Trouble in "Holy City"

The man behind the Kansas creationism controversy worries that the flap has awakened his opponents -- who hope he's right.


Laura Rozen
September 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Many Kansans were shocked when they opened their newspapers last month to learn that the Kansas Board of Education had voted 6 to 4 to remove the teaching of evolution from the state's science standards -- and that, overnight, they had become the nation's laughingstock. But the decision came as no surprise to Tim Golba.

An anti-abortion activist, Golba has spent the past decade running political action seminars across the state for Kansans for Life, teaching fellow Christian conservatives in the state how to gain political power. This past November, Golba's work paid off, as Christian conservatives took control of the Kansas Board of Education, paving the way for the Aug. 11 school board decision, which in effect gives Kansas' 308 local school boards the choice of whether to include the teaching of evolution in their science curricula.

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While that political victory has encouraged Christian conservatives in Kansas and other states, it has also galvanized their political opponents. But they're left playing catch-up, years behind Golba.

"Tim Golba is a genius at political organizing," says Caroline McKnight, the executive director of Mainstream Coalition, a group of moderates formed in 1994 by Kansas community leaders who were alarmed at the "increasing stridency" of the right wing and conservative Christians in Kansas. The coalition has organized a network of moderate citizens, church and synagogue leaders and tries to keep them aware of the activities of the state's extreme right -- militias, hate groups, freemen and ultra-Christian conservatives.

Golba's political opponents would seem to have a lot to learn about political activism from him. A worker at the Pepsi bottling plant in Olathe, a suburb on the southwestern edge of the sprawling Kansas City metropolitan area, Golba, 45, has only a high school education, is unmarried and has no children who might be affected by the Kansas education board decision. Abortion is his top issue: This past week, his group, Kansans for Life, has pursued a 14-year-old Arizona girl seeking a late-term abortion in Kansas after she was raped while a state ward of Arizona.

But for the past decade, he has spent almost every weekend teaching fellow Kansas pro-lifers and religious conservatives how to take over political offices in the state. Golba's coaching has helped Christian right candidates get elected as officers of local Republican Party precincts, as well as local and state school board positions -- offices to which liberal, moderate and apathetic voters in the eastern part of the state have previously paid little attention.

Golba says he learned everything he knows about politics from David Miller, the former Kansas head of the Christian Coalition and former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. In 1998, Miller ran and lost in a primary bid to become Kansas' Republican candidate for governor.

"David Miller is just such a gifted politician. He knew all the inside stuff, how it all operates," Golba said. "He helped us take the reins of the Republican Party, and taught people of the need to get involved."

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Golba's creationism victory reminded Kansas -- and the nation -- that while the Christian Coalition may be falling apart as a national organization, the political skills it taught have been thoroughly learned and adopted by Christian conservatives. And, as the recent Kansas Education Board decision shows, the fruits of its labors are in many cases only now being realized.

Moderate politicians in Kansas say the recent school board decision has shaken their supporters out of their complacency, and will get them to the polls to vote out Christian conservative school board members up for reelection next year. They say it will serve as a catalyst to moderates to get out to vote, as they say David Miller's bid for governor did in the 1998 primary.

"[Miller's race] was the best thing that could have happened to the Republican Party in Kansas," says Mike Matson, the press secretary for Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican friendly to business interests in the state, and opposed to the Christian conservative wing of the party. "What it did was draw very clear bright lines of demarcation. And in essence, common-sense Republicans realized the threat and got involved. They took a page from the conservative book, and organized down to the precinct level. And it was a resounding success."

But while moderates like Matson express confidence that the common sense of Kansas voters will triumph, they appear once again to be one step behind Golba. Although the 1998 election did allow moderate Republicans to defeat Miller's gubernatorial bid, and take back some key precinct posts won by the conservative right, Golba's opponents paid little attention to his efforts organizing for the obscure state Board of Education election. So in November, Christian right candidates took five of 10 seats, leading to the creationism decision.

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And last January, Golba helped create a new pro-life Republican organization, the Kansas Republican Assembly, which future Kansas -- and national -- Republican Party candidates may find difficult to ignore. The Kansas Republican Assembly is part of a 2-year-old group called the National Association of Republican Assemblies, with organizations in several states with active Christian conservative constituencies.

"The Republican Assembly is a vehicle through which we can promote our pro-life values within the Republican Party," Golba explains. "The Republican Assembly will do a lot of stuff that Kansans for Life did, but Kansans for Life is officially a non-partisan organization. Here in Kansas, we have one of the best state organizations, with an extremely active membership."

Golba says he and his fellow Christian conservatives are disappointed with the leading Republican Party presidential candidates, who he sees as being in the grip of pro-business interests and morally bankrupt.

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"Right now, I like Gary Bauer as my first choice, and I have always liked Pat Buchanan. He says it like it is. I like Alan Keyes. I like [Steve] Forbes, but I don't know his particular views on so many issues. What scares me about Bush is people don't know what he stands for. Most of these people are not values driven. And some are supported by business interests that are dead set against us" conservative Christians, Golba said.

He says churches will remain the main vehicle for recruiting, and training like-minded conservative believers to become more politically active. "Churches are key. That's how we get to people, and get people to the polls."

Churches appear to be fertile ground for recruiting new ranks of conservative activists. The growing number of massive evangelical mega-churches -- Baptist, Lutheran and conservative Catholic -- in Olathe, a southwestern suburb of Kansas City, has led to it being dubbed the "Holy City" by moderates with the Mainstream Coalition. Previously undeveloped land is now being transformed into neighborhoods of sprawling homes that regularly sell for half a million dollars.

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In recent years the Christian right has consciously drawn less publicity for its anti-abortion activities, concentrating instead on education issues such as getting evolution out of science curricula, promoting abstinence programs in place of sex education and getting states to provide school vouchers to children to go to parochial schools.

But Golba says activists like himself will not rest until they achieve the cornerstone of their political agenda, the abolition of abortion. "Abortion is still the key issue," Golba said.

Ironically, Golba believes the Board of Education decision and the controversy it provoked may have set back the pro-life agenda of Christian conservatives.

All the fuss, Golba says, "is just a scare tactic, to get liberals thinking we are making inroads. The Board of Education has not banned anything at all. Evolution can still be taught if the local school board chooses. Local school boards now just have the choice to teach different theories, including creationism."

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In fact, with a few exceptions, notably in conservative, rural Pratt County, most local school boards have chosen to retain the teaching of evolution. Meanwhile, the University of Kansas and other state colleges are considering requiring entrance exams that would test knowledge of the theory of evolution.

Gov. Bill Graves has also met with some state lawmakers to discuss abolishing the state Board of Education, which would require a change in the constitution and a two-thirds majority in both the Kansas House and Senate. They are also discussing adding evolution to the list of courses Kansas students need to graduate from Kansas public schools.

Alternatively, Graves' press secretary Mike Matson says, "we might just let nature take its course. This is where the governor and his allies are strong believers in the intelligence of the people of Kansas, who now feel under threat and are now paying attention."

Golba agrees. He sees a long struggle ahead for conservative Christians. "It's going to be a real battle for the next 10 to 15 years. Power will go back and forth, we will win some key seats, and then lose them." But Golba vows he and others will hang in there until they achieve control over the policies they care so passionately about.

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The Mainstream Coalition worries that the governor's reliance on the "intelligence" of state voters may be too passive a stance when dealing with Golba and his allies.

"Do not underestimate their sincerity," the coalition's McKnight said last week. "And do not underestimate their intelligence."


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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