Amidst all the hoo ha over the slam dunk decision of federal District Court Judge John E. Jones against presenting intelligent design as science in the Dover, Pennsylvania public schools, it is easy to miss the point. The Dover decision was not only one battle in the struggle over the teaching of creationism and its variants in the schools, but one battle in the much larger and historic war of the worldviews. Even after most of the rest of society moves on, the religious right will never be over Dover.
This essay seeks to explain why.
You may think that I am about to describe a war between the worldviews of religion and science. But that is not the war of the worldviews. The war of the worldviews is actually between the worldview of the domination of religious orthodoxy vs. constitutional democracy and religious pluralism. That mouthful is actually simpler than it sounds.
Generally, conservative, orthodox religious worldviews sees the history of the world as the unfolding of a religious drama. The story will vary according to who is doing the telling, of course, but it is still a religious story, and very often there are conflicts between the worldview and the actual facts of the history of the world. According to their view, the competing story is one of evolution, of science, which is agnostic about, or even hostile to religion. That there are many religious people who can easily accommodate scientific approaches to reality does not alter the religious right’s insistence that the teaching of evolution is an attack on their worldview. Sometimes this is articulated as an attack on their religion, or even an attack on God.
This is important to underscore, because this same scenario is played out on issue after issue. It makes little difference to the dominionist wing of the religious right if some Christians are accepting of the ordination of women; accepting of abortion; accepting of homosexuality; accepting of other religions, and even the non-religious. That only means to them that those folks are not really Christians. Rather they are religious deviants guilty of apostasy; or heresy; or blasphemy.
For example, when the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and the groups in its orbit — now in their third decade of attacks on the historic mainline Protestant denominations — denounce acceptance of homosexuality, it is worth noting that many of these same retrogressives also oppose the ordination of women. For example, the newly appointed president of IRD, is an ordained minister in a tiny splinter sect, the Presbyterian Church in America, (PCA) that broke with mainstream Presbyterianism in 1973 over among other things, the ordination of women. And when the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was taken over by fundamentalists — it did not take long before women were denied ordination. It is easy to forget that this was a big issue in most of the mainline churches in the 1970s. Contemporary retrogressives are playing smart politics in not to talking about that. But one need look no farther than the the SBC and the PCA to see where the retrogressives of mainline Protestant “renewal” would go if they had their way. Their notions of Christian orthodoxy emphasize very different roles for women in the church and in society, among other things.
Homosexuality is the wedge being used to divide mainstream Christian churches. Thanks to the miracle of modern marketing and “message” development, old fashioned charges of apostasy and heresy are reworked as claims that retrogressives simply seek to “renew” or “restore” the mainline churches to true Christian orthodoxy — as if the paid political operatives of IRD, bankrolled by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife are the arbiters of the true faith. The historic churches of mainline Protestantism support religious freedom and the right to religious difference. They support the separation of church and state. They are moving increasingly towards the Christian equality of women and gays and lesbians and seek to be welcoming to all. Perhaps more importantly, the mainline churches have stood up to the excesses of big corporations, the military and intelligence community, and the federal government in general in recent decades. Their stances and their institutional resources and moral authority have made them targets of the neo-conservatives, the corporate right and the Christian Right. The attacks on the mainline churches come from these several sectors working in coalition — the clearest expression of which is the IRD.
Clearly there are larger historic forces at work.
All of which brings me back to the Dover decision.
Jeffrey P. Moran, an associate professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Kansas, writing in the current issue of The Public Eye, considers the Dover decision in light of the Scopes trials of the 1920s, the first big legal battle over evolution, and takes a look forward.
Although no one believes that we have heard our last from the Intelligent Design bunch, it may be useful at this resting point to take a longer view of the controversy. In the 1925 Tennessee Scopes trial, invoked ritually every time another squabble erupts over whether to teach Darwin or the Bible in the public schools, the antievolutionists still had the confidence to come out hot for Genesis in its narrowest interpretation rather than take cover behind “Intelligent Design” or some other linguistic squid ink.
Led by one of the most famous men in the United States, the Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan, the Tennessee antievolutionists in 1925 also made clear that the tension between the Bible and Darwin’s theory of natural selection was not their sole concern. Although they surely felt their dignity tarnished by Darwin’s assertions of a common ancestry between humans and beasts–especially monkeys –much of their animosity toward evolutionism grew out of its larger commitment to “materialism.” Commonly used today to denote an unseemly attachment to consumer goods, “materialism” in Bryan’s day conveyed more a sense that the scientific method–seeking material explanations for natural phenomena, such as explaining why species change over time–was literally “disenchanting” the world by removing a role for God to play. Darwin and his scientific allies seemed to have barred God from playing a role in the natural world.
Like many of his own allies, from the Vatican proper to the “Protestant Vatican” of Nashville, Tennessee, Bryan feared that a reliance on materialism had left us with a degraded, godless culture–and the conceptual connection he made in the 1920s from the Origin of Species to flapperism, jazz, and bathtub gin has changed today primarily in its form, not its substance. A culture that relies purely on materialist explanations is a culture that has given up on the possibility of the miracle, on the belief that God may intervene in the natural world through whichever mechanisms he chooses, including particularly the saving grace of Jesus.
Ah, but wait! Contemporary creationists not only have a worldview at odds with materialism, but they have an activist think tank with a long term mission. Moran continues:
… a look at the so-called “Wedge Document,” a long-term strategic plan for ousting evolution and renewing America’s Christian character developed at Seattle’s well-funded Discovery Institute in the 1980s, also reveals the persistent vigor of the anti-materialist impulse as it funnels itself through the fight against evolution. Although no longer able to trumpet its religious goals as openly as Bryan did (and, in fact, the Discovery Institute initially denied having anything to do with the wedge document), in the end, the similarity in substance is paramount. The Wedge writers view “scientific materialism” as the very source of almost all destructive “moral, cultural and political legacies” of the past century and a half. What are these legacies? Bathtub gin has shuffled off the stage, originally replaced by Freudianism, utopianism, and communism, but now more recently supplanted by liberal attitudes toward personal responsibility, theology, and, in a nod to the Discovery Institute’s well-heeled supporters, “products liability.”
While the existence of the Discovery Institute and the wedge document is not news, it is important to understand their role in the war of the worldviews — a war in which most people are unaware that they are even engaged. But in fact, the religious right’s attacks on the mainline churches are not so much issues of religious “orthodoxy” but ways of fomenting dissention and instigating schism in order to diminish major institutional targets in the war of the worldviews. The same goes for efforts to teach creationism or ID in the public schools. The warriors of the religious right view the public schools as the educational system of the enemy: one that teaches respect for religious differences, scientific understandings of the universe, and ultimately constitutional democracy itself.
This brings us to the worldview of pluralism in a constitutional democracy. Pluralism in our American context means religious equality, which is to say that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, whether we are non-religious or religious, or a certain kind of religion. It is all irrelevant to our status as citizens. It is this premise that underlies a vast amount of law and public policy and stands in the way of the dominionist tendencies of much of the religious right.
The challenge for supporters of pluralism, whether they are mainline protestants deemed insufficiently orthodox, or public school curriculums deemed insufficiently religious, is what Christian Reconstructionist author Gary North described as “the dilemma of democratic pluralism.” (Which I discuss in Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy). North astutely observes the difficulty faced by those who embrace democratic pluralism: They are often confounded by their philosophical acceptance of those whose views oppose and activities undermine — the very nature and system of pluralism itself.
Opponents of pluralism in the U.S. are becoming quite skilled at exploiting the “dilemma;” for example by mocking liberals for being “intolerant.” We see this in operation when IRD operatives claim that conservatives are not tolerated in the mainline churches — even as these same “conservatives” or “renewal” advocates, are actively subverting and seeking to divide the very denominations from which they demand tolerance. People on the receiving end of the charge often do not know what do say in response. Hence the “dilemma.” Similarly, in the battle over teaching creationism or ID, we hear the charge that the schools are intolerant of the supposedly competing theory of intelligent design.
Of course, there is nothing intolerant about thwarting those who would undermine pluralism and equality for all. Rather, standing up for religious pluralism and constitutional democracy; defeating efforts by “renewal” groups to create division and schism in the churches; and refusing to teach religious doctrine dressed-up as science — means standing up for one’s values and the values of the religious, constitutional, and educational institutions we hold dear.
The arguments that seek to exploit the dilemma of democratic pluralism are clever, but deeply disingenuous. Of course, they are not really arguments at all. They are best understood as tactics in a larger strategy of disruption and discrediting of mainstream institutions that support and respect pluralism of religious belief and actual intellectual thought. The Discovery Institute and the Institute on Religion and Democracy are centers that develop and utilize such tactics for deployment in the war of the worldviews.
In conclusion, here is an excerpt from Eternal Hostility, that surfaces one aspect of the war of the worldviews.
Rev. Charles McIlhenny, an anti-gay crusader and friend of [theocratic theologian] Rushdoony, wrote in his book, When the Wicked Seize a City, that “we are engaged in a very long war for control of our culture,” a war between secular humanism, the religion of our dominant American culture, and orthodox Christianity.” He believes that, “Christianity will eventually win the world for Christ, and I don’t believe there is any compromise possible in this war.”
McIlhenny, a Reconstructionist-oriented pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, believes not only that “the homosexual rights movement is God’s judgment upon a fearful and ineffective Church which has not taken an active role in society,” but that homosexuality is actually a “religion” that “clashes squarely and directly with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.” He further argues that “faith is totalitarian” in so far as it “encompasses a whole worldview and life view,” and that “[t]he gay rights movement is as totalitarian in its belief as is Christianity.”
Of course homosexuality is not a religion, let alone “totalitarian.” To most readers, it may seem to be stating the obvious to say that there are gay men and lesbians of all faiths and of all political persuasions — but in the “totalitarian” worldview of Rev. Charles McIllhenny, there is no room for such a possibility.
[Crossposted from Talk to Action]