Update on the Evolution Debate in Florida

About two months ago, I blogged in recognition of Darwin Day, at which time I pointed to a disturbing trend in Florida. Twelve county school districts had passed resolutions banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The teaching of evolution is no more a matter of ideology than the teaching of the Big Bang theory or thermodynamics. These are scientific theories, and whether or not one agrees with them, valid scientific theories are what is taught in a science class room. I myself have serious misgivings about the theory of natural selection, but I would still put it forth if I were teach high school science. To censor the teaching of evolution in a science curriculum is like censoring the teaching of Plato in a Greek philosophy curriculum. Teaching Plato has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with him.

At that time the Florida State Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the new science standards. The good news is that the board did vote to adopt standards of science education that require the teaching of evolutionary theory in Florida schools.

However, in response to this, anti-evolutionists then took on the strategy of requiring that Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative theory. Eight Florida school boards have since passed resolutions insisting that “alternative theories of organismal origin” be presented alongside evolution. On February 29th, Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced a bill in the legislature to the same effect.

The claim is that it’s not about religion (as that would obviously violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment) but about allowing teachers to teach alternative theories. The problem with this, as I said in my previous post, is that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It is by its very nature unscientific. This has nothing to do with whether it is “true” or not. I myself believe in a God who interacts in the world. But theories involving God as a cause simply cannot be empirically tested, and one of the criteria for a valid scientific theory is that it makes testable predictions.

When the bill was first introduced, the Florida Citizens for Science blog predicted it would go nowhere. Likely, that was the author’s hope. It so far has passed through two committees. And once again, these events have gone largely unreported in mainstream media, being carried mainly through blogs.

Thoughts on MLK – his life and legacy

For this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, a few members of the A&W staff group offer these reflections.

It’s too late at night for me to still be wrestling with this simple assignment: a few words about the legacy of Martin Luther King in my life. And yet, though my daughter is goading me to ‘write something already and turn the light out’ in the room we share in the UUA’s Beacon Hill bed and breakfast, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been alive 52 years; Dr. King has been dead for 40 of them. I was about the age of my daughter when I ceased knowing the man and began knowing the legend: the holiday written into law by Ronald Reagan which gives me the day off, to lie in my warm bed in Minnesota February and listen to the sanitation workers out there in the cold picking up my garbage. Which one of us was it he died standing with in Memphis, again?

The junior high student that I was in April, 1968 stepped into a dark auditorium set aside for first period, for those who wanted to have ‘a time of meditation.’ Sitting weeping in the darkness, I realized with a start that I was about the only white student there, though the school was majority white. Later, one of the popular girls, a cheerleader, whom I had spent months cultivating as a friend, ridiculed me for this. “So, you MEDITATED?” she asked me loudly at lunch. This was a clarifying moment when I realized that I would never be a popular girl, and didn’t want to be. This was a moment when those UU values gave me strength and I said loudly back, head up, “Yes, I MEDITATED.”

– Rev. Meg Riley

On March 18, 1968, days before his murder, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis . . . getting part-time income.” Dr. King said, “We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life…Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children… Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Last month on March 13th, the UUA co-sponsored an event with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign held in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King’s address to the striking sanitation workers. Along with leaders of faith, one of the speakers was Taylor Rogers, a striking sanitation worker who witnessed Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech, the night before King’s assassination, and became President of the Memphis sanitation workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733. “We got tired” striker Rogers told the gathering, “And so we stood up and said ‘I am a man.’ Without Dr. King and the ministers who helped us, we never would have won that strike.” [Click here to read about it.]

Forty years later millions of Americans are still making poverty wages and Dr. King would indeed still call it criminal. His legacy inspires today’s movement for a living wage. It was while I was putting together Resources for Living Wage Days a couple of years ago that I actually read the entire “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The linkages King makes between the various injustices of war, poverty, and racism, the strategies he was moving toward, including boycotts and community investing, most certainly threatened the power structure, and the prescience with which he discusses his possible death are just incredible to read and show a leader who was so clear on the direction forward. He is completely relevant today.

In the course of my research I found a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to all:
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
at Stanford University

– Susan Leslie

I have joked amongst UU friends that if there were a pantheon of UU saints, Rev. King would be at the top. He is that much beloved amongst us. In my church, All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC, the Sunday closest to MLK’s birthday is second only to Easter in terms of attendance and energy. Just why is King so beloved? There have been other champions of social justice in our history, people who have been every bit as dedicated as him to their respective causes. But while King started in the struggle for black equality, he ultimately transcended personal causes. That is why, exactly a year before his assassination, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and in support of peace. Even some of his own supporters told him that he should stick to his own issue, but King recognized that all causes for justice are inter-related, mutually dependent. That is why he supported the rights of workers, as both Meg and Susan talk about above. That is why his widow Coretta Scott King could state unequivocally that MLK would have supported the current struggle for BGLT equality had he lived to see it. King spoke for all his people.

Dr. King was a prophet – a modern day Moses. He delivered his people out of the bonds of legal segregation. Since we lost him 40 years ago we have been wandering in the desert, delivered from overt institutional racism but still struggling with systemic racism and more. We are not yet at the Promised Land, but we are a heck of a lot closer because of him.

Addendum (2008.04.13 4:43 pm)

Tracing back through a series of blogs, I found this great news article about Dr. King that pertains to the Wright controversy:

– Kat Liu

Religion, Race, and Reverend Wright

On March 13, a media firestorm began surrounding comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., former pastor of Southside Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. According to FOX News, “Sermon highlights [show] Wright . . . . portraying the country as institutionally racist.” FOX also called Wright’s comments, “anti-American invective.” Some news commentators went a step farther and condemned the entire Trinity United Church of Christ congregation as racist.

By now, many of us are familiar with Wright’s words, which expressed frustration and anger towards the United States government for its role in deaths from HIV/AIDs, the injustices of the Drug War, and the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.

These words have brought to the forefront the unique heritage and spiritual challenges that black Americans of faith carry to their places of worship and meditation. What does it mean to be living in a country whose government has authorized the enslavement, segregation and impoverishment of your race?

On the church’s website, Trinity United Church of Christ describes the congregation’s relationship with God as follows:

“God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.”

As Reverend Al Sharpton said, and as UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford has repeated, “People of color have a history, not a hallucination.” Reverend Wright’s words ministered to the real, legitimate, and righteous anger of congregants whose inherent worth and dignity have been discounted in North America on the basis of racial identity for over half a millennia. The hubbub over Rev. Wright’s expression of this anger has demonstrated that white and black people of faith are sometimes out of touch with one another.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

In conversation at our office, Taquiena Boston, the UUA’s Director of Identity-Based Ministries, spoke about the reasons for segregation in faith communities. “It’s why black people are sitting in black churches and not white churches–because white people do discount the experiences of African Americans, or in some ways require their silence to keep peace, so that [white people] can be comfortable. So when you spend six days a week having to calibrate and monitor and repress, when you come to the place where you’re supposed to be honoring the holy, and when you have an understanding that God sees all, it just wouldn’t do to be hypocritical or silent about the injustices and the oppression that you see operating in your life every day.”

Unitarian Universalist Reverend Kathleen McTigue addressed this same issue at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in her February sermon A Way Out of No Way: The Black Church in America. “Where we stand affects what we will see and how we will see it,” McTigue observed. “The undeniable truth is that the default center of our nation – in terms of power, language, definitions, history, money, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That ‘something’ has resided for generations in the black church.”

Ministers speak to the issues which congregation members confront in their lives. Experiences of economic and racial injustice may be a greater part of congregation members’ daily reality and consciousness in some churches than in others. As one member of Trinity’s congregation said to ABC News, “I wouldn’t call [Rev. Wright’s words] radical. I call it being black in America.”

The words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright embody a powerful, prophetic convergence of race, class, politics, and faith that have inspired both feelings of joy and affirmation, and feelings of shock and discomfort. If we wish to grow in our relationships with one another, we must be willing to listen to things that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Developing an anti-racist consciousness is a powerful experience, and as any anti-racist person of color or anti-racist white person could tell you, it is often neither easy nor comfortable. Listening to the pain of others, acknowledging your part in it, sharing your own pain, and asking others to acknowledge your truth is one of the most difficult processes for human beings to undertake together. It is also one of the most worthwhile.

We as a nation cannot effectively address the economic and ethical challenges that face us without listening to the experiences of those in our country who have been discounted and marginalized. We must learn how the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination has put and continues to put black people and all people of color at an economic disadvantage. Reflecting on reconciliation, Reverend Sinkford said, “Race and class in this country are inextricably intertwined. If our work for racial justice does not engage with the realities of class it is doomed to fail. Likewise, if we try to reconcile class inequities without acknowledging race, those efforts are equally doomed.”

As an anti-racist ally who has lobbied against the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity, I am moved by Wright’s bold condemnation of injustice in the criminal justice system.

As an advocate for economic equality who has volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, I experience a feeling of sorrowful affirmation upon hearing Wright’s critique that the United States government has at times treated its citizens of color as less than human.

As a citizen of the United States, I feel pride that our faith leaders can publicly urge the government to greater accountability.

And as a Unitarian Universalist, I view Reverend Wright’s insights about race and class in our nation as a part of our second source of faith: “the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“It feels to me,” Sinkford said on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2007, “that Unitarian Universalists have been stuck around the issue of race for far too long.”

The recent media storm around race is a challenge to people of faith to listen, to hear, and to get unstuck.

“It is not racism to name this truth [of the reality of racism and white privilege],” Rev. Kathleen McTigue wrote in her sermon. “It is a form of racism, I believe, to ignore it. Talking about race is difficult. Listening to the experience of those who have suffered racism is painful. But this listening is what black UU minister Mark Morrison has called “a passive act of power.” He said, ‘To open ourselves to that which we know will be painful is an act of strength.’ May we choose that act of strength. May we listen. May we respond.”


Working the Gears of Democracy

If you live in a state that has already participated in the Primary Election season, and your state holds primaries (as opposed to caucuses), what you may have witnessed is something like this: long lines of agitated voters, older poll workers who move slowly, and possibly difficulties casting your ballot.

I should know, I was there. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia hosted their regional primary yesterday—the so called “Potomac Primary” or the “Chesapeake Primary”, or even the “Crab Cake Primary.” I was there, working the polls.

Working the gears of Democracy was hard. But it was worth it. I would not have traded the experience for anything. Working for democracy was absolutely amazing. I met neighbors. I learned things about their families, friends and faith communities. I met young and old alike. I met people from black, white, Latino and Asian communities. Experienced voters and first-timers, born citizens, new residents and recent immigrants, they all came together to vote-as Americans. It was beautiful.

While I was working the polls, I had the whole day to think of ways to make the voting process smoother. These include, but are not limited to:

Making Election Day a national holiday
Implementing same day voter registration
Opening up the closed primary system

But what would have really made the day go smoother and easier would not require policy change at all. Instead, it would require a one day sacrifice of over 500,000 extra people.

I say 500,000 because an Associated Press article from 2004 reported that The United States lacked a total of 500,000 poll workers. A half a million poll workers who could help people cast their ballots in a safe and accurate matter.

In a world of hanging chads, and miscount ballots, and people turned away from the door, it’s easy to posit vast government conspiracies between Diebold, the Supreme Court and Karl Rove. But, think of a world in which there were enough passionate, engaged, and competent people to fully staff all the polls in America and just how differently our elections would look. Imagine every voter knowing to check their chads. Imagine enough people to accurately count ballots. And imagine enough workers to inform all voters their rights.

This is not to demean my fellow poll workers. But let’s face it, we were outnumbered. There were just 5 of us, working a total of 8 positions. There were many more people voting than we expected–more than 700 people in a six block radius came to vote. For thirteen hours, I worked on my feet, often forgoing meals to help people cast their ballot. We had retired women working the entire day as quickly and accurately as they could—even when people a third their age were yelling at them. These hard working poll workers made this whole thing work.

That is why I am urging you to sacrifice one day of your time to volunteer at the polls for your next elections. It gives you an opportunity to work for democracy, help your neighbors and be part of history. Please call your local board of elections to find out how you could work the polls for your next election. I’ll be there!

Happy Darwin Day

Most people know today as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. What you might not know is that the man who saved the Union shares his birthday (to the year) with the man who proposed natural selection as the driving force for evolution. February 12th is “Darwin Day,” promoted by some as an “international celebration of science and humanity,” mainly in reaction against those that favor creationism/intelligent design.

As a former biologist, there is no doubt in my mind that the diversity of life on earth today came about by evolution. The common genetic origins that we share with all living organisms is seen not just in evolutionary theory but also genetics, developmental biology, molecular and cellular biology… In short, all of biology points to this unifying explanation. Even so, I would not normally be holding up Charles Darwin’s birthday as something particularly important to note. So why am I doing it now?

Yesterday, February 11th, the Florida Department of Education held its final public hearing on new state-wide science standards that would supercede any policies at the local levels. The proposed standards, which have been favorably received by teachers and scientists, would make the teaching of evolution a required part of Florida’s science education for the first time. This little fact drew people from all over the state to testify both in favor and against the proposed state standards. The controversy was so great that it eclipsed discussion on any other aspect of the proposed standards.

While I appreciate their sincerity, the arguments presented against the teaching of evolution show a fundamental lack of understanding of science and highlight the desperate need for improved science education. People argued that the word “theory” means it’s unproven, ignoring the fact that science doesn’t use the term that way. Few people go around disputing the theory of gravity, for example.

Nor do proponents of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms understand that while “God did it” is a valid theory, it is not a valid scientific theory. The assumption seems to be that “science teaches the truth and since I believe that creationism is true, science should teach it.” In reality, science describes the natural world and thus has no room for supernatural explanations. Science is not saying that there is no God; it makes no statement about God whatsoever.

One seemingly open-minded suggestion was that kids should be exposed to “all theories of creation,” and then free to decide which one they like best. That is great on a personal level. Every one of us is free to decide what we will and will not believe. However, we are not free to decide what is science and what is not science. Science is determined by an objective set of standards, not by subjective feeling nor popular vote.

Most shocking of all in this debate was the revelation that twelve county school districts in Florida have passed resolutions against the teaching of evolution in schools. Yes, twelve. First, I had no idea, after the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, that it was still possible to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. (What exactly does this mean? – will teachers be arrested or fired for teaching science?) Second, I would have thought that something like this would have received more attention than it has. A school board here and there is a blip; twelve school boards in one state is a movement. Yet so far, I’ve only been able to find scant mention of it in local Florida newspapers.

The Florida State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new science standards on Feb 19th. On this Darwin Day, let us pray that it votes to uphold education for future generations.

Super Tuesdays and Religious Tests

As I read Super Tuesday coverage this morning, I was struck by a short piece in The Washington Post (“Dirty Tricks, Version 2.0: E-Mail Sent to Friends“) that examines the relatively new practice of sending misleading, smear-based emails shortly before a vote. Sadly—but not surprisingly—many of these attacks have strongly religious themes. I decided to use this as an opportunity for Constitutional reflection.

Article VI of our US Constitution is an interesting one. The first two (of three total) clauses establish the authority of the new federal government and Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land.” The third clause, though it seems to address a different issue entirely, contains three very important words:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

No religious test. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, although the “no religious test” clause was “a dramatic departure from prevailing state governmental restrictions,” [it] was adopted with relatively little debate” (link to blog) at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I’ve read through various legal and historical analysis of the clause, and one thing stands out: while it proscribes formal religious tests, as might be applied by a government body such as a legislature or court, there’s no legal or practical way to make it binding on individual voters. And so I ask: even without legal authority, should not applying a religious test be a widely-accepted social norm among voters? If so, what are we doing to make it so?

I’d like to suggest that we start with personal reflection. Consider: If I were running for office, how would I explain how my religious values relate to my political and policy views? How might a religious fundamentalist answer this question differently, and what’s the significance of those differences to me? Does it matter, for example, if a candidate cites a religious text as a source? Why or why not?

I will wrestle with these questions myself in the coming weeks. As we develop answers, I think we’ll have a better sense of both what it’s like to be a candidate and how we can talk to family, friends, and colleagues about the role of religion—and religious tests—in elections.

In faith,

Rob Keithan

PS: In February the Unitarian Universalist Association will release updated election-year resources, including information on relevant IRS guidelines and how to mobilize your congregation to register, educate, and get out the vote.