A town reconsiders religion.

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NOVEMBER 14, 2005

A town reconsiders religion.

Dover, pennsylvania

One day last spring, Bernadette Reinking stepped into the confession
booth at St. Rose of Lima Church and asked an urgent question: Was
she still a Christian? It seemed strange that she would have any
doubts. Raised a devout Roman Catholic, Reinking attended parochial
schools from her first day of kindergarten until her last day of
nursing school. She was married in a Catholic ceremony at a
Catholic church. And, every Sunday since she was a child, she went
to Mass. Indeed, for as long as the 58-year-old Reinking could
remember, she considered herself a good Catholic. But now, she told
the priest, she wasn't so sure.Reinking's doubts stemmed from her decision earlier this year to run
for a seat on the Dover Area School Board. The year before, the
school board had voted to require students in biology classes to
hear a statement about intelligent design (ID)--a theory that holds
that evolution is so complex as to require the hand of an
intelligent designer. Reinking felt that the board, in making its
decision, had not taken into account opposing views. And, while
Reinking did not have a problem with intelligent design being added
to the curriculum, she did believe that it should be taught in a
comparative religion or modern history course rather than in a
science class. She felt strongly enough about all of this to run
for office for the first time in her life, and soon she, along with
several other similarly minded school board candidates, started
going door-to-door in Dover to explain her position to voters. They
were not always well-received. Some people slammed doors in their
faces; others made monkey noises. Even worse was the whispering
campaign alleging that Reinking and her fellow challengers were
"un-Christian."

The accusation so troubled Reinking that it drove her to the
confession booth at St. Rose of Lima, in nearby York, that day last
spring. "I said to the priest ... `I'm running for the Dover Area
School Board. Am I still Christian?'" she recounted recently. She
was more than a little relieved when the priest answered, "You most
certainly are." Reinking has short, silver hair and a round face
that frequently breaks into a smile. She tends to punctuate her
sentences with laughter, as if trying to defuse the seriousness of
what she's saying. But, as she told the story of her confession,
her attempts at levity became strained. Reinking was still troubled
by some of the responses to her campaign--and by what those
responses revealed about the community in which she lives. From the
moment she moved to Dover, a tiny south-central Pennsylvania town,
two decades ago, she understood that it was a conservative,
religious community. But, until recently, Reinking said, she
believed she was sufficiently conservative and religious to fit
comfortably within Dover's mainstream. Now she feared that may no
longer be the case. "You sometimes just have to say to yourself, `I
know what I believe in, I know that I'm a good person, and I know
that I'm a Christian,'" Reinking said, failing to end her sentence
with a laugh.

Just 25 miles north of Dover, in Harrisburg, the intelligent design
debate is being played out in the national spotlight, in a
courtroom. There, in a trial that has been dubbed Scopes II, eleven
Dover parents are charging that intelligent design is nothing more
than gussied-up creationism and that the school board violated the
separation of church and state. For the past six weeks, Judge John
E. Jones has listened to testimony not only from school board
members and parents, but also from scientists, theologians, and
other experts on both sides of the ID-evolution debate. And,
sometime after the trial ends on November 4, Jones will issue his
ruling about what exactly ID is--a scientific theory or a religious
belief--and whether it belongs in Dover's biology classes.

But, back in Dover, away from the glare of national attention, the
intelligent design issue is not so theoretical. Instead of dueling
experts, it pits neighbor against neighbor. And, instead of a
judge, it will be regular citizens who issue a ruling, when, on
November 8, they go to the polls to cast their votes in the school
board race. The campaign has divided Dover, but not between those
who are religious and those who are secular; religiosity abounds on
both sides of the race. Rather, the school board campaign, more than
any abstract culture war issue, has forced this conservative town
to determine the degree to which it wants religion to be part of
its public life. Which, for some Dover residents like Reinking, has
in turn prompted a crisis of faith.

Along Carlisle Road, the two-lane state route dotted with churches
that runs in and out of Dover, are four giant billboards. One
reads, it's time for a new school board in dover. Another counters,
help eliminate property taxes and support academic freedom.
re-elect your dover school board.

The slogans aren't exactly earthshaking, but the fact that they've
been plastered on billboards is. Until now, school board races in
Dover have been ho- hum affairs, sometimes not even drawing enough
candidates to make them competitive. But, in the wake of the
intelligent design controversy, 18 Dover residents registered to
run in May's primary for seven open seats. (An eighth seat
subsequently opened when a school board member resigned.)

The unusually large field of candidates has led to an unusually
heated and intense campaign. Eight school board incumbents have
secured spots on the Republican ballot, and eight members of an
opposition group, Dover Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational
Strategies, or Dover cares, have won places on the Democratic
ticket (though four of them, including Reinking, are Republicans).
Both groups predict that every house in Dover township with a
registered voter (of which there are about 16,000) will receive a
personal visit from at least one candidate on their respective
slates before Election Day. And the two groups have been churning
out mass mailings. One, sent out by the school board, linked Dover
cares to the aclu, which, the mailing noted, defends the North
American Man/Boy Love Association's "right to put out information
on how adults can lure young children into having sex with them."
"This is not a normal school board campaign," said Judy McIlvaine, a
Dover cares candidate with a penchant for understatement.

On a Saturday in late October, Dover cares held a chicken barbeque
fund- raiser in a local park. It was raining, and the temperature
was hovering in the 40s, but that didn't stop a steady stream of
people from lining up to pay

$6.50 for a chicken dinner. One of the volunteers handing out meals
was Nathan Eifert, who has lived in Dover since childhood. A former
banker who is now a stay-at-home father, the 36-year-old Eifert and
his family attend services at a United Church of Christ, and he
said that, when his two-and-a- half-year-old daughter starts
school, he wouldn't object to her learning about ID. "But it needs
to be in the proper setting," he added, "like an elective course
that can't be challenged on church-state grounds." He went on, "I
don't think the community supports the decisions of this school
board. The intelligent design motion was more about the school
board's personal agenda than it was about Dover. And I hope that
becomes clear on Election Day."

But, the next day, over on the other side of Dover, outside of
Rohler's Assembly of God Church, Paul Bartels was of another mind.
Bartels had just come from morning worship at a tiny red brick
church. Its pastor, Ed Rowand, is a school board member. An
architectural designer who moved to Dover six years ago, Bartels is
30 years old with three young children whom he intends to raise in
such a way that they won't put too much stock in Darwinism. "I'm
bringing my kids up to know better," he said. He supports the
school board's ID decision. "They put their faith in God," he said,
"and, any time you do that, it's always a good thing."

Eifert and Bartels represent the two poles of Dover's current divide
over religion and its place in public life. For many years, when
Dover was an agrarian community, there seemed to be a consensus
about what that place should be. But, over the last few decades,
that consensus has eroded, as much of what was once farmland has
given way to subdivisions and Dover has become a bedroom community
for York and Harrisburg. Dover's transition from rural to suburban
has prompted some residents to increase their religiosity: In the
face of change, they've taken comfort in more conservative, more
evangelical, more politically assertive churches--so much so that
Dover's politics now have a deep conservative, evangelical streak.
While John Kerry won Pennsylvania in the 2004 election, President
Bush carried 64 percent of the vote in York County, where Dover is
located.

The current Dover school board is rooted in this conservative,
evangelical culture. The first noises about intelligent design came
from Bill Buckingham, a then-school board member who belonged to
Harmony Grove Community Church, one of the most conservative
evangelical churches in Dover. In June 2004, when the school board
began deliberating about whether to purchase a new ninth-grade
biology textbook, it was Buckingham who complained that the textbook
was "laced with Darwinism." At the next school board meeting,
Buckingham's wife gave a 15- minute speech in which she quoted the
Old Testament and argued that students should learn about biblical
creation. Warren Eshbach, a retired pastor who later became active
in Dover cares, attended the meeting and was taken aback. "I said,
`Wait a minute, where am I? In church or at a school board
meeting?'"

A few weeks later, Buckingham said he would approve the textbook
only if the board purchased another book--to serve as a companion
text--called Of Pandas and People, which promoted ID. Buckingham's
push for Of Pandas and People failed at that meeting and at
subsequent ones that summer. But then, at the October 2004 meeting,
after three hours of often heated debate between school board
members and some residents in attendance, the board voted six to
three to have a statement read to each biology class mentioning
intelligent design. The three members who voted against the motion
subsequently resigned. (According to one of them, Casey Brown,
Buckingham told her after the vote that she was "going to hell.")
And, when the board chose to replace them with new members who
supported the ID decision, the stage was set for the current
campaign.

At the more evangelical churches in Dover, such as Harmony Grove and
Rohler's Assembly of God, the pastors often speak from the pulpit
about the importance of supporting the current school board.
(Harmony Grove parishioners even contributed money to purchase 60
copies of Of Pandas and People for the school after Buckingham made
a request during a Sunday service.) But, besides holding their
organizational meetings in a Lutheran church, the Dover cares
candidates have eschewed outwardly religious appeals; nor have they
asked their own pastors to make them on their behalf. In the
process, they hope to set an example of how to strike a balance
between personal faith and public policy. But they concede that
striking that balance has been difficult.

Reinking, for her part, seems anxious for the whole thing to be
over. As she packed up chicken dinners at the Dover cares
fund-raiser, she said the campaign had been more divisive than
she'd anticipated. But she did seem momentarily cheered by one
fact: Because of the rain, she would not be going door-to-door that
afternoon. Just the other day, she said, another person had slammed
a door in her face. "He had a big wooden cross around his neck,"
Reinking recalled. "It was very Christian of him."

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