Monday, October 24, 2005

Taking Leadership in Response to the Religious Right

The Religious Right rose to power while most of the nation remained somnambulant. Books and articles were written; film documentaries broadcast; and activist and scholarly seminars and conferences held -- but most of our leading institutions have had little to no response. Fortunately, this is changing. Leaders of major religious and secular institutions are beginning to speak out -- and to lead their institutions into the central struggles of our time.

Last week Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, spoke out against the attacks on the mainline churches -- including his own. This week, Dr. Hunter Rawlings, interim president of Cornell University called on the Cornell community to address the "invasion of science by intelligent design."

According to an account of his speech by Susan Lang of Cornell news service, Rawlings' call came in his first "State of the University" address since becoming interim president in June.

Read on. Meet Hunter Rawlings: professor of classics; hero of constitutional democracy; and role model for how university leaders can and must respond in this era of theocratic creep in American public life. Here is an excerpt from Lang's report.
Rawlings said, "I.D. [intelligent design] is not valid as science... I.D. is a subjective concept.... a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. It is neither clearly identified as a proposition of faith nor supported by other rationally based arguments." Advocates of I.D. voice a creationist argument that some features of the natural world are so "irreducibly complex" that they must have required a creator, or an "intelligent designer."

I.D. is, he said, "a matter of great significance to Cornell and to this country as a whole ... a matter ... so urgent that I felt it imperative to take it on for this State of the University Address." The packed auditorium gave Rawlings a lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of his address.

"I am convinced that the political movement seeking to inject religion into state policy and our schools is serious enough to require our collective time and attention," he said. As such, he asked that Cornell's three task forces -- on the life sciences, on digital information and on sustainability -- consider how to confront such questions as "how to separate information from knowledge and knowledge from ideology; how to understand and address the ethical dilemmas and anxieties that scientific discovery has produced; and how to assess the influence of secular humanism on culture and society."

He said that Cornell, which some refer to as the world's land-grant university, is in a unique position to bring humanists, social scientists and scientists together to "venture outside the campus to help the American public sort through these complex issues. I ask them to help a wide audience understand what kinds of theories, arguments and conclusions deserve a place in the academy -- and why it isn't always a good idea to 'teach the controversies.' When professors tend only to their own disciplinary gardens, public discourse is seriously undernourished," he said.

In his address, Rawlings first reviewed how the I.D. issue is playing out across the country, with disputes about evolution making news in at least 20 states and numerous school districts. He then recounted the controversy historically, with Darwin publishing his groundbreaking book, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," in 1860; the 1925 Scopes trial that deterred anti-evolution legislation pending in 16 states at the time; and the 1987 Supreme Court ruling that ruled as invalid Louisiana's "Creationism Act" that would have forbade teaching evolution in public schools. Now the controversy is back full throttle in a highly polarized nation, Rawlings said, challenging again what is taught in schools and universities.

Rawlings then reviewed how Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, Cornell's first president, were definitive about the issue when they created the first "American" university. Rawlings quoted White as writing that the institution "should be under the control of no political party and of no single religious sect." Rawlings then quoted from a letter Ezra Cornell had placed in Sage Hall's cornerstone in 1873, and unearthed just a few years ago...."

Rawlings' quote from Ezra Cornell's letter well summarizes the role of religion in a secular institution and a secular society. Cornell warned "that the principal danger, and I say almost the only danger I see in the future to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife. From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their conscience shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University.....".

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