One of the best parts of Lebo’s book is her intricate reporting of how the case ended up in Dover’s federal courtroom in the first place. The genesis of the story, it seems, was a student mural depicting the Ascent of Man. This four-by-sixteen-foot mural of a monkey’s step-by-step evolution into Homo sapiens stood in a biology classroom at Dover High School. The school’s janitor, Larry Reeser, was offended by it every time he walked in to clean the classroom because, as he told Lebo, “you can see the guy’s schwantz hanging out.”
In 2002, Reeser showed the mural to members of Dover’s school board, including Alan Bonsell, a newly elected board member and evangelical Christian who would eventually lead the fight to get intelligent design taught in the very classroom where the mural stood. “Board members looked at the painting and agreed that ape penises had no business in science class,” writes Lebo. Just before teachers returned from summer break, the janitor dragged the mural out to the school’s parking lot and set it on fire.
The Devil in Dover is filled with such details, and with mini-profiles of the main players that take the reader right into the muck of the debate. It’s not perfect. Subplots involving Lebo’s relationship with her evangelical father and a post-trial road trip of personal spiritual discovery (along the way, she gets a tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to symbolize her newfound stand against organized religion) feel like filler. Worse, they distract from Lebo’s more important story about the ugly rift that religion has created in America, and the responsibility of journalists covering that rift to write truthfully rather than just provide equal time to both sides (as if there are only two) in a misguided quest for objectivity.
Lebo’s point is one that newsrooms across the country struggle with when it comes to the religion beat. It’s impossible to say that one faith is right and that another—or no faith at all—is wrong. But it is possible, in the case of intelligent design, to decide between the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence in favor of evolution and a particular brand of Christianity whose fundamental belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is threatened by Darwin’s findings. For journalists covering this story, there are no sides to balance, writes Lebo. Like gravity, lightning, or tomato soup, evolution just is.
To give equal time to the creationist agenda, which challenges the foundation of all biological science, is to betray the journalist’s pledge to bring readers truth, however imperfect that truth may sometimes be. Because they don’t push back against such conservative Christian notions, Lebo argues, journalists are partially responsible for the fact that 45 percent of Americans believe that humans appeared on earth in their present form about six thousand years ago.
It was U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, one of the heroes in Lebo’s book, who dismissed intelligent design as “a mere re-labeling of creationism.” But by the end of The Devil in Dover, the author realizes with some sadness that creationists are not going to be swayed by one judge’s opinion. Instead, writes Lebo, Jones “received hateful e-mail messages so strident that following his decision, U.S. Marshalls watched over his home and family over Christmas.”
Meanwhile, Tammy Kitzmiller, the Dover High School parent who was the case’s lead plaintiff, received an anonymous letter at home. The writer reminded Kitzmiller that Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose 1960 lawsuit led to the ban on organized public-school prayer, was murdered. “I sure would hate to be in your shoes or your daughter’s shoes,” the letter continued. “God hates sin .[W]atch out for a bullet.”
Thanks in part to James Madison and his Bill of Rights, the Puritan vision of America as a rigidly intolerant society didn’t come to pass. The First Amendment ensured that the government could make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and America’s protection of pluralism remains one of its most beautiful features.
But beauty has been the root of some brutal fights, and theological skirmishes in twenty-first-century America are shaping up to be doozies. In the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, for instance, Catholics are deeply divided between traditionalists, who still believe in the authority of their bishops and the tenets of their church, and progressives, who prefer to live by the more liberal, post-Vatican II principles that they believe have come under assault by conservatives over the last generation.