It was January 5, 1982, the day United States District Court Judge William R. Overton issued his memorandum opinion in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Plaintiffs challenged an Arkansas statute that required Arkansas public schools to “give balanced treatment to creation-science and evolution-science.” The Court found that “creation science has no scientific merit or educational value as science” and that “the only real effect of Act 590 [the Arkansas statute] is the advancement of religion.” As such, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was struck down as unconstitutional. Langdon Gilkey, a theologian who testified at the trial as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, provided an account of the trial in his book Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Winston Press, 1985).
Gilkey’s account of the trial and his insightful discussion of the scientific, religious, and theological issues it raised is helpful for Latter-day Saints trying to understand the LDS position on Creationism or, more accurately, the absence of a specific LDS position on Creationism. The first point to stress, as Gilkey is at pains to point out in the book, is that the trial was not a science versus religion contest: there were scientists on both sides of the case, and the plaintiffs included a dozen Christian ministers from a variety of denominations. The problem with Creationism as narrowly defined is that if it is science, it is bad science (which is why scientists and biology teachers oppose laws like the Arkansas statute); and if it is religion, it is bad religion (which is why many Christian ministers oppose such laws). Bad science and bad religion: Creationism certainly has little to offer modern Latter-day Saints.
The second point Gilkey makes broadens that first point. He claims that
at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, the leadership of the mainline churches and synagogues … has been well aware that scientific theories of origins do not conflict with the religious belief in creation, and all have recognized that a person can be a believing Christian or Jew and at the same time a student of the latest geological and evolutionary theories.
The problem, Gilkey continues, is that “the wider public, both those who attend church and those who do not, remains apparently quite unaware that there is no longer any such conflict between science and religion, between evolution and Genesis.” I think that historically the LDS problem went deeper, as some LDS leaders (as well as the general membership) embraced and even taught the popular form of Creationism as an essential part of the LDS gospel. But present LDS leaders do not teach narrow Creationism, and the flourishing science departments at BYU make it clear the Church does not oppose science or endorse the false science-religion conflict thesis.
A third and more general point is the commendably broad view that Gilkey takes toward the whole issue. As a theologian, he opposes what he calls “the establishment of science” as vigorously as he opposes teaching Creationism in public schools. He supports the rights of believers in a free society to believe whatever they choose and teach whatever they choose in their churches (including Creationism) while at the same time encouraging a more informed and productive approach to science, religion, and the relation between the two. That seems like the right approach to me. And I hope that’s the direction we as a church are moving in.