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Unintelligent Designs on Academic Freedom

Published at The Spectator

It’s been an unusual week in the academy. The academic freedom that so incensed Bill Buckley as a student at Yale decades ago is now acting to protect a conservative scholar under fire.

Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies hired Francis Beckwith as its Associate Director last summer. Although previously known as a philosopher who had developed powerful critiques of abortion, Beckwith has used the past few years and a research fellowship at Princeton to transform himself into a legal scholar investigating the controversy over public schools and the teaching of human origins. His research culminated in publication of the book, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education.

Here’s where the matter gets a little sticky. Beckwith concludes an alternative to evolution that goes by the name Intelligent Design may be constitutionally taught in public schools. Here’s where it gets a lot sticky. It turns out the Institute’s namesake and founder, J.M. Dawson, was an early proponent of teaching evolution in public schools and an ardent, strict separationist in matters of church and state. Dawson was also instrumental in the formation of the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

After Beckwith testified before the Texas Board of Education as to the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design in schools, Dawson’s descendants (who do not fund the program) decided the good professor should be reassigned because of the possible divergence of his views with those of the patriarch Dawson. They have since written formal letters requesting Beckwith’s removal from the Institute and have vigorously pursued media coverage of their grievance. To date, the story has been featured in the Baptist Press, the Waco Tribune, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reporters from Dallas, Houston, and World Magazine (a Christian version of Time or Newsweek with a surprisingly large circulation) are beginning to sniff around for a good story.

The current flare-up is further evidence that America has never quite gotten over the Scopes Trial. For some citizens, the face-off between Clarence Darrow as the prophet of the Enlightenment and William Jennings Bryan as the withering apostle of a spent Christian faith stands as a holy moment in history. Jews have Mount Sinai. Christians have Calvary. Enlightenment fundamentalists have Darrow brilliantly cross-examining Bryan in a courthouse in Tennessee. In their version of the national myth, people of learning finally overcame the fearsome faithful through the triumph of cold, hard, liberating reason. Moments like that, properly interpreted or not, are hard to let go.

That’s why evolution has always been much more than a scientific issue in America. Darwin’s legacy is fully bound up in the broader American culture war between the self-appointed enlightened and those who insist there’s something else waiting for us behind Curtain number three.

Among those who fail to be convinced of evolution’s status as the final word in the origins controversy are the group of scientists and philosophers in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Design theorists have developed a much more sophisticated critique of evolution than young earth “creation scientists” ever put forward. By raising questions about the information content of DNA and irreducible complexity of even simple life forms, ID’ers have stoked the embers of the nation’s perennial controversy. Beckwith’s examination of ID’s legal status in public education put him squarely in the middle of the hot zone.

IT DOESN’T SEEM TO MATTER to Beckwith’s opponents that his work fits comfortably within the range of rational discourse on the subject of the origins controversy and public schools. Nor does it mitigate the annoyance of Dawson heirs that Dr. Beckwith hasn’t recommended that ID be immediately incorporated into high school curriculums, but merely affirms the constitutionality of doing so. Instead, they repeatedly quote “Church and State,” the house organ of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to support the supposed malignancy of Beckwith’s view. One might object on the basis of the non-objectivity of the source. To be fair, there are legitimate scholars who disagree with Dr. Beckwith, but that’s hardly the basis for escorting the man out of the ballpark.

As a doctoral fellow in the program, I have to ask the following questions. Does Baylor University want to firmly commit its Church-State Studies department to a particular position on Darwinism, Intelligent Design, and public schools? For that matter, should the department follow its namesake and cast its lot with one version of church-state separation known as strict separationism and work essentially as an adjunct to the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State?

It would seem the prudent answer to both of those queries should be in the negative. We are at an exciting point in history where the relationship between church and state is being re-examined in the light of new challenges. What are the possibilities for government-funding of faith-based social services? How does the nation deal with legal issues raised by ever-growing religious pluralism? What role will faith play in a new constitution for Iraq? This is exactly the time for intellectual curiosity and openness in a venerable field of academic inquiry. Attempts to remove a professor for holding “unorthodox views” strike me as stifling and outside the spirit of a university striving to penetrate the top tier of research institutions. Given the further fact that Baylor is explicitly trying to create the most vital center of Christian scholarship in the nation, one imagines the anti-Beckwith efforts will stall out.

So far, Baylor seems up to the challenge and the media scrutiny involved. Public statements by the University’s provost have been supportive of Beckwith’s work and have invoked the now-sacred principle of academic freedom. The idea that protected the mass introduction of the radical left to American university faculties is finally doing a little work for the other side. Mr. Buckley, I know you’re on board with us now.

Hunter Baker is a doctoral fellow in Baylor University’s Church-State Studies Department. He may be contacted via email at