by Carl R. Weinberg

Today’s post comes from Carl R. Weinberg, Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor of History at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). He has completed a book manuscript entitled Red Dynamite: Creationism and Anticommunism in Modern America.

For secular-minded defenders of evolutionary science, it’s easy to make fun of Ken Ham and his young-earth creationist group Answers in Genesis (AiG): The life-size dioramas with animatronic vegetarian dinosaurs frolicking with humans in the Garden of Eden at the Creation Museum. The dragon exhibit—AiG claims that belief in these mythical creatures is rooted in the time when humans and dinosaurs together walked the earth. The gigantic wooden boat at Ark Encounter. 

At first glance, the blog post that Ham published recently on the AiG website fits the same seemingly “crazy” pattern. In “Teachers Union Endorses Killing Unborn Children,” Ham expresses alarm that delegates at the annual meeting of the National Education Association (NEA) in Houston, TX approved a resolution supporting a woman’s “fundamental” right to choose abortion. It’s no surprise that AiG opposes abortion rights. But Ham goes further, describing the labor union meeting as a “dark place” that was “permeated” by a sinister socialist, Marxist philosophy. Has Ham lost his mind? What does the politics of the NEA have to do with creationism? 

I don’t share Ham’s views about abortion, but I don’t think he’s crazy. His blog piece can help us understand what really lies behind the dinosaurs, dragons, and dioramas. Ham may sincerely believe he is running a “ministry” working to save souls for Christ. But he is not waging a war pitting “religion” against “science.” Ham and his allies are carrying out a culture war that is fundamentally about politics—who has the power to decide how we will live in this world. 

Most of Ham’s blog post is dedicated to answering the NEA’s pro-choice arguments with anti-choice talking points: we’re not misogynistic, we love women and their unborn children; abortion is the ultimate violation of human rights; a fertilized egg is not part of a woman’s body. For any supporter of a woman’s right to choose, perhaps the strangest argument is this one: “It’s tragically ironic that an organization that is supposed to support those who will teach the next generation of students endorses killing off the next generation of babies before they are born!” In other words, not only are the NEA pro-choicers immoral, but they are depriving teachers of job security. 

But the key to AiG’s broader political agenda can be found in Ham’s citation of what he takes to be disturbing comments on the NEA meeting by AiG speaker Bryan Osborne, a former public school teacher who attended the Houston confab.  As Ham summarizes Osborne:

It’s a dark place . . . [Bryan Osborne] said a spirit of rebellion and the idea of “we won’t take this anymore” was everywhere in the expo hall, in the imagery (such as the closed, raised fist) that was on display, and in many of the presentations given. Bryan also shared that socialist, Marxist philosophy—stemming from a secular, evolutionary worldview—permeated the convention.

Speaking of imagery, the photo following these lines features a large banner that in the foreground depicts a teacher, an African American woman speaking into a megaphone, as a large crowd of people in the background hold aloft their closed fists. The banner text says, “Educators. We Work for the People.” 

Banner from the 2019 National Education Association (NEA) convention in Houston, TX.

Frankly, this is the kind of convention I might enjoy attending. What makes it so scary for Ken Ham and AiG?  Let me translate: a “dark place” and “rebellion” refer to the ultimate rebel, Satan. According to Ham’s writings, Satan was also the ultimate evolutionist. Ham learned this from his former boss at the Institute for Creation Research, Henry Morris, who spelled the argument out most fully in The Long War Against God (1989).  

And what does evolutionary science have to do with Marxism? Here Ham is on stronger historical ground. Despite a popular notion that evolutionary ideas have been deployed only for conservative purposes through something called “social Darwinism,” left-wing support for evolutionary science was just as real, starting with Marx and Engels. In my research, I have uncovered a consistent theme in creationist rhetoric that links the alleged dangers of evolution, communism, and immorality, a potent combination that creationist geologist George McCready Price labeled “Red Dynamite” in 1925. Conversely, Price and his successors have also argued that the Bible endorses capitalism.  At base, they believe that evolutionary thought promotes immoral social, sexual, and political behavior, undermining existing God-given standards and hierarchies of power.  

To fully grasp the politics behind Ham’s concerns about “rebellion,” we should recall that over the past three years, the US has been rocked by a series of strikes and protests carried out by public school teachers in primarily “red” states like West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Sporting red t-shirts, teachers proudly proclaimed that they were “Red for Ed,” drawing on labor movement traditions and calling attention to the sad state of state education budgets. This activism embodies the “spirit of rebellion,” including the raised fists, animating the 2019 NEA gathering. For good reason, teachers have been saying, precisely, “we won’t take this anymore.” So, when Ken Ham and AiG raise alarms about “rebellion” in this context, they are not only making an obscure theological point about Satan, they are saying, in effect, that going on strike is evil.  Rebellious workers, that is, act against the wishes of God. 

Which makes me wonder what Ham would say to the Blackjewel coal miners and their families in Cumberland, Kentucky, a four-hour drive from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, who have been blocking the railroad tracks from the Harlan County mine where they work to protest non-payment of wages. They are putting their lives on the line to say, “we won’t take this anymore.”  Their slogan is, “No pay, we stay.” Are they Satanic, too? 

In fairness to Ham, it should be acknowledged that while the NEA delegates voted to affirm abortion rights, teachers are divided on this issue. When Ham put his blog post on Facebook (which has been shared more than 2200 users), many people identifying themselves as public school teachers “liked” his post. One of them was a pre-K teacher from Kanawha County, West Virginia who took part in the 2018 strike but who was not happy to see a Planned Parenthood table at a strike rally. So working people need to talk this issue through, ideally as they engage in common struggle to better their lives and the lives of all working people. As they take part in that discussion, it may become clearer what is at stake in the real politics of the debate over evolutionary science.