Thursday, May 03, 2007


Discovery's Disturbing Legacy

It was the sort of circus only Kansas can provide.

Just weeks after social conservatives took back control of the state school board in 2005 and put evolution squarely in the crosshairs again; nearly 200 people, perhaps nursing a sense of déjà vu, pushed their way into the auditorium at Schlagel High School in Kansas City, Kan. for a public hearing on the drafting of new science standards.

These kinds of meetings almost never draw more than a handful of people. Rarely is there any news coverage of them at all. That night, with the state school board under new management, television news trucks lined up in the parking lot, their live broadcast antennae pushing up into the sky like the masts of sailing ships at anchor.

Inside, reporters prowled the room, camera operators in tow, seeking a sound bite that would give them the lead on that night's news. A brightly colored array of leaflets pro, con, and some simply bizarre, were pushed into eager hands at the door. A long line formed quickly at a table near the back for speakers to sign in. Around the room, longtime political opponents, most battle-scarred veterans of the 1999 attempt to write creationism into the curriculum, eyed each other warily, wondering what strategy the other side was plotting.

Members of the science standards committee were duly introduced, time limits established, and preliminaries out of the way, speakers for and against followed each other in quick succession to the microphone at the front of the auditorium.

A science professor explained the difference between fact, hypothesis, and theory. A young mother stood up to say the schools, in banning prayer and teaching evolution had turned their backs on God. She’d been taught the creation story when she went to school and she wanted her children to learn it too. A science teacher from a Catholic high school countered that evolution and religion aren't necessarily incompatible; at least they aren't in her school.

In all truly entertaining spectacles, long stretches of high drama must be punctuated by brief moments of low comedy, and in that respect the Schlagel science standards hearing provided all that could be desired.

"If people come from monkeys," bellowed one speaker who clutched a Bible in one hand while speaking in the practiced cadences of a street-corner preacher, "then why are there still monkeys?"

And then there was this:

"Auschwitz did not come from the Nazi high command,” John James confided to the crowd, "it came from the teachings of the scientific and philosophical worlds, which produced nihilism, and I submit to you that much of that, if not vast proportions of it, came due to the teaching of evolution which, in turn, produces nihilism. So what are we doing? Are we producing little Kansas Nazis?"

Although many in the audience that night had never heard it before, creationists like James have always charged that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution are responsible for much that is wrong with modern society.

The crimes of socialism, communism, fascism, even capitalism, have all, at one time or another, been laid at evolution's door. Likewise, eugenics, euthanasia, abortion, cloning, gay marriage, pornography, race-mixing, one world government, treason, illegal immigration, flag burning, school shootings, terrorism, atheism, secularism, multiculturalism, and post-modern malaise are all said to be the inevitable result of teaching evolution to impressionable school children.

York is an ancient walled city in the north of England built by the Romans. It’s home to one of the Christianity’s greatest architectural wonders, and one of its darkest crimes.

Inside those Roman walls, the spires of York Minster, one of the great gothic cathedrals of all Europe, rise above a well preserved medieval city. The Minster is famous for its immense stained glass windows, some of which are among the oldest in the world. Having survived Cromwell and the iconoclasts, the earliest of these windows date back to the 12 century. The exquisite beauty of the glass, the stories told there, and the special quality of the light inside the cathedral, are all part of the precious legacy of medieval Christian faith. Nearby, brooding atop its steep motte, Clifford’s Tower stands as a stark reminder to another of Christianity’s great legacies: zealotry and fanaticism.

A few years ago I attended vespers in the serene interior of York Minster before walking the town’s medieval streets to climb the battlements of Clifford’s Tower to contemplate the horror that took place inside those walls.

York’s Jewish community took refuge there on the night of March 16, 1090. They were hotly pursued by a mob incited by “crusaders preparing to follow their king against the Saracens, burgesses envious of Jewish wealth, barons indebted to the Jews, and fanatical clergy,” according to English Heritage.

"Before attempting to revenge ourselves upon the Moslem unbelievers," went up the cry, "let us first revenge ourselves upon the 'killers of Christ' living in our midst!"

The tower, in those days a wooden structure, was set afire. Many took their own lives rather than be baptized or tortured by the mob that waited outside. In the end, those who could not bring themselves to commit suicide were slaughtered. In all, some 150 men, women, and children were killed.

Anyone who listened to James blame evolution for the Nazi’s final solution at the science standards meeting that night, at least anyone who was even dimly aware that the bloody history of Christian anti-Semitism predates Darwin and evolution by centuries, must have wondered if, as James claimed, Darwin and evolution were really to blame for the Nazi’s crimes.

Certainly, there is plenty of blame to go around. Governments around the world, including in the United States, that turned away Jewish refugees must accept some of responsibility for what happened at Auschwitz. Religious leaders such as Pope Pius XII, who stood by silently as the Germans rounded up European Jews and butchered them in concentration camps played a role as well. Ultimately, those who rallied to the Nazi cause, especially those who ordered and carried out these crimes, including politicians, military men, industrialists, academics, religious leaders, as well scientists and physicians for whom a distorted understanding of evolution served as a justification for their racism and anti-Semitism, must all bear the judgment of history.

Fritz Stern, the noted Holocaust historian, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and refugee from Nazi Germany, doesn’t number Darwin and evolution among the chief factors that led up to the Holocaust. Higher on his list are the Protestant clergy, who he says were filled with anti-Semitic doctrine and shared Hitler's "hostility to the liberal-secular state and its defenders." Hitler, Stern believes, came to power by fusing racial dogma with Germanic Christianity. He probably saw himself as executing a divine mission.

"Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics," says Stern, "but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured [Hitler's] success, notably in Protestant areas."

When Judge John Jones ruled, in December of 2005, that intelligent design isn't science and the only real effect of the Dover school board's ID policy was to advance religion, the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based intelligent design advocacy group, found itself with a problem on its hands.

Discovery's strategy, its very raison d'etre, had been to promote a renamed and re-branded creationism as science in order to skirt a damaging series of court rulings, most prominently the 1987 Supreme Court Edwards v. Aguillard decision, in order to bring both God and Genesis back into the nation's public school science classes.

As Discovery's Phillip Johnson, the UC-Berkeley law professor who plotted legal strategy for the intelligent design movement, told Elizabeth Nickson, a columnist for the National Post in 2004:

"Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools."

Jones' ruling was a humiliating defeat for Discovery because it knocked the legs out from under that carefully crafted strategy. Jones saw through the sham, and in one stroke, not only laid waste to the intelligent design project to dress up creationism as both scientific and secular, he killed the notion that it might somehow pass muster in the courts, and find its way back into public schools, as well.

The depth of Discovery's crisis was revealed by a series of embarrassingly lame attempts to label Jones, an observant Lutheran and conservative Republican appointed to the bench by George Bush, an activist judge. That no one but the ID faithful could be convinced was demonstrated by Jones being named to Time magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People in America."

When the activist judge label failed to stick, Discovery attempted to smear his ruling as plagiarized. Legal experts were unmoved by the charge, which came across to the public at large as nothing more than sour grapes, and to add insult to injury, excerpts from Jones' landmark ruling were subsequently published in the 2006 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Jones' ruling brought another calamity down on Discovery as well. The ruling effectively brought a close to any serious examination of ID's merits in the mainstream news media. The period leading up to the Dover ruling featured widespread news coverage of intelligent design claims, some of it credulous, but the plain, well-crafted language and compelling logic of Jones' ruling convinced journalists to turn a more skeptical eye to Discovery's claims.

The transparent unfairness of Discovery's charges against Jones, combined with the increasingly shrill tone of commentary published on Discovery's Evolution News and Views blog also played an important role in convincing mainstream journalists that intelligent design is merely a clever repackaging of the same tired old creation science product, rather than a new, somehow overlooked scientific theory.

Discovery also came under increasing fire from their allies in the creationist movement. There was an embarrassing public split with the Thomas More Law Center, which represented the Dover school board. In the run up to the trial, a number of Discovery expert witnesses precipitously withdrew from the case at the eleventh hour. That left Discovery pleading that they never advocated teaching ID in public schools, a claim easily, and publicly, disproved by Thomas More's lead attorney Richard Thompson.

Young and old earth creationists, who make up the vast majority of the foot soldiers in the intelligent design ranks, began to ask what value there was to the constant denials that "the designer" was in fact the Christian God of the Bible if the ID legal strategy couldn't deliver the goods.

Thwarted by the court in their central strategic objectives, increasingly shunted off to the side by the news media, at odds with their creationist allies, and unable to produce any credible science of their own, the Discovery Institute has now adopted a cynical Plan B: If you can't build your own house, you may as well tear your neighbor's down.

Discovery’s Plan B has popped up with increasing frequency over a number of months, but got its official launch with speeches in Washington and Philadelphia earlier this week by Discovery fellow John West that quickly cut the Nazi’s six million victims to “hundred of thousands.”

According to West, “Darwinism” is responsible for “the eugenics movement that sterilized scores of thousands of Americans deemed unfit in the early decades of the last century, the concurrent rise of the abortion movement, and the extermination of hundreds of thousands of supposed social undesirables by the Nazis in Germany.”

This week’s events were preceded by the broadcast of “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy,” a production of Coral Ridge Ministries, on Christian television last August. The program, which explicitly links the crimes of Hitler to Charles Darwin featured Discovery fellows Richard Weikart, Jonathan Wells, Phillip Johnson, and Michael Behe. They were joined on the program by right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, the author most recently of Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

Weikart, the author of From Darwin to Hitler writes that “Darwinism played a key role in the rise of eugenics, euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.” As an academic, Weikart is sometimes coy about how much responsibility he places on the shoulders of Charles Darwin for the crimes of the Nazis, but his readers have no problem drawing the intended conclusions:

“I never knew about the link between Darwin and Hitler until after reading Richard Weikart’s book,” says Coulter.

“To put it simply, no Darwin, no Hitler,” says Dr. Kennedy, the host of the program.” “Hitler tried to speed up evolution, to help it along, and millions suffered and died in unspeakable ways because of it.”

If what Weikart, West, Coulter, and Discovery say is true, one might think that Jewish organizations would welcome their support. However, just the opposite is true.

“Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people,” according to a statement issued by the Anti-defamation League when “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy” was aired.

“Trivializing the Holocaust,” said the ADL, “comes from either ignorance at best or, at worst, a mendacious attempt to score political points in the culture war on the backs of six million Jewish victims and others who died at the hands of the Nazis.

"It must be remembered,” the ADL continued, “that D. James Kennedy is a leader among the distinct group of 'Christian Supremacists' who seek to ‘reclaim America for Christ’ and turn the U.S. into a Christian nation guided by their strange notions of biblical law."

Next week, Discovery is participating in the World Congress of Families in Warsaw. In doing so, they are joining with a motley crew of far-right anti-immigrant zealots who claim Muslims and other immigrants are contributing to the "demographic destruction" of Europe, extreme homophobes, misogynists, and anti-abortion fanatics who, holding life sacred, call openly for the murder of abortion providers.

Members of the European Parliamentary Working Group on Separation of Religion and Politics have protested the conference saying that several people scheduled to speak at the three-day conference have taken positions that clash with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The launch phase of Discovery’s Plan B comes just as Chris Hedges new book; The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism is getting a lot of well-deserved attention.

“Hedges draws striking parallels between 20th-century totalitarian movements and the highly organized, well-funded ‘dominionist movement,’ an influential theocratic sect within the country's huge evangelical population,” says a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. “Rooted in a radical Calvinism, and wrapping its apocalyptic, vehemently militant, sexist and homophobic vision in patriotic and religious rhetoric, dominionism seeks absolute power in a Christian state.”

A former New York Times foreign correspondent, Hedges was an eyewitness to the slaughter in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and Argentina, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He knows first hand the danger of religious fanaticism.

In tracing the history of Christian fascism in the United States Hedges explains the seminal role played by Rousas Rushdooney, the founder of the Dominionism, the theology behind Christian Reconstructionism.

Rushdooney “dismissed the number of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust as an inflated figure and his theories on race echoed Nazi Eugenics,” according to Hedges.

"The white man has behind him centuries of Christian culture and the discipline and selective breeding this faith requires...," Rushdooney wrote. "The Negro is a product of a radically different past, and his heredity has been governed by radically different considerations."

Dominionists, writes Hedges, operate, for now, in the contaminated environment of the secular, liberal state. They have learned to speak in code. “The code they use is the key to understanding the dichotomy of the movement, one that has a public and a private face. In this they are no different from the vanguard, as described by Lenin, or the Islamic terrorists who shave off their beards, adopt western dress and watch pay-for-view pornographic movies in their hotel rooms the night before hijacking a plane for a suicide attack.”

The Reconstructionist strategy, notes Hedges, was outlined by Rushdooney's son-in-law, Gary North:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government,” says North. “Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."

And who finances the Discovery Institute?

None other than Howard Ahmanson, a wealthy Californian who is heir to the Home Savings bank fortune. In the ‘70s Ahmanson joined Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionist movement and served as a board member of Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation for over ten years.

Ahmanson currently serves on Discovery’s board of directors and is its largest contributor. His gift of $1.5 million provided the seed money to organize Discovery’s Center for Science and Culture.

So, as West, Weikart and the other Discovery fellows go about their business, speaking their codespeak, linking Darwin and evolution to Hitler, they draw their pay from modern American fascists, Holocaust deniers, racists, homophobes, and apologists for the Nazi eugenics.

That’s Discovery’s disturbing legacy.


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