Young Earth Creationism and the Texas Textbook Wars
Don McLeroy: the Howard Jarvis of Young Earth Creationism?
The new documentary “The Revisionaries” highlights the Texas textbook wars of 2009 and their “hero,” protagonist/antagonist Don McLeroy, former chair of the State Board of Education. The conflict resulted in a temporary erosion of the standing of the teaching of evolution as the scientific standard to explain creation and the origins of life on Earth. This was a big deal because Texas and California are the two states that mandate textbook content at a state level. So, as goes Texas, or California, so goes the nation. This is particularly important in a moment when California can’t afford to update textbooks but Texas can.
Evolution’s loss was creationism’s gain, particularly under the banner of intelligent design during McLeroy’s tenure on the Board. Director Scott Thurman chose to highlight the involvement of McLeroy, a dentist turned state politician, as a way of “humanizing” the story, which was appropriate enough on one level because there would have likely been no story without McLeroy.
Governor Rick Perry appointed McLeroy to the state board to fill an open seat in 1998, likely knowing full well the mischief McLeroy had in mind for the nation’s children. As a young earth creationist with an agenda, McLeroy figured his religious liberties extended to and beyond the doors of the public schoolhouse. McLeroy is a true believer with the gift of gab. His gab goes beyond religious polemics to embrace the ancient art of pure sophistry. By “sophistry’ we mean a specious argument based on an attempt to deceive. Sophistry, done properly, is characterized by the appearance of logical thought devoid of a factual basis but built on an edifice of pure rhetoric, meaning word play.
McLeroy believes God created the world six- to ten thousand years ago, and the all of natural history must be squeezed in to this time period. And he believes that if you in any way assail his beliefs you are attacking his religious liberty—a liberty he would extend to your children’s education, given the chance. For a while he did succeed in doing just that, until a successor, also deeply religious in McLeroy’s sense of the word, presided over a 2011 revision of the patent assault on evolution. It should be noted that even the Texas legislature voted to mitigate the textbook attack on evolution.
Today, McLeroy remains at-large, and “The Revisionaries” have given him an extra-large megaphone. This is probably the most controversial aspect of the documentary—as it should be. The difference between buffoon and demagogue is power. And many a buffoon achieves power via a dense electorate. McLeroy has all the tools, smooth talker that he his, and now he has a bully platform at precisely the moment that state legislators across the nation are concluding, for example, that personhood begins at conception, not birth. This legal pivot would have profound consequences for pregnant women who stand to lose many of the perks of citizenship, liberty, and personhood under such a regime. So dangerous ideas given good timing appear to matter. Stand Your Ground anyone?
McLeroy figures the best defense is a good offense. He attacks evolution and the scientific method because he says they cannot explain human consciousness. He attacks atheism because “something cannot spring from nothing.” These are his exact premises as expressed this week on a nationally syndicated NPR show. He explains how he has studied the works of the all the scientific writers on evolution and—trust him—has found the gaps in all of them, such as that in his view the fossil record does not support evolution. Of course he’s a nut case. He conflates the scientific method with the discourse of theology. He’s the freak in Thruman’s freak show. But here’s the deal: when interviewed on Talk of the Nation, his host, Neal Conan, didn’t challenge any of the fundamentals of his presentation. Nor did the documentary’s executive producer, Vijay Dewan, who is, for promotional purposes, temporarily joined at the hip to McLeroy.
Stephen Colbert took an entirely different tack with McLeroy on April 23rd, deftly ridiculing—that is to say engaging—McLeroy as only Colbert can do. McLeroy, like a lamb to slaughter, appeared not to know the nature of Colbert’s schtick. I don’t want to let Conan off the hook, though, nor Dewan. Because as soon as McLeroy gets himself elected somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, people on the front lines—teachers—are going to have to worry about endangering their jobs if they take him on.
Dangerous ideas are dangerous because as author Peter Edelman (“So Rich, So Poor: Why the Wealthiest Nation in the World Is Losing the Battle Against Poverty”) says, often “people deal in the simplest way to view a problem.” The tendency allows simple-sounding explanations to sometimes trump reasoned analysis. With McLeroy’s adherents in control that’s going to happen to your children’s textbooks. As Amanda Marcott points out in a June 18th Salon article, 46 percent of Americans believe in the creationist version of natural history, and that number has been on the rise lately.
So go see “The Revisionaries” if you want. But do it knowing that as you learn about the great Texas Textbook Wars, you are more or less encouraging Don McLeroy in his young earth creationism mission as he continues to make the media rounds on the heals of the release of the film.