Lawmakers in Tennessee have passed a controversial new bill that would require the state’s teachers to allow discussion of creationism alongside evolution in science class. Though the bill was opposed by the governor, the ACLU, and the state’s largest teacher’s association, it nonetheless passed by a wide margin. Why has evolution suddenly reemerged as a hot-button cultural issue? 

According to survey data from Pew and Gallup, the controversy over evolution never really went away. A 2010 Gallup poll showed that forty percent of Americans still believe in “strict creationism”—the idea that God created humans in their present form. A slightly smaller number believed that humans evolved with God’s guidance, and only sixteen percent believed humans evolved without God playing a role in the process. Pew’s polling, which breaks down responses by age, has shown that slightly less than half of all Americans say evolution is “the best explanation for human life.” Respondents older than 65 are least likely to agree with that statement (in 2010, only 40 percent did), and even among the youngest group (respondents aged 18-29), the number is just 55 percent. Among religious groups, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and the unaffiliated are most likely to accept evolution, but slightly more than half of Catholics and mainline Protestants do as well. Too bad more of them don’t serve in the Tennessee state legislature.