The Decline of the "Forum" Section: Part III of Letter to Editor David Shribman
In the past, the "Forum" was under the editorship of John Allison, who did an excellent job of presenting diverse opinions on a variety of subjects. The new editor is Greg Victor, who apparently is trying to make the "Forum" an extension of the editorial page. The best part of the "Forum" -- past and present -- consists of the columns of Jack Kelly, who presents a perspective much different -- and better reasoned -- than the other opinion pieces.
Recently, I wrote a letter to editor Greg Victor, with a copy to the writer (Edward Humes) of a piece on evolution. In fact, the theory -- and it is a theory -- of evolution in the Darwinian sense is not really controversial. Most people accept the idea that, over long periods of time, individual species either adapt or become extinct. Of course, evolution says nothing about creation, which most people in the world believe has its origins in the Mind of the Creator.
However, Mr. Humes's piece began with a very dubious assumption about the nature of the debate between those who believe that it's appropriate to teach the concepts of "Intelligent Design" in schools (along with the theory of evolution) and those who do not. The following (in red) is my letter to Mr. Victor.
I don't disagree with much of what Edward Humes says in the P-G's "Forum" about evolution (in "Distorting Darwin"). However, I have major problems with his use of Jefferson's one statement in his lifetime about "a wall of separation between Church and State."
Specifically, Humes says about the judge in the Intelligent Design case that his job involved "considering whether teaching intelligent design in public schools breached the wall separating church and state."
My simple question: what "wall" is that? Jefferson's statement appears nowhere in the Constitution -- and is in fact in conflict with the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which provides the same freedom for religion as it does for speech or the press.
Jefferson's statement also doesn't appear in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, his comment there is that we are "endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I suggest that a meditation on that statement -- and its implications about where rights associated with life and liberty originate -- will be instructive. Hint: the answer is NOT the ACLU.
In any case, if the judge in the case was deciding how to erect some sort of blockage between church and state, he was barking up the wrong wall. We have no state church, a concept Jefferson surely understood quite well, so there is no subject for a court to decide. Admittedly, judges who see themselves as "Masters of the Universe" won't understand my point.
If Jefferson knew the degree to which his relatively innocent "wall of separation" remark was being turned into some sort of rhetorical Chinese Wall, he would . . . well, be unhappy. Recent scholarship shows that he was a much more religious man than we might have believed.
If the real question deals with teaching theories, including "The Theory of Evolution," then the judge was not on solid ground. In schools, including the colleges and universities where I taught, the teaching of theories -- including those about democracy and representative government -- is encouraged.
It's allowable under the First Amendment. In fact, religious beliefs and the expression thereof are of course allowable under both the religion clause and the speech clause.
I realize that Mr. Humes, along perhaps with Associate Justices Breyer and Ginsberg, may dispute my views. . However, I don't see the grounds for the disagreement. I realize this line of argument -- based on the First Amendment -- may seem novel to Mr. Humes (and Mr. Victor perhaps most of all).
However, I can't help thinking that, without the "wall of separation" red herring (and the silly reference to the Scopes Trial), Mr. Humes would not have had much to say besides the fact that people often misuse the term "evolution."
I disagree with articles in the "Forum" from time to time. Yet I believe one of the purposes of the section is to get people to do just that. If so, it succeeds with me, sometimes beyond its wildest dreams.
I believe the Forum -- and the Op Ed page in the Monday through Saturday editions -- shouldn't be boring and predictable. If people like E. J. Dionne, Paul Krugman, and Ellen Goodman have anything new to teach us, they should demonstrate it in their writing. In fact, I'd say the same for conservatives like the wildly over-rated George Will.
In other words, don't we deserve some fresh perspectives, some new ways of looking at old issues? In my next column, I'll suggest some new approaches.