We don’t push creationism on America’s public schools. That’s the word from two very different ends of America’s creationist spectrum.
An intelligent observer might be forgiven for feeling a little confused. If creationists don’t want creationism in America’s schools, what do they want?
Seen from this outsider’s perspective, this creationist plea demonstrates the important fact that America has not hit a wall with evolution/creation controversies; we are not trapped in a timeless deadlock; evolution and creation are not grappling in an endless, changeless battle.
Evolution is winning.
Don’t believe me? Consider the recent statements of two leading creationists, two creationists with very different anti-evolution ideas.
Our first creationist voice for keeping creationism out of public schools comes from the leading proponent of intelligent design, Seattle’s Discovery Institute.
According to the conservative Christian World Magazine, the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer has called recently for intelligent design advocates to stop pushing ID on public schools. In a New York talk about his new book, Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer insisted it would be “imprudent for our side to be pushing intelligent design into textbooks.”
There was no need for such forceful public advocacy, Meyer argued. Instead, growing doubt among mainstream scientists should be allowed to bubble over into public-school science curriculum. According to Meyer, “There are too many scientists doing science from this perspective to keep it out of schools. I’d prefer for it to happen organically.”
At the other end of the creationism spectrum, Ken Ham has called for a similar hands-off policy concerning public schools. Ham, the founder of the leading young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, has insisted recently that his group does not push young-earth creationism into public schools. Why not? Because mandated creationism, Ham argued, would “likely be taught poorly (and possibly mockingly) by a teacher who does not understand what the Bible teaches. . .”
On the other hand, Ham does hope that public schools will teach a greater variety of ideas about evolution, including young-earth creationism.
For those of us non-creationists hoping to understand American creationism, what lessons can we take out of these statements?
At first glance, such arguments seem merely strategic. My hunch is that both Meyer and Ham would prefer to see more intelligent design or young-earth creationism in America’s public schools, respectively. Insisting that they do not push such notions seems nothing more than an attempt to play the role of innocent bystander in creation/evolution fights.
But we can take other lessons from these creationist statements as well. First of all, both statements demonstrate a recognition that ID or YEC are not currently dominant in America’s public schools. Dr. Meyer says he does not want to push ID, since that will leave the decisions in the hand of a judge, as happened in the Dover trial. Mr. Ham worries that mandatory creationism would lead to withering critiques of the creation curriculum by the vast numbers of anti-creationist teachers.
As I’ve argued in my 1920s book, such creationist attitudes represent a wholesale revolution in anti-evolution politics. In the 1920s, anti-evolution campaigns wanted more than to have creationism included in public schools. Back then, anti-evolution politicians hoped to ban evolution wholesale. Not only that, in the 1920s politicians and activists insisted on banning all sorts of ideas that might have challenged traditional Protestant culture. Consider the “anti-evolution” law that passed the US Congress in 1924. That law specified that no teachers could engage in “disrespect of the Holy Bible.” But the law also insisted that DC teachers could not teach that the USA had an inferior form of government.
The sort of “us-too” strategy engaged in by Ham and Meyer demonstrates a very different goal. Even if they are being duplicitous in their insistence that they do not want to push creationism on public schools, the very fact that they choose to disavow such insistence speaks volumes.
In the 1920s, anti-evolutionists wanted evolution out. All the way out. With all its attendant theories of atheism, socialism, sloppiness, and bad manners. Anti-evolutionists went out of their way to show their vehement condemnation of all things evolutionary.
In the 21st century, in contrast, anti-evolutionists claim only to want a place at the public-school table.
This revolution in anti-evolution strategy demonstrates that there is no long-term deadlock in the evolution/creation struggle.
I’ll say it again: Evolution is winning.
It only appears to be a deadlock if we restrict ourselves to a short historical perspective. Yet, for understandable reasons, many of the smartest voices in the evolution/creation debates have implied that we are in fact stuck.
Randy Moore, for example, has long been the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the struggle over creationism and biology education. Yet even he allows himself to imply that evolution/creation has bogged down. In a recent essay in the BioLogos Forum, for example, Moore opens with the following assertion: “the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time.”
True enough, but he restricts himself to a relatively short timeline. Opinions since the 1980s may have congealed, but that does not imply a longterm freeze.
Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, too, open their wonderful study of evolution and creationism battles with the assumption that these battles have changed little. They do not ask IF creation/evolution fights have deadlocked. They only ask WHY such fights have been so durable.
Today’s statements from Stephen Meyer and Ken Ham demonstrate the dangers of these assumptions. From an historian’s perspective, attitudes that have stayed the same since the 1980s are not proof of deadlock. Rather, they appear only to be recent trends.
The fact that leading creationists insist that they do not want to push their theories into public schools tells us a lot.
It doesn’t tell us, of course, exactly how sincere such protestations might be.
But it does tell us that the evolution/creation controversy has changed dramatically over the past century. Whereas the first rounds of this battle saw anti-evolutionists pound evolution education into the ropes, more recent decades have seen that trend reversed.
It is now creationists who insist they don’t want to push their ideas into public schools.
“Why can’t creationism be included?” is a vastly different question than “Why should schools include evolution?”