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What Happens When a School Board of Religious Zealots Will 'Lie for Jesus'?

Lauri Lebo, author of <i>Devil in Dover</i>, gives an insider's account of a historic court battle about dogma and Darwin in small-town America.
 
 
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The intelligent design case in Dover, Penn., was the stuff of tabloid dreams: a community divided when a school board led by religious fundamentalists tried to bring creationism into the local biology curriculum. But look beneath the surface, and it was hardly the two-dimensional "science versus religion" narrative favored by the press. As Lauri Lebo, a local reporter who covered the trial, writes, the "'Darwinism'-spouting teachers were preachers' kids; the 'atheist' plaintiffs taught Sunday school; the 'activist' judge was a Bush-appointed Republican; and the journalists labeled 'liars' were willing to go to jail for the truth."

In her new book, The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, Lebo writes of her journey through a familiar town made alien by a handful of school board members willing to, as Lebo puts it, "lie for Jesus." Lebo closely follows the story of how a handful of fundamentalists, pushing to include the teaching of creationism in school biology courses change their tack when the conservative Christian Thomas More Law Center gets involved. School board members suddenly stop talking about Jesus and creationism, denying statements they made to local reporters, and saying instead they were advocating the teaching of the so-called science of intelligent design. The lies were outright enough to make the presiding judge flush with anger, who subsequently cited the school board's "breathtaking inanity," in his decision against them.

While it quickly becomes clear who is lying and who is telling the truth in the trial, Lebo explores the far more complex question of why school board members would choose to lie. The weeks she spent covering the trial, speaking intimately with both school board members and the parents in the community who took them on, are a testament to the earnestness and curiosity with which Lebo sought answers to the deeper questions at hand: What was really at stake for those who lied, and why does such a fundamental divide occur not just within a community, but within families? How can we connect with those who do not believe as we do?

Throughout the coverage of the trial, Lebo's narrative weaves courtroom tensions in with the heated conversations she had with her fundamentalist father. It is at once the story of a historic court battle and the story of how the issues at its heart -- faith, belief and truth -- can deeply affect us all.

Lebo sat down with AlterNet to talk about the many characters she met during the trial and her creationist-inspired road trip that left her with more questions -- and a tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: At the start of the book, you say, "This isn't a story about God versus science but one of truth versus lies." That conclusion isn't something you took for granted.

Lauri Lebo: I don't come from a science background. This was about scientific proof of the existence of God, and I admit I wasn't sure if that was possible, but I wanted to look into it. I really did come into this with an open mind, but I wanted know what I was talking about. So I threw myself into understanding, I really started working on learning the issues on both sides. When I talked to the real scientists, I noticed that they were always so great about explaining things to me. If I had a question, or if I didn't get it, they'd say, "Let me try to explain it a different way." One scientist from Kansas actually said, "I have to go visit my in-laws this weekend, but here's their number if you need me." I had never even met him beyond talking on the phone, but they were just so helpful.

I started getting suspicious of the other side, like the Discovery Institute, when I found that they would use really long words that didn't really make much sense to me and when I would say, "I'm not understanding your point," they would use the same long words, only they'd say them faster and louder. They never deviated from the script. I started to get the feeling that they weren't being straight with me. At one point, I know that [senior fellow at the Discovery Institute] Jonathan West said to me, "I don't get it. Other reporters get this. You don't. Why are you so obtuse?"

OR: How did Dover start? You write about how, when the school board approached the science teachers about teaching creationism, one of them even laughed, thinking it was a joke. How did the creationist movement gain momentum?

LL: In the minds of science teachers, the idea that creationism is legitimate science is so absurd that they have trouble understanding how anyone could embrace it. The teacher who laughed was Bryan Rehm, a very devout Christian. Actually, most of the science teachers (in this trial) were very religious, which is interesting. This all started when Alan Bonsell ran for school board office. He was really interested in pushing a religious agenda. This was something that grew out of the Moral Majority of the 1980s. A lot of people started running for school boards so that they could get "God back into the schools," as they say. Bonsell was definitely leading this agenda: I don't think it was an accident that he appointed Jane Cleaver, who got a petition going to bring prayer back into the schools, and Bill Buckingham, the religious retired police officer. When vacancies appeared, Alan Bonsell led efforts to get them on the school board to stack the deck with people who shared his views that God should be taught in science class.

Then there was Larry Reeser, the janitor who brought the members of the school board into the school to see this student-painted mural of the evolution of man. It offended him so much. Alan Bonsell said, "They told us over and over again that they're not teaching monkeys-to-man evolution, but here it is right there, there's a mural here that shows that." That really upset him, and that's when he became much more active about pushing his agenda. Finally, Bill Buckingham, who has never been very good at holding his tongue, spoke up and actually said the word "creationism."

OR: The plaintiffs that then gathered together were hardly a group of atheists. Can you explain who these people were?

LL: They really did come from different viewpoints. For instance, Steve Stough, a Christian and science teacher in another school district. His issue was that this isn't science so it should not be in our classrooms. It might work in Sunday school, but it certainly doesn't work in science class. Then there's Tammy Kitzmiller. What bothered her so much was that this was religion. They came at it from different angles, but they believed that they had a responsibility to their community, and came together under the banner of the First Amendment. They felt that they had an obligation to stand up in the face of this.

OR: They were also standing up for their children -- some of whom were very vocal in their opposition of creationism being taught in their school.

LL: Yes. Tammy Kitzmiller's daughter Jess was put in a position where she had to decide whether she wanted to sit there or take her stand. That can be tough for kids, especially in a school district where there are a lot of people who think if you believe in evolution, you can't believe in God, and you're essentially on the outside. There can be a lot of pressure on a kid at that age, and it is sad that they have to go through something like that.

There are a lot of kids out there who are much more reserved. They don't want to make waves, and that's a tough age to have that sort of peer pressure. I'm thinking of the boy out in Ohio. There's an eighth-grade science teacher out there who doesn't believe in evolution, so he's been teaching creationism behind the scenes, passing out Bibles to the kids. He used an electrostatic device in science class to burn the shape of the cross on this Catholic kid's forearm. The parents were afraid to stand up to this. They contacted a lawyer and have tried to stay anonymous. It's hard to believe that an eighth-grade kid would let somebody burn a cross into their arm, but then you think what it's like to be in eighth grade.

OR: And that teacher-student relationship creates a certain dynamic.

LL: Apparently he's also a very well-liked teacher, so that would make it even worse. This is why the courts have taken the forcing of religion into public schools so seriously: It's such a vulnerable population.

OR: You got to know some of the defendants pretty well. Bill Buckingham was a very interesting and conflicted character. I know you have an anecdote in the book where he talks to you about watching his father suffer before he died, and how, despite his rigid religious beliefs, he raised the topic of euthanasia. There seemed to be a disconnect between what he professed to believe and his actions -- in the course of the trial, he lied to the court. But you also describe him going to the stand with a copy of the Constitution in his suit pocket. "In his mind," you write, "the entire case was based on (the) myth of the separation of church and state."

LL: Bill Buckingham and I have a very strange relationship. He and I continue to talk. I do like the way he tells stories, and there are points of him that are confoundingly endearing. However, he didn't tell the truth, and I also know that he tries to manipulate me a lot. I wanted to understand him and why someone would be willing to lie for Jesus the way that he did. I spent a lot of time working with him and trying to get to know him. Some days he'll present a side to me that is insightful, and then the next day he's just full of bluster, back to being the blustery retired cop. But I wanted to use his stories, and the reason I included them was because I want people to understand what motivates someone in his position.

OR: A critical turning point in the story is when the Thomas More Law Center got involved with the Dover school board. That seemed to mark when the board switched from being vocal about the religious element, and using the word "creationism," to talking about "intelligent design" and trying to speak solely in scientific terms.

LL: This for me was the most emotional point of the book because that's when they started lying, as was shown later on in the trial. In the process, they slandered two very religious local reporters. The board initially talked about creationism at a June board meeting. There were two June board meetings, and the first one was well attended, but by the second one, once the stories had come out that they were talking about creationism, there were about 100 people in the room and it was tape-recorded. They again talked about religion, and it was at one of these meetings that Bill Buckingham said, "2,000 years ago, someone died on the cross, won't someone stand up for him." He was talking about putting creationism into the biology curriculum. Of course, once Thomas More got involved, they switched from talking about that to intelligent design.

I've spent so many hours trying to find out exactly when they started talking about intelligent design. Obviously someone told the board, "No, creationism has been struck down by the courts. You can't teach creationism -- how about intelligent design?" And that was clear because Thomas More had been shopping for a test case on intelligent design. They wanted to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. The problem was that, after the plaintiffs filed suit, the lawyers wanted to get this into the court record. The newspaper accounts had quoted them. The public record was a problem. So, somebody had to come up with the idea that they never said "creationism."

OR: You actually found TV footage of Buckingham talking about creationism and brought that to the lawyers. Talk about that moment in the courtroom when Buckingham was shown that footage.

LL: Mike Argento, a fellow reporter, referred to it as the "Homer Simpson moment" where Bill Buckingham was shown the tape and Steve Harvey was questioning him. The whole time on the stand, Buckingham said, "I never talked about creationism." And then they showed the tape and Steve just kind of turns to Bill, waiting for a response from him. There was just silence, and everybody in the courtroom was waiting. And he says, "Well see, that was because the newspapers kept saying I was talking about creationism even though I wasn't so when the TV camera was thrust in my face, I was concentrating so hard on not saying creationism that I said creationism when I meant to say intelligent design." That's why Argento called it the "Homer Simpson moment": Don't say creationism, don't say creationism. Doh. To this day Bill Buckingham still maintains that that's what happened. It's just amazing to me that somebody can just deny, deny, deny. Maybe he has even convinced himself at this point. I don't know.

OR: In order to assert that they had never said "creationism," they had to assert that the two local reporters who had covered the school board meetings were, essentially, liars. Did you or anyone else pose the question to school board members, "How could you do this to these guys?"

LL: I actually asked Dick Thompson, the attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, "What's your position on the 9th Commandment?" It was absurd to think that these reporters had made up anything, but yet that's what we were being told. We were supposed to treat that as no different than the fact that the school board members claimed they were telling the truth. It's that notion of "fair and balanced" -- "we print one side, and we print the other side, and that's it."

That's why I was so happy when I found the tape, because it allowed some context to come in. I will tell you that when the reporters were both testifying, they bore this slander with such grace. I was glad they testified, even though we journalists don't want to go on the stand ever. But in the end they were basically allowed to face their accusers. I know that Margaret Talbot with the New Yorker talked about how emotional she got watching them testify. The editor for the one of the local reporters said she didn't breathe the whole time that Heidi (Bernhard-Bubb, the reporter) was on the stand.

OR: Throughout the book, the plaintiffs, and particularly the lawyers, try to wrap their minds around the lying that goes on. At on point, you write that (plaintiffs' attorney Eric) Rothschild wondered whether it was possible that Alan Bonsell, among others, had convinced himself that what he was telling the truth.

LL: During the whole trial, Alan Bonsell would sit there in the courtroom, wearing this serene smile on his face. He'd spread out his arms and lean back, seeming so assured. Then it's finally his turn to testify. It's pretty obvious at this point that there are some serious issues because Bill Buckingham and others had testified before him and had not been honest. He gets on the stand, and he's chewing gum. He turned to the judge, and said, "What the court needs to understand." I just remember sitting there and thinking, "Oh no, he didn't. He did not just look a federal judge in the eye and lie and blame the reporters."

I was stunned. Judge (John E.) Jones never changed his facial expression, but he did hold (Bonsell's) gaze. When Steve Harvey had finished cross-examining him, it was really obvious that Bonsell had lied in his depositions, and that's when Judge Jones asked to see the depositions and compare it to others. Bonsell seemed like he was the only person in the courtroom who was unaware of the seriousness of what was happening. He continued to rock in his chair back and forth and was still chewing his gum. Everybody else was looking around the courtroom at each other like, what is going on here? I was looking over at the plaintiffs' attorneys, wondering, Is this normal? Does this happen?
Meanwhile, as Judge Jones was reading the documents that showed Bonsell had lied, his face was getting redder and redder. Alan seemed like this blissful gazelle, drinking at the water while the lion is stalking him across the savanna.

OR: Throughout the book, the narrative of the trial is woven together with that of your relationship with your father. During the trial, you had these daily conversations with your father about the principles of what was going on, and you'd frequently disagree -- one of you hanging up on the other, and then trying all over again the next day. Toward the end of the book, when your father's health is declining, you find yourself having trouble saying, "I'm a Christian." How did this trial affect your sense of faith?

LL: I wrestled with how much of my father to include in the book. One of the main reasons I did was because I wanted people to understand that I'm not anti-Christian. I loved my father dearly, and he had many great qualities. He also had many flaws, but he practiced his faith as I think he was supposed to do it.

As a writer, I didn't feel like I had a lot of redeeming qualities to present on behalf of Alan Bonsell and Bill Buckingham in terms of the way they presented themselves during the trial and at school board meetings. I wanted people to understand that there are people who do practice their faith and who would not lie in the name of Jesus. I will say a lot of things about my dad, but he would not lie in the name of Jesus. He had the courage of his convictions.

In terms of my faith, ultimately, I had been becoming less of a believer over time. One thing I learned from this experience is that you can't be responsible for other people's fears. It breaks my heart, and I kind of wish I would have continued to pretend to be a Christian right up until my father's death because then he could have died believing that he would be with me again. Maybe that would have given him some peace but ultimately, when someone used to ask me, "Are you saved?" I would always pretend. I don't know why I did that, but I will never do it again. When people ask me, I'm very honest that I don't consider myself a believer. It doesn't matter if it's a loved one or a stranger.

OR: You felt very emotional about the trial, and your father's health. You describe your heart being full, and the need to speak with people about your conflicted thoughts. I thought it was interesting that you made the distinction: Some people you spoke to wanted to save your soul, but you say they weren't really interested in your heart.

LL: I did turn to [local pastor] Ed Rowand at one point because I was so emotionally raw. I found that when I'd want to discuss things like that, as soon as I said I wasn't a believer, he lost interest in me. I was irredeemable I guess; I wasn't on the fence.

OR: Among scientists, there simply is no "controversy" over intelligent design and evolution. You pose the question in your book, "So why isn't the message getting through to the public?" In some ways, you blame journalism -- and you cite an instance in which you had words with your editor over "fair and balanced" coverage.

LL: That was awful. There is this notion that you have to be careful that you're not taking a side, and I understand that that's important to journalism, but at the same time, I honestly believe that if we just take two sides and devote equal space to each, that we are lying. It's is our job to inform readers. They need to come away with more information, not be more confused. Journalism is in disarray today.

I think that's of course what happened with the Iraq War, and I think that's what's happening with so many issues.

If someone were to go back and take a look at my first couple of stories, they'd probably see that they were pretty even. But that's because I hadn't done enough homework, and by "doing homework," I mean gathering information from both sides and sifting through and weighing the evidence. This "fair and balanced" approach makes us like a sponge: We're supposed to just soak up the information and then wring it back out. But then we haven't accumulated any knowledge. That's crazy: It's denying everything I've learned. That night, my editor Randy tried to get me to change the lead because he thought we were piling too much on intelligent design. I was really scared because I thought he would take me off the story if I didn't agree, and there I was, three-quarters of the way through the trial ... but I also knew I couldn't lie, and that's what it would have amounted to.

OR: Throughout the book, you show how "intelligent design" has been put forth in various ever-changing guises. The plaintiffs' lawyers found earlier drafts of the textbook the school board was looking to get into the classroom, "Of Pandas and People." These drafts showed that, as each progressive phase of ID had been debunked, the editors of the textbook had cut and paste a newer term -- thus an error in a 1987 draft of the textbook in an attempt to replace creationism: "cdesign proponentsists."

LL: One scientist, Nick Matzke, can pronounce it the best. He calls it the transitional fossil.

OR: It really is the evolution of intelligent design, isn't it?

LL: When I write about it, I try not to beat that metaphor too hard, but it's really inescapable. Every time they get smacked down by the courts, they have to revamp what they're saying. But what's interesting is that they want to get it into science classes so much, the end result is that they water down their belief system. That's why a lot of people say that intelligent design is not only not science, it's also really bad theology.

OR: What surprised me is that, after the court adjourned, you immediately decided to go on a creationist-inspired road trip. It seemed like there was this curiosity that kept driving you.

LL: I had a writer friend who told me that when you can't let go of an issue, you know you need to write. That may have been the case with me. I had read all about these creationist museums and places, and I really wanted to see what they were, what were they espousing. Two weeks alone in the car was also a way to process all the information. But, again, I just found the same arguments over and over again.

I did do my homework researching the creationist side, and I'm proud that I spent a lot of time hearing their arguments and weighing them against the science. But it does bother me how divided we are. I just don't understand, and I spend a lot of time talking to my husband about why we can't come together with the fundamentalists and evangelicals. I don't know how we can. That's really the conclusion that I came to when I returned home. I thought that maybe I could find some common ground. I use tectonic plates as the metaphor. While I was driving, I was thinking about how fascinating the geography and geology of this country is, tectonic plates shifting and pushing up mountains. And a lot of fundamentalists aren't interested in that. So I don't know where the common ground is. I guess that's a sad ending for a book, but I haven't figured out where we can have common ground.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. She has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, Salon, MotherJones, Truthdig, In These Times, Huffington Post and Women's eNews.

 
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