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Critical Race Theory and Intelligent Design: The Mixed-Up Comparison of Sarah Jones

John G. West
Photo: HQ of New York Magazine, by David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

“In form, the fight over critical race theory in schools resembles earlier panics over the teaching of intelligent design and its cousin creationism,” observes Sarah Jones in a recent article for New York Magazine’s online Intelligencer website.

I found myself doing a double-take after reading that sentence. Does Jones really mean to suggest that those creating a “panic” over critical race theory (CRT) are like the dogmatic Darwinists who tried to create a “panic” over the teaching of intelligent design? 

Bear with Me as I Explain

In her article, Jones essentially argues that worries about critical race theory have been ginned up by conservative provocateurs who play fast and loose with the facts. In her view, critical race theory is simply an effort to teach historical reality, and those attacking it are unfairly manufacturing a crisis over it.

But if that’s what she believes about those who are creating “panic” over CRT, then the logic of her comparison would seem to require a similar view of those who opposed intelligent design: The intolerant defenders of Darwinian evolution who tried to instill “panic” over the teaching of intelligent design must also have been provocateurs who were ginning up a fake controversy, while in reality there was nothing wrong with teaching intelligent design.

Surely Jones couldn’t actually mean that, I thought.

A Proper Comparison

Sure enough, she didn’t. Reading the rest of her article I realized she simply didn’t know how to frame a proper comparison. She actually was attempting to malign those who support intelligent design, not those who tried to create panic over it. Apparently neither she nor her editor is particularly good with logic. 

Later in her article, Jones takes a cleaner shot at supporters of intelligent design. However, that shot misses the mark just as much as her first, as I will explain shortly.

First, full disclosure: The primary target of Jones’s article on critical race theory is Christopher Rufo, a former colleague of mine at Discovery Institute in a different program. Rufo came to Discovery because of his work on poverty and homelessness, and he didn’t have any involvement in the Center for Science & Culture, which I help run, and which deals with intelligent design. Likewise, I had nothing to do with his efforts on critical race theory. 

Nevertheless, Jones thinks she has discovered a nefarious connection between Rufo and supporters of intelligent design:

At both the K-12 and college levels, education represented a challenge for the Christian right to which Rufo’s former employer, the Discovery Institute, belongs. Like many a young Evangelical, I encountered the think tank in the 1990s, when they battled the forces of Darwinism. They argued schools should teach intelligent design, if not as the sole truth of the world, then as a credible scientific theory. Rufo was surrounded by people long accustomed to classroom culture wars. “Teach the controversy,” they urged. Decades later, with Rufo, they appeared to have changed their minds. When did it conclude that some controversies matter more than others? [Emphasis added.]

“They argued that schools should teach intelligent design,” Jones opines — wrongly. Discovery Institute opposed requiring intelligent design in K-12 schools. Its “teach the controversy” policy referred to teaching the scientific evidence for and against modern evolutionary theory, not teaching intelligent design along with evolution. That’s why Discovery Institute opposed the now infamous Dover school policy and urged its repeal before there was any lawsuit. If you want to know Discovery Institute’s real policy on science education, you can read about it on its website

Jones next suggests that Christopher Rufo somehow caused Discovery to change its mind about schools teaching controversies. Her point seems to be that we favored “teaching the controversy” over evolution, but Rufo convinced us that we shouldn’t teach the controversy over critical race theory: “When did it conclude that some controversies matter more than others?” 

In Fairness to Rufo

But in fairness to Rufo and other critics of CRT, I don’t think they are really objecting to the controversy over CRT being taught. They are claiming that the problem with CRT is precisely that it does not “teach the controversy.” Discovery Institute founder Bruce Chapman explains:

The idea that criticizing Critical Race Theory programs is somehow anti-free speech is especially preposterous. Those programs are typically coercive, and they are themselves antithetical to free speech. Attendance is compelled, and the ability of participants to freely share their real views without punishment is nil. Critiquing such coercive programs is not an assault on free speech. It is a defense of it. Thus, claims that opposition to Critical Race Theory programs constitute an assault on free speech are nothing short of Orwellian. 

Perhaps this view of CRT is correct; perhaps it isn’t. My intention is not to wade into that debate, or to explain my own views about the serious issues of racial discrimination and disparities we still face in America. My point is that Jones’s analysis doesn’t grapple with the actual concerns being raised by critics of CRT, let alone the idea of a “teach the controversy” approach to education on the topic of evolution. The idea of the “teach the controversy” approach was to fairly cover both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory in the classroom, not to propagandize students.

The Zeal of the Convert

Alas, Jones doesn’t seem especially interested in understanding those she is critiquing. She has all the zeal of the impassioned convert, which can sometimes blur one’s thinking. In prior centuries, conversion narratives were popular among the religious. They allowed those who came to God to share their personal journeys for the edification of fellow believers. In our own day, we have similar conversion stories offered by earnest secularists. Usually the story goes something like this: A poor oppressed and/or repressed young man or woman grows up in a fundamentalist home, goes to college, loses his or her faith, and then finds liberation in disbelief and secularism, which they then spend their lives promoting. This secularist conversion narrative has become a rather tired trope among contemporary writers, and Jones seems to be a prime example.

According to a profile in the New York Times, Jones grew up in a fundamentalist family and lost her faith in God in college (a Christian college no less!). Then came what might be considered the secularist equivalent of missionary work: She volunteered for Planned Parenthood, followed eventually by a stint at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Now she has graduated to evangelizing for her views in various publications, often recycling stereotypes from her conversion narrative in the process. 

A Possible Explanation

By the way, Jones must have been quite intellectually advanced as a child. In her current article she says that “Like many a young Evangelical, I encountered the think tank [Discovery Institute] in the 1990s, when they battled the forces of Darwinism.” Discovery Institute did not start its program on intelligent design (the Center for Science & Culture) until 1996. According to the New York Times, Jones was 26 in 2014. That would make her all of 8 years old in 1996. As I said, she must have been quite intellectually advanced for her age to become interested in the debate over Darwin in the early years of grade school.

Of course, Jones was homeschooled for much of her childhood, and homeschoolers are known for being more advanced academically than their peers. So perhaps that explains it.