Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2007


Peter Som ´93: A Designing Life

Summer 2007

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Evolution or Intelligent Design?

Evolution or Intelligent Design?

Strong opinions abound in the controversy over evolution versus intelligent design. While the Christian Right and its supporters argue that a biblically based theory of creation should be taught in public schools, counter-groups strongly disagree. To date, partisans on one side or the other have written much of the existing literature on the subject. But Kimberly Richards ´07, a religious studies and government major, has changed that.

In her honor´s study, "The Impact of the Christian Right on Public Science Education," Richards takes an impartial look at this divisive topic. As winner of the 2007 Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for the year´s most outstanding honors study, Richards was lauded at Commencement for developing "an understanding of the relevant theological and social beliefs in a neutral way." She also added to existing literature on the topic by examining the Christian Right´s influence on state and local governments. Previous scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the Christian Right´s national influence.

Serious scholarly attention to evangelical politics is a recent development in political science, says Richards´ advisor Dorothy James, professor of government. "This thesis makes an original contribution by analyzing the movement´s political impact at the state and local levels. Kimberly has done an exceptionally fine job of analyzing and writing the material," says James.
Richards examined case studies from three major state or local areas where the Christian Right was initially successful in influencing science education at the elementary or high school levels: Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

She found that during a period when the Christian Right wielded a great deal of influence in the federal and state political spheres, it appears to have been strikingly unsuccessful in its long-term efforts to push state and local school boards to adopt science curricula that include questioning the theory of evolution and teaching intelligent design as a legitimate alternative theory of creation.

The Christian Right´s initial short-term successes occurred through exceptionally effective development of interest group organization and lobbying techniques focused on electing or re-electing supportive officials, says Richards. But more permanent reversals of those short-term successes came through growing counter-organization by opposing groups and through court decisions.

Richards says it was the intersection of religion, law and politics that drew her to the topic of the Christian Right and school curricula. "I considered a number of topics in this general area — abortion, capital punishment, etc. — but decided on the evolution/intelligent design controversy because far less attention has been paid to it by the national media," she adds.

In the fall, Richards, of Cos Cob, Conn., will begin working on her master´s of theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. "After Harvard, I hope to go to law school, focusing on First Amendment law, particularly church and state issues," she says.

The following is an excerpt from Richards´ thesis:

This disquisition maintains that the Christian Right has had little long-term success in pushing state and local school boards to adopt science curricula that include questioning the theory of evolution and teaching intelligent design as a legitimate alternative theory of creation. This failure is due in part to the fact that, over the past decade, the conservative business sector (formerly a strong ally of the Christian Right) has become increasingly concerned about the relationship between the quality and accuracy of public education and American economic productivity. General concern regarding this relationship has united the scientific and educational community with civil libertarians and Christian denominations whose theology does not consider the Bible to be the literal word of God. This coalition has used interest group organization and the judicial system to counter the Christian Right´s efforts, which have largely been focused on influencing elected officials (state legislators, school board officials, etc). This coalition has had substantial success in blocking the efforts of the Christian Right to alter the nature of science education to meet its doctrinal beliefs.

Read the entire manuscript of "The Impact of the Christian Right on Public Science Education" on The Digital Commons at Connecticut College

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