It’s coming on four years since the beginning of what’s now called the Dover trial. Kitzmiller v. Dover, or the Intelligent Design trial. We’ve all had that time to digest the impact of the decision. Since then, our Most Holy of Presidents has left office, the radical right is rudderless, and fundamentalist Christians no longer have the ear of government. The “New Atheism” is all the rage, and Rush Limburger and Sean Vannity are sputtering in their cups. An outside observer could even, with some validity, point to Judge Jones’ 139 page opinion as a turning point in the cultural war that’s been raging for some twenty or so years. Of course, as long term wars are apt to do, it’s probably not something to get too excited about, being no more than a slight ebb to the flow of the battle. But one can hope, can’t one?
I recently read I book I want to highly recommend. In fact, the decision to buy the book was a throwaway impulse, caused by Amazon’s shipping fee policy if you spend more than $25 in an order, but I’m so glad that the policy is in place, if only this one time. The book is Lauri Lebo’s The Devil in Dover. It was delivered on Tuesday, and I finished it on Thursday, and I’m a slow reader. Lauri Lebo, at the time of the trial, was the reporter for the York Daily Record, a local paper situated in the county seat of the county in which the town of Dover lies, prior to the circumstances that gave rise to the trial. As the education reporter for the paper, she was apparently assigned to cover the 40 day trial. She did, and collected enough material, and more importantly, was so affected by the trial, that it resulted in this wonderfully written book.
I’m not sure I enjoyed the book because it was so good, or because I felt such a connection to it. I live in Harrisburg, attended the trial (one day only – some people have to work) and was positively affected by it in a similar fashion as she, with a lot of the same turmoil she describes. I became a card carrying member of the ACLU at that time as a result. Lebo’s father was a fundamentalist owner of a Christian radio station in the same town I attended parochial High School. I practice law in the Central Pennsylvania region, and am often in York. I followed much of the trial by reading her dispatches, and the columns of her associate, Mike Argento. So the book really hit home for me.
On the other hand, the book is just that good.
What is so good about it is that, as opposed to other books which simply relate the trial in a straightforward historical context, Lebo makes it a personal memoir, weaving the trial in and out of the story of her metaphysical journey towards her own budding agnosticism (she doesn’t come right out and say she’s an atheist – I’ll be conservative here – but at the end of the trial, she did have the image of The Flying Spaghetti Monster tattooed above her gluteus maximus), along with her relationship with her fundy father. At one point she admits that “…it can never be said that I don’t love a good story.” She got that part right, because you have to love a good story to be able to tell a good story.
She makes it clear that the whole trial was about ignorance, not education. The members of the school board were so enamored of their religion, and so distraught that society didn’t place a higher value on Christian viewpoints, that they used their position of power in this remote little enclave of America to start a revolution against evolution, a topic they viewed as the linchpin of ungodly teaching. They wanted to prevent students from learning about evolution, because in their minds it conflicted with the only book worth reading, so they began the process by attempting to introduce a competitive idea, Intelligent Design, in the guise of enhancing education by adding it to the Biology curriculum. Admittedly, the introduction to ID was made to appear innocuous, but they surely saw it as a wedge to get Christianity back in the classroom where they thought it belonged. What they didn’t realize was that ID is simply the stalking horse for pure, unadulterated ignorance.
But what really sparks the book is her outrage over the fact that these so-called Christians lied for Jesus. They not only lied, they seemed to enter and perpetuate a conspiracy of deceit. Prior to any litigation, in fact prior to deciding to change the school curriculum, one or two of the board members made it clear in numerous public statements that they wanted to introduce creationism into the school biology curriculum. Once litigation ensued, however, they testified under oath that they never even used the word, despite the fact that there were scores of people at the meetings when they did, and that at least two reporters wrote articles about it. They claimed, in their defense, that the reporters lied, and this struck a nerve in Lebo. Reporters, whose life blood is the truth, whose credibility is strictly determined by the accuracy of their reporting, and whose integrity depends on it, had their characters assassinated by people who professed to be moral Christians.
To add insult to injury, Lebos’ relationship with her father seemed to scuttle on the rocks of his hypocrisy. Where he would be expected to condemn the lies and deceit of these Christians, he did the opposite, implying that if put in the same position, he too would probably lie for Jesus. What was important to him, as it is important to most fundamentalist Christians, is not what we do here, but what happens after we die. Anything and everything is fair game in this life if it results in saving one’s soul in the next – including lying. This seemed to break Lebo’s faith, if ever she had it. She paid lip service to god for the sake of her relationship with her father, but after that, she could not even continue the pretense, though the passages where she describes her father, warts and all, are so lovingly articulated that you know that it hurt her deeply for them to be so close yet so distant.
Edward J. Larson, author of Summer for the Gods, contends that the Scopes trial truly holds the title of “The Trial Of the Century”, at least for the 2oth century. His reasoning is that all the other trials (Leopold-Loeb, Sam Shepherd, OJ, etc.) were about the criminal culpability of the defendant, while the Scopes trial was about ideas. Ideas were on trial, not people. The same can be said about the Dover trial, making it a contender for the 21st century title, only five years into the century.
If you read only one book on the trial, read this one.