by Peter Cajka
In his conclusion to this week’s series, Dr. Pete Cajka compares the political implications of each site’s displays, focusing on the ways both sites critique secularization of local, national, and transnational cultures.
V: Politics: National and Transnational
In Righting America, the Trollingers make the persuasive argument that the Creation Museum is preparing its visitors to fight in the culture wars. The site seeks to “constitute” or “form” subjects to this end. Visitors are encouraged to pursue a particular interpretation of the bible in order to stop the nation’s slide into sin and ultimate destruction at the hands of an epochal flood. If one adheres to the truth about creation as presented by the museum, one cannot be held responsible for secularization or the nation’s decline in morals. The hoisting of Reason over the Word fuels the nation’s decline into a moral morass – and the Word must be made triumphant over Reason to arrest the slide. The museum encourages visitors to denounce Public Schools (bastions of secularism), promote patriarchy, and elide the nation’s painful history of race relations.
When set alongside Maria Stein – and considering a question of how Maria Stein “constitutes” its subjects – it is striking just how much the Creation Museum forms its subjects to win the culture war in America. The culture warriors that leave the Creation Museum are prepared to do battle in an arena of the American nation-state. If more individuals manage to save themselves from the public schools, perhaps the nation’s slide towards corruption can be reversed. It is, as the Trollingers note in their chapter on politics, a choice between “following the Word” or living in a “Godless America.”
This is not to suggest that the Creation Museum is only concerned with the nation-state, but the evangelicals and fundamentalists who frequent it seem to be focused on the religious and moral life of America in a way that the Catholics – past and present – at Maria Stein simply are not.
The ambitions of the Creation Museum itself are cosmic (which make its consideration for “America” all the more striking). In claiming that the earth was literally made 6,000 years ago, the Creation Museum makes a point about all of creation in outer space. They built the planetarium to show their concerns with the cosmic. The cosmic claims can also be seen in the way the CM avoids both the flat-earth idea of the Old Testament and the geocentric interpretation of the universe in other quarters of fundamentalist Christianity. While the Creation Museum forms cultural warriors to fight on an American front – it also projects an interpretation of the entire universe.
The Creation Museum also attempts to obliterate time, which also makes its concerns with the moral life of the nation-state all the more salient. The culture warriors are formed to save America (a time-bound nation) but these soldiers have an imagination that is supposed to be 6,000 years in length. The creation of Noah’s Ark and the replication of scenes from Genesis obliterate time to give the viewer direct access to the early story of the bible. Yet, they have been commissioned by the museum to save America, a particular nation-state, from “the godless.” The flood came initially in response to human pride and selfishness, and it can return, but it can be stopped in the nation-state.
Maria Stein fosters a transnational consciousness among its visitors. The trunks on display at the museum show that the shrine’s initial patrons were Germans. The Sisters of the Precious Blood, also German, arrived at Maria Stein in 1944, at the very beginning of an age that American Catholic historians call “the immigrant church.”
The museum makes clear that Maria Stein has its origins in the tremors that shook continental Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.
Visitors encounter this transnational history several times in Maria Stein’s museum. A poster entitled “Trumpet of the Precious Blood” notes that, “St. Gaspar del Bufalo was a priest of the diocese of Rome, Italy, who found Missionaries of the Precious Blood in 1815. In refusing the oath of fidelity to Napoleon he remained loyal to the Holy Father and was exiled and imprisoned.”
Maria Stein is also trans-temporal and cosmic in its own way – its relics, its connection to the saints, its likes to heaven – but it is also profoundly local. The nuns who built the convent at Maria Stein poured their labor into western Ohio soil. The immigrants who settled in Ohio understood the convent and shrine through profoundly local idiom: it placed an Old World/Old Faith into a new soil. Whereas Maria Stein offers an escape from the violence of the nation-state, the Creation Museum prepares soldiers for a Culture War here in America.
Both the shrine and reliquary imply that nation-states are sites of trouble that might not be worth redeeming. Maria Stein joins the Creation Museum in critiquing the secularization that resulted from various projects sponsored by modern nation-states, but the Catholics at Maria Stein offer a divergent response: they flee the nation-state. On one level, the museum and the reliquary are forming people to emulate saints or to join in the communion of saints in a lifelong effort to save their souls. On the political plane, however, the shrine suggests that leaving a nation-state to plant the faith in different soil is a reasonable response to secularization. The museum shows the German founders of the shrine to be highly mobile. The reliquary communicates a similar message. Victoria left the catacombs for western Ohio; she was murdered by a pagan who rejected the faith. Catholicism can be uprooted, moved across an ocean, and put in a new soil.
American religious historians often write about particular religious imaginaries in their work. It is difficult enough to empathize with one particular group of people, let alone many others, all in the space of one book. The story of how two vastly different religious imaginaries inhabit the same land, and use physical spaces to form individuals to very different ends, is a story that has been unfolding since the Reformation in the early sixteenth century. If one begins with the Bible or starts with the desire for presence, the results, particularly in the form of a built environment, are quite different. Still, teachers in booth religious subcultures struggle to convey their messages to their followers. Both of these groups struggle with the coercive power of the modern nation-state. Both, to some extent, are ill at ease in the hyper pluralist context of the early twenty first century United States.