As a displaced Southerner sojourning in Kansas, I’ll never forget the time I wandered into the statehouse and encountered John Steuart Curry’s mural. One section features John Brown, girded with sword and pistol, mouth and eyes agape. Mosaic beard jutting off at a right angle, brandishing a rifle in one hand and the Good Book in the other. Grossly exaggerated in size, he looms over stalwart Yankee saints to his right and sinister Confederate sinners to his left, with cowering Negroes behind and dead soldiers prostrate at his feet. Looking back, I’m not sure which is worse: that the thing was commissioned as late as the 1930’s, or that it is still there. Even so, after a decade of living in this state, I’m starting to feel right at home. Most Kansans these days are friendly, practice good citizenship, and mind their own business—unlike Osawatomie Brown. In the face of such improvements, it seems ironic that Kansas is drawing global condemnation as a staging ground for antinomian terror.

I’m not talking about Timothy McVeigh. Judging from the sheer quantity of bad press, the biggest villain in the history of the state is the Kansas Board of Education (KBE). Nobody got hacked to death or blown up this time, but every media apparatchik from Topeka to Peking has raised the alarm, lest “the mental hijacking of an entire state’s children by sectarian zealots”—as the New Republic shrilled—be allowed to stand. Once perceived far and wide as an innocuous and blandly progressive “Land of Oz,” Kansas found its image transformed overnight into that of a politically incorrect relic right out of the Stone Age.

Contrary to popular reports, the KBE had something milder in mind in early 1999 when it embarked on a standardization of the science curriculum and testing standards for grades K through 12. A state-appointed, 27-member committee of “science experts” was sent to the KBE’s aid; the committee cribbed material from sources such as the educational arm of the National Academy of Sciences and forwarded the fruit of its not-too-strenuous labor to the ten-member KBE for the rubber stamp. But the KBE (or “lay board,” as the “experts” contemptuously dubbed it) held certain reservations about the wisdom of conforming Kansas to a nationalized educational standard of the “Goals 2000” variety. Furthermore, some members objected to the presentation of the theory of evolution as one of five “fundamental” concepts uniting all scientific disciplines.

As the vote approached last May, KBE member Steven Abrahms presented a slightly modified version of the standards that allowed for an exploration of the full range of theories about origins and biological change, including the involvement of an “intelligent designer.” Five conservatives rallied around this revision and five liberals (or as the media would say, “moderates”) opposed it. Thus began a long, hot summer of deadlock that culminated in a revealing public hearing. For two consecutive days, Kansans of every sort—from Mennonite farmers to pin-striped professionals—took turns at the microphone to voice their support for the conservative modification. A far smaller number—typically condescending academics—expressed their outrage that the ignorant masses should dare to question scientific orthodoxy, meddle with public education, or otherwise take seriously the prerogatives of citizenship. This was apparently enough to drive the mild-mannered vice chairman of the KBE, Harold Voth, to break ranks and work out a deal with conservative members Steven Abrahms and Scott Hill. The new standards passed by a vote of six to four on August 11.

The substance of this accommodation was apparently too subtle for most reporters to grasp—much less explain. The KBE recognized a logical distinction between “microevolution” (meaning observable, adaptive changes within a species) and “macroevolution” (meaning theoretical changes of greater scope). In the end, the board simply voted to leave the issue of macroevolution to the discretion of each of the state’s 304 school districts. The KBE’s chairman at the time, Linda Holloway, summed it up: “I think local people can make good decisions.”

Based on previous coverage, I expected to find word of this result buried the following day on page 6B of the Kansas City Star, but instead it made the front page. Then the New York Times turned it into a lead story, and the call for a massive counteroffensive reverberated through the foreign press. The BBC aired an eight-minute feature. Back home, editorialists from coast to coast had fits. The talk-show comics started in. Television philosopher Hugh Downs wrote a personal rebuke. Roger Ebert emerged from his screening room to ball a chubby fist. Fashionable academics everywhere gave notice that people educated in Kansas were soon to become a backward tribe of stinkards unfit for college admission. A company out on the left coast sounded the call to divest and avoid doing business with Kansas altogether. Assorted cranks vowed never to drive through the state again. On August 23, Time devoted its cover and most of its ink to a “How We Became Human” issue featuring a tedious series of articles packed with pseudoscientific speculation about the loves and lifestyles of extinct apes. And, of course, the ACLU threatened to sue.

In short, almost anybody worth having for an enemy has taken potshots at Kansas over this, and that’s made me proud to be here. For in the annals of the Long Rout that is the Culture War, this represents one of the few success stories for friends of the Old Republic. Given its inauspicious start as an asylum-like territory crawling with warmongering social gospelers, transcendentalist Red Republicans, and spirit-rapping Yankee schoolmarms, Kansas has had nowhere to go but rightward. Today, the state is rife with homeschoolers, pro-lifers, and tax-resisters. There’s even a group of western counties that has hatched a secession movement. Not content with one of the more conservative congressional delegations in the nation, the social conservatives of the state Republican Party have more than once allowed a Democrat to win an election rather than compromise their principles with the liberal, country club Republicans who still hold most of the money and power here.

Of course, those liberal Republicans are still sufficiently unctuous and New England-addled to side with the statists and trendy intellectuals on this issue, as on most everything else. Gov. Bill Graves called the KBE’S decision “terrible, embarrassing.” “Boy, Kansas is really the laughingstock of the world now,” groused state Sen. Rich Becker. “There has been a serious breach of common sense,” contributed state Rep. Ralph Tanner, before joining a delegation that ran to the governor with a scheme for appointing the KBE instead of electing it. Perhaps realizing that he and his cronies had been installed by those same moron yokels who had elected the school board. Governor Graves prudently curled into the political equivalent of the fetal position and left Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer to take the cake with a remonstration worthy of a New York neocon: “Literally, I cannot overstate how damaging this is to the state in terms of business.”

Yes, well. On top of that impossible-to-overstate damage, the involvement of parents in the schooling of their own children, and the public challenging of scientistic authority’ on matters ontological, the rulers found themselves treated to the totally unexpected failure of their most powerful ideological weapon: the Inherit the Wind myth. Normally, when one of these hearings comes up, all the powers-that-be need do to shame the peasants into submission is frame the debate in the terms of that preposterously inaccurate Broadway play about the 1925 Scopes trial. And considering that its 1960 cinematic knockoff was shown to so many of them in public schools as a documentary, what other outcome could they imagine but a reprise of the scene where Frederic March, as William Jennings Bryan, apoplectically croaks of a fundamentalist fit right there on the courtroom floor? Never mind that it did not happen. The evangelists of evolution are not known for attempting to offer a systematic, empirical case for their claims when a lie, a smear, or a cheap shot will do the trick. But this time it did not. To the frustration of the elites, and the obvious chagrin of their amen-shouting accomplices in the media, the locals did not stick to the script. Instead of swearing the earth was flat and handling pizen snakes, these no-nonsense people of the plains only proved to be civil, articulate, and eager to grapple with the controversy at the local level.

By itself, this was not enough to send the elites into a panic. What really got them was the realization that their invincible trump card—a judicial smackdown of popular will based on a lunatic-left interpretation of the First Amendment—was not up to the job of gagging the dissenters. Because the KBE didn’t vote to require schools to teach that God created matter, the earth, life, or mankind—and because it never voted to prohibit teaching that these things evolved through random, purposeless natural processes, either—the usual anti-Christian litigation groups have had to content themselves with mass-mailed threats to all 304 Kansas school districts reminding them what happens to foolish little educators who mention God. The net result, which could go on for years, is a Mexican standoff. While these nationally financed outfits can’t do much about the return of discretionary authority to the local boards, they are making it loud and clear that they will do whatever it takes to prevent them from so much as dreaming about taking it seriously. And as Stephen Presser recently noted in Chronicles (November 1999), the threat of litigation is enough to cow all but the most defiant school boards into utter subjection.

Yet it could get interesting if even one of them is made of the same stuff as the slim state-board majority, who continue to stay loyal to their constituents in the face of everything that can be thrown at them. For instance, when copyright permission was spitefully revoked by the authors of the non-controversial portion of tile new science standards last October, the KBF, simply got a lawyer and rephrased it all, save the tiny portion they had already modified. As of this writing, a last-ditch demand for “external review” has just been staved off, the speaker of the Kansas House can’t drum up much interest in abolishing the KBF, before it strikes again, and the Missouri Repertory Theater’s hissy-fit production of Inherit the Wind did not exactly pack in Jayhawkers or Bushwhackers.

This leaves the ruling elites with one final resort for securing total victory, one which will require the involvement of interested parties near and far. Democrat and Republican alike. But it is a tactic that seldom fails: a liberal application of cash. With half of the KBF’s seats up for grabs this fall, and torn of those fixe presently held by villainous conservatives, champions of secularization and macroevolution are stepping forward and swearing to overturn their work. And if one or more of the targets doesn’t fall to a primary challenger from within his own partly in August, then one or more is expected to fall in November. But not without a fight, insists incumbent Linda Holloway. It is going to get ugly before it’s over, and if it doesn’t become “bleeding Kansas” all over again, this is certain to become the costliest school-board race in state history, thanks to outside agitators and leftist slush funds in other parts of the country. That mode of politics, at least, does resemble the 1850’s. Otherwise, the ironical inversions continue to mount, none more delightful than the possibility that this sort of polarization could spread to other states like a prairie fire. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, there’s always a bright spot: Considering what old John Brown would probably do if he caught somebodu teaching his kids evolution, the Jacobin Republicans in Topeka might finally decide to do something about that heinous mural of theirs.