The Texas textbook wars have finally yielded a win for the Enlightenment. In November, the state school board delayed final approval of a biology textbook that explains evolution as fact, but last month an expert committee overruled all objections and gave the book the green light for sale to the state’s public schools.
When Ide Trotter, a member of the board’s initial review panel, objected to Texas schools’ adoption of Biology on grounds of the book’s confident description of evolution, he expressed the views of many Americans. Either one third or nearly one half of all Americans deny evolution, depending on whether you favor Pew or Gallup poll results. Pew’s most recent study indicated that white evangelical Protestants make up a significant portion of that figure: 64 percent say they believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”
Survey results like this are enough to convince many observers that conservative evangelicalism is an anti-intellectual faith with no respect for modern science. But is this a fair charge? The truth is that the cultural power of the creationist movement—and creationism’s more respectable cousin, intelligent design—began in a particular corner of the evangelical community, at a particular moment in history, among thinkers who did not speak for all evangelicals. The story of how a small number of obscure theologians developed a theory of biblical authority that still shapes polls and educational debates centuries later tells us something about the power of ideas—and the intellectual diversity of a community ruled, supposedly, by the Bible alone.
Trotter is not the anti-science hayseed that liberals might expect. He is a former chemical engineer with a PhD from Princeton. (He worked for Exxon for many years; his other beef with the textbook was its account of manmade climate change.) Trotter is also a deacon at First Baptist Church of Dallas, an influential Southern Baptist megachurch and a longtime bastion of fundamentalist religion. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist, has called evolution a “myth” and a “religious philosophy that makes no allowance for God in either the origin of life or the diversity of life.” According to the church’s articles of faith, the Bible is “inerrant and infallible.”
Written By: Molly Worthen
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