With a few carefully chosen words downgrading Darwin's theory of macroevolution and opening the door to the teaching of creationism, the Kansas State Board of Education has made our state a target of derision across the country and throughout the world. People warily view us as a theocratic backwater in a technology-driven world and ask, "What's the matter with Kansas?"
The events resulting in the narrow vote to reject Darwinist theory and promote creationism are both simple and subtle.
The simple way to explain the vote is that in recent years the religious right has found in the Kansas Republican Party a political instrument advancing its ever-escalating causes.
The event is subtle because the deciding vote came from a sincere man who eschews the fundamentalist label and says he voted as he did only to make certain that macroevolution -- the theory that man evolved from lower species -- is taught only as theory and not as fact.
The marriage of the religious right and the Kansas Republican Party has been an uncomfortable and unsettled relationship since the beginning. The religious right was invited into the party in 1974 to reelect a vulnerable U.S. senator and stem the rising Democratic tide in the Statehouse. Since, the religious right has grown in numbers, issues and ambitions.
And the religious right has won political victories. Getting five religiously conservative Republicans -- plus one -- on the State Board of Education to vote to diminish evolution and thereby promote creationism is only the most recent.
Main street Republicans have had to accept that half of Kansas's Washington delegation is religious right-produced and religious right-bound. Reps. Todd Tiahrt and Jim Ryun and Sen. Sam Brownback owe their elections to these fundamentalist supporters. Either out of conviction or convenience, these congressmen enthusiastically support their issues.
In addition, in 1995 the religious right took over the machinery of the Kansas Republican Party. But it forgot to elect a like-minded governor.
Offended by Gov. Bill Graves's tolerance of abortion, religious activist and State Board of Education member Steve Abrams concurrently was working to elect enough missing links to write the curriculum for Kansas public schools. He presumably achieved a five-five split.
Enter courteous Harold Voth, good Mennonite and retired school superintendent from central Kansas, who was pegged as moderate. And who says to this day, "We cannot teach creationism as science in the public schools. That's religion, not science."
Somehow, Abrams was able to persuade Voth to vote with him and his four religious right colleagues to delete two pages prescribing teaching the theory of macroevolution from a 100-page curriculum and to let the local school boards decide.
The subtle reasoning that convinced Voth is lost to the rest of the world, which believes the Kansas State Board of Education wants to establish teaching creationism, rather than evolution, in Kansas primary and secondary schools.
For the most part, the world is right. Abrams and many Kansans are among the New Creationists who are using attacks on the theory of evolution, code phrases such as "intelligent-design theory," "theistic science" and other subtle arguments to introduce creationism into the public schools and, most important, obliterate teaching the theory of evolution, which they hold responsible for many of the world's ills.
A signal event in the age-old debate about the natural vs. supernatural has occurred in Kansas. We have been embarrassed by it. We sure didn't need the ridicule associated with it.
But looking on the bright side -- as people in a farm state usually do -- we are glad we have warned the rest of the world about the size, scope and dedication of the creationist movement, so that it may be actively opposed before too much damage is done to young American minds and American science.
"What's the matter with Kansas?" William Allen White, the Sage of Emporia, answered this way in his famous editorial written more than a century ago, "Kansas is all right. There is nothing wrong with Kansas. Every prospect pleases and only man is vile."
The writer is a retired physician and former Democratic member of Congress from 1971 to 1975.