

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