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Rejecting the Founders’ Legacy: Democracy as a Weapon Against Science

Building a new country is hard work. Plato had interesting ideas about the model city-state, but his plans never got beyond the thinking stage. The American Founders, on the other hand, faced with the opportunity — indeed, the necessity — to do more than dream up theoretical blueprints for a new political system, actually constructed one. They built a democracy, and not just any kind. They wanted something that had never existed: a secular, constitutional democracy. Church and state would be separate, each having power over its respective realm and no more. This would be a fortunate arrangement. Religious persecution, a European tradition that American settlers brought with them, had plagued the colonies for more than a century. But the Founders were also decidedly pro-science. No longer would the ecclesiastical institutionalization of scientific error — Galileo’s conviction was little more than a century old — obstruct the pursuit of knowledge that would make life more secure and enjoyable. The natural sciences would be the engine of America’s technological and economic advancement. In the new United States of America, science and democracy would progress together.


The historical record since the Founders formalized their vision in the U.S. Constitution shows that the dual promotion of science and democracy has been imperfect. The American experiment has been marred by honest mistakes, sheer stupidity, and gross inhumanity. Nevertheless, our secular democracy has enjoyed the benefits of science to an extent that the Founders never conceived. So why, from the twentieth until now, the twenty-first century, has the Republican Party been engaged in a sustained attack on science? Rather than emulating the Founders’ support for science, Republican politicians, allied with the Religious Right, are using the mechanisms of democracy in order to undermine it.

The Founders’ Support for Science

Bernard Cohen’s excellent book, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and James Madison, documents the Founders’ integration of their enthusiasm for science with democratic politics. Many attended college and were schooled in the science of their day: “At Harvard, at Yale, at Princeton, at William and Mary, students were required to study mathematics and the principles of Newtonian science and were introduced to the new sciences being created or advanced in their own time.” [1] Not only were future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison well informed about contemporary science, but their scientific literacy also had a measurable influence on their intellectual and political lives. [2]

Even Founders who never attended college understood the benefits of science for democratic government. Foreseeing the need for scientifically educated citizens, Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1743. With “the first Drudgery of Settling new Colonies, which confines the Attention of People to mere Necessaries, . . . now pretty well over,” he aimed to facilitate “all philosophical [scientific] Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.” [3] Moreover, this self-educated scientist became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1756 and a foreign associate of France’s Académie des Sciences in 1773. [4] Yet, he never held the one office that wielded the political power to promote the institutional advancement of science. That task fell to his younger associates: George Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.

Like Franklin’s, Washington’s formal education ended in adolescence. [5] However, his 1783 “Circular to the States,” announcing his retirement as commander-in-chief of the colonial army, reveals his awareness of the potential benefits of science and democracy to the country’s future. America’s foundation “was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition,” but rather during the Enlightenment, “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period,” and when “knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers [who, in the 18th century, included natural scientists], Sages and Legislatures” could be “happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government.” [6] Practicing what he preached, Washington put the latest agricultural science to use at Mount Vernon. [7] As his presidency ended in 1797, he urged Americans to establish “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” as “an object of primary importance.” [8]

Cohen writes that the politically conservative Adams considered natural science “the highest form of human knowledge based on reason and experience.” [9] A Harvard graduate who “received as good an education in science as was possible in America at that time,” he regretted spending more time reading political philosophy than science. [10] Yet, Adams understood that American cultural and economic development depended on science: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy [science]. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” [11] To that end, in 1780 Adams co-founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [12] Its charter emphasizes the importance of “Arts and Sciences” to “agriculture, manufactures, and commerce” and to “the wealth, peace, independence, and happiness of a people; as they essentially promote the honor and dignity of the government which patronizes them.” [13] Adams clearly believed that democracy would benefit from his promotion of science.

Jefferson, a William and Mary alumnus and the most scientifically astute founding president, gave up science for politics only because of “the enormities of the times.” [14] As vice-president, he was also president of the American Philosophical Society. His commitment to both science and democracy is reflected in the portraits of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton that he commissioned for his State Department office; he was, as Cohen says, “surely the only president of the United States who ever read Newton’s Principia.” [15] Jefferson’s command of the sciences proved politically significant when he commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition, which he used to acquire scientific data and fossils. [16] In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson combined a thorough presentation of scientific data with a vigorous defense of both democracy and religious liberty. [17] According to Cohen, his reference to the “laws of nature” in the Declaration of Independence was as closely tied to Newtonian science as to political theory. [18] Cohen argues that Jefferson’s introduction was rooted not only in “philosophy and political theory, his reading about natural law and natural right, [and] his training and experience in civil law” but also from “his knowledge of science.” [19]

Madison, a Princeton graduate, was at a disadvantage where science was concerned. Although Princeton students studied mathematics, basic physics, and astronomy, the school’s early history was marked by constant complaints from administrators and faculty that they lacked funding for scientific equipment. Later in life, however, Madison became a science devotee through his friendship with Jefferson, becoming proficient enough to secure membership in the American Philosophical Society, along with chemist Joseph Priestley. Cohen points out that metaphors drawn from the natural sciences even made their way into Madison’s famous Federalist No. 10. [20]

As Cohen documents, “the Founding Fathers displayed a knowledge of scientific concepts and principles which establishes their credentials as citizens of the Age of Reason.” [21] Their commitment to science was second only to their commitment to political and religious liberty. The low status to which science has fallen in the Republican Party —  a result of the historically ironic combination of democratic politics and religion —  would shock them.

Using Democracy Against Science

Comparing the Founders’ enthusiasm for science with Republicans’ current animosity toward it is a sobering exercise, especially since this animosity is the result of the Republican Party’s alliance with the Religious Right, as Barry Goldwater saw in 1994: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me.” [22] According to science journalist Chris Mooney, this unholy alliance began with Ronald Reagan’s support for teaching creationism in the 1980s: “The Reagan administration’s sympathies with creationism signaled a new development for the Republican Party and conservatism. . . . From this moment forward, many of the party’s leaders willingly distorted or even denied the bedrock scientific theory of evolution . . . to satisfy a traditionalist religious constituency.” [23]

Not all Republicans have gone along. Jon Huntsman announced (actually, tweeted) his acceptance of evolution and global warming during his 2011 run for the Republican presidential nomination. [24] However, Huntsman is an exception whose support for science was a political liability. Most Republican office-seekers have dutifully lined up with the science-deniers. Yet, Republican politicians’ anti-science stance is not always mere political cynicism; some are both theologically conservative and scientifically (perhaps willfully) misinformed. Georgia congressman Paul Broun, who, incredibly, is a physician and sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, labels evolution and Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell . . . to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” [25]

Whatever the motivation in individual cases, the amply documented fact is that the Republican Party and the Religious Right are using the mechanisms of democratic government against science. There is no better example than the state of Louisiana under the governorship of Bobby Jindal.

Louisiana — A De Facto Theocracy

With a Brown University biology and public policy degree, Jindal is well-schooled in both science and government. [26] Yet, the contrast with the Founders could not be starker. As governor, he has entangled religion and government to a degree that would make them blanch. Positioning himself for national office as chair of the Republican Governors Association, Jindal embodies his party’s anti-science animus. [27] To please his right-wing religious base at home, he has signed laws designed to undermine science education and punish scientists. Kenneth Miller — a biologist at Jindal’s alma mater — correctly describes Jindal’s misuse of his office: “[I]n his rise to prominence in Louisiana, he made a bargain with the religious right and compromised science and science education for the children of his state.” [28] Under Jindal, Louisiana has become a de facto “general theocracy,” in which “ultimate authority . . . vested in a divine law or revelation [is] mediated through a variety of structures or polities,” the relevant structures and polities being the governor’s office, the legislature, and school boards. [29] Understanding how this transformation was achieved, how its agents view their roles, and how they are exploiting democratic processes is essential as a warning to other states and the nation at large.

Jindal’s Religious Right allies began promoting anti-science legislation immediately after his January 2008 inauguration. Among the first bills he signed was the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which disguises creationism as ‘critical thinking’ and was promoted as a safeguard of ‘academic freedom.’ Written by the Discovery Institute (DI), an intelligent design (ID) creationist think tank, and the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a Focus on the Family affiliate, the LSEA permits public school science teachers to use pseudoscientific supplementary materials concerning “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” [30]  Five years later, Jindal has admitted the law’s true intent: “[T]he Science Education Act . . . says . . . if the [local] school board’s okay with that, [and] if the state school board’s okay with that, [teachers] can supplement those materials. . . . I’ve got no problem if . . . a local school board says, ‘We want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about intelligent design.’ . . . What are we scared of?” [31] Moreover, in 2012, Jindal successfully pushed a school voucher law under which $11 million in public funding is going to almost two dozen Christian schools that teach young-earth creationism. [32]

An ultra-conservative Catholic, Jindal also signed the 2009 “human-animal hybrid ban” on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. [33] This law threatens scientists with ten years at hard labor for, among other things, creating embryonic stem cells “by introducing a human nucleus into a nonhuman egg,” for example, replacing genetic material in a bovine ovum with a human nucleus, as is done in regenerative medicine research that is licensed in the United Kingdom. [34] Collusion between Republican politicians and the Religious Right occurs elsewhere, to be sure; Texas is a prominent example. [35] However, Louisiana has long been an incubator for religiously inspired — and democratically enacted —anti-science legislation, having adopted the 1981“Balanced Treatment Act” requiring the teaching of creationism along with evolution in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1987. [36]

Jindal’s partner in the fusion of religion and government is his close political ally, Rev. Gene Mills, LFF executive director and an ordained Pentecostal minister who epitomizes “these preachers” who so distressed Goldwater. [37] Having co-founded LFF in 1998, Mills is one of the state’s most influential Republican operatives. In Louisiana, party lines tend to break down where religion is concerned. Many Democratic legislators who share LFF’s anti-secularism are willing allies. For example, Democratic state senator Ben Nevers sponsored the LSEA on LFF’s behalf. [38] However, Republicans hold all statewide elected offices and have majorities in both houses of the legislature. [39] These demographics, combined with Jindal’s active support, amplify Mills’ influence far beyond LFF’s small institutional size. Because of LFF’s statewide network of ever-ready political auxiliaries (pastors and churches), voter guides, and widely publicized legislative “scorecards,” politicians seek Mills’ endorsement and fear his opposition. [40]

Jindal and Mills have provided revealing insights into their own views of their roles in de-secularizing state government. Mills frequently reminds supporters (and prospective donors) that LFF holds “monthly pastors fellowship luncheon[s] with Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal at the Governor’s Mansion to break bread, share the word and pray together!” [41] While these religious-political networking events are private, others, such as LFF’s December 2007 “Governors’ Gala” celebrating Jindal’s election, are quite public. To hundreds of citizens, clergy, and elected officials, Jindal sermonized that Louisianians must build up the state, “motivated by the Holy Spirit, inspired by His written word, in faith that He is King and Almighty Ruler”; with Mills presiding, he also underwent the ‘laying on of hands.’ [42] Jindal frequently — and publicly — undergoes this ritual, which pastors view not only as their blessing of him but also as their transfer of God’s spirit through themselves to him and the governorship. His participation signifies his submission to the pastors’ expectation that he will use his office to implement God’s (i.e., their) will. [43]

In keeping with the status that LFF and its supporters have conferred upon him, Jindal attends LFF events, issues executive prayer proclamations that Mills uses as evidence of LFF’s influence (with both the governor and God), and, most important, signs the bills that Mills successfully steers through the legislative process. [44] New Orleans journalist Clancy Dubos, listing LFF among the “big winners” in the 2012 legislative session (following only Jindal himself and the oil and gas industry), wrote that “some lawmakers reportedly were summoned to meet with LFF leader Gene Mills on the 4th floor of the Capitol — home of the governor’s office — leading to speculation that LFF is now an extension of Team Jindal . . . or is it the other way around?” [45] Mills describes himself as a “missionary to the field of government,” executing LFF’s mission of rendering “assistance to the local pastor and the body of Christ in order that they may discover their jurisdictional authority in the arena of government.” [46] He works through a “network of 300 to 500 churches [that] affords me the opportunity to have an influential voice in addressing cultural corrections and to execute objectives in an arena which respects power but often confuses the churches’ authority.” [47] Yet, stressing that “the vision is not complete,” he says that LFF must “find, train and retain laborers to serve in this fertile mission field,” ensuring that a new generation will learn “God’s idea of government (jurisdiction, law, representation, continuity and authority).” [48] Jindal’s and Mills’ words and deeds provide substantive evidence that they are consciously transforming Louisiana into a de facto general theocracy.

LFF has also helped DI to advance its national anti-science agenda — which is just as  religion-driven as LFF’s — by facilitating its exploitation of the legislative process in Louisiana. A DI staffer describes its promotion of anti-evolution bills directly to legislators, both in Louisiana and other states: “Discovery Institute . . . is on the inside. . . . We draft and amend academic freedom language, counsel lawmakers privately, testify publicly, and are otherwise intimately acquainted with the intentions behind and likely effects of academic freedom legislation.” [49] LFF’s procurement of ground-level access to legislators for an out-of-state creationist think tank, with Jindal as guarantor of their success, epitomizes the Republican-Religious Right strategy of using democracy against science.

Madison’s Warning

Louisiana exemplifies some of the worst infractions against both science and democracy that the Founders tried to prevent: a Catholic, Republican governor is colluding with a Pentecostal, Republican preacher, buttressed by politically organized clergy and parishioners, to codify their religious beliefs as law. Moreover, this is being done with little opposition from either the state’s Democrats or its scientists. The latter fact would surely be as distressing to the Founders as the transgressions themselves.

Madison’s “Detached Memoranda,” written after he left office, reveal that he could already see a similar apathy. Lamenting that “silent accumulations & encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies have not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S.,” he warned against the “danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government.” [50] The Founders bequeathed to us a secular democracy in which politicians viewed science as essential to national vitality. Yet, despite enjoying the benefits of both, Republican politicians today, as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have forthrightly pointed out, have become so “ideologically extreme” that they are “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science.” [51] They have renounced the Founders’ legacy in favor of co-opting the democratic system to execute the Religious Right’s attack on science.



[1] I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and James Madison (W. W. Norton, 1995), 60.

[2] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 22-27.

[3] Benjamin Franklin, A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the British Plantations in America, 1743, http://www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/ideas/text4/amerphilsociety.pdf.

[4] I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Harvard University Press, 1990), 7.

[5] “Toward Fact: A Biography,” The Apotheosis of George Washington: Brumidi’s Fresco & Beyond, American Studies at the University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/gw/gwbio.html.

[6] George Washington, Circular to the States, 8 June 1783. In The Founders’ Constitution, ed. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (University of Chicago Press, 1986), http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch7s5.html.

[7] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1963) , 274.

[8] George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[9] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 196.

[10] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 197.

[11] John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780, http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm?id=L17800512jasecond.

[12] “About the Academy,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, http://www.amacad.org/about.aspx.

[13] “Charter of Incorporation,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, http://www.amacad.org/about/charter.aspx.

[14] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 63.

[15] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 97.

[16] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 67.

[17] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (London: 1787) Google Books.

[18] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 121.

[19] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 132.

[20] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 264-70.

[21] Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, 60.

[22] Barry Goldwater, “Quote for the Day,” The Atlantic, November 24, 2006, http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2006/11/quote-for-the-day/232168/.

[23] Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005), 36.

[24] Justin Sink, “Huntsman: ‘Call me crazy,’ I believe in evolution, global warming,” The Hill, August 18, 2011, http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/177429-huntsman-call-me-crazy-i-believe-in-evolution-global-warming.   
[25] Katherine Weber, “Ga. Congressman Paul Broun’s Evolution Comments Spark ‘Darwin for Congress’ Campaign,” CP Politics, October 19, 2012, http://www.christianpost.com/news/ga-congressman-paul-brouns-evolution-comments-spark-darwin-for-congress-campaign-83610/.
[26] “Early Life,” Bobbyjindal.com, http://www.bobbyjindal.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=88.
[27] “RGA Announces New Leadership,” Republican Governors Association,  http://www.rga.org/homepage/rga-announces-new-leadership-2/.
[28] Kenneth R. Miller, “Bobby Jindal’s Science Problem,” Slate, July 30, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/07/bobby_jindal_possible_vice_presidential_pick_but_has_a_creationism_problem_.html.

[29] “Theocracy,” Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan Reference USA (2005), 9110.

[30] Louisiana Science Education Act (Act 473, 2008), http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=631000.

[31] Education Nation, NBC News, April 12, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nbc-news/51522589/#51522589.

[32] Zack Kopplin, “Stop Governor Jindal’s Creationist Voucher Program,” OpEd News, July 16, 2012, http://www.opednews.com/Diary/Stop-Governor-Jindal-s-Cre-by-Zack-Kopplin-120716-764.html.

[33] Ed Anderson, “Human-Animal Hybrid Ban Sought at Louisiana Session,” Times-Picayune, April 17, 2009, http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/humananimal_hybrid_ban_sought.html.

[34] David Batty, “Q&A: Hybrid Embryos,” Guardian, May 19, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/may/17/genetics.health1.

[35] Rob Boston, “Perry Prayer-A-Palooza Panned,” Church & State, September 2011, https://www.au.org/church-state/september-2011-church-state/featured/perry-prayer-a-palooza-panned.

[36] Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), 482 U.S. 578, http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0482_0578_ZO.html.

[37] Adam Nossiter, “In Louisiana, Inklings of a New (True) Champion of the Right,” New York Times, June 2, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/us/02jindal.html.

[38] Jeremy Alford, “Louisiana Influencers,” Politics, February 2010, 45. See also Melinda Deslatte, “Conservative Group Seeks to Sway La. Lawmakers,” Real Clear Politics, July 30, 2011, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/news/ap/politics/2011/Jul/30/conservative_group_seeks_to_sway_la__lawmakers.html.

[39] “Legislator Demographics: State-by-State,” National Conference of State Legislatures (2013), http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/legisdata/legislator-demographic-map.aspx.

[40] Family Security Advisory, Louisiana Family Forum Action, http://www.lafamilyforum.org/lffa-action-center/.

[41] Gene Mills, “Kingdom Implications,” Smith Media Group, October 22, 2012, http://smgvoices.com/blog/?p=506. See also “Let Us Pray!” Family Facts, June 22, 2010, http://lafamilyforum.us/FFarchives/v12i24.html#two.
[42] Louisiana Family Forum 2007 Governors’ Christmas Gala (video), on file with Barbara Forrest.

[43] I am indebted to Jerry DeWitt, a Louisiana resident, former Pentecostal pastor, and author of Hope After Faith (2013), who explained the significance of this procedure. See his website at http://jerrydewitt.net.

[44] See Gene Mills, “The New Louisiana,” End of Week, January 18, 2013, http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=20dc9be01946aff7364f31092&id=2d3bb540f6&e=92108e1465. See also Governor Bobby Jindal, “Proclamation on Statewide Day of Prayer,” June 24, 2010, issued during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP oil catastrophe, http://lasciencecoalition.org/docs/Jindal_Gulf_Prayer_Proclamation_6.27.10.pdf, and Governor Bobby Jindal, “Proclamation,” December 18, 2012, http://lasciencecoalition.org/docs/Jindal_Prayer_Proclamation_12.18.12.pdf.

[45] Clancy Dubos, “Da Winnas and da Loozas,” Gambit, June 8, 2012, http://www.bestofneworleans.com/blogofneworleans/archives/2012/06/08/da-winnas-and-da-loozas.

[46] Mills, “Kingdom Implications.”

[47] Mills, “Kingdom Implications.”

[48] Mills, “Kingdom Implications.”

[49] Joshua Youngkin, “Dear Bill Moyers: An Open Letter,” Evolution News & Views, March 8, 2013, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/03/dear_bill_moyer069921.html.

[50] James Madison, “Detached Memoranda,” William and Mary Quarterly 3, no. 4 (October 1946): 554, 556, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1921903.

[51] Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem,” Washington Post, April 27, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-04-27/opinions/35453898_1_republican-party-party-moves-democratic-party.


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