Many of you probably followed the 2005 “Kitzmiller vs. Dover” trial in Dover, Pennsylvania closely. From its early days, with daily updates at the Panda’s Thumb to the publication of the ruling–“Kitzmas”— in late December, the trial was filled with drama and moments right out of the movies. From the defendants’ remarkable lying on the stand to Behe’s admission that his definition of a scientific theory included astrology, it seemed that each day was better than the last for the pro-science side, culminating in the stinging tongue-lashing doled out by Judge Jones in his decision in favor of the plaintiffs.
However, what was reported was only a small slice of the larger story, and Lauri Lebo’s new book, The Devil in Dover, brings us the rest. A journalist for the York Daily Record, Lebo grew up in the Dover area and has an intimate understanding of the local history and culture–and the personalities involved on both sides of the case, making “Devil in Dover” far more than just another recounting of the trial. (More after the jump…)
The Dover trial was so much more than just a test of the first amendment and a victory against the teaching of intelligent design. It was the first big test of “intelligent design” in schools; it was a flashpoint in the “culture wars;” it divided a community, even while it brought together strangers and turned them into close friends. Lebo artfully weaves these stories into her documentation of the events preceding and taking place during the trial, bringing the events into the larger cultural context and bringing to life the personalities involved in the trial. She describes the fear, and strength, that plaintiff Tammy Kitzmiller, a divorced mother relatively new to the area whose daughter would be taking the 9th grade biology course, felt when she decided to join the lawsuit, and the alienation that she still feels even after the trial is over. She shows the weakness of defendant Bill Buckingham, who, despite having been caught red-handed lying about various portions of his involvement with the decision to move forward with a pro-ID platform, still believed he did the right thing (and that he did nothing wrong, morally or legally).
However, the book is even more personal than just an exposition of the various personalities involved in the trial. Lebo uses the trial to examine her own relationship with her born-again evangelical Christian father, more worried about his daughter’s eternal soul than scientific truth. This relationship is a microcosm of society’s “culture war:” believers versus nonbelievers, science versus religion, however you want to frame it–and it’s something that will likely have a familiar ring to many of us who come from smaller towns and have dealt with these complex relationships all our lives.
And that’s a story Lebo really brings to life, and what makes her book stand out among others written on the Dover trial (or intelligent design more generally). She captures what it’s really like to go against the grain in these small towns; something that’s been dramatically demonstrated in the news recently with the case of creationist Ohio schoolteacher John Freshwater, a science teacher who’s not only taught explicit creationism in the classroom for many years, but has even burned crosses onto students’ arms during class. People around the world have asked how this could have gone on for so long, but for those of us who hail from towns like Dover, we realize that creationist teaching getting swept under the rug (or even outright supported by the community) are more common than many outsiders may realize. Even in the Freshwater case, which is an extreme example because of the physical harm in addition to the illegal teaching, stories from the town show that kids who’ve spoken out against Freshwater have been subject to harrassment from not only classmates but also adults in the town. In my own hometown, the ACLU recently recently chastized the schools for allowing class time and school property to be used for Bible distribution. Back when I was in school–public school–we still had Bible instruction once a week until 6th grade. Technically, we could opt-out, but what child wants to be “that kid who doesn’t stay for Bible class”? As Lebo describes, even most of the biology teachers at Dover were church-going Christians, yet they were ostracized and bad-mouthed by those supporting the school board’s anti-evolution stance–rejected and slandered by Christians who seemingly had no problem attacking fellow believers.
Lebo’s tale of the Dover trial is a story of the trial’s participants and the town, but also the search for common ground, for understanding between the feuding parties. While she wasn’t able to find a good resolution for that, the description of the journey she details in “Devil in Dover” brings the evolution trial out of the “stuff scientists will be interested” realm and deep into the “required reading” list.