Anti-Evolution: The Conservative War on Education that Failed

This excerpt from a longer article is reposted from History News Network with the author’s permission. The full article was published in the November 23, 2021 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Anti-Evolution: The Conservative War on Education that Failed

by Adam Laats

In the recent governor’s race in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin scored a huge upset win days after promising to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools. Youngkin is hardly the only Republican calling for school bans. In Texas, Representative Matt Krause sent a letter to school administrators about books in their district. Did they have Ta-Nehisi Coates on their shelves? Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste? How about LGBT Families, by Leanne K. Currie-McGhee? Or any of about 850 other books that might, in Krause’s words, “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex”?

Beyond Texas, beyond Virginia, the prospect of banning books and ideas from public schools has GOP strategists smelling electoral blood. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to turn school bans into a winning issue for Republicans in 2022, sketching a “parental bill of rights” to protect kids from troubling ideas about race and sex.

These efforts have a history. Back in the 1920s, the vague term that galvanized conservative angst was not critical race theory but evolution. Conservative pundits at the time seized on a cartoonish misrepresentation of evolutionary science and warned their fellow Americans that “evolution” was nothing less than a sinister plot to rob white American children of their religion, their morals, and their sense of innate superiority.

But although the school bans might have changed some school curricula in the short term, in the long run, they backfired. Telling parents you don’t want their kids to have the best possible public schools is never good politics. A full century ago, the most effective school-ban campaign in American history set the pattern: noise, fury, rancor, and fear, but not much change in what schools actually teach.

In the 1920s, the idea of evolution wasn’t new. Charles Darwin’s bombshell book about natural selection had been published 60 years earlier. The outlines of Darwin’s theory had become standard fare in school textbooks and curricula, even though the real scientific controversies about the mechanism of natural selection were by no means settled. But the furious campaign to ban evolution had nothing to do with those debates among scientists.

In 1923, T. T. Martin, the “Blue Mountain Evangelist,” preached that “evolution is being drilled into our boys and girls … during the most susceptible, dangerous age of their lives.” Evolution, Martin warned, was not good science but only a plot by “sneering” “high-brows” to inject mandatory atheism into public schools. Martin claimed to have “abundant evidence that the teaching of these text-books is unsettling the faith of thousands of students.”

Hell and the High Schools by T. T. Martin (1922)

“WHAT can be done? Where is our hope? The pussyfooting apologies for the Evolutionists will say “Don’t do anything drastic. Educate the people, and the thing will right itself.” Educate the people? How can we, when Evolutionists have us by the throat? When they have, while we were asleep, captured our tax-supported schools from primary to University, and many of our denominational colleges? “The Philistines be upon thee Samson !” But alas! We have been asleep upon the lap of this Delilah and. have been shorn of our strength-they have captured our schools. But “O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, strengthen me only this once, O God.” “And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up.” So could we. “And he bowed himself with all his might.” So can we. And the strength of God who “created man in his own image” will come into us, and we will slay these Philistines, the greatest curse that has come upon man since God created him in His own image. What is a war, what is an epidemic that sweeps people away by the hundred thousand, compared to this scourge that under the guise of “science,” when it is not science, at all, is sweeping our sons and daughters away from God, away from God’s word, taking from them their Redeemer and Saviour, to spend eternity in hell?”

 

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