President Bush’s call for schools to discuss “intelligent design” alongside evolution is the latest shot in a long-standing war between religion and secularism in the United States in which religion now seems to be making broad advances.
Bush told Texas reporters last week he thought students ought to hear different schools of thought. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes,” the president declared.
Intelligent design holds that life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution and therefore an unseen power must have had a hand. Opponents say that conjecture is a matter of faith and has no scientific basis.
This is just the latest clash between Christian fundamentalists, whose political power has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, and secular opponents. Other battle fronts include school prayer, stem-cell research, display of the Ten Commandments in public places, assisted suicide and end-of-life issues and above all, the question of abortion.
“For most of the 20th century, the secular perspective moved forward and was in the ascendancy. Recently however, conservative Christians have been on the offensive, recovering some of that lost ground,” said John Green, an expert on Christian evangelicals.
The United States has always been a religious nation. For several decades in the middle of the last century, however, Christian conservatives took little organized part in politics, with churches preferring to look inward and focus on the congregants’ spiritual well-being.
That has changed. For example, last October, the National Association of Evangelicals, with 52 member denominations, adopted a resolution stating: “We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history. Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy.”
A month later, Bush, who says he found his Christian faith as an adult, won reelection after a presidential campaign designed to maximize the turnout of Christian conservatives, who accounted for about 36 percent of his vote, according to exit-poll analyzes.
‘RAGE’ AT COURT DECISIONS
Peter Berger, director of the institute of culture, religion and world affairs at Boston University, points to two crucial decisions that sparked a backlash among many American Christians and propelled them into political activism — a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed organized prayer in public schools and the Roe v. Wade ruling 10 years later that legalized abortion. Both, he said, enraged Christian conservatives.
In the meantime, Berger said, as more traditional Christian denominations have declined, evangelical branches have added members. They now number perhaps 60 million or 70 million people in the United States, with an extensive grass-roots organization and sophisticated, well-funded lobbying groups.
“With the disintegration of the labor movement, evangelical conservatives have become the most organized group in American politics. They are a big deal,” said John Judis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Religious revivals or awakenings have been a recurring theme throughout American politics, the first one dating even from before the founding of the Republic. Robert Fogel, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in economics, identifies four “great awakenings,” the latest of which began in the 1960s.
Previous cycles have been divided into three phases. The cycle begins with a religious revival, followed by a period of rising political activism and accomplishment, and ending with a backlash as the movement overreaches. If Fogel’s theory is correct, the United States is currently in the second phase of its fourth great awakening.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a recent column that much of the evangelical agenda was a needed corrective to liberal efforts to expel religion from the American politics, but it might now be going too far.
“Religion is back out of the closet. But nothing could do more to undermine this most salutary restoration than the new and gratuitous attempts to invade science, and most particularly evolution, with religion,” Krauthammer wrote in Time Magazine.
But many religious conservatives are pressing ahead with their agenda, and looking to the prospect of a more conservative Supreme Court to support them on issues such as religious displays in public places.