My Enemy’s Honour

By skepticlawyer

Every week, one of the evangelical Christians who supported the teaching of Intelligent Design in Dover, PA schools drove to the nearest maximum security penitentiary to ‘bear witness’ to the inmates. On their release, he would find them jobs and homes. One – not yet strong enough to live alone – lived with him for months after his release. They became ‘best buddies’ as the Americans have it. This same man continued to support the Dover Area School Board when its members – to a man and woman – perjured themselves in court, telling Judge John E Jones that they had never discussed creationism at Board meetings. This despite the fact that Fox News had television footage of one member doing just that. The man who supported the liars and visited the penitentiary was Lauri Lebo’s father. He died there, in the midst of visiting an inmate who needed his help.

Lauri Lebo covered the Dover intelligent design case (Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District) and finished up so disenchanted with Christianity by the end of it she got a tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster just above her butt. What set her apart from other journalists who converged on the Harrisburg, PA courtroom when the Area school board tried to insert Intelligent Design into the science curriculum was the fact that she was a local (she worked for the York Daily Record). She knew most of the plaintiffs and most of the defendants. Her father – the prison visitor – ran the local Christian Radio station, one of a plethora of ‘talk radio’ outfits that blossomed across the US after 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission rolled the ‘Fairness Doctrine‘. 

Forced by geography to be scrupulously fair, her book on the case, The Devil in Dover, is one of the best lay accounts of a complex and controversial trial I’ve ever read. That apart, she doesn’t write off people she knows as ‘wingnuts’ and ‘nutjobs’, because she knows they aren’t. But she also doesn’t let them off the hook when they lie for Jesus.

Somehow, this book manages to rise above politics, skewering the comfortable notions of ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ that have become part of the world’s political vocabulary thanks to the 2000-2004-2008 US election cycles. Her skill at noting the telling detail is particularly effective: one of the plaintiffs seems like a boiler-plate anti-affirmative action, gun-totin’ small-town Republican who cheerfully drinks in a pub 20 feet over the county border because, ahem, Dover is a Dry County. But he’s also a science teacher who knows the difference between science and religion. One of the defendants, an upstanding member of the Board and successful local businessman turns up and chews gum throughout both examination-in-chief and cross-examination (no, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lebo’s description is both hilarious and nauseating). This is quite apart, of course, from lying under oath.

Then there’s the George W. Bush appointed judge who the defendants are completely confidant they have in their pocket (they don’t, and his judgment is both a model of judicial reasoning and a textbook account of just why we have the separation of powers).

Best of all are the pen-portraits of the various lawyers, from the ACLU and the Thomas More Law Centre, both circling for a test case. The image of a lawyer engaging in a version of champerty (Thomas More’s counsel encouraging the Board to change the school curriculum ‘and we’ll defend you when you get sued’) or putting full-page ads in local papers in order to drag in potential plaintiffs (the ACLU) certainly gives one pause, especially for those lawyers trained in Australia or the UK.

Comics (and others) on all sides of politics have had great mileage out of portraying the other side as ‘liberal wieners’ or ‘right-wing nut jobs’, without imagining just what or who is behind those words. This is particularly the case in the creation v evolution battle. It is possible to make a strong case for some socially conservative positions (particularly on Roe v Wade, in part because the court’s ruling took the decision away from the legislature, thereby producing serious democratic deficit). Creationism, by contrast (even in its muted ‘intelligent design’ form) simply invites mockery. Not just ‘unscientific’, it’s a ludicrous form of anti-science. In fact, Charles Johnson memorably described the newly-opened ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky as an ‘Anti-Museum’. Instead of disseminating information, it actively obfuscates it – a visual version of ‘if your baby does not like spinach, try boiling it in milk’.

Lebo’s book is not particularly optimistic; at one point she laments ‘we’re never going to fix this’. She then comments:

My father will leave this world believing he will never again wrap his arms around his daughter, that despite eternal life (eternity? Oh God, what a concept), we will never be reunited. Rather, he believes that I will exist in a place ‘where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched’. 

If you believe this, truly believe this, then how could anything else matter? The First Amendment, scientific reality, the truth? All this would mean nothing. I grasped this. And for those of us who don’t believe, can’t believe, we have to bear the weight of this fear.

Imagining our enemy’s honour is likely the most difficult thing we have to do, and yet liberal democracy demands it of us. In ages past, we fought against and killed those who disagreed with us. Now we contest alternative visions at the ballot box, and try to be gracious winners and honorable losers. Lauri Lebo’s book is a fine exercise in that tradition. I cannot recommend it too highly.


  1. Posted November 15, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Relevant to the ‘bad judges’ cartoon below, this book shows that – very often – an attempt to get the judges you want politically doesn’t work. After all, they’re judges first.

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