To watch Townsend discussing the religion beat, click here.
In the Gospel of Matthew, it doesn’t take long for the author to show his readers two different sides of Jesus Christ. One minute Jesus is sitting on a mountain, delivering a powerful sermon to a presumably rapt audience: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth .Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But just five chapters later, Jesus, again preaching to his apostles, changes his tune. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he says. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” That’s quite a change from the sandal-wearing, peace-loving hippie we’ve come to expect.
If even Jesus could be divisive, what can be expected of the sinners who call themselves his followers? And how about his contemporary American disciples, who sport anonymous Internet handles and spend their days trolling blogs dedicated to the disparagement of other faiths? What about those who insist that Jesus himself have a stronger voice in the U.S. Congress?
As a reporter covering religion at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the last four years, I’ve been a witness to attitudes and language on my beat that would make veteran political reporters cringe. Even the blog I wrote for the paper, The God Beat, became such a target for corrosive, hateful comments that I was forced to shut it down.
Of course, the spiritually polarized America we live in today is not new. Intolerance might as well have been the motto of the Puritans, separatists who crossed the Atlantic in 1630, fleeing religious persecution. Aboard the Arbella (or perhaps, some historians say, on dry land before they set sail), John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” As he made clear to his band of pilgrims, they were not voyaging to New England to set up a democracy. The idea was to found New Jerusalem, a Christian government that would complete an unfinished reformation.
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop told his passengers, consciously echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. What Winthrop had in mind was a political system whose top priority would be, as the historian Perry Miller wrote, “the duty of suppressing heresy, of subduing or somehow getting rid of dissenters—of being, in short, deliberately, vigorously, and consistently intolerant.” The Puritans believed they, like the Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures, had a covenant with God. And they believed that fellow colonists like Roger Williams, who preached religious tolerance, could go straight to hell. Or barring that, Rhode Island.
The United States is a young nation, and maybe it’s not so strange that these impulses toward exceptionalism and religious intolerance—paired as perfectly as a cold Budweiser and a Ball Park Frank—have passed so easily down sixteen generations from our Puritan ancestors. By now, they seem encoded into our red-white-and-blue DNA. And deoxyribonucleic acid (or more precisely, its role in evolution) happens to be the topic of Lauri Lebo’s The Devil in Dover (The New Press), an unapologetic indictment of intelligent design, fundamentalist Christianity, and American journalism’s insistence on objectivity in the face of clear untruths.
Lebo was the education reporter for the York Daily Record, one of the local papers near Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the local school board insisted that ninth-grade biology teachers at Dover High School read a statement to students questioning the scientific veracity of Darwinian evolution. At once, eleven parents sued the district, seeking to exclude intelligent design—the argument that life is so complex that it must be the work of a supernatural designer—from the science curriculum.