At some point the evolution-intelligent design controversy is bound to flare up again. A local school board, a city government or even a state department of education will mandate equal time for both ideas. Perhaps a warning label against evolution will be placed in all biology textbooks. Maybe entire chapters will be glued together, preventing students from ever reading them. When this happens, as it inevitably will somewhere in America, anyone with a stake in this matter will respond, more or less, in a predictable fashion.
Intelligent design proponents and anti-evolutionists will celebrate, justifying their stance by highlighting alleged flaws in the theory of evolution. They will claim (reasonably?) that students benefit when exposed to intellectual diversity. The scientific community, on the other hand, will rally to evolution’s defense, attacking design arguments as unscientific and detrimental to America’s future. Republicans of various stripes will also have their say. Rick Santorum will naturally support the development. George W. Bush will make passing comments that appeal to the religious right. Even John McCain will say something positive as he tries to win over his party’s conservative base. The Democrats? The Democrats, of course, will be silent.
This silence is a problem. The Democrats want to build a winning party, and to do that they must connect with Bible belt communities. Yet on an issue that impacts many religious citizens, the Democrats, oddly enough, don’t even enter the debate. You would expect someone to try and take advantage of the situation; to at least try to appeal to devout Americans, and show that the Democratic Party understands their concerns. True, this approach may not score any immediate points. The animosity between the religious right and the Democratic elite has been brewing for a long time, and it will not go away quickly. But reconciliation has to start somewhere. Sadly, our nation’s second largest party doesn’t seem to be making a real effort. On arguably the most contentious domestic issue of the past few years, the Democratic Party has nothing useful to say.
This is a problem. This is a problem not just for the Democrats, but also for American democracy. A major party finds itself increasingly alienated from an increasingly religious population, leaving Republicans with an apparent monopoly on their votes. This arrangement helps neither religion nor democracy, and both are poorly served if one party commands the allegiance of an entire segment of voters. Of course, Americans have diverse views and we should not assume that religious equals Republican. Surely some evangelical Christians do not want intelligent design in schools while others do. Some always oppose abortion and others are pro-choice. But in spite of their diversity, church-going Americans do tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican.
If the Democrats want to change this situation, they must appeal to religious Americans. They can start by addressing the contest between evolution and intelligent design.
Despite statements by the scientific community, this issue is not about science. It is a political problem that demands a political solution. The core of this controversy reflects the tension between parental and societal interests in public education: how much freedom of choice among various teaching options should parents have in a publicly financed education system? All participants in the debate ignore this underlying question. Scientists simply criticize intelligent design, fundamentalists try to bring religion into the schools, and Republicans score short-term political gain. No one has shown how to foster science education without forcing some parents to violate treasured beliefs.
Yes, many Americans are bothered by the theory of evolution. What often gets lost, however, is the fact that many Americans are bothered only by the theory of evolution. No one disagrees with cell biology or organic chemistry, and the circulatory system does not provoke outrage in state science standards. For all the publicity, this argument boils down to what is usually no more than three weeks of a high school biology class. Only three weeks. Instead of fomenting disagreement by supporting either side, our political leaders should have reminded Americans that everyone wants their children to learn science. But some disagree, very slightly, on what parts of science should be learned. Such a unifying message is missing from the political dialogue — and this is where the Democrats can take the lead.
The next time the topic of intelligent design arises; Democratic politicians should broker a simple compromise: parents who do not want their children to learn evolution can substitute a special unit on biochemistry; or human anatomy; or marine biology. Most Americans, including religious Christians, want their children to learn science. I suspect that many would happily substitute another area of biology rather than violate their beliefs. Although a vocal minority does want religion in public schools, most Americans do not. I believe that most would welcome this agreement, which demonstrates sensitivity to citizens’ concerns while preserving intellectual honesty. It works with, not against, religious Americans and fosters democracy by giving citizens reasonable input into their children’s education.
There will be obstacles in implementing this proposal. The scientific community will most likely demand that evolution be taught. Some communities may abuse their greater input by supporting creationism or intelligent design, which should not be in science classrooms. Maybe that is a good thing. It will force Democratic politicians to engage more with their fellow citizens; to find common ground and work towards shared goals. Fostering science education, whether or not it includes evolution, is a goal that all Americans can agree on.
The Democratic Party faces many difficulties, and winning Bible belt support is only one of them. This task involves much more than addressing the theory of evolution. But resolving this dispute by engaging religious Americans in the political process can be a helpful starting point. If nothing else, listening to and working with both religious and secular citizens is the democratic way of conducting politics. It should also be the Democratic way.