Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Evolution of a Creationist Victory

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Evolution of a Creationist Victory

Article excerpt

For years, Tom Willis has watched earnest creationists struggle unsuccessfully for a toehold in public schools.

"They're flicked away like little worms by the school officials," said Willis, president of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, which promotes Genesis-based creationism over the evolution theory that links humans to apes.

A string of U.S. Supreme Court rejections and overwhelming support from the scientific community for the theory of evolution has hurt the cause of creationists like Willis. Most major religions -- including Catholicism and mainline Protestantism -- allow their faithful to accept evolution as God's method of creation. (A Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans consider themselves to be creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent describe themselves as theistic evolutionists who believe that God guided creation over millions of years; 7 percent are Darwinists who believe that God played no role in evolution, and 10 percent are undecided or don't know.)

Willis and his allies are undeterred. They continue to wage a holy war against evolution, using a battle plan that now focuses more on the deficiencies of evolution than on the merits of creationism.

Every once in awhile, they win.

On Aug. 11, they won big.

Six members of the Kansas Board of Education voted that day to drop evolution from state standards and tests. The swing vote that sealed their decision -- cast by a soft-spoken Mennonite seeking a compromise between creationism and evolution -- capped a bitter debate that continues to echo across the nation. Experts say that Kansas may be just the first of a spate of states where anti-evolution forces are working to change the curriculum.

The decision in Kansas shocked pundits, parents and politicians alike. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, cringed publicly and threatened to dismantle the elected board. Evolution-friendly voters vowed to take revenge at the polls next fall, when four conservative board members are up for reelection. Scientists lamented the arrogance of elected officials who "vote" to determine principles of science. Journalists covered the story with breathless incredulity. No one, it seems, really thought the board would do this.

Well, almost no one. Creationists like Willis worked hard to make it happen. And pro-evolution outsiders, like Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education, have seen enough evolution skirmishes to sense what was coming. Since the start of last year, the center has dealt with new or ongoing evolution controversies in 40 states, at the rate of about one new conflict a week.

In many ways, Kansas bore all the marks -- rural, conservative, religious -- of an evolution war zone. The evolution fight does not divide neatly along state or even partisan lines, but creationists enjoy hearty support among rural voters with conservative Christian ties. And the struggle over state education standards -- like the clash over textbooks that often follows it -- offers creationists a perfect opportunity to crusade against evolution.

In Kansas, conservatives pushing for local control against a backdrop of national and state education standards won several seats on the state board in 1996. Their arrival split the board evenly between conservatives and moderates. Critics say fundamentalists targeted the less-visible state board races for a quiet conservative coup. Others say the candidates were elected on open promises of a more autonomous board that would support local control of schools.

"I didn't have a big issue about evolution," said Steve Abrams, a conservative who led the anti-evolution charge and joined the board several years before the 1996 conservatives arrived. Abrams said he did not enter office seeking to oust evolution or promote a religious agenda: "I am not trying to push religion into public schools. …

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