Slaveholders had economic incentives to maintain their abominable institution, encouraged by the blessing of southern clergy and politicians who biblically justified the morality of human slavery. Rev. Richard Furman, from my hometown of Charleston, was the first president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and founder of the university that bears his name. Said Furman, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, added, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” Many northern progressive Christians were abolitionists, they would have lost handily in biblical debates against southern religious literalists.

Today Abraham Lincoln is revered for what he accomplished, and the humanist principle that it is morally wrong for one person to own another is commonly accepted.

Charles Darwin, on the other hand, is far from universally respected in the United States, where too many religious authorities still treat the Bible as a science book. We wouldn’t expect scientifically ignorant biblical writers who lived thousands of years ago in a small corner of the Mediterranean to have described the theory of evolution (or DNA, or any discovery of modern science), and they didn’t. What we do find in the Bible is a flat, unmoving Earth at the center of a 6,000 year-old universe, and the whole number three as the true value of pi [1 Kings 7:23]. The modern scientific theory of evolution conflicts with Genesis, and describes how natural selection can easily explain our existence without need for a divine creator.

When I was young, public schools were closed on Darwin’s birthday, though the official reason was to commemorate the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Now there is a growing movement to publicly celebrate February 12 as Darwin Day. But instead of closing schools, I’d like to see it become a day for students to study and explore the great scientific discoveries that spring from Darwin’s work.