For the last year, fundamentalist Christians have waged a dogged campaign to persuade California's public schools to offer "competing theories" to the teaching of evolution.
But in all the months of arguing, "creation science"--the alternative being proposed--was hardly ever discussed on its own merits or even described. Anti-evolutionist Christians rarely provided looks into that cosmos of mind-boggling ideas, all linked to sharply differing interpretations of the Bible.
Although the strategy was carefully designed, the campaign seems headed for failure.
At its meeting Wednesday and Thursday, the 11-member state Board of Education is expected to approve new guidelines for science teachers (and ultimately textbook publishers) that would strengthen earlier vague wording and treat evolution as a factual basis for the development of life on Earth.
During a public hearing on the evolution issue in Sacramento last month, board President Francis Laufenberg told an emotional audience that many of the anti-evolution arguments were useless. He cited a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Louisiana law which had required the teaching of evolution to be accompanied by instruction in creationism.
Even with Laufenberg's warning, ultraconservative Christians are still hopeful, however, that wording of the new guidelines will give them an entree into the schoolroom.
"I believe the board will support the right of the teacher to bring up competing theories voluntarily," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, who contended that the Louisiana ruling allows that possibility.
An examination of the debate shows why neither side has wanted to talk about creationism.
On one side, scientists, educators, mainline clergy and civil libertarians summarily dismiss creationism as religious speculation inappropriate for science classes.
"Creationism should not be offered in biology classes for the same reason that we don't want children taught that the Earth is flat or that spirits cause measles," declared a brochure of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley.
On the other side, fundamentalist leaders advised letter-writers not to ask that creationism be given equal time with evolution but instead to focus on alleged "flaws" in evolution theory. Scientific elites were accused of ridiculing beliefs and hampering freedom of inquiry.
"Creation is the basis of all real science, of true Americanism . . . and of true Christianity," wrote leading creationist Henry M. Morris. His Institute for Creation Research in Santee says the Earth is only a "few thousand" years old. "Evolutionism, on the other hand, can be shown to be only a pseudoscience masquerading as a science," Morris added.
Accusations also fly between conservative Christians. Those who disagree with fundamentalist scenarios of earthly origins are said to be deviating from biblical faith.
"We're not saying what kind of creationism we want taught," Sheldon said in an interview. While he said he personally supports the "young Earth" scenario promoted by the Institute for Creation Research, he added "I know that a lot of churches don't understand all the (variations). I don't want to get caught in the flak."
Among the variety of theories within creationism is the "young Earth" scenario, in which the universe, Earth and its life forms were abruptly created in less than a week 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Fossils and geological layers, which conventional science sees as evidence of Earth's age in millions of years, is in reality the catastrophic result of a worldwide flood that would have killed most species were it not for the pairs of living things preserved by Noah in his ark, according to the theory.
Advocates of the "gap" theory, that the Earth is indeed millions of years old, claim that there was an enormous gap of time before God began creating life on Earth. The time-gap theory was based on a translation of the first two verses of Genesis that biblical scholars now say was erroneous.
In a "geocentrist" theory of creation, the Earth is the center of the universe--as surmised from Bible verses. One argument advanced is that there is no preferred point in the universe by which motion can be judged absolutely.
In "theistic evolution," the general framework of evolution theory is accepted but still requires a Creator. Most proponents regard the "days" of creation as long periods of time, but many also insist that science fails to show how life could have advanced to higher stages at crucial junctures without divine intervention.
"Advocates of each position insist that they, and they alone, interpret the Bible according to proper . . . principles. Each accuses those on their left of denying some aspect of God's revealed truth," said Tom McIver, whose dissertation on anti-evolutionist ideology was recently accepted by UCLA's anthropology department. Likewise, the strictest fundamentalists are charged with being unscientific, he said.
The leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, concluded a year ago that although a "unified evangelical position" on evolution and creation would be "desirable, even urgent, (the solution) seems particularly elusive."
Falling outside those church circles are countless numbers of Protestants, Catholics and Jews who say evolutionary theory explains the "how" of earthly life while Scripture suggests the "why" of existence.
The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles reiterated its opposition to "any attempt to interject religion and religious precepts" into California's science guidelines. The council said that not only would it violate church-state separation principles by favoring a particular religious tenet but also would harm the state's efforts to "combat the alarming trend toward scientific illiteracy among our students."
Many conservative evangelical leaders are unsympathetic as well.
"Frankly, I have no problem with evolution," editor Herb Hollinger recently wrote in the California Southern Baptist newspaper. "It seems to me to be a valid scientific phenomenon."
At the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, for example, "it would be hard to find any of the biblical studies or theology faculty who would hold to a creation science interpretation of Genesis," said Frederic Bush, associate professor of Old Testament.
Efforts to get creationism into science "misunderstand the literary nature and intended teaching of Genesis," Bush said. "The biblical narrative signals that it is largely symbolic (when) it names its two principal characters Adam and Eve," Bush said. "In Hebrew, Adam means humanity, a generic term, and the name Eve is chosen because it is similar in sound with the Hebrew verb 'to live."'