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Phillip Johnson: Evolution battles at Baylor, Kan. could have been won

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Phillip E. Johnson has a message for evolution opponents bewildered by a series of losses in recent years:

The problem wasn’t the argument. It was the strategy.

Johnson, speaking at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary June 27, said that separate battles involving the faculty of Baylor University and the Kansas State Board of Education went the way of pro-evolution forces because opponents lacked a key element in their strategy. At Baylor University, the problem was the absence of a political movement. In Kansas, the problem was the absence of an academic movement.

To succeed in defeating Darwinian evolution, Johnson said, a movement needs support from both political and academic forces.

“You have to have a joint popular movement and academic movement,” said Johnson, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several books, including “Darwin on Trial.”

“You have to have both of them — the popular movement to back up the academics.”

At Baylor University last year, the faculty succeeded in pressuring the administration to remove intelligent design proponent William Dembski from a campus-based research center. In Kansas last fall, conservatives lost three seats on the Kansas State Board of Education, resulting in evolution language being reinserted in state tests. It had been removed the year before.

A popular movement opposing Darwinian evolution, Johnson said, is what media members and university professors fear.

“If it should get out there among the politicians and the people’s representatives, they’re really worried because they know that the Gallup polls that have been taken regularly over the past 30 years show that only about 10 percent of the American public actually believes in the naturalist story that is taught as fact as Darwinian evolution,” he said. “The rest of the public is largely divided between creationists and theistic evolution.

“There is a great deal of worry that this would get out in the public and in public debate, and then they know that they’re in big trouble.”

Johnson, who was on campus for a three-day event titled “Equipping for Ministry in Today’s University Culture,” explained how the proper strategy could have won the day in both instances.

At Baylor, a Baptist-related university in Waco, Texas, a research center was set up on campus in 1999 to explore problems in Darwinian evolution. Named the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design, the center was headed by Dembski. The center’s purpose statement, in fact, affirmed that “science, philosophy and religion make claims of mutual relevance.”

The majority of Baylor’s faculty opposed the center, and in April 2000 the faculty senate voted 26-2 in favor of asking the administration to dissolve the center. The center was kept, but Dembski was eventually replaced. Dembski’s removal took place after an external review committee recommended that the center be kept. In a bulk e-mail, Dembski praised the report and criticized his opponents. The e-mail, administrators said, was the reason he was removed.

Johnson called the current center a “toothless program” and the Baylor faculty “downright hostile to Christianity.”

“What was missing from this situation was a political movement on the Baylor campus to counter” the faculty’s claims, Johnson said. The faculty did “all the politicking. They’re implacable. They hate anything that suggests the possibility that God might be real instead of an illusion.”

The movement needed the backing of Texas Baptists and Baylor students “raising a ruckus about this [and asking,] ‘Is this really a Christian university?’ The president and the vice presidents and the trustees would be very fearful of such a movement that could affect their donors.”

In Kansas, the controversy was much different, dating to 1999 when the Kansas State Board of Education voted to stop requiring the teaching of Darwinian evolution — which, in part, teaches that humans evolved from apes over millions of years — as well as to remove references to the controversial subject from state tests.

Evolution opponents had little time to celebrate, however, because three evolution opponents were defeated in elections last year. With new members, the board has since voted to reverse the earlier decision.

“This battle was lost largely because the people who did it — while very well-meaning — were inexperienced and they didn’t understand how it would play in the press,” Johnson said. “It’s perfectly understandable that they gave the press some openings. They had no idea that it would become the focus of an international media circus.”

The media, Johnson said, helped shape public opinion. To make matters worse, there were not enough credible evolution opponents to counter the media’s claims. Johnson said one story in The Washington Post “gave the impression that there was this roving band of creationists who were going around attacking science all around the country. … There was a meltdown in the news media over this.”

From the media’s perspective, Johnson said the Kansas controversy had little to do with education standards. Rather, it “had to do with their concern about the possibility of a popular rebellion against the official established religion of Darwinian evolution. That’s what they’re concerned about — that the public would get out and make a fuss about this and overturn the established religion, which is the basis of the authority of the universities and their allies in the national media.”

Since that time, Johnson has helped strengthen the evolution opposition in Kansas. He said that a coalition of creation science proponents and intelligent design proponents was formed to support any future political movement opposing Darwinian evolution. Johnson said this was quite a feat, because both camps approach the creation debate from different perspectives.

Creation science proponents tend to try to find evidence to support the Genesis creation account. Intelligent design proponents, on the other hand, rely less on the Genesis account. They simply try to prove that the universe was created by an outside, intelligent force (God).

“When this comes up again — as it will — we will be prepared with a leadership that understands the lessons from the first [battle],” he said. “That’s what I think about all these battles. It doesn’t matter all that much if you take a defeat in the immediate sense — provided you end up stronger afterwards. We ended up a lot stronger afterwards.

“We demonstrated it is possible to form a unified movement with the academic [camp] who traditionally won’t have anything to do with the traditional creationist, and the creationists who traditionally won’t have anything to do with the academic crowd.”

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  • Michael Foust