May 2002 Church & State | Featured

While supporters of church-state separation frequently consider groups such as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council their principal adversaries, the Discovery Institute has quietly positioned itself as the most effective and politically savvy group pushing a religious agenda in America's public school science classes.

Founded in 1991 by former Reagan administration official Bruce Chapman, the Seattle-based Institute has an operating budget of over $2 million. "Intelligent design" creationism has become such a central feature of the organization's work that it created a separate division, the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, to devote all of its time to that cause.

The Institute enthusiastically endorses what law professor and ID champion Philip Johnson calls the "wedge" strategy. (See "Insidious Design," page 8.) The plan is straightforward: use intelligent design as a wedge to undermine evolution with scientific-sounding arguments and thereby advance a conservative religious-political agenda.

To promote the concept, the Institute works with 48 fellows, directors and advisors who are responsible for producing research, publishing texts and hosting conferences. The Institute team includes some of the biggest names in the ID movement. Johnson serves as an advisor, while Michael Behe, David Berlinski, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells are senior fellows. All of them have advanced degrees from respected universities, giving the group a level of credibility generally denied to fundamentalist creationists at the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis Ministry.

Legitimate scientists reject the validity of intelligent design concepts, however, and are unimpressed with Institute activists' credentials.

"They're trying to make it appear like they're scientists who just disagree with other scientists," said Lawrence Krauss, professor at Case Western Reserve University. "A number of them have scientific credentials, which helps, but in no sense are they proceeding as scientists."

Over the last decade, nearly every book used in the intelligent design movement has either been distributed by the Institute or was written directly by one of the group's scholars. Of Pandas And People, Icons Of Evolution and Darwin's Black Box are all staples on the Discovery bookshelf.          Institute representatives are well aware of legal restrictions on religion in public schools, so they rarely use theological criticisms of evolution in their work. Behe, for example, is a Catholic with eight home-schooled children. When asked about creationism in a February interview on National Public Radio, he said it isn't his area of expertise.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not real knowledgeable about creationism," Behe said.

The strategy of making ID appear scientific, and not religious, is intentional. The Institute's Stephen Meyer co-authored an article in the Utah Law Review in 2000 critiquing the legal landscape. While Meyer noted that the Supreme Court prohibits traditional creationism from public schools because it is based on biblical literalism, he wrote that excluding intelligent design, with its "scientific" underpinnings, would be tantamount to "viewpoint discrimination."

In order for that scheme to work, ID advocates at the Discovery Institute try desperately to hide a religious agenda. Occasionally, however, one of the Institute's fellows will slip and speak his mind.

Two years ago, at a National Religious Broadcasters meeting, the Discovery Institute's Dembski framed the ID movement in the context of Christian apologetics, a theological defense of the authority of Christianity.

"The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ," Dembski said. "And if there's anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ [and] the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.... It's important that we understand the world. God has created it; Jesus is incarnate in the world."

The Institute's religious agenda has won it the backing of wealthy financiers and foundations. For example, California multi-millionaire Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., has singled out the Discovery Institute for big contributions. (Ahmanson is aligned with Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme faction of the Religious Right that seeks to replace democracy with a fundamentalist theocracy.)

The Institute also has friends on Capitol Hill. In May 2000 the Institute held a briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building that attracted members of Congress and their staffs. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) spoke at the event.

Though the Discovery Institute describes itself as a think tank "specializing in national and international affairs," the group's real purpose is to undercut church-state separation and turn public schools into religious indoctrination centers. That's unlikely to change anytime soon.

As Institute President Bruce Chapman told The Washington Times, "[Intelligent design is] our number one project."