by William Trollinger
In his forthcoming book, Evangelicalism in America, Randall Balmer tells the story of addressing a group of Christian college presidents. When the discussion turned to the question of what they feared most in their jobs, Balmer reasonably expected that they would say budgetary crises or faculty scandals or liability suits. But these presidents suggested a stunningly different nightmare scenario:
“Their biggest fear, each of them agreed, was the possibility that James Dobson of Focus on the Family would take a dislike to their schools, for one reason or another, and use his huge media empire . . . to issue a condemnation. This had happened to other schools, they assured me, and the consequences were devastating: Parents refused to send their children, and donations dried up. For these presidents, the lesson was clear: Don’t mess with Dobson or, by extension, with any of the moguls of the Religious Right.”
Balmer’s story further confirms that American evangelicalism is dominated by entrepreneurial gurus who, by dint of their huge followings, exercise enormous influence over evangelical organizations. This is particularly true for evangelical colleges, most of which are small, tuition-driven institutions with only modest endowments.
Ken Ham makes no bones about the fact that he seeks to exercise such influence. As we describe in chapter five of Righting America, “Judgment,” Ham calls to task evangelical colleges for their failure to uphold the young earth creationist line when it comes to science and interpreting the first few chapters of Genesis.
But Ham does not limit himself to a general lament about the state of evangelical higher education. He names names, calling out particular faculty members and particular Christian colleges and seminaries that are “willing to compromise on Genesis and not take an authoritative stand on the clear words that God has given to us in His Word.”
There are two points to note here. First, as we suggest in Righting America, there is no question that Ham’s condemnations are having an impact on evangelical colleges. Ditto for his praise, as “safe” schools are placed on Answer in Genesis’ list of creation colleges. And as the AiG empire expands, Ham’s influence on evangelical educational institutions expands with it.
The second point has to do with audience. While Ham expends great energy in attacking secularists and atheists and liberals, in many ways his real audience is evangelicalism. In fact, he uses his attacks on “the enemy” to help constitute American evangelicalism as a young earth creationist army in the culture war. As evangelicals who have endured his attacks can attest, and as we document in chapter five of Righting America, if you do not line up with him, you are part of the enemy force.
Judgment time, indeed.