SHOULD A COLLEGE undergraduate who is a Holocaust revisionist expect to get a professor’s recommendation for graduate school in modern European history? What about a physics major who doesn’t believe in the laws of gravity? Or a biology major who wants to go to medical school, but who rejects evolution in favor of creationism? Most people would answer in the negative. Surely such approval of unhistorical and unscientific beliefs would violate accepted academic standards at our universities.
Yet, in one more chapter of the ongoing culture wars, the latter scenario is not only playing out in the national press and possibly the courts, but is also being investigated by Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department as a possible violation of the student’s rights. The media, predictably, are positioning the controversy as a pitched battle between religious and academic freedom. But this has nothing to do with "religious freedom" and everything to do with another attempt by right-wing conservatives to hijack intellectual and scientific discourse. The true significance of the letter-of-recommendation contretemps at Texas Tech University is that it marks the beginning of the end for the right’s long-articulated (and mostly hypocritical) demand for strengthening academic standards.
The facts of this case unfold like those in a routine made-for-TV movie. Micah Spradling, a Texas Tech University junior who is represented by the conservative Liberty Legal Institute — the legal division of the right-wing Free Market Foundation (its mission is "Protecting Freedoms, Strengthening Families") — filed a complaint with Texas Tech last October, and then with the Justice Department this January, charging that he faced discrimination at the university because of his religious beliefs. The problem? Biology professor Michael L. Dini has a rule — posted on his Web site (www2.tltc.ttu.edu/dini/Personal/letters.htm) — that he will write letters of recommendation to medical school only for students who can "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" when queried about the origins of the human species. Specifically, Dini wants such students to articulate evolution as "the central, unifying principle of biology." Dini’s rationale for this position is fairly straightforward. As he writes on his Web site: "Someone who ignores the most important theory in biology cannot expect to properly practice in a field that is now so heavily based on biology." (Indeed, would you want such a person as your doctor?)
On February 3, the New York Times reported that Spradling, who wants to study prosthetics and orthotics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, claimed that making such a statement would require "denying my Christian faith." The situation escalated when Ashcroft’s Justice Department got involved. On January 21, Jeremiah Glassman, the chief of the department’s civil-rights division, informed the university’s general counsel that the Justice Department was investigating the case. Glassman asked to see the school’s written policy on issuing letters of recommendation. Dini, who has never even taught Spradling, held his ground on his letters-of-recommendation policy, and the school backed him up. Texas Tech chancellor David Smith responded in a letter to Spradling after his original complaint by stating, "A letter of recommendation is a personal matter between a professor and student and is not subject to the university’s control or regulation."
Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Legal Institute’s chief counsel, claims in a press release (available online at www.libertylegal.org/inthenews.htm) that Dini’s position is simply a case of religious discrimination: "Students are being denied recommendations not because of their competence in understanding evolution, but solely because of their personal religious beliefs. No professor has the academic freedom to discriminate against students on the basis of their race, sex, or religious beliefs. That’s illegal."
Since the story broke, it has become big news. Along with garnering coverage in most of the nation’s major dailies — as well as in Britain’s Guardian — it’s been covered on CNN, National Public Radio, Fox News Online, Paula Zahn’s American Morning, The Michael Reagan Talk Show, The Laura Ingraham Show, MSNBC Online, and Cybercast News Service. Nearly all this coverage has leaned heavily on the basic theme that the case for religious discrimination here is, if not valid, at least one that should be seriously entertained. This interpretation has been reinforced by the media’s reporting only the partial facts of the story and leaving out crucial information — such as the fact that Micah Spradling was never registered in any of Dini’s courses, but merely sat in on two classes of one course. Or that Dini gives recommendations only to students he knows well and who have done A work in his classes. Or even that there were 38 other professors whose classes Spradling could have attended and from whom he could have requested recommendations. Or that a belief in creationism is hardly a central tenet of Christianity, or, for that matter, fundamentalist Christianity. While most news stories may have included some of these facts, it was extremely rare to find one that mentioned all of them. Clearly, the story was "hot" only when it was partially reported. Even the language used in headlines reflected stilted interpretations of the facts of the story. For example, the Times’ professor’s snub of creationists prompts u.s. inquiry might more appropriately have read justice department investigates professor for maintaining proper scientific standards.
At its core, however, the attack on Professor Dini and Texas Tech University by Micah Spradling, Liberty Legal Institute, and the Justice Department is not some profound battle between fundamental American freedoms. Instead, it’s yet another right-wing attack on intellectual freedom growing out of the deep-rooted anti-intellectualism of American life.
Clearly, Professor Dini did not discriminate against Micah Spradling — they didn’t even have an academic relationship. The reality is that the Liberty Legal Institute (and Spradling, as its legal complainant) targeted Dini because he publicly — in the Web site posting of his recommendation process — took an anti-creationist stand. Indeed, the New York Times quotes Spradling as saying, "They’ve taken prayer out of schools and the Ten Commandments out of courtrooms, so I thought I had the opportunity to make a difference." The difference he wanted to make involved putting the completely anti-scientific theory of creationism back into public education.
There are probably plenty of other professors who have personal (and extremely reasonable) qualms about the academic and professional suitability of biomedical students who don’t believe in evolution — but they don’t make their qualms public. Dini was targeted because he did. Even if the Justice Department concludes that the case presents no grounds on which to prosecute for religious discrimination, the Liberty Legal Institute has made its point: it has served notice that academics who make their anti-creationist sentiments public will be harassed.
The case may ultimately have a chilling effect on administrators of publicly funded institutions of higher learning who conclude from this episode that they don’t want the hassle of a lawsuit. After all, this isn’t an isolated incident, but part of an expanding conservative agenda that is targeting colleges and universities. In 1998, with the help of the archconservative Washington, DC–based Center for Individual Rights (CIR), Duane Naquin complained of discrimination by Boston College after he was denied entrance into a class in feminist ethics taught by Mary Daly. (Daly had a policy of teaching men in tutorial, but not in classroom settings, which the college had permitted for close to 30 years.) Like Spradling, Naquin had no relationship with the professor — in fact, he wasn’t even eligible to take Daly’s class because he had not completed any of the prerequisites. CIR’s political interest in Naquin’s case was made clear in an article titled "Against Radical Feminism," published in its November 24, 1998, newsletter. The article stated: "CIR has for sometime fought the radical feminist project of subordinating individual rights and constitutional norms (such as due process and freedom of speech) to ideological dictates. In 1999 and beyond, CIR will devote increased energy and resources to this fight." No doubt Liberty Legal has a similar mission under the mantle of "protecting freedoms, strengthening families."
LET’S FACE IT. The seven-decades-long battle over creationism (beginning with the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925) — from teaching it in primary and secondary schools to arguing that college students have the academic right to hold it as a "religious," and not a "scientific," belief — is crazy. The "theory" of evolution is an established fact embraced by all credible scientists, and it is not a problem for most Western religious groups. Even the Catholic Church — which apologized only in 1992 for its theological and legal chastisement of Galileo in 1633 — admitted in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis that there was no conflict between evolution and Catholic teaching. In 1996, Pope John Paul II told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that evolution was "more than a hypothesis." Significantly, the idea of creationism has never played in Europe. Its only proponents are small groups of mostly American-based evangelicals. The reason creationism looms large in the minds of many American fundamentalists is that its birth and enduring presence are the product of an anti-intellectual strain of American conservatism that has not only refused to accept Darwin’s theories, but has insisted on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
While there is no doubt that many American fundamentalists are sincere in their literal belief in biblical texts, it is also true that these beliefs are — in the literal sense of the word — irrational. That is, they are held without any grounding in fact or evidence. People certainly have the right to believe whatever they want — and they generally will. But a problem arises when those beliefs influence either public policy or our secular schools of learning. (No one should be surprised to learn that one of Liberty Legal Institute’s other major cases this year is Lawrence v. Texas, currently slated for argument before the United State Supreme Court. The case threatens to overthrow the state’s sodomy laws. After all, literal interpretation of biblical texts makes it quite clear that homosexual sodomy is wrong.)
That said, what’s truly frightening about this case — and what marks its importance — is the way it differs from earlier fights over creationism. Spradling and the Liberty Legal Institute have radically reframed the context of the debate. Over the past seven decades (but especially over the last two), conservatives fought for creationism by claiming it was as valid a scientific theory as evolution. Creationism may be a religious belief, they argued, but it is also plausible — as plausible as Darwin’s theory. What Micah Spradling and Liberty Legal Institute are claiming is completely different: they acknowledge that Spradling’s beliefs — which are, in essence, religious, not scientific — are at issue. Indeed, this admission that creationism is solely a religious belief with no scientific basis allows a far more honest assessment of the evolution-versus-creationism debate than was possible previously.
But it is also a clear statement that the religious right now feels completely comfortable in arguing for the inclusion of creationism in the classroom on their own religious terms. This is a radical shift of consciousness and strategy for the religious right and indicates that they now feel more empowered than ever before.
And, in fact, they are more powerful than ever — or they have the potential to be. The Justice Department under Janet Reno — or under anyone else, for that matter — would never have taken a complaint as spurious and frivolous as Spradling’s seriously. Indeed, it is shocking just how far the Ashcroft Justice Department has already taken it. But, given the current national context — in which the president can say, as he did in his State of the Union Address, that Americans should place their confidence in "the loving God behind all of life and all of history" — it should really come as no surprise that a ridiculous claim of religious discrimination carries more emotional and legal clout than it would have a decade ago.
Creationists claim that the "loving God behind all of life and all of history" was, of course, responsible for the creation of the world. But if Spradling has his way, it will be not because God created the world, but because Bush and Ashcroft have re-created the Justice Department.
Michael Bronski is most recently the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). He can be reached at email@example.com