East Cobb resident Jeffrey Selman didn’t set out in 2002 to win notoriety when he spoke out at Cobb County Board of Education meetings and eventually sued to get evolution disclaimer stickers removed from biology textbooks.
He just felt as if he was waking up to a threat to American democracy.
Now 70 and semiretired, he’s devoted to talking about his book, “G-d Sent Me,” and trying to stop more people from sleepwalking through life.
In some ways, he has mellowed — not in the strength of his convictions, but in his restraint at unleashing the passion behind his beliefs. He credits his wife for helping him calm down the streetwise Bronx stickball player inside who is always ready to fight for what is right.
Through a speakers bureau Americans United for Separation of Church and State is launching, he hopes to make frequent appearances to talk about the book and his court cases (he also battled the Cobb County Board of Commissioners over invocations at the start of meetings). Before his appearance at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 17, he talked to the AJT.
Note: Read Michael Jacobs’ review of “G-d Sent Me” below.
AJT: Why did you decide now was the time to write this book?
Selman: I’ve been writing it for 10 years. It takes a while. The original book was involved with the two cases I started, the evolution sticker and Pelfrey vs. Cobb County. … That was the prayer case, which (Sam) Olens says he won, but he didn’t. There’s a check on my wall I never cashed. You don’t get money unless you win.
AJT: Why did it become just this case?
Selman: The original book was over 600 pages long. … I got a new editor, and it took her a year and a half. She said you can’t have a book this long; nobody’s going to read it. You can have two books. And I said, “No, we’ll have one book. I can’t do this anymore. I’m a talker, not a writer.”
AJT: What are you hoping to accomplish with the book?
Selman: Well, the original title of the book was “Democracy Sleepwalking Away.” … I’m retired. I’m doing well. I have a nice house. I don’t need the money. It would be nice. I’m out there to make the point: You can’t sleepwalk through democracy anymore. You can’t count on somebody else to do this for you. So I want to get out there and speak and push the concepts in the book. Because Americans have got to wake up that we can’t just assume the Constitution is there. It’s like any other thing: You buy something in the store, it doesn’t work, you bring it back, you demand they give you a better one to live up to the guarantees. But we don’t do that in this country. Politicians run around and scream and talk and get their jobs. Then we complain when they don’t do something, but we don’t do anything about it. I finally woke up and did something about it. I’m trying to wake people up also.
AJT: What will it take for people to open their eyes?
Selman: One by one. We just slowly wake up, and pretty soon there’ll be a wall of people. … Nothing happens overnight. Till the day I die, I’m going to be doing this.
AJT: Do you feel like each time this comes up and it gets fought, more people are waking up?
Selman: It’s like a pot of boiling water. When you have a full pot and you turn the heat on, slowly but surely it begins to bubble up. … All of sudden, the water’s almost gone, and it’s going crazy. … The people of true faith are starting to understand that they live in a mixed society. … Their side is getting smaller and smaller, so they’re making more noise.
AJT: Is the First Amendment in better shape now than a decade ago?
Selman: It’s opened up the door tremendously. The issue obviously has not gone away, but more and more people are understanding. You don’t teach Russian in a French class.
AJT: How do both sides regain respect for each other?
Selman: You have to keep talking. You have to keep getting up there and putting yourself out there. … Jesus was Jewish, so why can’t we get along?
AJT: Are there specific issues that are motivating you now? Is the Wedge Strategy (using one issue like evolution to gain a religious foothold in public schools) still a problem?
Selman: It’s still out there. I think we’ve had so many successes in the courts … things are changing. They’re evolving, they go slow, it doesn’t happen overnight. But they’re getting better. And I think the Wedge Strategy is finally dissipating, to some extent. It’s not gone.
AJT: Anything else?
Selman: Look at millennials. … It’s changing, and those kids are so accepting of each other. … I really trust that the younger kids are going to pull it together.
Review: Time for a Disclaimer
When I was in high school in the 1980s, I went to a debate on evolution staged for the public at George Mason University. Each expert effortlessly undermined the case of the other, so neither side won.
A stalemate, of course, is a victory for the pro-creationism, anti-evolution side, whose first goal is to be part of the scientific discussion.
Evolution is vulnerable in such arguments because we can’t say for sure how it happens. But it’s clear that while Darwin got the big picture right, he erred on details.
Much as Holocaust deniers try to argue that if the holes in the roof of a gas chamber at Auschwitz can’t be found, the Holocaust didn’t happen, so evolution deniers want to claim that any mistake by Darwin means the whole concept of evolution is wrong.
It’s silly, but it’s not an easy argument to counter in court.
So it was courageous for Jeffrey Selman to sue the Cobb County Board of Education over its decision in 2002 to add stickers declaring that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” to biology textbooks.
Selman’s victory two years later in federal court was a landmark in the struggle to ensure that religion and science are kept separate in public schools. It’s therefore curious that it has taken Selman himself to write a comprehensive history of the case in “G-d Sent Me: A Textbook Case on Evolution vs. Creation.”
Selman’s book is exhaustive and at times exhausting in its details on the struggle against the embarrassing sticker, especially in the extensive use of court testimony.
Even if he’s right, however, Selman is hardly an objective source. His book is not, and does not pretend to be, a dispassionate history.
As he says repeatedly, he wants to wake up Americans to the threat of theocracy, but he risks putting some readers to sleep by emphasizing advocacy over information.
Still, Selman has created, if not a textbook, an invaluable resource for anyone who wants a reminder that science and religion can coexist, but not in the same classroom.