KEY WEST, Fla., Dec. 6—Sunday morning, as snow approaches Washington, I throw a swimsuit in my travel bag and fly off to Key West. Twice a year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Ethics and Public Policy Center bring journalists to this hedonistic outpost to talk about faith and values. It’s an odd trip from cold to hot, from secular to pious to prurient. Everything feels upside down. Maybe that’s the point.
Our first topic is creationism. In Washington, reporters look at the polls—42 percent of Americans think life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time—and fret that fundamentalists are running the country. But in Key West, historian Ed Larson invites us to look at it the other way. Darwin’s Origin of Species, flanked by Biblical criticism, positivism, Marxism, and Freudianism, blew traditional beliefs and mores off their hinges. Conservatives and some progressives saw an oncoming dark age of materialism, relativism, and eugenics. Radical ideologues like H.L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow scorned faith. Denominational universities turned modern. After the Scopes trial, the media abandoned churches. E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and other anti-prophets have declared war on faith in the name of science. Neuroscientists are trying to reduce consciousness and religious belief to biology.
In the courts, religion has steadily lost ground. The Supreme Court struck down classroom religious instruction, mandatory school prayer, sanctioned Bible readings, and “creation science.” Fearing conflict, schools purged discussions of faith even from their social science curricula. Social conservatives retreated to their churches, radio stations, and home schools. Larson calls it a “fundamentalist subculture.”
The phrase fascinates me. I’ve always thought of subcultures as decadent and left-wing. Key West is full of them. Down the block from the conference site, you can buy penis-shaped lighters and bikinis that say “your face here.” In our hotel rooms, the staff has left fliers announcing “Fantasy Fest 2005,” which begins the day after we depart. On our coffee tables, Key West magazine shows what’s in store: drag, geishas, nudity, leather, S&M. The lobby is already festooned with movie stills from TheRocky Horror Picture Show.
This, more than monkey ancestors, is what alarms creationists. Larson lists the social ills they blame on the teaching of evolution: abortion, eugenics, homosexuality, effeminacy, divorce, communism, long hair. He’s been told that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the intelligent design movement, brought up cross-dressing three times in his most recent book. “And those are important issues,” Larson adds, trying to sound even-handed, but the journalists laugh. “It is important,” a colleague next to me whispers. “There’s a lot of shopping involved. You have to buy for two.”
It’s a funny moment, but it’s also revealing. If we’re all laughing, maybe cross-dressing isn’t such an isolated subculture. We’ve come here, in part, to let it all hang out. There’s booze, scatology, and innuendo. There are stories of attendees getting locked out of hotel rooms in their underwear. Over cocktails, we joke about the upcoming “FetishNite” and about how the new idea of commitment is to tell your girlfriend you’ve started a “ring fund.” Everyone dresses down, even in the air-conditioned conference room. Larson starts out in a dress shirt, returns from lunch in a golf shirt, and by the final session is down to a black T-shirt. Before he can go topless, we’re off to drinks and dinner.
Nobody here is a candidate for FetishNite. But nobody seems horrified by it, either, just as nobody really doubts evolution. What used to be shocking is now just fun or silly, even to those of us who think of ourselves as believers. Fundamentalists have lost the media, the colleges, and the science academies. The battleground has been reduced to public schools, and creationism has been reduced to intelligent design—a pathetic, agnostic, empty shell. Creationists can’t teach a dogma, so they “teach the controversy.” They accept more and more of Darwin’s theory, narrowing the dispute to isolated systems—the eye, the flagellum, the blood-clotting system—that they say Darwinism can’t explain. They just want science to stop short of denying God’s possibility. A little bit of mystery, a parcel of unspoiled divine wilderness, is all they ask.
I think about that as I bike around the perimeter of the island that evening. I think of all the territory that’s been mapped, drawn, and quartered. This island, the last of the stepping stones into the tropics, now covered with concrete, tchotchkes, and thongs. In the dimming light, I pass a band of tall, white birds prancing offshore, their long necks craning forward majestically. They look for all the world as though they’re walking on the water. I know that’s the mirage of the Keys: What looks like the sea is really wet flatland, and the birds’ long legs are touching the ground. But if I can just put that out of my mind, I can hold on to my beautiful illusion till darkness comes.