(Martin Wimmer/Getty)

(Martin Wimmer/Getty)

The Texas textbook wars have finally yielded a win for the Enlightenment. In November, the state school board delayed final approval of a biology textbook that explains evolution as fact, but last month an expert committee overruled all objections and gave the book the green light for sale to the state’s public schools.

When Ide Trotter, a member of the board’s initial review panel, objected to Texas schools’ adoption of Biology on grounds of the book’s confident description of evolution, he expressed the views of many Americans. Either one third or nearly one half of all Americans deny evolution, depending on whether you favor Pew or Gallup poll results. Pew’s most recent study indicated that white evangelical Protestants make up a significant portion of that figure: 64 percent say they believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Survey results like this are enough to convince many observers that conservative evangelicalism is an anti-intellectual faith with no respect for modern science. But is this a fair charge? The truth is that the cultural power of the creationist movement—and creationism’s more respectable cousin, intelligent design—began in a particular corner of the evangelical community, at a particular moment in history, among thinkers who did not speak for all evangelicals. The story of how a small number of obscure theologians developed a theory of biblical authority that still shapes polls and educational debates centuries later tells us something about the power of ideas—and the intellectual diversity of a community ruled, supposedly, by the Bible alone.

Trotter is not the anti-science hayseed that liberals might expect. He is a former chemical engineer with a PhD from Princeton. (He worked for Exxon for many years; his other beef with the textbook was its account of manmade climate change.) Trotter is also a deacon at First Baptist Church of Dallas, an influential Southern Baptist megachurch and a longtime bastion of fundamentalist religion. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist, has called evolution a “myth” and a “religious philosophy that makes no allowance for God in either the origin of life or the diversity of life.” According to the church’s articles of faith, the Bible is “inerrant and infallible.”

This seems, at first, to be an obvious point. Don’t all conservative Christians think the Bible contains no error? Yet the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy”—whose rule has extended beyond the evolution debates to disputes over gender roles, homosexuality, and nearly every other corner of the culture wars—is not as straightforward as it appears.

Some will tell you that the culture wars began in the 1960s battles over sex education or the 1970s abortion fights. I’m convinced that the origins of today’s red-versus-blue troubles lie in the theological feuds of the seventeenth century. That’s when the ancestors of today’s evangelicals developed a powerful—and intellectually hazardous—way to defend their interpretation of scripture against empirical evidence.

The basic idea of biblical inerrancy is ancient. Christians have always been eager to defend the Bible as a source of perfect truth. But they did not necessarily use scripture to explain the intricacies of the natural world. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin believed that God created the earth in six days, but at the same time he discouraged Christians from trying to extract scientific details from the Bible: “Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world,” he wrote in his commentary on Genesis. “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”

A couple of generations later, conservative Protestant theologians—mostly Reformed Christians who followed the teachings of Calvin and his colleagues—found themselves hemmed in by intellectual challenges on both sides. Catholic theologians critiqued Protestantism using the relentless logic of scholastic theology, while philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment debunked Christ’s miracles. These embattled Protestants responded by trying to out-rationalize both the scientists and the scholastics in order to solve the great epistemological problem of modern times: to keep faith and reason fused as one single way of knowing the world. 

This same problem animates the creationist/evolutionist fight today. “It comes down to how we know things,” said Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University. “Ever since the scientific revolution, the approved way of knowing has been limited to a kind of positivism, a scientistic model which by definition brackets out larger questions of meaning and God’s interaction with the world.”

Here is the trick. Those early modern Protestants borrowed this “scientistic model” as a style of argument, then based their reasoning on a religious assumption: the principle that God is perfect and unchanging. It followed, logically, that God’s revelation must be perfect and unchanging too—not just in matters pertaining to salvation, but in every scientific and historical fact, from the scope of the Flood to the details of ancient Israel’s politics. And because a perfect God never contradicts himself, the revelation of the natural world (his creation) must always align with the revelation of the Bible.

This doctrine of inerrancy matured into its most elaborate form in the mid-nineteenth century at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Charles Hodge, a professor there, called the Bible a God-given “storehouse of facts.” He said a theologian must “arrange and harmonize” these facts just as a scientist infers the laws of nature by collecting data from the material world. The Christian is not only a scientist, then; he is a much better scientist than the nonbeliever, for he grasps the most basic truth of God’s order.

This is why evangelical critics of evolution, even young-earth creationists, those Christians who say the earth is only a few thousand years old, claim such passionate fidelity to science. They really believe it. A study guide produced by the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas—whose exhibits include chunks of Cretaceous rock containing a “human footprint” and a “fossilized human finger”—promises that “the Creation Model of origins is more ‘scientific’ and less ‘religious’ than the Evolution Model.” The course catalog for the masters program offered by the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas offers up the Bible as the best science textbook, a “historical record of God’s creation of the cosmos,” “inerrant, accurate, and authoritative.”

“A good scientific method is willing to admit all evidence and revise its method in light of new evidence,” Sloan told me. Like many critics of evolution, he suggested that secular liberals want to bar intelligent design from public schools because they aren’t entirely confident in their own convictions. “Let ideas have freedom. Bad ideas have a way of failing,” he said (he believes in natural selection in the classroom, it seems). Before coming to Houston, Sloan served as president of Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco. But his attempt to found a center for the study of intelligent design there—as well as other heavy-handed measures to “integrate faith and learning”—provoked a faculty revolt, and Sloan resigned in 2005.

The Baylor fight is a clue that evangelicals do not agree on their relationship to modern science. Those who reject creationism and inerrancy are not revisionists. They too are heirs of a venerable tradition. John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, believed the Bible contained no errors. But he differed in his emphasis and style of interpretation. He taught that Christians should focus on Christ himself, rather than scripture, as God’s foremost revelation. Unlike the Princeton theologians, who made confident claims about their deity’s will and powers, Wesley was wary of any human attempt to wholly comprehend God. His followers stressed scripture’s “sufficiency” as a guide to faith over its “authority” in scientific fact—so Darwin was not such a blasphemous threat.

Yet in the early twentieth century, as new-fangled European theology seeped into American churches, new immigrants changed the look and sound of American cities, and Victorian certainties perished in a welter of rising hemlines and world war, the call to defend an errorless Bible resonated with a wide array of conservative Protestants. Many adopted inerrancy as a symbol for the Bible’s authority: the modern world might change, but God’s truth never would.

Wesleyan churches, such as the Church of the Nazarene, struggled over whether to embrace fundamentalism. Today Nazarene universities teach the doctrine of evolution, and “when we call ourselves Wesleyan, that’s tended to mean not fundamentalist, not Reformed,” said Mark Mann, director of the Wesleyan Center at Point Loma Nazarene University in California. But in 2009, conservatives whom he called “Tea Party Nazarenes” successfully amended the church’s statement on creation to remove its endorsement of modern science. Now they are lobbying for the church to endorse inerrancy. 

Later this month, Mann is hosting a conference to bring Wesleyan ideas to bear on the evolution debate, and he’s hopeful about the future of his church’s relationship with science. “Young people come to college with convictions that are rather shallow,” Mann told me. “Their young-earth creationist convictions are Sunday school theology convictions. If they can be shown that there is a viable way to be Christian and believe in science, they’re happy to do that.”

Young evangelicals “inherently know that the Right is somehow screwing up when it comes to creation care,” Mann said. Christian environmentalism—rather than creationism—is becoming the hallmark of how some evangelicals interpret God’s command in Genesis that Adam and Eve “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Anabaptists, those descendants of the Reformation’s radical left wing who refused to collaborate with the secular state, have long believed that Christians commonly misinterpret this call to “dominion.” Most have traditionally viewed scripture more as a guide to daily living than a science textbook. Paul Keim, a professor of theology at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana, teaches a class called “Creation and Evolution” that stresses the Anabaptist tradition and the environmentalist implications of God’s gift of earthly dominion. “There has been some hesitation about accepting evolution wholeheartedly because they’ve grown up to be wary of the term because of its political value,” Keim told me. “It represents, as in many evangelical homes, a kind of humanism that has no place for God.” But he added that “many of our students are very committed to ecological sustainability,” and they are excited to learn that caring for God’s creation, more than kowtowing to creationism, is a powerful way to defend the authority of the Bible.

What do classroom conversations and academic conferences really mean for opinions in the pews? Scholars have pointed out that Ken Ham, the host of the popular creationist radio show Answers in Genesis, reaches a far wider audience than sophisticated evangelical scientists like Francis Collins, who founded the BioLogos Foundation, an organization aimed at reconciling Christianity and evolution, before President Obama tapped him to head the National Institutes of Health.

It’s worth remembering that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy—the intellectual foundation of creationists’ claims—was itself partly the creature of classroom debate and stuffy academic treatises. The ivory tower matters, and theology is always evolving. “We try to help evangelicals see that everyone interprets the Bible,” said Deborah Haarsma, president of the BioLogos Foundation and an astronomer at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This can be a frightening revelation for evangelicals, who often prefer to believe that their faith has not changed since the time of Jesus. But when it comes to the cause of scientific literacy and critical thinking, historical consciousness is just as important as sound textbooks.

Molly Worthen is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.