The Crusade for Intelligent Design: why Christians can't win...
...at least not in the public schools.
Today's NY Times carries the story of a fight over a Pennsylvania school board: they seek exposure to Intelligent Design (ID) in the public schools.
President Bush has endorsed it. Senator McCain seems to favor it. Blogger support comes from LaShawn Barber, Hugh Hewitt, and even Amitai Etzioni (!).
This blogger might also be expected to support it: I teach philosophy and theology at a traditional Catholic college. And back in my evangelical days I had the opportunity to attend conferences where I met personally scientific creationists Duane Gish and Steve Austin; and ID theorists Stephen Meyer (DPhil, Cambridge) and Paul Nelson (PhD, University of Chicago)[not that I would expect them to remember me!].
Nonetheless, this is a battle that Christian conservatives can't win and shouldn't fight. "Onward Christian Soldiers" is a stirring old tune--but you don't ask Christians to go over the top of the trenches and head directly into enemy machine-gun fire. But for the last century, Christian conservatives have been doing exactly that: the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan, scientific creationism in the 1980s--and not a single inch of ground gained. Millions of dollars invested, much passion and prayer and tears, endless toil and turmoil--and absolutely nothing to show for it.
The intelligent design movement can win in one way and in one way only: by men and women who earn doctorates in the appropriate scientific and philosophical disciplines, who work to convince their peers that the theory is true. There is no chance that it will ever win by asking local parents to storm the local school boards. That is like sending primitive tribal warriors into battle against soldiers armed with machine-gunes: there is no chance whatever of success. Even where local school boards can be taken, they will always be shut down by the courts or by authorities elsewhere in the system.
If Christian conservatives want to increase exposure to intelligent design, that can only be done by increasing enrollment in private and parochial schools which teach ID. Which is to say: voucher programs. If the energy which Christian conservatives are investing in promoting ID in the public schools were instead invested in promoting voucher programs, there would be an excellent chance of success. There is no chance of imposing ID on the public schools of America. By contrast, there is an excellent chance that the political system can be persuaded to guarantee low and middle-income parents their freedom to choose.
Some of my liberal friends are horrified by Christian parents attempting to impose their values on the public schools. But this is exactly what secularized public schools are already doing to Christians parents. The secularized public school system discriminates systematically against the values and rights of religious minorities. Parents of a variety of faiths are forced to pay high sums of property taxes and other taxes to support schools systems that are diametrically opposed to the values that these parents wish to teach their children. The controversies over ID are directly caused by the fact that the public schools systematically disadvantage the rights and privileges of religious minorities.
The solution to the ID debate is not to "teach the conflict" in the public schools. The solution is for liberals to realize that the public school system marginalizes minority religious groups, and that these parents have the right to a nationwide voucher program so that they can pursue their values without prejudice to the rest of society. The solution is for conservatives to realize that ID in the public schools is a sure-fire loser, and to make voucher programs central to reform of the nation's schools.
If liberals wish to help build a tolerant society, they need to recognize the rights of every group in society and to guarantee to parents the freedom to choose. And conservatives need to recognize that ID has no future in the public schools, and to rally support for voucher programs instead.