Think creationism in U.S. science classes is a dead horse? If only.

Think creationism in U.S. science classes is a dead horse? If only. April 18, 2021

creationism intelligent design christian right atheism law supreme court government
Michelangelo’s fresco of genesis on the Sisteen Chapel ceiling, with a biblical quote added. (FotoGuy 49057, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

I’ve observed over the past few years that the overarching strategy of America’s Christian Right is relentless attrition — wearing down the opposition, in other words, until evangelical will (often in the form of evolution-phobic creationism) can be more effectively, if unconstitutionally, applied to the public square.

This unyielding strategy also sharply underscores the urgent need to ideologically rebalance the U.S. Supreme Court by adding more centrist or center-left jurists, ideally, to the traditional cohort of nine. Currently, three new staunch conservatives nominated by former President Donald Trump under moot circumstances now ensure a lopsided conservative majority in deciding all cases.

I mention this because of what’s happening in Arkansas at the moment.

That red Southern state’s House of Representatives earlier this month passed a bill (HB 1701), which proposes (with GOP concurrence), as the legislation states: “to allow creationism as a theory of how the Earth came to exist to be taught in kindergarten through grade twelve classes in public schools and open-enrollment public charter schools; and for other  purposes.” It now proceeds to the Arkansas Senate.

If it seems like déjà vu, it is. Arkansas for decades has been trying to revive the creationist dead horse ad nauseum in its legislative General Assembly — losing every time in the courts — to allow creationism instruction in its public-school science curricula. As a softener, the latest bill assures that it does not require instructors to teach creationism, only allows it. Such a comfort.

To be clear, this would also allow the teaching that dinosaurs and Homo sapiens once lived simultaneously on now 6,000-year-old Earth. Which they didn’t, and it isn’t (the planet was born more than 4 billion years past). Dinosaurs, in fact, went extinct some 65 million years ago, while Homo sapiens, the still-evolving species to which modern culture-creating, upright-walking humankind belongs, is scientifically calculated to have first emerged in the tree of life about 315,000 years ago, likely in Africa.

Nonetheless, Arkansas GOP legislators aren’t concerned with empirical data embedded in actual science books but instead in the arbitrary fantasies of their Christian holy book, the Bible.

They want to continue beating the long-dead creationist horse in hope it will one day paradoxically spring to life again. They might be right. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 revisited the constitutionality of after- and before-school Bible clubs at public schools — an idea American courts, including the highest court, had long rebuffed — and changed their minds. Suddenly, it was constitutional — if all student-initiated extracurricular groups are treated the same.

Project Blitz, the U.S. legislative arm of the religious right, has been busy for years following the high court decision allowing school Bible clubs to spread such organizations far and wide in public schools, and persuading state legislatures to pass bills supporting them. And they use these clubs’ youth members to snag recruits during school hours.

So the main sponsor of the GOP-approved Arkansas creationist bill, Rep. Mary Bentley, is emboldened, even referring to the Bible as “the state’s book.” Andrew L. Seidel, author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (2020) and director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote recently in a searing op-ed in Religion Dispatches that Rep. Bentley in promoting her bill “regurgitated a fake quote beloved by Christian Nationalists”:

“George Washington once said, ‘It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.’ And I couldn’t agree with our first president more; we need to hear the heart of God on issues we are facing today to govern correctly.”

In his op-ed, Seidel emphatically countered:

“Of course, George Washington was famously reticent about religion, refused to take communion the few times he went to church, spurned religious consolation at his deathbed, and absolutely did not say this. Bentley can’t even properly speak for our first president but presumes to speak for a god.” 

The perseverance of the Christian Right’s unconquerable compulsion to embed Jesus Christ and the Christian religion in public schools and in the minds of children is underscored by its relentless push for Bible study and prayer in schools — including within science curricula. Such propagandic indoctrination is how all religion is perpetuated, which is why evangelicals are so laser-focused on proselytizing intellectually vulnerable kids before they might learn how to think critically. (FYI, this indoctrination model is a core theme in my 2018 book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True “American Dream.”)

Keep in mind that Arkansas is hardly the only state that’s mulling such unconstitutional laws in hopes that their quest will one day reach the now far-more-conservative U.S. Supreme Court and prevail against “militant secularism,” in the words of Bill Barr, the evangelical Catholic, theocracy-peddling attorney general under Trump.

And this is not its first anti-evolution rodeo.

In 1928, following the infamous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, that exposed biblical creationism for the fact-free ideology that it is, Arkansas made it illegal “to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals,” Seidel pointed out in his op-ed. The law was later challenged, and the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional 40 years later.

But that wasn’t the end of it. In 1981, after the high court loss, the state passed another law, requiring schools to teach “a scientific controversy that does not exist,” Seidel asserts. A federal court ruled against that law the following year, and the Supreme Court rejected a similar Louisiana law in 1987.

However, the Christian Right is nothing if not relentless, so we now have a 2021 Arkansas bill to again try and kickstart this seemingly dead horse.

This is why we secularists need to pay attention, to not become lackadaisical as religion continues to seep like heavy gas into the tax-funded sectors of the public square.

Or before you know it creationism may be routinely taught to American public-school students as a respectable alternate, equally factual “theory” of the history of Earth and the evolution of life upon it.

In fact, it’s the opposite of that.


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