The teachers are right; the school board—and Bush, Frist, and McCain—is simply wrong. Creationists, now reborn as “design theorists,” imagine that finally, instead of merely ignoring or denying evolutionary science, they are using bona fide but Genesis-friendly science to discredit it. Their crucial, we-are-not-insane concession is that the Earth really is a few billion years old, rather than only a few thousand.
“Evolution is a theory, not a fact,” say the stickers that another school system, in Cobb County, Georgia, affixed to textbooks. But all scientific knowledge “continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered,” and therefore all science is nominally theory—theory that exists along a spectrum, however, from deeply knowledgeable speculation (like superstrings in particle physics) to virtual certainties (such as evolution). In science, there is no such thing as fixed, irrefutable truth. That’s the difference between empiricism and faith.
So here’s a compromise: I’m willing to print the reasonable-sounding liberal core of the Cobb County disclaimer on every textbook in America—“This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered”—as soon as the Christians agree to put the same sticker on all of their Bibles. Disingenuous? Sure, just like the ID movement’s apparently liberal, apparently evenhanded strategy to sneak religious ideas into the classroom by saying they want to “teach the controversy.” In fact, the brilliance of the IDers (and of the new New Right generally) has been to recast all sorts of old liberal paradigms and habits for their own ends. We say intelligent design is camouflaged religion, and therefore a violation of the First Amendment? Well, says one of Discovery’s directors, the Dover case is indeed about adhering to the First Amendment—by protecting the right to “free speech” in public-school classrooms.
For several decades the philosophical ground has been softened up by the relativism and political correctness of the secular left, which succeeded in undermining the very idea of objective reality and of calling a spade a spade—so now, in the resulting marsh, fantasies like intelligent design (or Scientology or feng shui or 9/11 as a CIA plot) take root and spread like weeds. Liberals pioneered squishy-minded indulgence of their key constituencies’ unfortunate new ideas, like reparations and criminalized hate speech; now it’s the right’s turn.
The ID people, I’m afraid, remind me of Holocaust deniers. They’re not evil, but they are distorting and ignoring a century and a half of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to believe in a historical miracle, just as Holocaust deniers distort and ignore half a century of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to disbelieve a historical crime. Both are enemies of truth.
John E. Jones III, the judge hearing Kitzmiller v. Dover, is an active Republican whom Bush appointed. Still, so far he has ruled in favor of the teachers, and it would be shocking if he issued a verdict that the school system is behaving constitutionally—in other words, if he ruled that intelligent design has a bona fide secular purpose and is not intended to advance religion. Those are the constitutional tests that the big lie of ID was designed to end-run.
Whatever his verdict, the losing side will undoubtedly appeal the case up to the Supreme Court. The last time the court ruled on creationism, overturning a Louisiana education law in 1987, the vote was 7-2, with Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissenting. That court didn’t include Clarence Thomas—who in last year’s “one nation under God” case made the Talibanic argument that the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” applies only to the federal government and was never meant to prohibit individual states from adopting official religions. But even in the unlikely event that both Chief Justice Roberts (an observant Catholic) and, say, Harriet Miers (a born-again Evangelical) voted with Scalia and Thomas to allow intelligent-design provisos in science classes, the court would presumably still be 5-4 in favor of keeping church and state separated.
So we are probably safe for now—as a jurisprudential matter. But politically, secularism will lose no matter what. If it’s decided correctly, Kitzmiller v. Dover can become a new Roe v. Wade, a landmark judicial bone in the craw of Christian America, a fresh means for right-wingers to depict their children as victims of godless liberals. At least on Roe v. Wade, a big majority of Americans have consistently supported the decision. As far as teaching straight science goes, however, the big majority is against us. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 64 percent of Americans are in favor of having creationism and evolution taught in school—and it seems most of those would actually prefer to replace evolution altogether with scriptural teaching. Like I said, those of us who believe wholeheartedly in science and the First Amendment are the freaks.