Tennessee Goes Monkey Again

Apr 2, 2012

It’s been a great couple weeks in Tennessee – unless you happen to be a public school student, gay, or not a fundamentalist Christian, or the time horizon in which you think about the future of humanity and the environment extends beyond the next decade or two. On March 26, the state legislature passed a bill that will have the intended effect of inserting creationism and climate science denial into public school classrooms. Just a week earlier, on March 19th, the House passed a bill to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings (HB2658). And Tennessee is currently debating a bill that is intended to give schoolyard bullies an exemption from the law if their bullying happens to be motivated by “sincerely held” religious bigotry.

The creationism bill is rich in historic irony. Four score and seven years ago, a Tennessee high school biology teacher named John Scopes was charged with the crime of teaching evolution. At the time, Tennessee had an anti-evolution law, known as the Butler Act, in honor of John W. Butler, the leader of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. Trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, of his involvement in the case, “I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it – religious fanaticism.”

Back then, press coverage portrayed the fundamentalist groups backing the anti-Darwin forces as anti-intellectual, chauvinistic – the “sharpshooters of bigotry,” in Darrow’s words. The widely accepted view was that those who supported the teaching of creationism in public education were motivated by fear, superstition, and prejudice. They represented an obstruction of modernity and progress that was construed as un-American. The fallout was so toxic that Christian fundamentalism retreated as a political force for decades.

The recently passed bill in Tennessee was opposed by pretty much every credible organization involved in the teaching of biology, including the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences. But the legislators of Tennessee obviously knew better.

The interesting question that comes up in light of Tennessee’s storied history as a center for biological ignorance is: why does it seem that we have moved backwards on this subject? There are a number of cultural and social forces at work, of course, but there is a much cruder and more effective force at work too: money. Creationism is now only part of teaching about supposed “scientific controversies” that the Tennessee bill wishes to address; the other part is climate science.

The new Tennessee legislation, which has been given the Orwellian title, The Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, is based on model legislation provided by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate lobbying group that takes the view that human activity plays little to no role in harmful climate change, and that EPA regulations are a “train wreck.” ALEC’s sponsors include, among others, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, United Healthcare, and Koch Industries.

The person overseeing the ALEC committee that adopted the model legislation, Alexandra “Sandy” Liddy Bourne, who happens to be the daughter of notorious Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy, left ALEC some time ago to work for the Heartland Institute—a climate science denial group that recently gained some notoriety when internal memos detailing its cynical strategies for manipulating public opinion and public school science curricula were leaked. The calculus of the corporate sponsors behind the Tennessee anti-science bill and others like it (yes, there are more such bills in other states) seems pretty straightforward: The less the public knows, the more money ALEC sponsors make. Which may be true, if your time horizon is short enough.

Tennessee’s anti-bullying—rather, anti-anti-bullying—legislation involves a kind of irony that is a little sadder than that of the anti-science bill. It is important to note that Tennessee already has some anti-bullying laws on its books. The state and its schools have acknowledged that bullying is a problem and that something should be done about it. As well they should: last December, a young man named Jacob Rogers became the latest public high school student to kill himself after being relentlessly bullied in his Tennessee high school for being gay. The intention of the new bill—introduced just one month after Jacob’s suicide – is to carve out an exemption for those bullies who can lay claim to a sincere religious motivation for their hatred.

In its hectic month defending the rights of pious bullies, the rights of those who don’t want to know anything about science, and the rights of the representatives of the majority religion to stamp their doctrines over public property, the Tennessee legislature has done us the service of raising an interesting question. Why is it that the people who are so hostile to science also seem to be hostile to gays, to children, and especially to gay children? Why is it that creationists are always the ones who are most convinced that God did not create any LGBTs? And why is it that the people who are most frightened at the prospect that their school might expose their children to the reality that some of their fellow students are LGBT are so often the same ones who don’t want their children exposed to the realities of evolution?

If short-term money is the fuel behind the Tennessee rampage, it seems pretty obvious that what Darrow called “religious fanaticism” is the fire. All of which goes to show that just as science provides an ever-increasing wealth of opportunities to enrich the mind, so ignorance multiplies its damages without limit.

Written By: Katherine Stewart
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