The Curious Faith of Don McLeroy

What inspires the man at the center of the Texas creationism controversy?
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The man at the center of the fight over science education in Texas is a 63-year-old dentist from Bryan, an ardent religious conservative with little educational or scientific training. But Don McLeroy’s story, and his thinking, are more complicated, and more telling, than those bare facts suggest.

McLeroy, as you may be aware, is chairman of the Texas State Board of Education. He is an avowed creationist of the “young Earth” variety, meaning he believes that God created the Earth some 6,000 years ago, in accordance with the biblical account in Genesis. But McLeroy is not a stereotypical true believer. He reads widely on theology and evolutionary biology. He is willing, even eager, to have his views challenged. His favorite evolutionary biologist is fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He listens to podcasts released by the Center for Inquiry-a nonprofit devoted to “Science, Reason, Free Inquiry, Secularism, and Planetary Ethics”-while mowing his lawn. (“You should listen to them,” he says. “You’d love them.”)

illustration by Tyler Parker

Now he’s a key player in the brouhaha over a proposed overhaul of the state curriculum, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. At issue is a line about students being required to understand the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” With the debate attracting advocacy groups from all over the country, from the creationist Discovery Institute to the evolution-defending National Center for Science Education, Texas is the current battleground in the long-running national fight over creationism in the schools.

The stakes are high. In textbook terms, as Texas goes the nation follows. Texas is a big state with a big population-along with California and New York, the state drives the national textbook market. The Texas board has the power to keep textbooks that don’t meet its standards off its “approved textbooks” list-meaning that school districts would have to buy them out of their own pockets rather than getting them from the state. Being left off the list would be devastating to the offending textbook companies’ market shares. So if textbook publishers have to insert evolution’s “weaknesses” into their books to sell to the Texas market, they will, and those changes will be reflected across the United States.

As board chairman, McLeroy is in a unique position to influence the direction of science teaching across the country. Aside from soundbites from contentious board meetings, relatively little has been written about him. So who is this man, and what does he want?

McLeroy didn’t grow up a creationist, or even particularly religious. His family in Dallas belonged to a mainline Methodist church, but they didn’t attend services often. “If I believed in anything,” he says, “I believed in science.”

He was “religiously uninvolved” at Texas A&M, where he studied electrical engineering. From there, he went into the Army, served a couple of years in Germany, then spent time bumming around the country, unsure of what to do with himself. In Washington, D.C., as a “young idealist,” he tried to work for George McGovern’s doomed presidential campaign, but, he says, it wasn’t accepting any more volunteers.

So he came back to Texas and enrolled in a summer teaching course at UT-Austin. He had a vague idea that he would certified and teach high school. The class, a method course on how to teach math, was “horrible,” he says-far too easy, concerned with minutiae. Leaning back in his chair, he shakes his balding head at the memory. “I said, Lord, if this is what teachers are learning, what’s going to happen to our children?”

So McLeroy scrapped his teaching plans and went to dental school at UT’s medical branch in Houston. There he met Nan Fleming, a medical illustrator who worked in the same department where he held a summer job. He asked her out, but she turned him down.

“She would only date me if I was a Christian,” he says. “And I wasn’t one. But I guess she liked me, because she said I could go with her to church and Bible study.”

It’s not clear why McLeroy, who was “no Christian” and slightly leery of “Jesus freaks” to boot, accepted that offer. Maybe it was the challenge. When I ask why he bothered dating a girl who would only let him take her to church, all he can come up with is that he’d had some positive experiences with Christians in high school and college-he’d found they were “good people, and I was curious what they were about.”

McLeroy started studying with Flemings’ Bible group. He was skeptical at first. He kept a notebook in his shirt pocket with dozens of reasons for not “accepting Christ.” He told himself that when he had resolved them all, he would convert. Finally he did. At first Fleming didn’t believe him-she thought he was doing it for her, that he wasn’t really sincere. Gradually he won her over, and they became engaged.

“I was a Christian well before I was a creationist,” he says. “People say you have to be a creationist to be a Christian, but my life is proof of the opposite.”

This is a nice point, but it’s also true that McLeroy sees a certain lack of consistency in religious people who advocate evolution. One of his favorite tenets of Christianity, the one that underlies all his policy ideas, is the principle that man is made in the image of God. Take evolution to its logical conclusion, he says, and you destroy that idea.

“I mean, if evolution is development of life through unguided natural processes,” he asks, “how can we be made in the image of God? How can humans be worth anything?”

That might be a straw-man argument, but it would be a mistake to think that McLeroy doesn’t believe it. He does. His mind works in an orderly, black-and-white fashion, moving from point A to B to C. He has little respect for scientists like Ken Miller, an orthodox Catholic and popular writer on evolutionary biology who argues that there’s no controversy between evolution and religion. They, McLeroy believes, are inconsistent, and he values consistency above all else.

“I would never say that Miller’s not a real Christian,” he says. “I don’t think you have to be one to be the other. But I don’t think he’s very consistent.

“That’s why I like Dawkins so much. He at least takes evolution to where it has to lead-atheism.”

Soon after they were engaged, Nan handed him some books explaining geological phenomena from a creationist viewpoint. McLeroy was initially skeptical-”I thought, goodness, I’m engaged to a crazy woman”-but he read them, and then he started going with her to seminars on creationism. They presented a world different from any he had thought possible, one that-despite its foreignness-felt right. He challenged creationist experts with his doubts about the supposed young age of the Earth-what about the dinosaurs? what about radiometric dating?-but slowly, calmly, he says, they answered his objections.

Fleming and McLeroy were married in 1976, and McLeroy started his dental practice in Bryan. He never forgot his desire to see a better educational system. As he read and learned about creationism, he became convinced that evolution was wrong-not just for biblical reasons, but for intellectual ones. He saw it as an unquestionable orthodoxy, crushing independent thought. 

The story McLeroy tells about why he eventually ran for the state education board has the polished quality of something he tells a lot, a sort of personal origin myth. It’s worth recounting, because it shows how McLeroy’s faith informs his policy decisions in surprising ways.

As he tells it, he was working one morning at his practice. A black woman-a single mother-brought in her young daughter. “The girl was 8 years old,” McLeroy recalls, “and just smart as anything. She came in, I cleaned her teeth-they were in bad shape-and they left, and I never saw her again.”

He pauses. “But after they left, I thought for a long time. I thought, Lord, that little girl is a child of God. She deserves a good life. Well, what’s to guarantee that she’s going to get as good of an education as my sons [who attended Bryan High] got? Who’s going to make sure she has the opportunities to do something with her life?”

McLeroy felt the calling, so in 1998, having already served as a trustee for the Bryan Independent School District, he ran for the state board on a platform of textbook reform and “closing the achievement gap” between rich and poor. In 2006, after McLeroy won his third term (against Democrat Maggie Charleton, whom the teachers’ union had endorsed), Gov. Rick Perry picked him to be chairman of the state board. (On Feb. 6, Perry reappointed McLeroy as chairman for two more years; he stands for re-election in 2010.)

To understand how an obscure line in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills became a national issue, you have to go back to 1981, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that creationism is a religious philosophy that has no place in the classroom. Subsequently, as a sop to the creationists, the school board voted to leave a line in the TEKS stating that students would be required to evaluate the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution.”

During the last 20 years, the fight over creationism in schools has shifted to a battle over that one line. Liberals and most science educators want it out. The creationists-McLeroy among them-want to add specific weaknesses they feel the TEKS should address. They defend their agenda with the reasonable-sounding argument that, as McLeroy puts it, science is all about evaluating the “strengths and weaknesses of different theories.”

“How could you not evaluate the weaknesses?” McLeroy asks. “Don’t we want our kids to learn to think for themselves?”

Of course. But the scientific consensus says that’s dodging the issue-that the argument isn’t about ensuring a reasoned discussion of evolution. The real aim, in the words of David Hillis, a UT biologist and prominent critic of McLeroy, is to shoehorn in “bogus weaknesses.”

“There are a couple they like to play with,” he says. “One is the missing link argument-they say there aren’t enough ‘transitional forms’ between the fossils we have.”

McLeroy, as it happened, said exactly that to me a couple of days before I spoke with Hillis. “Come on,” McLeroy says. “They want us to believe that there’s a consistent fossil record, but all they have are a bunch of different species that they say are related. Until they can show us missing links connecting those species, I don’t think we can accept what they say about fossil evidence.”

Hillis says, “The thing is, it’s a ridiculous argument, because every additional fossil you find means you need two new ‘transitional forms’ to connect it to what we already have-one before and one after. By definition, you can never have enough.”

On Jan. 22, a measure to keep the “strengths and weaknesses” line narrowly failed by an 8-7 vote. This was hailed by many Texas newspapers as a victory for science education in Texas, but less noticed was McLeroy’s success in slipping a line into the TEKS mandating that students “describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry.”

Regardless, the board will have another chance to vote on the “strengths and weaknesses” measure in March. There’s no guarantee it won’t pass then.

McLeroy insists he doesn’t have any desire to have creationism taught in classrooms. “It’s a religious philosophy,” he says. “It doesn’t belong in schools. Same with intelligent design. Evolution is the scientific consensus, so we’ll teach that.”

But McLeroy believes that at some point, perhaps in 10 years, perhaps in 50, a new scientific revolution will reveal that “the creationists’ crazy ideas” are actually right-just as quantum mechanics and relativity overturned the tidy world of classical physics. McLeroy professes a willingness to keep teaching the scientific consensus until the day comes when it jibes with his beliefs. Still, he supports “teaching the controversy” of evolution, though that’s a controversy nearly all scientists say is resolved. McLeroy insists that we’re lying to our kids when we say that evolution is “proven beyond reasonable doubt”-and that inflexible certitude, not intelligent design, is turning them off science.

This is a line of argument that scientists find frustrating. “Well, if he feels there’s such a controversy,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, “then he should address it at the university level. That’s where new science is made. To expect high school students to evaluate ‘controversies’ in cutting-edge evolutionary biology before they have a solid grounding in science is ridiculous.

“We don’t do that with any other science. Would you teach kids about the controversies in string theory before they learned basic physics?”

This line of thought reduces McLeroy to near-speechlessness. “But …” he sputters when I call him for comment on Scott’s point, “It’s not … it’s not true. There are real problems with it. How can we teach our kids something that’s not true?”

What McLeroy doesn’t seem to understand is that science education is all about teaching kids things that, strictly speaking, aren’t true. When I learned about relativity and quantum mechanics in college, I learned that the classical chemistry and Newtonian physics I had been taught in high school were, at best, approximations. That they really didn’t do that great a job of describing the way the universe works. That, in a sense, they were lies.

McLeroy is convinced that teaching evolution leads to atheism. There’s not a lot of room for negotiation in that position.

In this sense, says Michael Zimmermann, McLeroy’s thinking illustrates an important point about the culture war over evolution and creationism. An evolutionary biologist and committed atheist, Zimmermann is the father of The Clergy Letter Project, a nationwide petition signed by over 11,000 Jewish and Christian clergy who believe that evolution is no contradiction to their faith.

“It’s not about science and religion,” Zimmermann says. “That’s a popular misconception. Instead, it’s about one strand of Christianity versus another. It’s the liberal wing, who believes there’s nothing wrong with theistic evolution, versus the fundamentalists, who can’t accept it.

“This is a case of one fringe group of Christians trying to paint themselves as the voice of all Christians,” he says of creationists. “And in that, they’ve been enormously successful.”

Zimmermann believes that Richard Dawkins, the atheist biologist, has been “the single most dangerous man to the cause of science literacy. When he says that evolution has to lead to atheism, he drives reasonable people into the arms of fundamentalists like McLeroy. Most scientists would tell you that’s a false choice-that’s actually the mainstream Christian position-but generally people don’t know that.”

While Zimmermann may not believe in God, he says, “I do know that if we’re going to advance the cause of science literacy in this country, we can’t force people to choose between faith and science. Because they aren’t going to choose us.”

McLeroy agrees that the debate is, at root, a religious issue. “I know we’re the minority, both religiously and scientifically,” he says. “But I have faith that we’ll prevail.”

How can he be so confident, given his lack of training in science, theology, or education?

For the first time in our interview, McLeroy sounds taken aback.

“That’s a good question,” he says.

He’s quiet for a long time.

“Because the truth is on our side,” he finally says. “We may not be trained, but I have faith that we’re right.”

Saul Elbein, a former Observer intern, is a freelance writer in Austin.