NOTE: This story was written based on publicly-available documents, conversations with some of the people involved, and my own memory. Some names and characteristics have been changed, and some dialogue has been recreated from memory. I acknowledge that memory is imperfect, and some of the people involved may remember things differently.
This is a companion piece to “Wisdom and Virtue: Classical Christian Schools Against the World,” though they can be read independently. This essay was originally published on Interfaith Now
In July of 2015, I was in Atlanta, Georgia for a conference hosted by the Society for Classical Learning (SCL), a professional organization that supports classical Christian schools and educators across the United States. The Society for Classical Learning is one of three major organizations that launched in the 1990s, right around the time when Classical education was taking off. I was attending to further my professional development as a teacher at Pericles School, a classical evangelical private school in central Texas where I had worked for three years.
The Society for Classical Learning’s purpose is “to foster human flourishing by making classical Christian education thrive.” Many classical schools express this mission in the ideal of the “Good Man, Speaking Well.” The phrase comes from Quintilian, a Roman educator from the first century ACE.
Quintilian believed that oratory — the act of public speaking — was a moral necessity for a democratic community. Society could not function properly unless good, morally upright people were trained in the art of rhetoric, equipped and ready to advocate in the public arena for what is right. These philosopher-speakers would combine their wisdom with the art of persuasion and lead the way to good policy.
At Pericles School, we aimed to teach our students to be the “Good Man Speaking Well,” and we tried to model it in our classroom practices, from kindergarten all the way up to the senior thesis project. School leaders, from the various principals up to the headmaster, invoked the phrase at community-wide assemblies and staff professional development sessions. In one assembly, an administrator explained the difference between the good man speaking well and simply the man speaking well. The latter was unkind, argumentative, constantly believed he was right and that everyone else must submit to him.
The Good Man Speaking Well was not just about persuading others to support one political policy over another; it was a way of being. If you had the proper tools, if you could reason clearly and express yourself, you could determine with certainty what is right, and orient your life around it.
We were attending the SCL conference in part to continue our development into Good Men Speaking Well. The conference took place in a hotel with breakfast buffets and bad coffee. Some of the sessions fascinated me, some confused me, and some frustrated me.
One of the good sessions was “Making Math Memorable,” about how to teach abstract concepts like fractions. The speaker talked about cognitive science and memory studies, and even years later, it was a memorable talk. Another was “Teacher Formation,” where the facilitator talked about neurological responses to fear and how teachers can manage emotions (the students’ and their own) in the classroom. That speaker was a part of a Charlotte Mason school, a philosophy that frequently overlapped with, but ultimately diverged from, Classical Education.
One confusing session was titled “Rejecting the Magician,” and unfortunately the talk itself was far less memorable than its title. I sat in a small conference room with folding chairs set up in amphitheater formation, listening to an old man talk his way through a PowerPoint presentation. Upon leaving this session, I had difficulty deciphering what exactly any of it meant; my notes offered little help, instead waving oblique phrases like “the same impulse brought science and magic during the Renaissance” and “conform our souls to reality, or conform our reality to ourselves?” The speaker drew heavily from C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Abolition of Man,” a favorite in Classical Education circles.
My frustration, though, came from the week’s keynote speaker. Once per day, everyone would gather into a large auditorium and, under the fluorescent lights, spend two hours listening to Stephen C. Meyer, the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. Meyer was at the SCL conference to speak on “irreducible complexity,” his biological argument against the scientific validity of evolution.
In laying the groundwork for his theory, Meyer told a story of the history of scientific thought. In his telling, thinkers during the scientific revolution recognized that nature could be understood by the human mind, precisely because both nature and the human mind pointed back to a creator. He quoted Kepler, as describing the purpose of science to “think God’s thoughts after him.” Modern scientists, Meyer informed us, had strayed from Kepler; they had no intention of thinking God’s thoughts. So how did we get from then to now?
His culprit was a French scientist named Pierre Laplace. In 1796, Laplace theorized that the Earth, as well as its planetary neighbors, were formed from gaseous refuse thrown off by the “protosolar nebula,” an atmospheric extension of our sun. The material ejected from the nebula eventually condensed in gravitational centers and became the planet we live on today. While the modern scientific theory differs from Laplace’s protosolar nebula, its essence has remained. Laplace’s theory had a lasting effect on our understanding of where our home came from.
It also, according to Meyer, separated science from God, who was not necessary for the Nebula hypothesis to work. After Laplace, science began to put forth more and more rational explanations for what they observed. No field — not astronomy, biology, chemistry — needed a Creator. Science was taken over by the philosophical viewpoint known as materialism: eternity led to particles, which became complex living things, which became aware, which then, and only then, conceived of God.
Before Laplace, there was a divine order to creation, a way that things ought to be, and scientists understood their job as trying to understand it. But Laplace opened the door to randomness, an understanding of the world that left no room for designed order.
But all hope was not lost, Meyer told us. In the late 20th century, science finally began to challenge materialism. Telescopes, looking at nebulae far, far away, told us that galaxies are moving away from one another. The universe, it turns out, is a balloon, expanding rapidly as time marches forwards. If you could move time backwards, then you would see the universe contract, ever closer and tighter together. When the balloon finally converges to a single point, you have reached the beginning of time. All the matter in the universe, when concentrated in an infinitely small space, would hold an enormous, explosive energy. Scientists refer to this moment as “the big bang.”
In Meyer’s view, materialism could not go any further back than the big bang. Materialism is, in a sense, about observing the material of the universe; since this material began with the big bang, materialism has nothing to say about what came before. It can’t tell us what caused the beginning.
I had heard this story before. My first day of work at Pericles School, my boss Robert and I went out to lunch. He wanted to get to know me better and welcome me into the community, and I took the opportunity to ask how the school approached evolution.
It was an important question for me. Throughout my youth, I had sat through more Creationism talks, first from Sunday school teachers and then youth pastors, than I ever had lessons on evolution from public school science teachers. My view, then, was distorted for a long time; in 10th grade English, I read Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play that fictionalized the Scopes Monkey Trials, and became indignant at how the Christian characters were treated. By college, I had begun to question this, and by the time I began work at Pericles School, I had broken with my evangelical tradition by reconciling faith with an acceptance of evolutionary science.
To those who grew up outside Evangelicalism, this may seem insignificant; to me, it was a dramatic step in forming my own beliefs, and I did not want to move backwards. If I was to find a long-term home in a Christian school, it would have to be one that didn’t sacrifice scientific understanding. But I wasn’t sure what my new boss, who had begun his career as a science teacher, would think of this.
“We teach it,” Robert had said. “Look, my students come in and they say ‘the big bang is bad,’ and I say ‘No! The big bang is good. I just know who caused the bang.’”
Listening to Meyer, though, I began to doubt that “we teach it” had been an entirely honest answer. Meyer explained his beliefs with two concepts: the “cosmological argument” and “anthropic fine tuning.” The first is a simple syllogism:
- Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
The second concept, “anthropic fine tuning,” observes that our world seems to be fine tuned to make room for human life. If a single aspect was set off balance — in the makeup of the air we breathe, in the distance between the Earth and the sun — life as we know it would be impossible.
This kind of theorizing was familiar to me, though I’d never before heard it in such thought-out, academic language. It’s a common approach taken by Christian apologetics, a discipline that attempts to argue the existence of god via logic. Apologetics holds a lofty place in evangelical thought, and at Pericles School, it was frequently centered in the Bible class curriculum. Amongst other points, these Arguers claim that the precise tuning of Earth points to someone, a god perhaps, who must have tuned the instrument.
It’s a flimsy argument, and even at my most evangelical I recognized that. My notes from that talk included an aside (“kind of circular though, right?”) to remind myself that this reasoning goes both ways; one could just as easily say that evolution tuned humanity to the Earth, not the other way around.
Much of Meyer’s talk was based in reality. Laplace really did put forth the nebula hypothesis, and around this time the gulf between the spheres of science and religion did increase. Anthropic fine tuning is not far off from basic principles of ecology, that species evolve to match the ecosystem that produced them. However, though Meyers uses scientific language, he does not use scientific thinking.
In scientific thought, conclusions follow from observations and experimentation. This is why scientific conclusions — beliefs about the world we live in — have shifted dramatically over the past two millennia. Humanity has accumulated more observations, and more tools for observing, leading to new conclusions. These conclusions have been tested, again and again, every attempt made to find the holes in their theories. The Arguers, though, begin with ideology, and when they find the scientific conclusions disagreeable, they seek out different observations. Nowhere is this more clear than with evolution.
In 1990, a man named Bruce Chapman founded a small think tank in Seattle called Discovery Institute. Two decades earlier, Chapman had served on Seattle’s city council, working on important, if not dramatic, local issues such as “good government, strict law enforcement, conservative fiscal policy, and a forward-looking transit system.” In the years since, Chapman’s political career had taken him to a spot in the Reagan administration, where he was exposed to right-wing ideologues and, perhaps more importantly, power. He had “developed a taste for serious politics,” and needed an issue that could elevate his small-time think tank into a powerful, national institution.
Evolution was that issue, and Stephen Meyer was the person to lead the fight. Under the funding of Discovery Institute, Meyer created the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, dedicated to fighting for anti-evolution views’ place in the public sphere.
The Center’s strategy was laid out in “The Wedge,” a memo that would have remained internal, had a curious part-time mailroom employee not made himself a copy. It’s easy to see what piqued his curiosity — the cover illustration showed a portion of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel with a giant triangle (the wedge) superimposed over it. It looks oddly cultish, as if the document might belong to a secret society that works in the shadows. The text itself does not disappoint.
The introduction to what has become known as “The Wedge Document” tells a story that is ambitious and dramatic in its scope: a correct understanding of man’s place in the universe (and a respect for God’s) led to the great achievements of Western civilization, “including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences”; this correct understanding came under assault when “thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines”; materialism “denied the existence of objective moral standards”; these beliefs threaten us with “coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth”; and finally, that in response, “The Center seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.”
Without belief in a divine order, society would fall apart. Government would step in, try to fill the hole left in the absence of order, to disastrous results.
This narrative is familiar to anyone involved with Classical Education, but what comes next is new. The Wedge Document is not a philosophical treatise, but a direct, coordinated attack plan, with the specific goal of supplanting the scientific theory of evolution’s place in public thought with what they termed “intelligent design.” The Center hoped to drive a wedge into the scientific establishment, and from that wedge break a gulf into the culture at large.
The strategy was divided into three phases. First, the Center would sponsor scientific research and writing that favored intelligent design. Once they had developed a base of scientific writing to refer to, phase two would publicize the work, through op-eds, documentaries, talk show interviews, and outreach to political leaders. After the public had begun to accept intelligent design — not necessarily as the truth, but at least as one possible scientific explanation, on level with evolution — the Center would move into phase three: confrontation. They would pursue legal intervention to secure intelligent design’s place in public school curriculum. If all goes according to plan, the document suggests a potential endgame: “The attention, publicity, and influence of design theory should draw scientific materialists into open debate with design theorists, and we will be ready.”
The Wedge Document does not describe scientific inquiry, but rather a PR campaign, and a clever one at that. They were not pushing intelligent design on anybody, just supporting open debate. The message was: stay open minded, we don’t have all the facts. If they could succeed, it would be a nice turn of events; historically, it was the anti-evolutionists who had appeared closed-minded.
Seventy years after the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, a direct assault on the theory of evolution would certainly fail. The Scopes Trial had pit the inerrancy of the Bible against the insights of the scientific process. By the end of the 20th century, this question was old and settled. Those who willingly tossed aside science in service of young Earth creationism may have taught my childhood Sunday school classes, but they were a dying breed. The Arguers behind the Wedge Document knew that, to get their ideas accepted, their ideas would have to sound like science.
After finishing his history lesson that day in Atlanta, Meyer asked the audience a rhetorical question: “are there any legitimate criticisms to the theory of evolution?” The answer, to this auditorium of Classical Christian educators, was a resounding yes, but Meyer’s alternative had by 2015 evolved, if you will, from “intelligent design” to “irreducible complexity.” The theory works like this:
When a creature reproduces itself, it passes on DNA, an instruction manual for how to build the creature. This DNA is incredibly complex — specified complexity, in Meyer’s words, which basically means the code isn’t a meaningless collection of letters or digits. Every piece must work in tandem for the creature to work properly.
However, DNA does not always copy itself precisely; there are mutations, errors in the code, causing something different to be created. According to the accepted science of evolution, this is how new creatures emerge. Over millions of years, small mutations here and there, coupled with genetic recombination and natural selection, result in an enormous diversity of species. But Meyer says this is functionally impossible. Mutations are mistakes, so how could they provide anything useful? Meyer made a mathematical analogy, saying that errors in computer code are incapable of yielding workable software, because the whole thing was written to achieve one particular result. He ran a thought experiment on his PowerPoint presentation: a bike lock with four dials, ten digits each, would have 10,000 different possible combinations. One would unlock the bike, while the other 9,999 combinations would be useless gibberish. Relying on mutations to create a workable organism is like randomly spinning dials to unlock a bike.
In other words, the probability of random mutations creating, for example, an eyeball are functionally zero. A room full of monkeys clanging away at typewriters will not recreate the works of Shakespeare. Meyer even had numbers to prove this. He explained that, for every one DNA sequence that produces a “short, functional” 150 amino-acid protein, there are 10⁷⁷ other possible arrangements (or mutations) that do not produce a functional protein. Ten raised to the seventy-seventh power possibilities of gibberish for every one solution. The bike lock seemed elementary by comparison. To make matters worse, Meyer told us, throughout the history of life on Earth, there had been only 10⁴⁴ organisms. Fewer opportunities for mutations than it would take to produce a single useful one, by a magnitude of 10³³.
It was a powerful performance. Meyer’s PowerPoint slides included a simple four-dial bike lock, followed by a computer rendering of a bike lock whose dials extended out on and on and off screen. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and presented a logically consistent argument. The crowd cheered.
I was uncomfortable, anxious. My mind raced, and for a brief moment, I even reconsidered my earlier acceptance of evolution. Maybe he’s right, I thought. Who was I, an English teacher with no formal scientific training, to question him?
I left the talk, opened my phone, and Googled “irreducible complexity critique.” Scientific objections to Meyer did not take long to find. Ironically, irreducible complexity oversimplifies the evolutionary process. It assumes that one correct genetic code exists, while all others are wrong; that evolution must work progressively, advancing the organism towards a more perfect form; and finally, that any form with reduced complexity would be useless and thus erased by natural selection.
Each of these assumptions is wrong. Genetic code is not a bike lock, where one perfect combination works and all others fail; rather, the evolutionary process has many paths to choose from. The brains of birds are structured differently from those of primates — among other variances, birds have no neocortex — yet many bird species exhibit remarkable feats of intelligence, including language and spatial memory. Presumably, birds and humans developed similar traits independently. Cephalopods, too, have evolved incredible intelligence, including complex problem-solving skills, despite diverging from our evolutionary tree long before human intelligence developed. These divergent paths are even evident within members of the same species — in particular, ours. The human brain can compensate for damage and reconfigure other sections to do the job of the damaged portion. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.”
Incidentally, this principle is also true in computer coding. There are many different paths to creating workable code, which is why one software company can patent their code, while a rival company creates a competing software with the same user functions. Anyone who has used a computer knows that software can continue to accomplish its core function with many, many potential errors in its code. It may be, in fact, that the only place this isn’t true is in cracking bike lock combinations. For an alternate path there, you would need a heavy pair of shears.
Meyer’s bike-lock critique supposes not only that there is just one single viable path for evolution, but that the modern form of an organism, in all its complexity, is the only “workable” version of the DNA code. Nothing else, even if off by one digit, would unlock the bike. This is absurd, when applied to living organisms, and even when applied to individual parts of them. A rudimentary eye that produces 10% of modern human’s vision would be far preferable, in a “survival of the fittest” scenario, to no vision at all. A hand with no thumbs or weaker dexterity would be preferable to no hands at all.
This is the deep value behind intelligent design; more so than the belief in a divine order, the Arguers believe in perfection. Humanity has been perfectly and wonderfully made, and randomness cannot create perfection. Anything less than perfect is, quite literally, the result of sin, a deviation from the way God intended things to be.
But the scientific theory of evolution is not about marching organisms towards a level of greater perfection — in fact, it rejects the very idea of perfection. Organisms adapt to better fit their environment, and this is a process that does not require value statements. Modern birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs because they were better fit to survive one particular extinction event, not because they are somehow more perfected creatures. Whales have five finger bones inside their flippers, not because that’s the perfect way to build a flipper, but because in one early stage of their evolution, they were land dwellers.
My furious Googling after Meyer’s talk calmed my spirits a bit, but left me with a sense of unease. A 2014 survey within the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported 98% of scientists agreeing that humans and other living beings have evolved over time. If this was so clear to the scientific community, then why would my colleagues and my school, who claim to value inquiry and study, go along with a theory as ridiculous as Irreducible Complexity? At dinner that day, I asked my friends if they knew the “other side of the argument,” the objections to irreducible complexity.
“I’ve read them,” Robert said. “Some people think they’ve found ways to reduce the complexity, but… they’re wrong.”
I later confirmed that Pericles School’s approach to how we teach evolution was essentially the same as Meyers’. One of our science teachers, during a presentation, described the concept of “nonoverlapping magisteria,” which states that science and religion ask questions along separate lines of inquiry, and are neither mutually exclusive nor overlapping. At first, hearing this description, I nodded my head in agreement. To my dismay, though, the science teacher continued with “now obviously, this isn’t the approach we take.”
A former student of Pericles School wrote me an email, in which he explained:
I remember the subject of evolution coming up occasionally, and specifically in Biology. This discussion included two revolving understandings about the age of the Earth. The young Earth vs old Earth question was presented as a choice. We were taught in my memory that some people believed each of these theories, which is true, but more or less it was left at that.
He’s right — it’s true that some people believe each of those, but of course that doesn’t mean both those beliefs are equally valid. The student went on to explain that there was a rift within the student body, between those who believed in young Earth creationism and those who did not. This rift found its way onto a public message board discussion, where several Pericles School students defended the school’s approach to evolution. They said that the school teaches evolution as a theory, albeit one with “serious flaws.” One student suggested that the school did not support “monkey to human” evolution.
Pericles School did “teach evolution,” they just taught that it was wrong.
To Robert and my other colleagues, my questions did not matter, and our conversation ended shortly. They were not interested in the debate.
“All I’m saying is, that’s a good book, but it’s not one of the Great Books.”
It was near the end of the conference, and I was sitting by the pool with Robert and several other colleagues, eating chips and salsa. We were laughing through a winding conversation about all things Classical, when Robert began to explain what exactly qualified a book as “great.” As it turned out, age was a key factor.
“So Animal Farm? The Lord of the Rings?” I asked, “these aren’t great?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Maybe they will be. They just haven’t been around long enough.”
“Chronological snobbery maybe?” one friend retorted, referring to a C.S. Lewis idea which states that things cannot be good or bad simply because they are old or new. “Chronological Snobbery” had made its way into the Pericles School logic curriculum, alongside informal fallacies such as slippery slope and ad hominem. Robert laughed at the response, as if it were a joke and not a real argument. I pressed further.
“You’re saying that nothing written more than 80 years ago can be considered great? That disqualifies every book on my syllabus. Are there any great films? Or TV shows?”
Robert patiently explained that I misunderstood. There was a difference between a good book and a great book. A great book was one that lasted through generations, that continued to speak something about the inherent nature of humanity across all place and time. Maybe there would be great films, but we didn’t know yet. I didn’t put it together that day, but in the classical education mindset, “Great Book” was not a subjective description to apply to books that speak to you; it was a set reading list.
I didn’t have time to continue the conversation. Across the table, the atmosphere changed abruptly, a chilling cold front blowing through the crowd. One by one, people looked at their phones, and their faces fell sullen.
News from Washington had broken: Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy had written the majority opinion in Obergefell v Hodges, declaring same-sex marriage legal throughout all fifty states.
Inwardly, I took this as good news. By this point in my faith journey, I had long supported gay marriage politically, though I had not yet recognized that it posed no theological contradiction to Christian orthodoxy. In my view, the role of the church was not to legislate that others obey our theology.
My view was not particularly progressive — I am today ashamed to admit that I still believed homosexuality went against the law of God, I just didn’t think the law of man had to follow that — but still I knew the ruling was good, that it would help people. I also knew I was in the minority that day, likely positioned to the left of anyone attending the conference. I may have been the only person in sight who took the news from Washington gladly. Not in the mood for arguments, I hoped the conversation would move on, and for a moment it seemed no one would speak. All were shell-shocked into quietness. Then one colleague offered comfort.
“But… did you read Justice Roberts’ dissent? It was masterful. He said that the court was redefining marriage, and that was unprecedented. The law can’t do that.”
My colleagues wanted solace, reassurance in the narrative arc of their nation, and they did not sufficiently find it in Justice Roberts’ dissent. Their sense of order, their authority to speak to the way things ought to be, was being shaken. I, too, needed reassurance, not in my community’s place in the nation, but in my place in this community.
I stepped away from the crowd, took out my phone, and called my girlfriend, Brooke. The mood on her end could not have been more different. Brooke is a social worker, at the time working for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, and her workplace was ecstatic. Many of her colleagues had been in long-term relationships with their partners, and for the first time could see those partnerships legally recognized. Brooke was on her way to get celebratory drinks with her roommates, one of whom, Maddie, would marry her wife two years later.
By the time of Maddie’s wedding to Rychelle, an Episcopal seminary student, my theology had evolved to match my affirming political views. This change did not, for me at least, come easily; if accepting the scientific validity of evolution was like hiking a theological mountain, accepting LBGTQ people was akin to scaling a vertical rock face. You could be the fringe Christian at church who believed in evolution, but this was rebellion, not only from my friends and colleagues, but every spiritual leader I had ever had. This was the kind of change that people left their churches over — sometimes willingly, and sometimes not — and I knew it. Admitting my prejudice and changing my beliefs would put my sense of community at risk.
One day, about a year before their wedding, Brooke and I were discussing the issue while cleaning the kitchen. She asked “what do you think about this?” and I demurred, retreating in my discomfort to an explication of the theological arguments on each side. It was the exact tactic I used whenever I could not condone the viewpoints expressed at Pericles School, yet would not risk rocking the boat.
While it’s doubtful this was ever an honorable strategy at Pericles School, it was downright foolish to use with my partner. Brooke was not interested in the musings of theologians old or new, and repeated her question, “but what do you think about it?” then waited silently for the answer while I scrubbed dishes. When I finally spoke, after far too long a silence, I made a very poor choice and said “you know, you don’t have to keep standing there.” Evidently, she agreed, because she left to another room.
This was, as of this writing, the angriest Brooke has ever gotten at me, and the only time she has ever left one of our conversations without a clear conclusion, at minimum a plan for how or when to continue talking.
When I finally corrected my prejudiced theology, it wasn’t because I had encountered the right hermeneutic, weighed the logical arguments, and used my rational brain. It’s not that the logic failed — scriptural readings that affirm same-sex relationships certainly exist within Christian study — but that they weren’t enough. Speaking well did not help me.
Instead, I finally stopped ignoring the harm the church does when it denies people the right to be who they are. This harm would not go away if the church simply stopped trying to legislate its theology, because there are millions of people who put their spiritual worth in upholding the teachings of the evangelical Christian church. They do so for many reasons. Some grew up in it, and it’s all they know. For others, the church is the only place to find friendship, child care, or counseling services. Others, of course, find deep spiritual value in the rituals, history, and stories of Christianity.
Then there are those who have no choice: the students, whose parents enrolled them in Pericles School and others like it, realizing that their community is actively hostile to who they are.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” To many evangelicals, this means deny the richness and diversity of human experience and conform yourself to the image of modern-day American evangelical Jesus. Homosexuality is simply one more thing that must be denied, one more thing to lose in order to find salvation. It is an insidious thought; all you must do to find salvation is let go. To find friendship, child care, and counseling, to find ritual, history, and narratives, to find salvation, you must deny who you were made to be.
The church has done great harm to people in making them deny this part of themselves. Around the same time of Maddie and Rychelle’s engagement, I saw another friend take the opposite path, denying the self almost to the point of death. I decided I could no longer be a part of that harm.
In October 2016, the best-selling Christian author Jen Hatmaker announced a similar decision. In an interview, Hatmaker was asked if she supported gay marriage “politically speaking,” and her reply went one step further: “Not only are [gay and lesbian couples] our neighbors and friends, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ.” The interviewer delved further, asking whether Hatmaker would attend a same-sex wedding and how she would respond if one of her children came out as gay. In both cases she answered affirmatively. Finally, she was asked whether she thought an LGBT relationship could be holy, and she answered “I do.”
Within a week, the far-reaching Christian bookseller Lifeway stopped selling Hatmaker’s books. She lost speaking gigs at conferences. Across the evangelical corner of the internet, blogs and online magazines roared to life. They belittled Hatmaker, suggesting she is unable to reach her own conclusions, merely following a crowd, part of a movement “that cannot create culture but can only react to it and mimic it . . . There is simply no foundation in the movement for someone like Hatmaker to resist the cultural momentum.” Others attacked her intellect, stating that “the flimsiness of the hermeneutic cannot support the weight of tradition.” The Arguers unleashed themselves, but Hatmaker held her ground.
Others did not. Eugene Peterson, the pastor and author of the popular “Message” translation of the Bible, was asked in a July 2017 interview whether or not he would officiate a same-sex wedding. He gave a one-word answer: yes. Within a day, Lifeway had suggested it would stop carrying Peterson’s books, and Peterson recanted his position, releasing a statement with his official position affirming “a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” Lifeway continued to sell Peterson’s books, and 14 months later, Peterson passed away at the age of 85. This back-and-forth on same-sex affirmation, raising then dashing the hopes of LGBTQ Christians, became one of his final public acts.
Evangelical culture demands fealty. Full submission to the leadership and teachings of the church, and you get access to the full benefits of that community. For some, this includes career advancement. For others, friendship and social support. For some, a high quality education for their children. Jen Hatmaker rejected the evangelical sense of order, and the establishment rejected her. The prominent evangelical website The Gospel Coalition used her writing as the basis for a story titled “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories,” despite Hatmaker’s insistence that she had not de-converted; in fact, she and her husband were pastoring an evangelical church in Austin, TX.
For Brooke and I, solidifying an acceptance of homosexuality did mean leaving our church. No one told us to, but they didn’t have to. We were considering what it would look like to stay there, to build a future in that community. How could we possibly support our friends while giving our time and money to that institution? What if we had kids? What messages would they hear in Sunday School and youth group about our friends, most specifically Maddie and Rychelle? We’d heard the teachings, the way people spoke, the jokes they made. This was not a place we could stay.
For me the cost was, relatively speaking, mild. I walked away from my community, but remained on friendly terms with many people there. Jen Hatmaker lost opportunities, but kept writing and published her latest book in early 2020. The real cost comes to LGBTQ Christians, such as Junia Joplin, the trans woman who lost her job, as a Baptist pastor, after coming out. Or the teenage church volunteer, removed from leadership roles, rejected by her community, because she came out on Instagram as a lesbian. Countless stories like these of trauma and heartbreak, exist in blogs, podcasts, and books.
At dinner in Atlanta, the night of Obergefell v Hodges, I heard the headmaster relate a conversation he’d had with administrators from other schools. They were strategizing, trying to figure out what they would do when an openly gay person applies to work in their schools. The fear was palpable. If future court rulings built upon this precedent, places like Pericles School might find themselves facing discrimination lawsuits. They might lose their tax-exempt status. They might lose accreditation. They had not yet figured out a response.
In the following years, this question — how Pericles School might operate in a world that increasingly affirms LGBTQ people — gained more and more urgency. During Texas’ 2017 legislative session, a so-called “bathroom bill” was introduced that would have prevented transgender men and women from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. It was a blatant attempt to legislate discrimination against the trans community. The bill, which Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick had spent more than a year trying to make law, ultimately failed, despite going into a special legislative session. This was one more blow against Pericles School’s preferred vision for the world.
In January of 2018, the school administration revealed to the faculty a new document, the Statement of Belief and Practice, which outlined doctrinal beliefs held by the school and acceptable lifestyle standards for its members. The “beliefs” portion stated that there is only one way to salvation and one book of truth. The further details of these beliefs were narrow enough to exclude some of the more liberal strains of Christianity, but there was nothing shocking about them; these were standard evangelical theologies.
The statement of practice, though, was more overreaching. It stated that the words and actions of the faculty, staff, students, and parents in the community are “often not a private matter,” and therefore that community members must hold each other accountable to the standards. It asked members to “subordinate their individual prerogatives.” These standards included that community members refrain from — amongst other things — gossip, profanity, drunkenness, and sexual immorality. This last item was spelled out to include any sexual activity outside of “one man married to one woman.”
The document went on to prescribe opinions directly related to hot-button political issues, such as “all human life is sacred and begins at conception,” “God created each person immutably as either male or female,” and “God created marriage to be a covenant relationship between one man and one woman, with the husband born male and the wife born female.”
The document stated that if any community member found themselves living out of accord with the beliefs or standards, they must speak with a member of the faculty or administration to determine whether or not they could be reconciled to the school. Finally, the document said that, for the purposes of the school community’s belief and conduct, Pericles School’s board of trustees is the final interpretative authority on the Bible’s meaning and application.
The statement laid out, in clear and unambiguous terms, what Pericles School believed a perfectly-ordered world should look like, and who had the authority to determine this.
Anyone who did not sign the statement — staff, faculty, or parents — would not be invited back to school the next year. Over the next few months, tensions grew on campus. Parents began whispering amongst themselves, trying to determine who would stay and who would leave. Several teachers quit in direct response to the document.
The board received at least two written complaints about the statement, with the primary criticisms being that the board was trying to elevate Pericles School’s role from “school” to “church.” It was controlling, micromanaging their spiritual walks to the point of dictating what community members could and could not think. In the end, many families did pull their kids from Pericles School over this, but it’s difficult to know how many — by then, the school had an extensive waitlist and could replace anyone they lost. When the new school year began that fall, Pericles School moved onto its permanent campus in the Texas Hill Country.
It’s unclear whether or not, at the time of its creation, the statement would have held up in court. Today, though, there’s no question: this discrimination is fully legal under United States law. On July 8th, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morrissey Berru that Catholic elementary schools have a “ministerial exception,” preventing fired teachers from bringing lawsuits over employment discrimination. The ministerial exception had previously been restricted to, as the name might imply, ministers, but in a 7–2 ruling, the court decided that teachers are ministers too. Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented.
Despite the much-publicized court rulings from the same term, which gave gay and transgender people employment protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious schools are free to discriminate.
None of this was inevitable, nor is it essential to Christianity — there are many churches, entire denominations even, that accept the science of evolution and affirm LGBTQ identities. Yet Classical educators, the evangelical Arguers, and others who align with them have spent untold amounts of time, money, and energy fighting these battles. Meyer jumps through one logical hoop after the next as he describes his bike lock, Pericles School drives away community members, all in service of what? For what are the Arguers arguing?
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University (a private Christian college in Michigan) writes about what she calls “white (Christian) patriarchy,” a particular power structure within evangelicalism. She explains, using direct references to a variety of well-known evangelical figures:
What does white (Christian) patriarchy look like? Well, for Paige Patterson it involves cowboy hats and an office filled with big-game hunting trophies. And, of course, a ruthless display of power. For Mark Driscoll it looked a bit more hip, in a 1990s sort of way, more crude perhaps, but the ruthless power was the same. For the likes of Doug Wilson or Doug Phillips, it’s always been a bit more quirky — more of a caricature, really. Then there’s the kinder, gentler version, at least on the surface — the James Dobson and John Piper varieties. But there, too, the power dynamics are largely the same. Power over women, children, church members, and the community. A chain of command, with (white Christian) men at the top.
To Du Mez, the Arguers, regardless of their differing exterior veneers, are fighting to hold on to power. They believe in a perfect order to the universe, granted by God, where humanity sits above all other life forms and (mostly white Christian) men sit at the top of humanity.
But this particular sense of order is under attack. Evolutionary biology suggests that randomness, not order, drives creation. The reality of LGBTQ people challenges the notion that gender (or, perhaps, someone else’s expectation of it) must determine your place in the order of things. And without this order, how would the (white Christian) men stay on top?
Around 2015, when the Obergefell v Hodges decision was announced, some of my colleagues had begun talking about something called “The Benedict Option,” a theory created by the conservative writer Rod Dreher. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Benedictine monks recused themselves in monasteries, where they could keep culture and society alive. According to Dreher, these monasteries “were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.” In the same way, Christians must recognize that society today is falling apart and seclude themselves within their own communities and institutions, so that when the collapse is complete, Christendom can rise again. Essentially, the Benedict Option is to give up on the culture war, keep truth alive on their own, and wait for everyone else to catch up.
The Benedict Option has come under criticism from various camps within Evangelicalism, but the most telling criticism is that Dreher is not saying anything new. To follow the Benedict Option is to be an evangelical, with their own communities, their own conferences, and their own schools. Here, they are free to argue the plausibility of intelligent design or the dangers of same sex marriage. They can build up the logic and the arguments within their walls. They can teach their children to be good men speaking well.
After the final session of the Society for Classical Learning conference had concluded, we took a van to the airport to go home. While waiting for our plane to board, several of us began discussing the theological debate of predestination versus free-will. I was explaining my view, that scripture clearly held support for both, so maybe we just accept some mystery and ambiguity in our lives.
Robert shook his head and responded. He held a seminary degree, and spoke from that authority.
“But we actually do know. If you study this, you’ll see that the Bible actually supports full predestination. It’s not ambiguous at all.”
There was an order to all things, even time itself, and this would not be questioned.
What does it mean, to Classical Education, to be a “Good Man, Speaking Well”? It means you’ve accepted their truth, and you fight for it with all you can muster.
To engage in real dialogue, the Arguers would have to go beyond internally-consistent arguments and immerse themselves in the mountains of evidence that back up evolutionary theory — the fossil records, rock strata, carbon dating, and countless other observations. They would have to reckon with the documented cases of homosexuality and androgyny in the animal kingdom, with the myriad cultures, past and present, where normal sexuality and gender expression look different from “one man married to one woman.” The observations that deny the evangelical framework far outnumber those that support it.
But again: the arguments do not matter. Stephen Meyer is no Copernicus, fighting for the scientific method, fighting for recognition of what he has seen. He is running a PR campaign.
The strategy laid out by the Wedge Document made great strides, but ultimately failed. In 2005, Intelligent Design got its own monkey trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. After years of putting out scientific articles and general public writings, the Center’s dreams were coming true; a school district in Dover, Pennsylvania had changed its biology curriculum to include an investigation of the problems with the theory of evolution, with intelligent design as one possible alternative. The ACLU sued. The Center had won significant cultural ground, goaded their enemies into open battle, and were fighting to win.
When it came to the law, though, they did not win. A grueling cross examination revealed the scientific inadequacies of intelligent design, and the judge wrote in his decision that intelligent design was “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Sounding like science did not make it science, and it had no place in the biology classroom. A private institution such as Pericles School may design its biology course around the weaknesses of the theory of evolution, but this would no longer work in public education.
The decisions in Kitzmiller v Dover and Obergefell v Hodges were losses for the Arguers, but those on the other side should not be so quick to rejoice. The Arguers do not concede defeat; rather, they expel from their ranks anyone who dissents, close their borders, and continue the arguments on their own. Any dissenters who escape the culling, who remain on the inside — LGBTQ students who have little to no say in their schooling experience, teachers who are in the midst of their own faith transformation — are left with no recourse but to silence themselves.
The proponents of creationism-slash-intelligent-design-slash-irreducible-complexity will continue to argue, because their objections are not based in science, but ideology. The opponents of LBGTQ rights, too, will continue to argue. They are fighting against materialism, moral relativism, and other enemies of their faith. Arguing from ideology prevents them from participating in good-faith discussions based in science, anthropology, or any intellectual corner other than their own theology. And so they retreat into their own institutions.
A Note on Sources:
My recounting of Stephen Meyer’s keynote address was constructed from several sources, most notably my own notes that I took while listening to the talk. However, I supplemented this information with several recorded talks Meyer has given, which covered the same information. You can view these sources here:
The backstory behind Stephen Meyer and the Discovery Institute came from this excellent article in Seattle Weekly, titled “Discovery’s Creation.” It contains many fascinating details which did not fit into my narrative.
Final Note: If you are an editor and interesting in republishing this essay, please contact me here.