You've got to hand it to President Bush. Just when you'd think our ideologically-divided country couldn't possibly be further polarized, the president this week weighed in with his opinion on teaching American schoolchildren the alternative to evolution referred to with a straight face as "intelligent design" by its Christian fundamentalist proponents.

While conceding that curriculum decisions should be made by local school districts and not the federal government, Bush told Texas newspaper reporters in a group interview at the White House on Monday that he believes that "intelligent design" should be taught alongside evolution in American schools as competing theories.

"Both sides ought to be properly people can understand what the debate is about," he said. "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Forgetting for a moment the laughable hypocrisy of this statement from a man whose administration, to put it mildly, does not well tolerate exposing Americans to any ideas or points of view besides its own, what the president is advocating is nothing less than the teaching of creationism in American public schools.

"Intelligent design" is, in fact, the latest in a long line of Orwellian terms cleverly designed and marketed to introduce to the American public proposals and policies that would otherwise be rejected if named and understood for what they really are. Anyone remember the "Clear Skies Act", or the "Healthy Forest Initiative"?

"Intelligent design" is a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of the earth and all life. Proponents of "intelligent design" believe that life on earth is too complex to be explained by evolution, and therefore such complexity is evidence of a "guiding hand". Believers largely if not entirely identify themselves as Christian fundamentalists, and they are ecstatic about the president's comments this week.

"With the president endorsing it, at the very least it makes Americans who have that position more respectable," said Gary Bauer, a well-known Christian conservative leader. "It's not some backwater view. It's a view held by the majority of Americans."

"It's what I've been pushing, it's what a lot of us have been pushing," said Richard Land, the president of the ethics and religious liberties commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and friend to the president, who went on to say this week that evolution "is too often taught as fact", and that "if you're going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists."

The president with his comments has pushed the country across a line that should never have been crossed. Proponents of "intelligent design", now knowing that they have the backing of "their man" in the White House, will be emboldened to push harder for the teaching of what amounts to creationism in schools across America. Even before the president's remarks, the drive to teach "intelligent design" had been gaining support in school districts in some 20 states.

Supporters of "intelligent design" won't call it creationism. They won't even necessarily reject evolution outright. But they will call for schools to give "intelligent design" equal treatment with the teaching of evolution. They will push for the teaching of "intelligent design" with the justification that, as Bush said last year, "scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum."

However, the problem (well, besides the whole separation of church and state thing) is that "intelligent design" is not a scientific viewpoint at all. It is a purely religious viewpoint, a matter of faith. It has no place in the science classrooms of American schools. Unlike evolution, which is scientifically unassailable, there is no scientific evidence to support "intelligent design", and no educational basis for teaching it.

If "intelligent design" is to be taught at all, let it be taught in classes on philosophy and comparative religion. In that context, the president is right: it is appropriate and useful in such fields of study to expose students to different ideas, and to discuss different viewpoints. However, teaching "intelligent design" in science classrooms will only make American children less intelligent than they already are.

Todd Huffman, M.D.
Eugene, Oregon