Ideological War Waged With Little Plastic Fish

At times, it seems as if there are just two types of Texans: those who have little plastic fish stuck to the backs of their cars, and those who have plastic fish that have grown legs.

The fish represent evangelical Christians, or "fishers of men," as the Bible calls them. The salamanders, some of which have "Darwin" written in them, tend to belong to staunch believers in the theory of evolution.

Call it the Magnet Wars. But it's a battle for the hearts and minds of Texans over the philosophical issue of the origins of the life. And it's being played out on highways, parking lots, and neighborhoods across the "Bible belt."

"They do pretty well," says Sam Todd, a goateed clerk, pulling a handful of plastic Darwin salamanders out of a basket at the funky Bookpeople Bookstore Cafe in Austin. "You might get people who come in here because their neighbor has a fish on the back of their car and they want to make their own statement."

The roots of this sometimes humorous debate between creationists and evolutionists go back even before the Scopes "monkey trial," when William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow used eloquent arguments to make their points. But here in Texas, the debate is largely a sign of unfinished political business. In 1995, the state Legislature gave local school boards greater say in choosing the books used in schools. For Austin, the state capital, this has meant peace. For local school boards, it has meant upheaval.

"Instead of fighting the battle here, we're going to fight it 143 times in every school district in the state," says Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "This is just one of those issues that gets people worked up."

At The Ark Christian Bookstore in Austin, not everyone is necessarily trying to overturn Darwinism with a plastic fish. But those who want one will find plenty of options: They have fish in two sizes and in several varieties. Some have a cross where the eye should be; others have "Jesus" written inside the fish's body.

"They all have that sticky adhesive on the back, so once they're on there, they never come off," says Pat Shaffer, owner of The Ark. This permanence suits most of her customers just fine, she says, and many who like to talk about how the fish, or "ichythys," talk about how it was the first symbol of Christianity, existing even before the crucifix became prominent.

But the ichythys also seems to have added meaning here. "In my travels, to Washington, D.C., and to Oklahoma and Kansas, you don't see them as much as you do in Texas," Ms. Shaffer says.

Indeed, the Magnet Wars wouldn't be much of a fight outside of Austin. Dallas, Houston, and Amarillo are veritable seas of fish. Even in Austin's richer suburbs, fish can be seen on minivans, Suburbans, and even those sleek European convertibles with the gills on the side. Some of the fish even travel in schools, gathering every Sunday in the Lake-Huron-size parking lots of a neighborhood Baptist or Pentecostal church.

Inside city limits, it's another culture - or ecosystem - altogether. Downtown, the University of Texas campus is a mecca for sandal-clad twentysomethings communing with nature, warning about NAFTA, and protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. On talk radio, hosts lambaste Bill Clinton for not being liberal enough. Even the high-tech industry is peopled with ponytails. This is where the salamanders thrive.

It's hard to say who is winning the Magnet Wars - there aren't any numbers that compare the sales of fish and salamanders. But there is evidence that the battle itself is evolving. On the highways, you'll see fish with whiskers (signifying a love of catfish), and sharks (an aggressive Christian, perhaps, or an agnostic who eats door-to-door evangelicals). You'll even see an occasionally big fish eating a hapless salamander, which may be intended to show the preeminence of God over material theories.

Or perhaps just the skills of an almighty entrepreneur.

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