God's Country by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan smiles on Aiken, S.C. -- where the debate between evolution and creationism still rages

 

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In the eighteenth century, Americans debated the line between science and religion, and worried over the decline of morality. In Aiken, in the twenty-first century, they debate the line between science and religion and worry over the decline of morality. Just how can a religious nation reconcile faith with science and reason? In a democracy, does the majority have the right to dictate its will even if that will should run against well-established science? Is the freedom to practice religion denied when the state teaches something wholly inconsistent with – indeed, hostile to – mainstream faith? Is science inherently godless; and does its world view erode the ability to establish right from wrong? In a secular society, what moral authority can take the place of religion? Without moral authority, does society decay?

Finally, when the pursuit of knowledge creates unprecedented, new moral dilemmas, of a degree unanticipated by generations before – like that now being explored in fetal tissue and stem cell research, in the mapping of the genome and the experiments in cloning – can right and wrong be addressed without resorting to a higher authority? Can the ideas of a few eighteenth century intellectuals – those who founded the American system upon a strongly worded division between church and state – still lead?

On October 17, 2000, after Wilson had made his case before them no less than 16 times in two years, the members of the Aiken County School Board convened a community meeting in the South Aiken High School auditorium to discuss the merits of his proposal to alter the science curriculum. The discussion was lively and, interestingly, it offered strong representation not only from Aiken’s faithful, but from the city’s dynamic scientific community, too. As it turned out, the two were not mutually exclusive. The first speaker was Charles H. Hewitt, Jr., who, as he quickly noted, could actually claim considerable authority on both sides of the argument. As a local physician, Hewitt had relied upon the findings of science to heal his patients; but having recently suffered a back injury, he was no longer able to practice and as a devout Christian he intended to make a dramatic shift in his career and enter the seminary.

Hewitt scoffed at Wilson’s plan, insisting that it was inconsistent with the views of the nation’s founders and he maintained that a literal reading of Genesis represented only a minority viewpoint, even among Christians. Evolution is settled science, he said, but that should pose no threat to believers. Science and religion occupy different domains of our world, he argued, as they should. Hewitt then looked directly at the panel. "They accuse the courts of kicking God out of the school," he pronounced, referring to Wilson and others on his side. "But if you as a school board cave into their minority views…you will be acting against the wishes of most Americans."

Roger Rollins, an SRS nuclear engineer, spoke second. He took the opposite view, claiming that far from being settled, evolution was still a highly debatable theory, and yet he did not leave it there. "I believe there is a much more important reason for the teaching of creationism," he said, with emotion. "Our children need to know that there is meaning to their lives…[that] we have been created for a purpose. That purpose is to worship and serve the almighty creator, God. When we thwart that purpose and throw God out of our schools, we allow chaos to reign."

Dr. Laura Janecek urged the committee to think of the repercussions of denying Aiken’s schoolchildren an adequate science education, saying that it would hamper their ability to compete in an increasingly technical world, while Reverend Frank Rottier cited statistics from the Traditional Values Coalition, a Washington lobby group, which has claimed that since prayer was removed from the public schools in 1962, teenage suicide had gone up 450%; births to unmarried women, 500%; illegal drug use, 6,000% and yet math and science scores are down ten percent. "It’s a record we as Christians should be terribly ashamed of," he said.

The discussion found two dramatic high points, one when Francesca Pataro, a Unitarian, declared that her children had been ridiculed in school for being non-Christians. "It can be very difficult to be a minority religion in this country," Pataro said, her voice shaking. "[My children] have been told that they will go to hell because Jesus Christ is not their savior." Pataro went on to say that the creation stories of Christians, Native Americans, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus all have value and should be taught in the history or comparative religion classroom. "But Creationism," she said, firmly, "is not a science."

 

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