By Rebecca Beyer
First, there is no war in Dover, Pennsylvania. There are no armies clashing. No weapons flashing. Not real ones, anyway. Yet in the latest issue of People magazine, a town that happens to have birthed the latest and greatest courtroom confrontation between evolution and intelligent design is called “A Town at War.”
It’s easy to reduce (or inflate) this latest manifestation of the struggle between a secular worldview and a religious one to the terms that clutter stories about sports and, well, war. We are, after all, a country at war — a real one, in which the 2000th United States soldier (and an uncalculated or unknown number of Iraqi civilians) recently died. We’re also in a War on drugs; a War on Terror; a Holy War, not least. War is everywhere we look, even when it isn’t, because stories that only have two characters are refreshingly simple.
If we accept, then, that our country is involved in an ideological war, it isn’t enough to just keep saying so. Who is winning? This battle actually happens to be a trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, involving a group of parents suing a Dover public school district for mandating the reading of a statement that acknowledges other theories besides evolution for the creation of the world.
It sounds a lot like Scopes. In 1925, fundamentalist Christians won that trial, but were subsequently pushed to the margins of secular society and ridiculed. Eighty years later, the space such Christians are inhabiting is vast, ranging from the presidency, some claim, down to local school boards, where, in Dover, Darwin’s defenders turn “angry and tearful” and resign. But hardly any attention is devoted in this story to this idea of “atheist quitters,” or the idea that the most recent additions to the Dover School Board include a pastor, the father of a “strong Christian” at Dover High.
Stories about this war shouldn’t just claim that two opposing sides exist, and that their existence is drawing battle lines all across Middle America. Who is winning and how? What happened between the original school board vote that defeated the statement and the next vote where the statement won? This trial is a reflection of a much larger story about the place of religion — a particular type of religion based on a biblical interpretation of the world — in the United States. What we need to investigate is why that place and that Christian army are getting bigger.
Rebecca Beyer is a graduate student at New York University.