I grew up Baptist in Alabama—the buckle of the Bible belt—so I have more than a passing familiarity with conservative Christianity. Where I come from, there’s really no other kind. Yet battles over the teaching of evolution were not a feature of my childhood. (I first encountered the controversy when I was in my early 20’s, covering suburban governments, including school boards, for The Philadelphia Inquirer.) Not that there was much teaching of Charles Darwin’s theories, either. Alabama has never been known for the high quality of its public schools; I have no recollection of anything more than a passing reference to evolution in my high school biology classes.
I was a little surprised, then, when vigorous controversies over the teaching of evolution erupted around the country during the past decade. If the Scopes trial of 1925 had not quite settled the matter, I thought recent scientific developments—mapping the human genome, genetic manipulation, cloning—had. The public might debate the wisdom of research on stem cells, but surely we all accepted evolution as a cornerstone of modern biology.
Apparently not. As a harsh and narrow Christian theology began to inject itself into public policy—first, not surprisingly, in the southern United States—the benighted forces who opposed the teaching of evolution rose again, intimidating textbook publishers, taking over school boards, and pushing for curricula that include the teaching of “intelligent design.”
It was in Cobb County, which boasts some of Georgia’s best public schools, where anti-Darwinians staged a surprise attack on science in 2002. A group of parents successfully lobbied the school board to require stickers on new high school science texts with the following disclaimer: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”
Cobb is an affluent Atlanta suburb where most voters support Republicans, attend church on Sundays, and equate low taxes with good morals. But Cobb County is also home to many well-educated professionals who support high academic achievement, take pride in local public schools, and don’t want classrooms hijacked by pseudoscience. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighed in on their side—without hesitation.
Around the editorial board’s conference table, not a single member—including our most conservative colleague, Associate Editorial Page Editor Jim Wooten (a Cobb resident)—believed that evolution was inappropriate in public school classrooms. Nor was there any hesitation about our writing an editorial protesting the sticker on textbooks; this was a matter of public policy, education policy. On August 21, 2002, editorial board member Maureen Downey, who includes education policy among her areas of expertise, wrote an editorial headlined, “No faith-based science in schools.” As the debate raged on, I followed with a column on October 2, 2002, “Why pit God against evolution?” I argued that evolution doesn’t argue for or against the existence of a divine being. “The [text]book should not be controversial to any but the most narrow-minded. It does not rattle religious views unless they adhere to the literal story of the Creation in seven days,” I wrote.
At the same time, on our op-ed pages we’ve gone to great lengths to reflect the views of conservative Christians who don’t want their children taught evolutionary theory. We’ve run op-eds by parents, preachers and a gaggle of pseudoscientists using fancy words and confusing data to try to justify their views. But their views are their views—and they have every right to be heard.
Maintaining the Newspaper’s Tradition
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a long and storied history of support for civil rights, civil liberties, and separation of church and state. And the page has a strong tradition of editorializing against any breach in that wall of separation. Our editorials in support of the teaching of evolution—a time-tested scientific theory—honor that tradition.
Moreover, as an editorial page editor who is intimately familiar with conservative Christianity, I am not intimidated by religionists who would paint me as a “secular humanist,” “anti-Christian liberal,” or “God-hating Satan-worshiper.” (Those are among the more colorful epithets flung at me by my fundamentalist critics.) Indeed, growing up Baptist in Alabama probably provided me the background to take on conservative Christians in ways that other (saner) editorialists could not or would not. I know their beliefs. I can speak their language. I can quote the Bible back at them, chapter and verse.And I do.
Once upon a time, I would have been mortified at the thought of exposing my religious views to my readers. Like many Americans, I believed my spirituality was best shared in church or Sunday School or around the dinner table at Christmas. Editorial pages were not the appropriate places for airing my religious beliefs. But during the last decade, I’ve changed my mind. No longer Baptist—I’m now Episcopalian—I have concluded that left-leaning Christians like me have allowed rightwing Christians to take over the public square, leaving the uninitiated to conclude that they exclusively represent Christianity. So I am much more comfortable now about presenting my contrasting view of Christianity, where the topic lends itself.
Thus, my October 2nd column ended with these words: “For those on the Christian left—and I count myself a member of that steadfast, if small, group—it does not matter one whit whether God created the universe in seven days or several billion years. Nor does it matter whether she started all life in a primordial soup and set a system in motion wherein species evolved over time. Her glory is not diminished.” (I couldn’t resist having a little fun with the rightwingers by using the feminine pronoun.)
Since then, we’ve written several editorials and columns denouncing efforts to either ban the teaching of evolution or to supplement it with something called “intelligent design”—religion dressed up as pseudoscience. We take credit for helping to turn the tide last year when Georgia’s State Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, proposed striking the word “evolution” from the state’s science curriculum because it is a “controversial buzzword.” Downey wrote several critical editorials, and Cox reversed herself, bringing evolution back.
No doubt we will have to continue to fight efforts of certain conservative Christians determined to launch a frontal assault on the teaching of science. The war is not yet over.
Cynthia Tucker, a 1989 Nieman Fellow, is editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.