Ulterior Designs

In the fall of 2005, a camera-toting, microphone-wielding crowd of international media descended on the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They came to cover Kitzmiller v. Dover, the most recent court battle about teaching evolution in America’s public schools. Eleven parents had sued the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board for mandating instruction about intelligent design in the district’s ninth-grade biology classes.

The international media came briefly, then left for good. To most reporters-from both coasts and from Europe and beyond-the case was part of a continuing curiosity: How could education in the United States, home to some of history’s greatest scientific accomplishments, still be held hostage by Bible-beating bumpkins who believed in Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and a 6,000-year-old planet where men once frolicked with dinosaurs?

Lauri Lebo, the author of this excellent, troubling book, was different. She was a local journalist, the education reporter for the nearby York Daily Record. She was there when the case began, and she stayed after it was over. This area of rural Pennsylvania was her home, and the Bible-beaters were her acquaintances, neighbors, and even her family members. Her account is far more complicated and nuanced-and often painful to read-than any outsider’s could have been.

You can read Lebo’s book in any number of ways. Since U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench, ultimately ruled for the plaintiff parents, you can read it as a heartening victory for separation of church and state. There’s a whole cast of gutsy parents, most of them churchgoers, to be admired. They braved community scorn, harassment, and predictions of eternal damnation to fight for their children’s freedom to learn good science.

Or, as many of the media did, you can find a laughable collection of fundamentalist buffoons who merely exchanged “intelligent design” for “creationism” so their proposed curriculum wouldn’t automatically be ruled unconstitutional. (The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard outlawed teaching creation science in public schools because creation science promotes a particular religion.)

Intelligent design-or intelligence design, as one of the school board members repeatedly called it in her court testimony-is basically an inference that anything as wondrous and complex as the human body, never mind the rest of the natural world, must have been deliberately fashioned-without all the messy randomness and chaos and evolutionary blind alleys of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As one intelligent design proponent said, don’t you look at Mount Rushmore and have to infer someone designed it? Well, don’t you?

The Devin in Dover

Intelligent design tries to elude the creationism label by refusing to name the Intelligent Designer Himself. (Think of a pronoun without an antecedent, a sentence without a subject. Then, maybe, you’ll understand.) A design mandates a designer, but the identity of the designer is up to you.

One of the thorniest problems the Dover school board faced, though, was that board members were already on record talking about creationism and God-as-designer before they switched gears and dropped the proper nouns. Two freelance newspaper reporters-not Lebo herself, but friends of hers-had reported this in local papers. It wasn’t until six months later that school board members, now hoisting the intelligent design banner and represented by lawyers from the fundamentalist Thomas More Law Center, thought to complain about being “misquoted.”

If board members had talked about God and creationism when refashioning the ninth-grade science curriculum, their proposed changes would have been more clearly unconstitutional under Edwards. If they had been misquoted by reporters, though, and had spoken only of intelligent design, they had a fighting chance in court.

So they lied. They lied in the press, they lied in depositions, they lied in court. This is where Lebo’s book becomes more personal, more outraged. Two of her journalist colleagues, both hardworking and honest, had their integrity and professional standing attacked. School board members, who clung to the gospel and their own self-righteousness, had borne false witness. “This isn’t a story about God versus science,” Lebo writes, “but one of truth versus lies.”

Lebo continues with a detailed, deftly written account of the trial, its parade of expert witnesses, its questions and cross-examinations, its committed cadre of lawyers, its media hype. She wrestles with her obligations as a journalist: What does it mean to be objective? Does it mean she always has to give both sides equal time and equal prominence, even when both sides are not equally deserving? What about her duty to tell the truth as she sees it?

Before the decision comes in, Lebo takes a cross-country trip. She’s now worked for months, listening to the testimony of experts and educating herself about evolution and intelligent design. She believes in evolution. She wonders how fundamentalist Christians can insist they only want classrooms to “teach the controversy” about evolution when, in fact, there is no controversy in the scientific world.

She visits creationist centers on her trip, trying to understand the minds and hearts of fundamentalists. But her quest is also personal. She thinks about her father, a devout fundamentalist, who worries about a daughter who doesn’t believe as he does. He fears that his daughter, as a nonbeliever, will be lost to him for eternity.

Throughout the book, father and daughter talk, they argue, they yell, they hang up on each other, they try to talk again the next day. Why can’t her father denounce other Christians, like the school board members, who lie and slander others? How can people embrace a religion that leads them to limit their intellect, their powers of reason, imagination, and observation, their compassion for others who have different beliefs?

Driving through the mountains of Virginia on her way home, Lebo thinks of Appalachia’s Scots-Irish settlers and their bequests of music, culture, and religion. She thinks of early American mothers cuddling sick babies and singing an old song about how dying children will be gathered up by God, “forever to bloom in the master’s bouquet.” These were people, she realized, who had only their faith to hold on to-and they weren’t going to let it go, ever.

“We’re never going to fix this,” Lebo writes. “The religious fundamentalists have shackled themselves, and us, to this notion of heaven and hell. In trying to escape the fear of their own mortality, they have merely replaced one hell with another.”

These tens of millions of religious fundamentalists, including her father and the Dover school board members, have set their sights on eternity, on heaven or hell, on a literal belief in the Bible. “If you believe this,” Lebo writes, “truly believe this, then how could anything else matter? The First Amendment, scientific reality, the truth? All this would mean nothing. I grasped this. And for those of us who don’t believe, can’t believe, we have to bear the weight of this fear.”

So, please, take as much solace in the outcome of Kitzmiller v. Dover as you can. The system worked. The First Amendment was spared. The forces of enlightenment and reason prevailed. Like the rambling corps of international media, you can swoop down, take notes and sound bites, smirk a little, smirk a lot, celebrate the decision, shake your head at the cornpone fundamentalists, and take the next plane out.

But not Lauri Lebo, who still lives there and isn’t leaving. Nor people like me and-I suspect-you, who are rooted in the rocky fundamentalist soil of our own highly religious state, living in a country where only a third of our fellow citizens believe in evolution.

Reading The Devil in Dover, I saw members of my extended family, best friends from my earliest years, neighbors, shop owners, acquaintances, people I went to church and Sunday school with when I was a child, people who passed the communion tray to me once a month when we all knelt at the altar. These are people with caring faces who sit with you when you’re sick, bring casseroles and handpicked flowers to your bedside, tell you they’re praying for you when times are hard. They’re sincere and hardworking and loyal. Some of them will die, as Lauri Lebo’s father did, doing good work with the poor and the unclean. Just as Jesus did.

I love many of those people, and I know they love me. But our hearts harden toward one another on issues like evolution, intellectual freedom, science, and tolerance toward different views and people. We talk, we argue, we scream, we hang up, we try again-as Lebo did with her father.

After reading this book and thinking of the millions of dollars and thousands of hours squandered, the hatred, the vitriol, and the disbelief that we’re still fighting this age-old battle, I just feel tired and sad. This isn’t the end of the story. It’s just a punctuation mark. We’ll see it again, fight the battle once more, spend the money, fire up the troops, spar with the same theory in a different cloak, attract the international media, meet at a different courthouse, pass judgment on a different school district.

“We’re never going to fix this,” Lebo wrote.

There. I’m afraid that was the end of the story.

Ruth Pennebaker is an Austin novelist, KUT commentator, and blogger at geezersisters.wordpress.com.

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Published at 12:00 am CST