Righting America

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Fundamentalists, Catholics, and Two Very Different Uses of Evolutionary Theory | Righting America

by Pete Cajka

Pete Cajka is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at Notre Dame and a faculty affiliate with the Cushwa Center for the Study of American CatholicismHe is an intellectual and cultural historian of the twentieth century United States with interests in Catholicism. His book manuscript, “Follow Your Conscience: The American Catholic Church, War, Sex, and the Spirit of the Sixties,” is under review at an academic press. In this post Cajka brings Righting America at the Creation Museum into conversation with historian Catherine Osborne’s book American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925-1975.


Pope Pius X, like American fundamentalists, responded negatively to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Not only did evolutionary theory suggest humans were more material than spiritual, Darwin’s argument, if applied to social life, made the adaptation of Christianity to modern conditions appear inevitable. A synthesis of Church and world characterized the modernism condemned by Pius in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, with evolution playing a key part. “At the heart of what the modernists teach,” he wrote, “is their doctrine of evolution.” Ken Ham comes from a different time and place, but he too desires that church, tradition and Christianity be quarantined from evolutionary theory’s perceived dangers. 

In her energetic book, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow, Catherine Osbourne concedes that Pope Pius was right about one thing: even if he “significantly overstated the degree of organization and coherence among emerging modernist tendencies,” he correctly identified evolution as a centerpiece of the modernist agenda (5). She explores how evolutionary thought burrowed into western culture, and Catholic life, despite Pius’s best efforts to stop it. 

The Pope’s condemnation of modernism did succeed in removing evolution from seminary and university curriculum. Catholic intellectual life, so some have argued, went into a deep freeze after Pius’s condemnation of modernism that only thawed in the years after Vatican II. Mid-twentieth century American Catholics, as historian William Halsey argued in his 1981 book, The Survival of American Innocence, chose to remain in ordered aloofness, as the moderns in their midst embraced creativity and relativity in science, legal theory, sociology, and psychoanalysis.

Osborne shows that confining our analysis of evolutionary thought to traditional academic spaces like seminaries and universities vastly impairs our understanding of modern Catholicism.  In All Good Books are Catholic Books Una Cadegan traced the diffusion of literary modernism in American Catholicism via good books and periodicals – enterprises often beyond the clergy’s view. Osborne shows how a generation of liturgists and architects built the concepts of adaptation and evolution into the physical structures of American Catholic churches. These architects and liturgists, who fed off the vibe from the Liturgical Arts Society and its journal Liturgical Arts, apprehended the world via what Osborne calls “the biological paradigm.” They believed that buildings “developed naturally in accordance with their environments” (8). Buildings were living, natural, vital, and organic. Church structures must always be made with local materials that embed them in the local environment, and church spaces must always be imagined as complex organisms that evolve over time. 

Setting these two books – American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow and Righting America at the Creation Museum – into conversation shows just how important it became in the twentieth century to lasso evolution to a preferred set of ends. Fundamentalists with the Creation Museum concentrate on the ills of evolution in order to galvanize Christians to participate in a Culture War. Catholic architects and liturgists design buildings that render evolution into a progression towards a unified humanity.  We much prefer a positive spin on evolution (harmony) to a negative interpretation of evolution that perpetuates a culture war against “godless secularists.” But we must also recognize that the liturgists and architects drew upon space, power, and ideology to establish their hopeful interpretation of evolution as a preferred approach. 

Models of Power

There are vast differences between a museum and a church. A church constructed with evolutionary architecture does not resemble the multi-staged linear path of the Creation Museum. It is glaringly obvious to point out that the churches Osborne analyzes do not come outfitted with displays of evidence looking to back up a scientific argument. St. Patrick’s Church in Oklahoma City (see photos) is an open space contained in a rectangular shell; it does not come with placards, tables, charts, or videos of scientists giving brief lectures. Likewise, the Creation Museum is not designed to facilitate a religious ritual, the Catholic mass, nor does it have the sacred task of storing and protecting consecrated hosts. While there are thousands of Catholic Churches across the United States, there is only one Creation Museum. 

Exterior architecture of St. Patrick's Church styled with shapes on top of beige plaster with an arch in front of the doors with a cross on top.
Exterior of St. Patrick’s Church in Oklahoma City, OK. Photo courtesy of Pete Cajka (2019)

But both the churches and the museum try to communicate a narrative to those who walk through their doors. As the Trollingers show, the Creation Museum is a museum in the Enlightenment tradition: it situates visitors as subjects in a grand narrative, rife with classifications under the laws that organize the universe. In a museum, the Trollingers write, a visitor observes “their own behavior as an object of knowledge and … assess[es] it according to its compliance with the laws of nature” (24). The Creation Museum implores its visitors to position themselves against evolution: they have to make the “right choice” to reject evolution and the subsequent corruption of society that comes from the evolutionary worldview. 

Modernist churches also want to position subjects in a grand narrative. Its subjects are part of a humanity that is evolving – and has to be purposefully evolved – into a unified form. The open spaces, the parabolas, the arches, and the light flooding the sanctuary all seek to position the subject in an evolutionary narrative. For Osborne’s modernists, evolution is a fact, a reality that humanity exists within – it needs be accepted, even celebrated, as the framework of the real world.

Both the Catholic modernists and the Answers In Genesis (AiG) crew deploy models – miniature or life size – to constrain imaginations and amplify their interpretations of reality. In a brilliant chapter, Osborne shows how architects brought miniature models to planning meetings with archbishops and other ecclesiastical officials. In 1947, the Catholic architect Joseph Murphy, the artist Emil Frei Jr. and Passionist Priest Betrand Abell brought a model and sketches to a meeting with Archbishop of St. Louis, Joseph Ritter. It was a smashing success. Osborne recounts how the “meeting lasted more than an hour as Ritter investigated the model, made comments, asked questions” and concluded that the evolutionary designs captured the Church’s twentieth century ethos (50). Modernists made arguments about reality with these models. They were designed to hook potential boosters into a particular plan. 

The displays at the Creation Museum serve a similar purpose. The Trollingers note how certain passages of the bible are omitted from the placards in order to communicate a specific message to the visitors. This is also true of the displays of scenes from the bible found the museum: life size models of Adam and Eve, or biblical characters lounging with dinosaurs, ask the observers to consider a single take on the past. Signs and models are preferred means to shape an interpretation of evolution, whether positive or negative.

Is the use of physical models particular to debates on evolution? Certainly not: built culture is used to communicate a range of arguments on all sorts of political and social concerns. But reading Righting America alongside The Church of the Future suggests that Christians prefer to communicate arguments about evolution in physical, material forms. These are strategies designed to reach a very wide audience, driving home the high stakes of commanding how people think about evolution. Thousands of people saunter through the museum and thousands will gaze upon a physical church in Oklahoma City and St. Louis, even if they are driving past. 

The Creation Museum and the modernist churches both harness the power of cutting-edge technologies. The Creation Museum tour includes films, interactive exhibits, short videos, speakers, and voice-overs. The museum depends upon highly-trained craftsmen to create their renditions of Adam and Eve. A long train of construction vehicles – cranes, cement trucks, scaffolds – were required to build AiG’s Ark Encounter, just down the road from the museum. Catholic modernists and liturgists drew upon technology to help adapt buildings to their local, modern environments. To communicate the argument that humanity was evolving towards a unified state, Catholic architects called increasingly upon concrete, glass, steel, and other modern materials. As Osborne notes, Catholic liturgists and architects did this with a purpose: they deployed technology to recast the role of the church in the world – to entwine the church with the world’s evolutionary process. 

Black and white picture of the interior architecture of St. Patrick's Church with an angled ceiling and simple pews with the priest residing over the mass.
Interior of St. Patrick’s Church in Oklahoma City, OK. Photo courtesy of Pete Cajka (2019)

Ken Ham, Harvey Cox, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 

Righting America and The Church of Tomorrow demonstrate how debates about evolution were – while important in and of themselves – a proxy for a contest over the boundaries of sacred and secular more broadly. Ken Ham favors a strict separation of these two realms. The operation of human reason and God’s Word must remain distinct. For him, evolutionary thought raises the specter of humanity tarnishing the sacred: to recognize the reality of evolution means denying God’s creative powers and the Bible’s inerrancy.  The most influential intellectuals in Osborne’s study, Harvey Cox and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, both argued that the task of twentieth century Christians was to meld the two kingdoms together. At stake in the debate over evolution, then, even dating back to Pope Pius X, is the mission of the Christian Church itself: to separate from modern society, or to connect the secular and sacred. Cox and de Chardin did not divide the world into the categories of the divine or saved. These thinkers, and the Catholic architects and liturgists they inspired, believed the world was moving into a more holistic reality. It was the task of Christians to push this process along. 

The divergent responses to evolution influence the question of salvation. For Ham, salvation is granted to a militarized remnant who reject evolution; this means choosing God over man, and saving oneself in the inevitable destruction that is to come. For de Chardin, salvation can be worldly: as individuals blended a single consciousness into an emerging world soul, humanity moves along towards an Omega Point. Gradually, the profane is drawn into the sacred. Salvation is total, both individual and social. Osborne also deftly explores how at the center of this evolutionary process is a tension between will and grace – of one moving himself or herself into unity while also being ineluctably drawn in. Could de Chardin find space in his theory of evolution even for those who reject evolution like Ken Ham? Whereas Ham welcomes an ecological disaster – or accepts a global flood or plague as inevitable – de Chardin sees evolution as a potential solution to broader ecological and political crises. For Ham, God separates and destroys; for de Chardin, God blends and saves. Both arguments, it’s important to recognize, are responses to the provocation of evolutionary theory. 

The Creation Museum is a space that seeks to separate Christianity from culture in order to wage a Culture War against secular liberalism. Osborne shows how Catholic modernists were profoundly inspired by Harvey Cox to break down distinctions between sacred and secular. The church served as a physical space where these barriers melted away. Christians were called to act in the world – to transgress boundaries – in order to change the world. Christians, in fact, were called to tear down the barricades that cordoned off sacred and secular. Cox, like de Chardin, saw the world evolving and progressing towards a more unified state. Deeply formed by Cox’s Secular City, Catholics began to build spaces that immersed people in the city and inspired individuals to participate fully in secular culture. Catholic churches became community centers, ecumenical gathering spaces, and even sites of secular protest. The church should be a place of openness for those in need. Whereas Ham perceives worldly attitudes, underscored by evolution, as a threat to God’s Word, Catholic modernists were inspired by evolution to fill the world with grace. Physical spaces, the Creation Museum or the hundreds of churches built by an evolutionary model, reified these theologies. 


Debates about evolution are about the future. Positions on evolution are positions on what is to come. Read together, Righting America and The Church of Tomorrow show how Christians focused on the question of evolution as a means to shape the future to a desired set of ends. For Ken Ham and the Creation Museum, the future is bleak: evolution undermines God’s Word and the inerrancy of the Bible, and God promises retribution on a mass scale as a result. “While a future is not specifically foretold at the museum,” the Trollingers note, “the museum’s controlling and repetitive narrative of disobedience and punishment, especially its emphasis on the global flood and Noah’s Ark, makes it clear that judgment for America, for the West, for all of humanity, is forthcoming, and with it the rescue of a faithful remnant and eternal damnation for the rest of humanity” (224). Even as each believer faces a choice, destruction for the totality of humanity seems inevitable, with salvation promised only to the faithful. 

Catholic modernists and liturgists held out hope that evolution promised a more unified humanity.  Humanity was evolving – and needed to be spurred along – into a holism. Physical spaces tuned believers into this reality and asked them to participate in the process. Evolutionary theory, if used to explain how the future could unfold, promised a more unified and peaceful planet. These books impress upon readers how evolutionary theory sent shockwaves through modern Christianity, sending believers into different camps. Fundamentalists at the Creation Museum and Catholic modernists who build churches are united in their mobilizations of evolutionary theory, but not the desired ends.