The Devil in Dover: Righteousness defined 1

On the recommendations of other science bloggers, I ordered the book, The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, by Lauri Lebo. It arrived Tuesday, and wantonly setting aside more pressing tasks, I put some jazz on and starting reading the book.

Since I already had some familiarity with the court case it narrates, the 224 pages went by quickly, and I finished it in an afternoon. [Yes, I do read fast. It’s how I survived four years at Princeton.] For a readable account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover case of 2005, I can recommend none better. Only the PBS Nova episode on the same case matches it for clarity and, yes, drama.

Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., was a watershed lawsuit involving the teaching of intelligent design in the ninth grade biology classes of the Dover, Penn., Area School District. A conservative, religiously biased school board sought to weaken the teaching of evolution in the schools by requiring teachers (all of whom refused, as it turned out) to read a four-paragraph cautionary statement about the theory of evolution, specifically mentioning Intelligent Design as another explanation for the origin of life.

Lebo’s narrative clearly lays out the religious motivations of the board members, who before hammering out the four paragraphs, had discussed in open meeting the need to bring creationism into the science curriculum. (Those same members later stated, under oath, that they had never used the creationism and accused the two reporters covering the board meetings of fabricating the statements. During the trial, however, it became clear the reporters were in fact correct.)

To make a long story short, a group of parents joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to contest the introduction of ID into their children’s classes. Tammy Kitzmiller, whose daughter would be among those first affected by the policy change, became the first plaintiff listed among the several, acquiring in a sense of kind of immortality, since the title of case is usually abbreviated Kitzmiller v Dover. After days of testimony, the presiding District Court judge, John E. Jones III, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that ID was not science, but religion thinly disguised, and as such had no place in the public schools. He chastised the defendants for the “breathtaking inanity” of their decisions to pursue both the new policy and risk a legal challenge.

Lebo is a reporter for the York Daily Record, born and raised in and around the Dover area. Throughout the book, she describes her agnostic’s struggles with religious faith and frustrations with reasoning against her fundamentalist father’s close-mindedness. Her personal battles reflect similar forays played out in Dover and elsewhere in the U.S. — that of a conservative, literalist faction of self-described Christians against everyone else.

While reading the book, I reflected on a potentially thorny question: When is a religious minority’s battle in the secular world “righteous” and when is it just plain wrong?

As a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a minority if there ever were one, I am familiar with the Society’s struggles against war and slavery, and for civil rights, decent prisons and humane mental hospitals. There were many times that the Quakers suffered for their testimonies, which spring from their understanding of the Scriptures and their own communion with the Divine. In many ways, the Friends were well ahead of their time — manumitting their slaves a century before the Emancipation Proclamation, for example — and now we would perhaps describe their efforts as “righteous.”

Contrast their efforts with those of the current religious right, which in many ways wants not only to rewrite U.S. history and the Constitution, but to bring God back into the public schools and other secular instiututions. Like the Quakers’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, their positions are unpopular among the majority and are obstensibly derived from an understanding of God’s word. Certainly, they believe their struggles to be “righteous,” but will future generations agree with them?

I would hope not. Let me try to explain why.

I’ll use the Friends’ attitudes toward slavery as an example of now widely accepted “righteous” behavior. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, many well-to-do colonial Quakers, including a branch of my own family, owned slaves. The practice was widely accepted by the community at large, in both the northern and southern colonies. Religious leaders pointed to the apparent acceptance of slavery in Scripture, giving the ownership of other human beings a kind of religious blessing.

Being an introspective bunch, the Quakers were not as easy with the practice as other Christians, however. Whereas most other Christian sects relied almost exclusively on the Bible (and their ministers’ interpretations of same) for guidance, Friends believed that Scripture was just one source of divine guidance, that the Divine could speak to each and every person individually. For that reason (and others), early Friends had no pastors or programmed worship, preferring if necessary to spend an entire Meeting for Worship in silence if the Spirit failed to move anyone to speak.

It was perhaps the treatment of slaves in the market, or by owners, that troubled some Quakers first. They could not see how the horrific treatment of slaves by the traders could be in any way “Christian,” in the light of Jesus’ example of loving-kindness. Another Quaker testimony is the belief that there is “that of God” in each person, regardless of skin color or religious background, using Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritan woman and other shunned members of Jewish society as examples. They saw the African slaves (and native Americans) as children of God in a very literal sense, worthy of respect and kindness. Quaker pioneers generally had an easier time co-existing with native Americans than other whites did as a result of this deep-seated belief.

Gradually it became clear to Quakers, first in the north and later in the south, that to own a slave was to disobey God’s Word and Jesus’ lessons. It was in direct contradiction to their own testimonies, for how can a person own another if both have “that of God” in them? The process took decades. George Fox, the founder of the Society, first advised Friends in Barbadoes to free their slaves in 1671. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (to which my slave-owning forebears probably belonged) circulated a series of queries to its member meetings in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. (Quaker tradition is to ask members to contemplate weighty issues in their hearts, seeking Divine guidance, rather than to simply tell them to follow the party line. The practice helps explain the snail-like pace of major changes in Quaker practice.)

1743: Do Friends observe the former advice of our Yearly Meeting not to encourage the importation of Negroes, nor to buy them after imported?
1755: Are Friends clear of importing or buying Negroes and do they use well which they are possessed of by inheritance or otherwise, endeavoring to train them up in the principles of the Christian Religion?
1765: ditto
1776: Are Friends clear of importing, purchasing, disposing of or holding mankind as slaves? And do they use well those who are set free and are necessarily under their care and not in circumstances through nonage or incapacity to minister to their own necessities? And are they careful to educate and ecourage them in a religious and virtuous life? [From Friends for 300 Years, by Howard H. Brinton, (c) 1952]

By the time of Revolution, there were virtually no Quaker slaveholders in the North. Southerners had a harder time letting go of their slaves, since the local governments passed laws forbidding the freeing of slaves. Instead, most of the Quakers from the Carolinas and Georgia picked up and moved into the Northwest Territories (Ohio, Indiana and Illinois), after the Revolution, freeing their slaves there.

Once they let go of their own encumbrances, Friends then joined the abolitionist movement to eliminate slavery everywhere, leading to Britain freeing its slaves by 1838 and of course to the US freeing its slaves three decades later by presidential proclamation.

Anyone who has a passing knowledge of the abolition movement would know that the general society, especially in the US, greeted the concept of freeing the slaves as ludicrous, if not un-Scriptural. Most other Christians did not share the Quakers’ belief of “that of God in everyone,” preferring to see blacks and native Americans as savage heathens inferior to whites, and placed by some sort of Divine intervention under the command of white Christians. [To be sure, there are some whites who still believe it, nearly 150 years after emancipation.] Abolition back then was not popular, despite its proponents’ belief in its righteousness.

Flip the calendar a century or two ahead, and come to the present day. There is an active, influential minority of Christians who find a correlation between the “moral decline” of the US and the increasing secularism of our society. They see every threat to remove God and Christian teaching from public buildings and public school instruction as yet another step toward the end of American civilisation as we know it. Believing that ours is a “Christian nation” they want to restore, as they say it, the religious back into American government and school curricula. Like the early Quakers, they rely on their religious faith and understanding of Scripture for guidance.

Unlike the nearly two-hundred-year efforts of Quakers to rid the US of slavery, the Religious Right movement is barely three decades old, gaining prominence just before Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 to the presidency. Led by Pentecostal and Baptist televangelists, this religious movement skipped the gradual spiritual awakening favored by Quakers and jumped right into the secular arena, forming what amounts to political action committees. Their support helped Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush win their presidential elections, though most of what the candidates had promised to the Religious Right never came to fruition. [Some commentators suggest the belief in the Second Coming happening in 2000 probably spurred the sudden, desperate efforts to influence American politics and society.]

One of the battlegrounds for the Religious Right is in the public schools. The aims there are many, but principally they want to re-establish prayer in schools, once again allow the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, teach that the nation was founded on Christian principles, and more pertinent to this discussion, teach “alternatives” to “atheistic evolution,” if not abolish the teaching of evolution altogether. These goals, their proponents believe, are righteous.

As Lebo describes in her book, the methods to achieve these goals are far from “righteous.”

Largely frustrated in their attempts to sway national and state politics and law, the Religious Right has tried to foment change from the grassroots level. Since there is no national curriculum for US public schools, each school district being locally governed, the logical starting point to change the public schools is with the local school board.

In Dover, the school board elections were in the spring of 2001. Alan Bonsell, one of the newly elected board members, had campaigned on “a platform of frugal spending and taxpayer reform.” (p. 10) At his first board meeting, while other members raised concerns about all-day kindergarten, stricter discipline policies and block schedule, Bonsell, a Fundamentalist, discussed school prayer and creationism. Not much came of his concerns immediately.

Then in 2003 two members resigned from the board in a dispute over financing the high school renovation project. Bonsell asked two fellow conservative Christians, Jane Cleaver and Bill Buckingham, to fill the empty seats. It was at this time, as Lebo relates, that the school board took a sharp turn to the right, with Bonsell and Buckingham privately speaking of plans to teach creationism alongside evolution. In executive sessions, they talked with administrators about the Christian foundations of the USA and need to balance evolution with creationism. (p. 16) Bonsell, as chair of the board, met with science teachers individually to suggest that teaching evolution would have serious repercussions. (p. 20)

As Lebo describes them, Bonsell and his like-minded board members were woefully ignorant of their Constitutional responsibilities and of scientific theory. Their ministers (and perhaps televangelists) no doubt shaped their (mis)understanding of American history, and completely confident in their righteousness, they never stopped to analyze whether their actions were either legal or logical. That Bonsell would overstep his authority and meet directly with teachers — something only school administrators and/or union representatives should do — indicates the bullheaded behavior of these “soldiers of Christ.”

In June 2004 the private discussion of creationism among board members became public. Pressed by a former board member, Barrie Callahan, the board members admitted that they wanted new biology texts that were not, as Bonsell put it, “laced with Darwinism.” Buckingham said he wanted a text that balanced evolutionary theory with creationism, suggesting that, “If students are taught only evolution, it stops becoming theory and becomes fact.” (p. 23)

Two weeks later, the board reiterated its intention to teach creationism, with Buckingham insisting that nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a “separation of Church and State.” (p. 24)

Then in July, after the board either approached a national right-wing legal foundation or it them, all mention of creationism disappeared from public meetings. Instead board members started talking about the more scientific-sounding intelligent design. In a Nixonian moment, audio tapes of the June meetings, during which creationism had been discussed, disappeared. Board members denied, under oath during depositions before the bench trial, that any of them had said anything about creationism, saying they had instead said intelligent design. When confronted with newspaper reports contradicting their statements, the board members accused the two reporters of fabricating the quotes. In later depositions, Bonsell and other defendants suggested that it was only Buckingham, who was in and out of recovery for OxyContin abuse, who had advocated teaching creationism. Buckingham himself said in his deposition that his drug use might have led him to say something about creationism, but it also affected his memory, so he could not be sure.

During the trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys returned to the June board meetings and to the despositions. First up was Buckingham, who once again denied used the word “creationism” during the June meetings. The attorneys then played a TV news interview with Buckingham after one meeting, during which he clearly stated the board wanted a textbook balancing evolution with creationism. Buckingham then fumbled through a lame explanation of his interview, accusing the reporter of “ambushing him.” She hadn’t. (p. 163-4) Asked to explain how the board obtained a set of pro-ID textbooks, Buckingham repeated his statements during deposition that he had no idea who had donated the funds for the books. Attorneys then confronted him (like those legal eagles do so dramatically on Law and Order) with an $850 personal check signed by Buckingham, made out to Donald Bonsell, Alan’s father. It was the elder Bonsell who had purchased the books.

Once again Buckingham backpedaled, with the plaintiffs’ attorney pressing him to admit he lied under oath, until the judge asked the lawyer to proceed with larger matters.

Another board member, Heather Geesey, comes off in Lebo’s book as bit of an airhead. She repeated board members’ insistence that creationism never came up during the June meetings, and that a letter she had written to the local paper clearly encouraged the teaching of intelligent design. Trouble is, the letter, which was produced during the trial, only mentions creationism and not intelligent design. In a scene reminiscent of a Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball sitcom, the judge (played by George Burns or Desi Arnaz) asked the ditzy Geesey to clarify how the letter supported the concept that the board discussed intelligent design while referring only to creationism.

“Right. The part where it says, ‘what we are doing.’ I — since all the meetings run together, I didn’t realize back then that I knew everything that was going on because it’s not my committee,” Geesey said cheerfully. “But by me saying that what we were doing was to choose a book that teaches the most prevalent theories, I mean that — that’s what I was talking about.” (p. 167)

In the old sitcoms, this kind of illogic would either be followed by Burns’ slow, steady gaze at the camera or Arnaz throwing up his arms in exasperation, trying to make sense of it all. Less humorously, Judge Jones instead later submitted the board members’ depositions and testimonies to the US attorney general’s office, recommending it examine them for evidence of perjury. (p. 199)

In the end the ID skirmish in Dover ended with science and the Constitution winning, and ID and religious imperiousness losing. The pro-creationist board members all lost their seats in the next school board election, and the folks in Dover have tried to put the acrimony splitting the community behind.

Were their efforts in Dover “righteous?” Probably they and their fellow-thinkers believe it was, but as Lebo recounts, the road to their crusade was littered with bullying, deceit and outright lies. She does not allege, since there is no evidence, that Bonsell, Buckingham and other board members were working in concert with an organized religious movement to force creationism/ID into the Dover schools. Instead it appears they were taking it upon themselves, as “Christians,” to change local school policy, while being woefully unprepared to see the unfortunate end to their almost successful efforts. Unlike the abolitionists of old, they were not steeped in either theology or the law enough to see that their cause was not righteous but sectarian, and ultimately unconstitutional. To put it another way, these foot soldiers of the Religious Right didn’t have the creds to be righteous.

Another aspect of Lebo’s book bears discussion before I close. The struggle in Dover was not between “Christians” and “atheists.” The majority of the plaintiffs were faithful churchgoers, one of the lawyers said prayers before trial each day, and the science teachers countered their students’ fundamentalist beliefs with nuanced religious sensitivity. The struggle was instead between a small group of believers so blinkered that they did not realize they were still looking through a glass darkly, and less dogmatic, more progressive Christians.

Using the abolitionist movement as a counterpoint, the Dover school board members were the slave-owners, doomed by their devotion to tradition. Kitzmiller and her co-plaintiffs were the abolitionists, and it was they who were the righteous ones.

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