IF ASKED TO weigh in on the debate between intelligent design and natural selection, what would Jesus do?

Perhaps, thousands of American pastors hope, he would teach that Christianity's true message and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution can comfortably coexist.

More than 10,000 church leaders, including the Congregational Church of Belmont's Rev. Kristi Denham, have signed on to the Clergy Letter Project, stating that Christians need not choose between religion and science. More than 400 churches, including Denham's, will also celebrate "Evolution Sunday" this weekend, in honor of Darwin's 197th birthday.

Michael Zimmerman, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh's College of Letters and Science, launched the project in 2004 in response to what he perceived as a hijacking of science by a fundamentalist Christian minority.

"Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts," the letter states. "We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of the truth."

Zimmerman said his goal was not to convince fundamentalists that their creationism beliefs are wrong, but rather to give a voice to the silent Christian majority.

"The goal is for individual Christian leaders to stand up one at a time, making a quiet, reasonable statement, that when thousands of them come together, will make a louder voice than those few fundamentalist voices," he said.


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Embracing science

Participating churches, including 33 in California, plan to celebrate Evolution Sunday with special sermons, classes, displays and luncheons, Zimmerman said.

The Congregational Church of Belmont's Evolutionary Sunday service will feature an altar with symbols of creation and science, such as beakers, and a five-minute speech by Brad Novak, a congregation member who is a Belmont psychiatrist.

"As a society, we need to be able to believe in religion as well as science, and not have to live in a culture where they are always at odds with each other," he said.

The church's leaders, who also signed a statement supporting right-to-die legislation for terminally ill patients last month, believe Christians can resolve modern-day conflicts by interpreting the Bible in its historical context — not literally.

"You don't have to assume that they understood science 3,000 years ago. You don't have to assume they understood what would be the driving political issues of the 21st century," Denham said. "What you have to understand is, 'What would a loving God call you to do?'"

Although the Rev. Dan Smith, of Holy Trinity Church in San Carlos, agrees with the Clergy Letter Project's message, he said his church was mistakenly included on list of Evolution Sunday participants after he had e-mailed organizers to find out more about the concept.

He approves of publicizing the fact that many Christians support evolution, but said he did not like the idea of devoting a religious service to a scientific theory.

"They could have worded it differently than Evolution Sunday. You're going to alienate a lot of people for whom evolution is a non-starter," he said.

Staff writer Nicole Neroulias can be reached at (650) 306-2427 or nneroulias@sanmateocountytimes.com.