Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What's the Matter With Creationism?

Do you know what the worst thing about the recent Gallup poll on evolution is? It isn’t that 46 percent of respondents are creationists (“God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so”). Or that 32 percent believe in “theistic evolution” (“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process”). Or that only 15 percent said humans evolved and “God had no part in this process.” It isn’t even that the percentage of Americans with creationist views has barely budged since 1982, when it was 44 percent, with a small rise in the no-God vote (up from 9 percent) coming at the expense of the divine-help position (down from 38 percent). Or that 58 percent of Republicans are creationists, although that does explain a lot.

It’s that the proportion of college graduates who are creationists is exactly the same as for the general public. That’s right: 46 percent of Americans with sixteen long years of education under their belt believe the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. Even 25 percent of Americans with graduate degrees believe dinosaurs and humans romped together before Noah’s flood. Needless to say, this remarkable demonstration of educational failure attracts little attention from those who call for improving our schools.

My brilliant husband, a sociologist and political theorist, refuses to get upset about the poll. It’s quite annoying, actually. He thinks questions like these primarily elicit affirmations of identity, not literal convictions; declaring your belief in creationism is another way of saying you’re a good Christian. That does rather beg the question of what a good Christian is, and why so many think it means refusing to use the brains God gave you. And yes, as you may have suspected, according to the Pew Research Center, evangelicals are far more likely than those of other faiths to hold creationist views; just 24 percent of them believe in evolution. Mormons come in even lower, at 22 percent, although official church doctrine has no problem with evolution.

Why does it matter that almost half the country rejects the overwhelming evidence of evolution, with or without the hand of God? After all, Americans are famously ignorant of many things—like where Iran is or when World War II took place—and we are still here. One reason is that rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it. A flute discovered in southern Germany is 43,000 years old? Not bloody likely. It’s probably some old bone left over from an ancient barbecue. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, has installed a holographic exhibit of Lucy, the famous proto-human fossil, showing how she was really just a few-thousand-year-old ape after all.

Patricia Princehouse, director of the evolutionary biology program at Case Western Reserve University, laughed when I suggested to her that the Gallup survey shows that education doesn’t work. “There isn’t much evolution education in the schools,” she told me. “Most have no more than a lesson or two, and it isn’t presented as connected with the rest of biology.” In fact, students may not even get that much exposure. Nationally, Princehouse said, at least 13 percent of biology teachers teach “young earth” creationism (not just humans but the earth itself is only 10,000 years old or thereabouts), despite laws forbidding it, and some 60 percent teach a watered-down version of evolution. They have to get along with their neighbors, after all. In Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, a new law actually makes teaching creationism legal. “No one takes them to court,” Princehouse told me, “because creationism is so popular. Those who object are isolated and afraid of reprisals.” People tend to forget that Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes trial; until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 1968, it was illegal to teach evolution in public schools in about half a dozen states.

Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and practicing Catholic who is a leading voice against creationism, agrees with Princehouse. “Science education has been remarkably ineffective,” he told me. “Those of us in the scientific community who are religious have a tremendous amount of work to do in the faith community.” Why bother? “There’s a potential for great harm when nearly half the population rejects the central organizing principle of the biological sciences. It’s useful for us as a species to understand that we are a recent appearance on this planet and that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct.” Evangelical parents may care less that their children learn science than that they avoid going to hell, but Miller points out that many of the major challenges facing the nation—and the world—are scientific in nature: climate change and energy policy, for instance. “To have a near majority essentially rejecting the scientific method is very troubling,” he says. And to have solidly grounded science waved away as political and theological propaganda could not come at a worse time. “Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican, successfully urging its replacement in a state-commissioned study by the expression “recurrent flooding.”

 The group Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum, has plans to build a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark as part of its Ark Encounter theme park. If that “recurrent flooding” really gets going, you may wish you’d booked a cabin.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

House GOP Blocking Abortion Access for Raped Soldiers

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) wants to expand access to abortion for servicewomen who are raped. Only a few Republicans are willing to help. 

Republican Senators John McCain, Scott Brown, and Susan Collins all support an effort by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, to expand abortion access for military women who are raped. But despite bipartisan support in the Senate, Shaheen's proposal may not make it into the final version of the 2013 defense authorization bill—because House Republicans oppose it.

If Shaheen's measure passes, military families will finally have the same access to abortion that other federal employees already receive. Unlike the rest of the federal government, the Department of Defense currently only provides abortion coverage if the life of the mother is at stake. Under current law, if a State Department employee is raped, her government health insurance plan will pay for an abortion if she wants one. But if an Army medic serving in Afghanistan is raped and becomes pregnant, she can't use her military health plan to pay for an abortion. If she does decide to get an abortion, she will have to pay for it with her own money. And if she can't prove she was raped—which is difficult before an investigation is completed—she may have to look for services off base, which can be dangerous or impossible in many parts of the world.

"We have more than 200,000 women serving on active duty in our military," Shaheen tells Mother Jones. "They should have the same rights to affordable reproductive health services as all of the civilians who they protect."
In late May, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Shaheen's amendment, attaching it to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. McCain, the committee's top Republican, voted in favor, as did Brown and Collins. Shaheen is "hopeful" her proposal has enough support to be included in the final bill. The NDAA still needs a vote on the Senate floor. But for Shaheen's amendment, there's a bigger problem: the Republican-controlled House.

"We don't really understand why anybody would oppose [Shaheen's bill]," says Sharon Levin, the director of federal reproductive health policy at the National Women's Law Center. "The only reason it wouldn't go through is if the Republican leadership in the House tried to block it."

That appears likely. A GOP staffer "familiar with defense issues" told Army Times last week that the Shaheen amendment "stands little chance of surviving" when the House and Senate meet to work out their differences on the defense bill. "Historically, social provisions that are not reflected in both bills heading into conference don't survive," the staffer said—conceding that the House version of the defense bill will not include anything like Shaheen's proposal.

Shaheen says the story of a young woman stationed in Korea who was raped by a fellow soldier demonstrates why this law needs to be changed. The woman's military health insurance wouldn't cover an abortion, and she could not find a safe place to have one off base. In the end, she lost her job, and later had a miscarriage. "This is somebody who wanted to make the military her career, and she was ultimately forced out because of a situation that was not of her making," Shaheen says. "Most of the women affected here are enlisted women who are making about $18,000 a year. They're young, they don't have access to a lot of resources. Many of them are overseas."

Current Pentagon policy is more restrictive than the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to provide abortion services except in the case of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is endangered. The DOD enacted its stricter, life-of-the-mother-only limit on abortions in 1979. In 1988, the law was tightened again—Congress now forbids women from using their own money to pay for abortions in military health centers unless they are a victim of rape or incest, or if their life is at risk.

The military reported 471 rapes of servicemembers in 2011 alone. The true number is likely far higher—the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office estimates that only about 13.5 percent of all rapes and sexual assaults in the military are actually reported. The Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress estimates that several hundred women in the military become pregnant as a result of rape each year.

But despite numerous reform efforts over the past several decades, including failed proposals in 2010 and 2011, the Pentagon's strict anti-abortion policies endure today.

Shaheen hopes that this year will be different. The Stand with Servicewomen campaign, organized by retired military men and women in partnership with a coalition of civil and reproductive rights groups, is backing her effort. "When a woman comes in the military comes in the military, she's guaranteed health care," says Col. Elizabeth Fleming, a retired Army veteran who now practices law in Alaska, who was in DC recently to lobby senators on Shaheen's amendment. "If this is excluded, she's not getting it."

Another vocal vet is Joellen Oslund, who became the Navy's first woman helicopter pilot in 1974, and in 1993 was one of the first female aviators promoted to the rank of captain. Now retired, she says she hopes that granting access to abortion care for women in the military—at least for victims of rape—will be relatively non-controversial. "We lost these privileges and these rights a little bit at a time, we're going to have to get them back a little bit at a time," Oslund says. "This is the one piece that's probably the least controversial, and helps the most people."


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Faux History for the GOP

Republicans love David Barton and his new book,  "The Jefferson Lies" -- even though it gets history wrong

Earlier this month, the evangelical writer David Barton’s new book, “The Jefferson Lies,” hit the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. Barton isn’t popular, however, only with the ordinary American reader. On May 8, John Boehner authorized the use of Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for a religious service to commemorate the first inauguration of George Washington. Among the speakers was Barton, who is revered by social conservatives because he argues that the nation was founded primarily by evangelical Christians on explicitly Christian teachings.

Barton — “one of the most important men alive,” according to Glenn Beck — is frequently criticized as a pseudo-historian by progressives and academic historians for his claims about the Founders. He is now facing scrutiny, however, from evangelicals. After Barton’s speech in the Capitol, John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College, accused Barton of “peddling falsehoods” about Washington, and asked, “Is it time to gather Christian historians together to sign some kind of formal statement condemning Barton’s brand of propaganda and hagiography?”
There is no question that Barton’s history lessons are important to the conservative wing of the GOP. Barton, who was named one of Time magazine’s top 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005, was also tapped by Tea Party Caucus chairwoman Michele Bachmann to teach classes on the Constitution to congressional members in 2010.

During the GOP presidential primary season, Barton was a central figure in the religious right’s effort to crown a religious conservative as the GOP front-runner. In 2011, at the Rediscovering God Conference in Iowa,  Mike Huckabee gushed:
I almost wish that there would be a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced at gunpoint no less, to listen to every David Barton message and I think our country would be better for it. I wish it’d happen.
In 2010, before Newt Gingrich decided to run for president, he appeared on David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s radio show, telling Barton:
And I can assure you that if we do decide to run next year, we’re promptly going to call you and say “we need your help, and we need your advice, and we need your counsel…If we decide to run, David, we’re going to need you.”
Most recently, speaking in Statuary Hall, Barton related a legend about George Washington’s prayer in the snow at Valley Forge. In the story, a British loyalist overheard Washington praying, went home to his wife and proclaimed that the revolutionaries will win the war because of Washington’s fervent prayers. According to historian Fea, Washington probably did pray for success, but the story of Isaac Potts stumbling upon Washington praying in the snow is a legend. In his book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction,” Fea demonstrates that the facts don’t add up. For instance, Potts was probably not near Valley Forge at the time and he was not married at that time, meaning he could not have had a conversation with his wife about Washington’s prayer. Fea says this kind of revisionism is common, saying that “Barton continually tells stories of the past that are not true.”

Over the past year, I read some of Barton’s claims about history, checked them out, and found most of them to be problematic. Some of these claims have been restated in “The Jefferson Lies.” For example, Barton claims that Jefferson did not free his many slaves because of restrictions in Virginia law. Barton says Jefferson could not free them because by 1826, when Jefferson died, the law forbade such emancipations. This claim is quite misleading. In 1782, Virginia passed a law on manumission, which allowed the emancipation of slaves at any time, not just at death. In fact, many slaves were freed by other slave owners after this law passed. However, after this law passed, Jefferson sold some slaves for cash, instead of freeing them. Although legal provisions relating to emancipation were tightened a bit in 1785 and further in 1806, there was a 24-year window wherein Jefferson could have freed his slaves while he was alive.

In 1806, Virginia law was changed to require emancipated slaves to leave the state or face being resold into slavery. In fact, Jefferson favored deportation. He wrote in his autobiography, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably …” In “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton refers to the 1806 law but minimizes Jefferson’s views on deportation, and does not indicate that emancipation could have occurred before a master’s death.

One chapter in “The Jefferson Lies” deals with the so-called Jefferson Bible. The Jefferson Bible refers to Jefferson’s extraction of passages from the New Testament Gospels that he believed were really the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, leaving aside what he believed was added by others. Jefferson said the work was like extracting diamonds from a dunghill. Jefferson made two such efforts, one in 1804 and the other sometime after 1820. In “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton tells readers that Jefferson included miracles of healing from Matthew chapters 9 and 11. However, a review of the table of texts used by Jefferson to construct his works reveals that he did not include the passages Barton claims.

While there are many false claims in “The Jefferson Lies,” another obvious historical molehill Barton makes into a mountain is Jefferson’s signature on shipping passports that are dated with the words, “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Common diplomatic language at the time, those actual words were required by treaties with European nations and included on preprinted forms. Barton says Jefferson chose to include that religious language into his presidential business. Not so. Jefferson, like Adams before him and several presidents after him had no choice because, as Jefferson once told Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, “Sea-letters are the creatures of treaties.”

My co-author Michael Coulter and I have addressed these and other claims in our book, “Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.” For an article that later became a part of that book, I wrote Barton and called Wallbuilders without response. In April, 2011, Barton declined to appear with me on a Christian radio program. According to Fea, this is not surprising. “When he is called out on these falsehoods by a respectable historian, even evangelical historians who for the most part share his faith, he refuses to admit to his errors.”

After years of being attacked by progressives, will Barton reexamine his claims due to friendly fire? With “The Jefferson Lies” hitting the New York Times list of bestsellers, it seems clear that being fast and loose with the facts sells well. All the more reason for people in the evangelical community to subject claims about the Founders to a renewed scrutiny.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Conservative strategists have been toying with how to use race against President Obama in this year’s election. Since Obama’s May 9 announcement supporting same-sex marriage, some Republicans have been salivating about the delicious possibility of dampening black voters’ enthusiasm for the president by casting him as out of touch with their religious sentiments. Then the leaked Joe Ricketts plan, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” revealed GOP strategists’ idea of employing “an extremely literate conservative African-American” to discredit Obama among white voters by reminding them of his link with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Thus, the black church would be both a wedge to weaken black support and a tool to discourage white supporters.

I’m a little surprised to find conservatives offering such clumsy and stale campaign game plans. They seem intent on repeating the strategic mistake made by Illinois Republicans nearly a decade ago—a mistake largely responsible for making possible the swift ascendance of Barack Obama from state senator to president.

In 2004 Obama won the Democratic primary for Illinois’s open Senate seat in a crowded field of contenders. His strongest competitors were well financed and backed by the powerful Daley machine and by many prominent African-American elected officials and religious leaders from Chicago.

Although Obama was well liked by his constituents in Illinois’s 13th Congressional District, he had been beaten badly in 2000 when he challenged incumbent Bobby Rush in a primary for the state’s predominantly black 1st District. Against Rush, Obama faced serious racial credibility problems. His connections to the South Side were concentrated in Hyde Park, known for its relative whiteness compared with the rest of the neighborhood. He was not a particularly fiery public speaker and lacked access to the racialized cultural narrative of defiance that Rush used throughout his career.

These factors kept Obama from beating Rush inside the majority-minority 1st District, but they were unimportant in March 2004, when he handily won the Senate primary with 53 percent of the vote against six opponents. His victory was the result of aggressive campaigning and was assisted by an eleventh-hour personal scandal surrounding his top competitor, Blair Hull. It was solidified by an enthusiastic turnout and near unanimous support from black voters, many of whom had rejected Obama just four years earlier when he ran for Congress.

Still, Illinois Republicans thought it might be possible to use race against Obama in the general election. Obama was initially matched against Jack Ryan, a young, charismatic white candidate who had some important ties to Chicago’s black community; Ryan had voluntarily left a high-paying job in the private sector to become a schoolteacher in an all-black, all-male South Side high school. But his campaign was quickly derailed by damaging revelations from his 1999 divorce. When he withdrew, Illinois Republicans scrambled to find a replacement. In August they announced the surprising decision to import Maryland native and conservative black talk-show host Alan Keyes as their candidate.

In retrospect, the GOP’s choice may border on ridiculous, but at the time, Republicans were calculating that by tapping into the “morality vote,” Keyes could prove a troubling opponent for Obama, especially among black voters. After all, Keyes employs a rhetorical style far more consistent with black church traditions. Like most blacks in Illinois, Keyes is the descendant of African slaves, while Obama is the child of a white woman and an African foreign student. Keyes, like most blacks in Illinois, was raised within a traditional conservative religious tradition, while Obama became a churchgoer only after marrying his relatively more religious wife. While Obama often actively deracialized his political positions, pitching his policies as good for the state in general, Keyes actively discussed his views in the context of race. He publicly advocated reparations for American slavery and even explained his antiabortion stance as motivated by the idea that abortion is racial genocide (“so, the people who are supporting that position [pro-choice] are actually supporting the systematic extermination of black America”).

In many ways, it was Keyes who had access to important black racial tropes and political/cultural practices. But come November 2004, it was Obama who was embraced as the candidate of choice among black voters in Illinois, winning 92 percent of them. In 2008, of course, Obama went on to capture 95 percent of the black vote nationally and also garnered a larger percentage of the white vote than either Gore or Kerry had.

All of this suggests that racebaiting and race-divisive tactics won’t be successful in 2012. Black voters won’t be easily divided from the first black president running against a white opponent. President Obama’s stance on marriage equality may not be shared by a majority of black voters, but it is unlikely to negate their support for his re-election. In fact, a recent Pew poll showed that 16 percent of black respondents viewed the president more favorably after his announcement, compared with 13 percent who viewed him less favorably; 68 percent said it had no impact.

Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign can’t help us predict how racebaiting strategies will affect white voters. We do know that in 2008, Obama’s connection to Reverend Wright only momentarily disrupted his campaign. Invoking Wright as a scary black, radical mentor reinforces the opinions of those who see the president as extremist and foreign but has so far proven ineffective in moving the opinions of most ordinary undecided voters.

It kind of makes you feel sorry for Joe Ricketts. He’s got tens of millions to spend in his crusade to defeat the president, and he’s getting pitched ideas that even casual observers recognize as yesterday’s failed strategies.