Why Creationism Fails at the Polls

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Having watched the creationism insurgency flare up in half a dozen different school boards since the mid-1980s, I’ve noticed a pattern. It helps me reconcile some aspects of this issue that don’t seem to fit. Most Americans, according to polls, lean toward religious explanations of the origin of life, and most favor some discussion of that in science classes (a false, but understandable, position for a people committed to fairness and “equal time” who don’t appreciate that in the scientific method, facts and consistency rule with ruthlessly authority and democracy has no place).

Yet school boards that push creationism (or “intelligent design,” to call the emperor’s new clothes by their new name) routinely get voted out, as they were last night in Dover, just across the river from here.

In the ’80s, the Christian Coalition was pushing such candidates onto school boards. Here in Pennsylvania, and perhaps elsewhere, they were advised to run “stealth” campaigns, not talking about their religious attitudes and intentions. The goal was to open a new front in the culture wars by using the power of the school board to undercut secular humanism and pop psychology in public schools. Yet often the candidates ran on a broad platform that emphasized reining in the upward spiral of school construction costs and teacher salaries — always a popular topic.

Frankly they couldn’t run openly as zealots. Most people, at least around here, want schools that do reasonably well in SATs and football, and taxes that don’t drive them out of their homes. That’s about it.

Once enough such candidates take seats on the board, however, (often through appointments as well as elections) they began pushing a social conservative agenda. Creationism in the classroom is part of it.

What turned the voters against them was not so much the agenda, but the way it was pursued. Stealth leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Especially when, as was revealed in the Dover trial, the scope of it was much bigger than anyone knew, and the deception crossed into outright perjury.

And then the people start to see their school district name become a standing joke on late-night talk shows. Suddenly, instead of football or academics, they’re famous for being yokels.

At the same time, the pro-creationism board members reveal that they’re willing to push their crusade through expensive court battles, down to the last taxpayer dollar. That seriously undercuts their original base.

As long as the same pattern prevails, creationism school boards will rise and fall in a regular cycle. No matter if you call it creationism or intelligent design or “Free Beer.”

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