Creationists' Last Stand at the State Board of Education
Raymond Bohlin holds a doctorate in molecular biology. He received his master's degree in population genetics, the study of how adaptation and speciation is expressed by DNA. In other words, he possesses more than a passing knowledge about the theory of evolution. At the University of North Texas, he participated in research revealing that colonies of pocket gophers in Oklahoma and Texas, once indistinguishable, had diverged somewhere along the way into two identifiably distinct species.
In a way, so had Bohlin. He never accepted the hypothesis central to his discipline, hardened in the crucible of 150 years of experimentation, validated by the advent of modern genetics. He could not believe that evolutionary mechanisms could account for the dizzying complexity he saw in the living world. It was easier for him to detect the work of some unseen force — a designer's hand guiding a spontaneous appearance of species — behind the rise of complex life. It's the sort of completely untestable idea that doesn't gain much traction among the editors and reviewers of scholarly journals.
And so, according to his own list of published work, Bohlin's name was never attached to another peer-reviewed scientific study after his paper on gophers in 1982. Faith in a theory for which there is no experiment turned out to be a dead end. Yet he may be the only creationist to have participated in naming a new species, which is exactly what makes him so valuable to a movement that has worked for decades to scrub Charles Darwin from Texas public schools.
Email the author at email@example.com.
On a recent morning in Plano, Bohlin stood beneath a chandelier made of antlers, roughly the size of a small truck, in the Hope Center — some 185,000 square feet of hunting-lodge style, rough-hewn rock façade, rustic leather furniture and exposed wooden beams. It houses more than 40 separate Christian organizations in a complex on Plano Parkway, including Bohlin's own Probe Ministries. On the second floor, Probe fights for the everlasting souls of American youth from a warren of offices, balustered by rising stacks of science textbooks and Christian literature.
Bohlin looks like a college biology professor, pale, square-jawed, peering out through glasses beneath an Indiana Jones fedora emblazoned with the words "Grand Canyon." It's actually the subject of one of his trademark lectures. He takes his audience on a virtual tour of our national testament to unfathomable geologic time and offers explanations for how the biblical flood may have created it far later than mainstream science would have them believe.
He grew up a Catholic boy on Chicago's south side, destined for the priesthood. He ended up a zoology undergrad at the University of Illinois, where he daydreamed about becoming a park ranger and living a life of solitude. That all changed when he befriended a group of evangelical Christians. Bohlin was fascinated by this passionate strain of belief. He adopted its vibrant spirituality as his own, though he wondered how he should reconcile God with the theory at the root of every life science course he enrolled in. The Catholic Church had long since come to the conclusion that evolution need not contradict faith. Many evangelicals, however, still look upon it as a repudiation of a Bible meant to be taken literally.
In the school library one day, he struck upon the answer to the questions that deviled him. He picked up a book written by Henry Morris, a Rice University civil engineering professor credited for being the "father of modern creation science." Morris opened Bohlin's eyes to what he says was the only scientific rationale he'd ever seen for the six-day creation of earth.
"That raised questions in my head," he says. "I got fascinated by it."
In 1975, he connected with Probe Ministries, a group of campus evangelists who hoped to challenge secularism on its home turf. Bohlin desperately wanted to join them, to spread the gospel of evolution's fallacies. But to take his place in that fight, he needed to understand what he hoped to disprove. "They said, 'You just have a bachelor's degree.' When I got to Probe, my education began immediately. If I'm going to be a critic of evolution, I have to make sure I understand in detail how it's supposed to work."
Bohlin invested years of his life in the graduate program at North Texas and the molecular biology doctoral program at the University of Texas at Dallas, absorbing everything he must refute. While his fellow students accepted a theory that had stood unchallenged by science for more than a century, Bohlin believed he alone was capable of assessing evolution with a critical eye. He admits, though, that his conclusions may already have been deeply entrenched. To alter his view of creation, he says, "would have required a major shift in personal and professional connections with people."
Outside the halls of academia, meanwhile, secularism was spreading before his eyes. "The Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe are museums," he says. "They gave in to that culture war for whatever reason. We can see the seeds of that same process here. These seeds are already germinating in some parts of the country."
To beat back creeping secularism, Bohlin now ministers to Christian high school students, putting on seminars to "arm" them for the godless worldview that will pervade their college education. He teaches them about "current problems with evolution" like the "sudden appearance" of species and the "gaps" in the fossil record, all better explained, he says, by the supernatural, by a "design motif." Biologists have long attested that such "gaps," where they exist, are better explained by organisms that do not readily fossilize than by the divine materialization of whole species. Paleontologists have unearthed incredible troves of transitional fossils bridging the divide.
But there were other ways for Bohlin to reach these college-bound believers — ways to affect the discussion on a scale his ministry never could. His great investment in a field he entered to debunk had led him to the Texas State Board of Education, where he was appointed to be an expert reviewer of high-school biology textbooks.
This, he believes, is where the war against secularism will be won or lost.
"If we were to interview 100 individuals who were raised in the church, believed everything and have since fallen away, I bet a majority would say at least that the things they learned in science class were a part of that pulling away," he says.
"I think there is a definite need and, in Texas, a definite opportunity to have an influence that goes beyond the people I can speak to in a lifetime."
If public high school texts identified the "gaps" he saw so clearly in the theory of evolution, it would be a victory sorely needed for a movement that had spent the last few decades backpedaling from court ruling after adverse court ruling. If, along with the other like-minded reviewers, he could add the presence of alternatives to Darwin, they would be distributed in Texas high school classrooms for a decade or more.
In pitched battles to shape the curriculum, board of education members and interest groups have attempted to filter public education through lenses both religious and ideological. Beneath the banner of science and critical thought, they've called upon well-educated ministers like Bohlin to press their personal religious beliefs on reluctant textbook publishers. And for decades, the publishers acquiesced, fearing a freeze-out from the lucrative Texas market.
But highly placed stakeholders — ranging from those in publishing to sitting board members — believe the culture warriors are losing the ability to run roughshod over state education. After years of alienating the Legislature, the state board has seen its influence weakened. A changing textbook marketplace has eroded Texas' clout, and technology is sweeping into the classroom, bringing with it the next generation of learning materials. The statewide reach of the culture warriors is ending.
The biggest test will take place when the state board considers a new high-school biology text next week. Another will follow in the ensuing months, as it takes up a new social studies text. How the state board and publishers respond to Bohlin's critiques, to his evolutionary "gaps," will determine whether the innuendo of God lingers in classroom discussions about evolution. It will determine whether the political ideology of an elected board shapes, by omission and addition, the history of America Texas students will learn for years hence.
Fighting over religion in public education is practically an American pastime. We've been doing it for more than a century, at least. Take the Nativist groups in Philadelphia. In 1844, they began spreading baseless rumors about a Catholic initiative to remove the Bible from public schools. In the midst of an economic downturn, this inflamed Protestant animus toward a growing Irish immigrant population. Riots broke out. Two Catholic churches were torched.
Nobody's burning houses of worship over education nowadays, but the fear of secularism and modernity remains as potent as ever. Yet it wasn't until the Gablers came along that this fear took shape in Texas and assumed power. To look at them, you would never have guessed that Mel and Norma Gabler inspired both respect and terror in the hearts of the country's biggest textbook publishers throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s. Mel, a retired Exxon clerk, looked like a deacon in a small-town Baptist church. And Norma, who raised their children, could have been anyone's favorite grandmother.
In their Longview home, every corner was given over to barricading walls of textbooks. A paper stop sign hung from the front window, telegraphing their intention to halt the relativist takeover of what they believed was a world of absolutes. As their well-known origin story goes, son Jim found that a printed version of the Gettysburg Address differed from the photograph of the document itself in his encyclopedia. Most troubling, the printed version omitted "under God." He showed this to his father, who began leafing through Jim's textbooks, searching for other errors. He was outraged by what he found. And he learned that he could make his voice heard through a little-used citizen textbook review process. Gabler set to ferreting out errors and dispatched Mrs. Gabler to Austin in 1962 to serve as his proxy before the state board of education.
She told Bill Martin, a University of Texas professor who wrote a 1987 Texas Monthly profile of the couple, that she'd never traveled that far on her own before.
She arrived with a lengthy catalog of falsehoods, many glaring and legitimate (no, we did not drop an atom bomb during the Korean War, she correctly pointed out). It was the '60s, in a deeply patriarchal society, and along came this diminutive housewife from East Texas, who had no college degree and was clearly relishing the act of telling pointy-headed New York publishers just what they'd gotten wrong. And because she was so often right, they had no choice but to listen. The Gablers founded Educational Research Analysts in 1961. Funded through donations, they hired serious-minded believers like Neal Frey, a professor at a small Christian liberal arts college in New York, to help them page through mountains of material. In a 12-by-15-foot bedroom next to the garage in the Gablers' house, Frey and a colleague spent as much as two months sifting through each textbook, searching not just for purely factual errors, but keeping an eye out for what they deemed relativist erosions of traditional, Judeo-Christian morality, free-market principles, patriotism and abstinence-only sex education. They decried a history textbook that paired Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian who sparked the Reformation, with Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon. "Martin Luther was a religiously dedicated, nonviolent man," the Gablers complained in one objection.
In a passage about the women's movement for equal pay, Gabler warned that it could come only at the expense of their greatest calling: "molding young lives."
They were deeply opposed to evolution being taught to the exclusion of other possibilities. "Most people do not consider themselves animals," Gabler wrote. In 1970, the state board issued an "anti-dogmatism" proclamation, threatening to reject any text that didn't include a statement affirming that evolution was a theory, not a fact, and only one of several possible explanations for the proliferation of species. Some publishers responded by simply excising any mention of the word "evolution."
"They believed that if you turn away from absolutes, you are on your way to turning away from God entirely. The Gablers were the first people to have taken this on in such a systematic way," Martin, who chronicled the Gablers' fight in the '80s, tells the Observer. "And nobody else had anything like the kind of impact they had."
Adoption by the state board at the time was vital to the success of a textbook, and publishers were willing to make almost any changes to earn a spot on Texas' restrictive list of five approved textbooks per subject. With Texas, publishers could recoup the cost of production in a single state. Everything else after that was profit. It also meant that the peccadilloes of special interests like Mel and Norma Gabler reverberated not just through the Lone Star State but through much of the country.
Norma and Mel Gabler never became complacent. They never rested on their laurels, basking in victory and the outsize scale of their influence. Said Neal Frey, the man who took over the Gablers' Educational Research Analysts: "One of the aspects of Gabler's genius is that he knew this battle is never finally won. It has to be refought. Our opponents never go away. We're not going to either."
Big money came to the state board in the form of a pediatric dentist from San Antonio named Bob Offutt. In 1992, he was elected with the help of his benefactor, James Leininger, founder of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Leininger made his fortune selling high-tech hospital beds. He made his mark on the state by pushing tort reform and injecting heretofore unheard of amounts of cash into state board education elections. He was also, by no coincidence, a staunch advocate for a school voucher system.
From then on, the sideshow at the state board wasn't just the public testimony, it was the state board itself. Offutt wasted no time picking up the Gablers' standard. He invited testimony before the board from Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum. He railed against political correctness and homosexuality. And in 1994, he transformed the state board from a body known mostly as a forum for Gabler-like protests against evolution and sex education into the most ideologically driven and divided deliberative body in Texas. Almost overnight, Offutt brought knock-down-drag-out politics to once quiet races.
With Leininger's backing and infrastructure, he chose uncompromising, hyper-conservative candidates. In one race, they used Leininger's direct-mail company to distribute leaflets depicting a black man and a white woman, both half-naked and kissing, to mailboxes in East Texas. It accused the Democratic incumbent, a churchgoing grandmother, of attempting to teach oral and anal sex to school children. When the polls closed, the state board had won its first Republican majority.
The board demanded abstinence-only health textbooks and succeeded in excising a line drawing of a woman performing a breast self-exam. In another book, they objected to a photo of a woman carrying a briefcase in favor of one with another woman removing a cake from the oven.
When Congress passed Goals 2000 — the forerunner to No Child Left Behind — the board bucked Governor George W. Bush, who was in favor of the grant program. They loudly decried it as a federal takeover of Texas schools. Perhaps in response, Bush backed an education reform bill in 1995, relieving the state board of its absolute power over textbook content and selection. School districts had always been limited to the state board's approved list of textbooks if they wanted state money. Those days were over. There would be no more highly circumscribed lists. The only determination the political body was allowed to make was whether the books covered the curriculum, were factually accurate and met manufacturing standards.
The legislation, shepherded by Senator Bill Ratliff, was aimed, he said, at giving local control back to school districts. One size didn't fit Dallas any more than it might San Angelo. But it was difficult not to see a stern reprimand to an unruly and, lately, embarrassing state board.
If this was meant to be a lesson, though, the state board ignored it. If it couldn't find a factual justification for rejecting a textbook that met curriculum standards, the board would manufacture the shortcoming. In 1996, newly elected member David Bradley was dissatisfied with an algebra text, based partially on a reference in the book to women's suffrage. On the whole, it was a perfectly sound text. So, with no other recourse, he tore its cover off during a public hearing and held the pieces before a flabbergasted audience. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "worthless binding. I reject this book."
Bradley was moderate compared with board members to come. Once again, James Leininger stepped in to underwrite the campaigns of a new generation of hardline candidates. In 2006, Republicans won 10 of 15 seats. Among them was Cynthia Dunbar, a firebrand who got her law degree at Pat Robertson's Regent University. She homeschooled her children. If you read her book, One Nation Under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great, you'd know why. She believes public education is "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion." Any parent who'd send their child to one might as well toss them "into the enemy's flames even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch."
Thus, the tone for the adoption of a new statewide curriculum was set.
Governor Rick Perry appointed Don McLeroy, a dentist and young-earth creationist from Bryan, to serve as chairman. McLeroy, in turn, named Bill Ames to a writing team made up of educators charged with setting the social studies curriculum. The former IBM exec, Texas Minuteman and Eagle Forum member believed his fellow team members were liberal plants. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is synonymous with unsubstantiated red-baiting, should be treated as an "American hero," in Ames' view.
"Listen very closely to Bill Ames," McLeroy instructed the educators. "He speaks for a lot of Texas citizens."
With the team at an impasse, the board appointed a panel of experts to shepherd the process. Among them was David Barton, the former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and founder of Wallbuilders Inc., whose sole purpose is to disprove the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state. Joining him was Peter Marshall, a minister from Massachusetts, who believes Watergate, Hurricane Katrina and the Vietnam War are the nation's penance for sexual lasciviousness.
As the board hammered out a science curriculum, the atmosphere was no less charged. Students would have to "analyze and evaluate" all sides of the climate-change debate. Any reference to the age of the earth was stricken.
McLeroy hoped to include a requirement that students consider the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. It was the best a young-earth creationist could hope to get into public schools. A U.S. Supreme Court decision found that teaching creationism was unconstitutional. Later, a federal judge reached the same conclusion about its scientific-sounding successor, intelligent design. In Dover, Pennsylvania, school board officials provided an intelligent design textbook called Of Pandas and People, authored by the Discovery Institute, a religious think tank of which Raymond Bohlin is a fellow. It was part of the board's new requirement that students be told of theories contradicting evolution. The plaintiff in the lawsuit — a mother of a student — argued that intelligent design was creationism gussied up with a patina of science.
Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy professor, found evidence that it was in fact religion in a lab coat when she discovered an earlier draft of Of Pandas and People. It was nearly identical to the newest edition in the library touting intelligent design, apart from some typos. Apparently, while the Discovery Institute was hastily replacing the word "creationists" in the text with "design proponents," they created a mash-up: "cdesign proponentsists."
This slip-up as much as anything else contributed to the ruling that dealt the movement to keep God in science yet another massive setback.
McLeroy would have to subsist on semantics and doubt-seeding. But the idea of asking high-school students to judge the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution spurred the science community into action. Beneath the glare of national attention, his measure failed by a single vote.
In McLeroy's infamous call to arms, he implored his colleagues: "Somebody's gotta stand up to these experts!"
Bohlin offered testimony, contending that there were limits to the kind of change wrought by evolution, which could not account for the complexity of life on earth. He succeeded in requiring that students "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." It was a major victory for McLeroy and the hardliners on the board.
But the curriculum-adoption antics were seen as yet another embarrassing episode, and a weary Legislature signaled its disapproval when the Texas Senate adjourned without reappointing McLeroy as chairman.
And in 2011, lawmakers dealt a second blow to the state board's authority. Now, not only was it no longer allowed to edit textbooks for content, it had lost all control over the purse strings. School districts would be allowed to pull from the textbook and materials fund and purchase whatever they chose to — laptops, open-source materials developed by universities — so long as they covered the curriculum.
The same year, McLeroy was unseated by Senator Bill Ratliff's son, Thomas. It could not have gone unnoticed that the man who'd escalated the culture wars lost to the son of a senator who'd pushed through the first legislation to curb the state board's excesses.
Ray Bohlin isn't allowed to discuss his review of a Pearson high-school biology text, but the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that has long opposed the "Christian Right's" incursion into public schools, secured a leaked copy this summer. In it, he questioned the link between carbon dioxide and a warming planet. He claimed the text repeatedly fails to "grapple with the accumulating and contrary and refuting evidence" against climate change and human evolution.
In a section about molecules and the origins of life, he chided the textbook authors, Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University and Dr. Joseph Levine, course director for the Organization for Tropical Studies, for what he characterized as an outdated presentation of the science, urging them to "catch up." He suggested they read Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell but neglected to mention that Meyer is a colleague of his at the Discovery Institute, and that the book's full title is actually Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. In a review written by the journal Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith, which has long promoted theistic evolution, Meyer's book was panned as "a layman's attempt to overturn an entire field of research based on a surface-level understanding (and, at times, significant misunderstanding or ignorance) of the relevant science, published in a form that bypasses review by qualified peers, and that is marketed directly to a non-specialist audience. This is not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense."
Another reviewer of a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt text, a dietician at Texas A&M, felt "very firmly that 'Creation science' based on Biblical principles should be incorporated in every Biology textbook up for adoption."
Teaching creationism in public schools has been unconstitutional for more than 25 years.
In a separate review of the same Pearson text — one of the most widely used textbooks in the country — the panel recommended rejection. Among the panelists was Ide Trotter, an ardent believer in intelligent design and a chemical engineer by training. Dr. Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University anthropology professor, called the review a "rant" laced with "non-sequiturs."
It's the only strategy proponents of creationism and intelligent design have left, he says. "There are no intelligent people on the side of creationism who are still urging the teaching of creationism in form or function," Wetherington tells the Observer. "It's not worth it for them to do that, so they're putting all their eggs in the basket of undermining evolution."
That's where Bohlin and the gaps in the fossil record he touts come in.
Trotter, for his part, agrees that intelligent design can't be advanced by the strength of faith. "When you argue a technical matter and evoke theological reasoning, it discredits your argument," he says. "There's no reason to do that when science is going your way."
It's too early to tell whether, in this textbook adoption, the wind is beginning to turn in Trotter's direction. So far, Pearson hasn't been willing to bend. "I reviewed the publisher's response to this. In this particular case, the publisher said, 'Up yours, we're not going to change anything,'" Wetherington said.
The true test of whether the culture wars will be recapitulated comes with the state board of education's response to Pearson's defiance when it votes on science texts November 22. Thomas Ratliff, the board's vice chair, says the bad old days have passed. "I don't think you'll see those revisions make it into the books," Ratliff says. "I don't think the votes are there, and I think [the reviewers] are one of residual leftovers from the previous board."
But even if a hardline faction on the board does have the votes, school districts are free to make their own purchasing decisions now, so what's the practical effect of the board's vote? A thorough vetting from the state board still represents a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that smaller districts will rely on to ensure their books meet Texas' curriculum standards. The board's vote will be influential for years to come, but is no longer the edict in once was.
That's why publishers are less willing to make scientifically and historically challenged revisions to their books to appease a small coterie of partisans. "The new system has emboldened publishers. There's no question about that," says the author of a popular biology text, who asked to remain unidentified while his book is under consideration. "Previously, if you weren't approved by the state board of education, you did not sell books in Texas. When Texas adopts, it can amount to 40 percent of your national sales. For sales staff in the past, if you didn't get approved in Texas, those people starved. This year, even if a program is not approved, or is labeled non-conforming, it's more of a free-market situation."
National curricula like Common Core, adopted now by all but five states (among them Texas) have created far larger potential markets. As schools rely increasingly on digital materials, the doors to the classroom will be flung open to content from providers outside of the major publishing houses. "The people who are interested in affecting this have to deal with the here and now because they don't know what will be in place eight to 10 years from now when the [textbook adoption] cycle begins again," said lobbyist David Anderson, a former vice president at publisher Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
To influence what winds up on students' desks, school districts may become just as important, if not more so, than the state board. The trouble is, there are more than a thousand of them in Texas. "From a statewide perspective, this will be their last big shot," said Mavis Knight, the state board member from Dallas.
What then becomes of Bohlin's war for souls? And is that a war the culture warriors could ever concede, no matter how difficult it becomes? "What matters is: What difference does my review make?" he says. "If I'm feeling like most of the school districts are ignoring what I did anyway, I think even the state board would have to review whether it's even worth it."
Barbara Forrest, the professor who found the smoking gun in early drafts of Of Pandas and People, unearthed something else not too long ago: A fundraising document not meant for public consumption that laid out the Discovery Institute's long game. If we were not created in God's image, separate and apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, what are we? This understanding, they write, is the bedrock of democracy, free enterprise and human rights.
"Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of science. Debunking both the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral, spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry and environment. This materialistic conception of reality infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art."
They saw this moral crumbling in product liability lawsuits and welfare and criminal justice at a time when "personal responsibility" lost meaning in an atavistic culture.
The institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which counts Bohlin as a fellow, sought "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."
"If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is to function as a wedge that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied to its weakest points."
It details five-, 10- and 20-year plans to see intelligent design become the dominant theory. They're looking far beyond whatever victories or losses they receive in Texas. They're looking to a future in which faith and science are indistinguishable, and where faith and society are inextricable.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.