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Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars and Anticommunism in America: An Interview with Carl Weinberg (a.k.a., the perfect post for Labor Day) | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Book Cover for Carl R. Weinberg’s Red Dynamite: Creationism: Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America (2021, Cornell University Press)

Carl R. Weinberg is Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of History at the Indiana University Bloomington, where is also the Director of the PACE Institute for Role-Immersive Teaching and Learning. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).

He is also the author of Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America, which has just come out from Cornell University Press. We here at rightingamerica are very pleased that Carl is willing to be interviewed about this very important book. 

  1. You have been at this project for a while. What originally prompted you, a labor historian, to head down this research road?

First, my own background in socialist activism acquainted me with the fact that Marxists liked evolutionary science. I learned that in 1983 when I walked into the Militant bookstore in Washington, D.C. and bought a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin, which I still have. Knowing that socialists and communists were pro-evolutionary made it likely that antievolutionists might notice and point this out. Which of course they did.

Second, when I was researching my PhD dissertation on Illinois labor history in the World War I era, I came across articles about a pair of inveterate anti-socialist activists, both former Socialists and converts to the Catholic faith: David Goldstein and Martha Moore Avery. Reading Goldstein’s autobiography, I learned that a pivotal moment in his conversion away from socialism was his horror upon reading Frederick Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which Engels affirms the truth of humanity’s ape ancestry. This always stuck in my mind and suggested some possible connection between anti-socialism and anti-evolutionism.

Last but not least, in 2002, when I was teaching at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia, the nearby Cobb County school board ordered that a creationist-inspired disclaimer sticker be attached to all district high school biology textbooks. It read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Pro-evolution parents, led by Jeffrey Selman, sued Cobb County, while other parents defended the school board’s decision. All of this prompted me to offer a course on the history of the controversy—which I’ve now taught at four different institutions—and set me on the road to writing this book. So, thank you Cobb County?

  1. Why the title, Red Dynamite? How does this title connect with your book’s central argument, that – as you assert – “Christian conservatives have succeeded in demonizing Darwin” by “convinc[ing] their followers that evolutionary thought promotes immoral social, sexual, and political behavior, undermining existing God-given standards and hierarchies of power”?

I stole, ahem, borrowed the title from George McCready Price, the godfather of young-earth creationism. He used it as a title of a chapter of a book he wrote in 1925 called The Predicament of Evolution. Price saw evolution and communism as twin evils. “Marxian Socialism and the radical criticism of the Bible,” Price wrote, “are now proceeding hand in hand with the doctrine of organic evolution to break down all those ideas of morality, all those concepts of the sacredness of marriage and of private property, upon which Occidental civilization has been built during the past thousand years.” For Price, and those who followed him, the main problem with evolution was NOT that its claims lacked scientific evidence or even that it contradicted the Book of Genesis. Rather, evolution was bad because it made people who believed in it do bad things. It made us behave in an immoral, “beastly” or “animalistic” way. In the 1920s, perhaps the height of Red Dynamite rhetoric, Price, William Bell Riley, Gerald Winrod, J. Frank Norris and others explicitly connected that bad behavior—centered around sex and violence—with evolutionary science and communism.  What really concerned them was not biological evolution, but social evolution—particularly the notion that morality can evolve as society changes.

  1. To what degree were/are fundamentalists correct to connect Darwinism with Marxism/communism?

They were more correct than we commonly think. To be sure, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists were and are not communists or socialists. But left-wing “social Darwinism” was real. As I show in my first chapter, Marx and Engels, the founders of the modern communist movement, were fervent evolutionists. So were the leaders of the American socialist movement in the early twentieth century. As were the central Russian Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky. In an interview with Max Eastman, Trotsky explained that when he was thrown in prison by the Tsarist regime for labor organizing, he was attracted to Marxism but still resisted its lure. Reading Darwin in prison, Trotsky recalled, “destroyed the last of my ideological prejudices” against a fully materialistic outlook.  Darwin, Trotsky told Eastman, “stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe.” I love that quote. In any event, the fundamentalists weren’t totally imagining things. 

  1. Most readers will be unfamiliar with the story you tell about the Scopes Trial in your introduction, particularly regarding John Scopes and the town of Dayton, Tennessee. Could you share a little about this, and explain why this story of the Scopes Trial is so germane to Red Dynamite?

As many people have learned, high school science teacher John Scopes went on trial in 1925 for violating the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that made teaching human evolution illegal. The usual story of the trial focuses on the legal titans clashing in (and outside) the courtroom—Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. John Scopes, who never testified, seems a hapless victim of circumstances, almost a footnote to the story. As is Dayton, the sleepy, Southern town that sought to use the trial as a publicity stunt to revive its economic fortunes. 

The real story is much more interesting and relates directly to my anticommunist theme. It was no accident that Scopes agreed to serve as a test case of the Butler Act. His father, Thomas Scopes, was a British-born Socialist labor organizer who arrived in America with a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species under his arm. Thomas Scopes raised his son to question everything including organized religion and the capitalist war machine. And the elder Scopes was well acquainted with Socialist activists who proudly flouted norms of capitalist morality. Not shockingly, on the first day of the trial in Dayton, a front-page story in the Chattanooga Daily News, outed the elder Scopes as a dangerous socialist, Red-baiting the younger Scopes by association. 

The real Dayton, Tennessee was not isolated and sleepy, but rather a bustling center of coal production and labor unrest. English investors sunk millions into the area’s mines and blast furnaces to produce coke for the steel industry. Their paternalistic labor policies aimed at labor peace. But in the early 1890s, East Tennessee union coal miners revolted against the hated convict lease system, which aimed to undermine wages and labor solidarity by pitting imprisoned (mostly) African American workers against free white workers. Dayton miners signed a petition in sympathy, even though the rebels were accused of being “anarchists” and “communists.” Soon after, repeated mine explosions in Dayton that killed dozens, along with repeated wage cuts, produced a series of strikes (some involving dynamite attacks on company facilities) and the formation of a local branch of the United Mine Workers of America.  

The real historical context of the Scopes Trial, that is, points to the real stakes in the controversy over evolution—what kind of society do we want to live in, and whose morality will prevail?

  1. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way in which you connect a century of creationist anticommunists, from George McCready Price and William Bell Riley to Henry Morris and Ken Ham. Could you say a little about this lineage, in the process noting both the continuities and the changes in the message?

The creationist anticommunism that Price launched in the World War I era runs through “creation-science pioneer Henry Morris’s work from the 1940s through the 1980s. In his first book, That You Might Believe (1946), Morris warned readers about the “deadly philosophies” of Marx and Nietzsche who were “profoundly influenced” by Darwin. Thought it’s rarely noticed, Morris and Whitcomb’s young-earth creationist blockbuster, The Genesis Flood (1961) also featured anticommunist arguments. In a section tellingly titled, “The Importance of the Question” (of whether evolution or creation was valid)—almost certainly authored by Morris—the authors explain that evolutionary science was the “backbone” of communist philosophy. Communism, they write, “is the most dangerous and widespread philosophy opposing Christianity today.” Morris’s magnum opus, The Long War Against God (1989) expands his anticommunist focus to charge that the pro-evolution Karl Marx was a practicing Satanist, linked to an international conspiratorial cabal. 

But creationist anticommunism has evolved. By the time that Morris-protégé Ken Ham founded Answers in Genesis (AiG) in 1994, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and “secular humanism” had replaced communism as the bugbear of the right. Whereas the creation museum run by the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, California, showcased Karl Marx as a (possibly) Satanic evolution supporter (and under new ownership, it still does to this day!), the AiG Creation Museum avoids explicit anticommunism. Still, the link between evolution and communism rears its head in AiG publications. The Pocket Guide to Atheism (2014) includes an article by Bodie Hodge that attributes tens of millions of deaths to wars and revolutions led by various communist leaders. And Ken Ham has continued to link Marxism, evolution, and Satan. (See here.)

Creationist conspiracy theory has also morphed. When William Bell Riley wrote about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 1930s, he cited Protocol No. 2 which claims that Darwinism and Marxism were part of an alleged international Jewish conspiracy to demoralize the Christian masses and pave the way for the rule of the Antichrist. But after World War II, it became politically problematic to make the argument with the explicit Jew-hating language. Thus, when Henry Morris and Tim LaHaye wrote about evolution, communism, and conspiracy in the 1970s and 80s, they were more circumspect. In The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism’s Threat to Our Children (1983), LaHaye defended what his critics called “bizarre” allegations of an international plot, writing that “many people” believe in a real conspiracy fomented by the Illuminati, Bilderbergers, and the Rockefeller-funded Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations. Similarly, D. James Kennedy Ministries, with a long history of linking evolution and communism, says nothing today about Jews as such, but points to billionaire investor George Soros as the “master puppeteer.”

  1. In your epilogue you say the following: “From Trump’s reference to the Eucharist wafer as the ‘little cracker,’ to his rendering of 2 Corinthians as ‘two Corinthians,’ to his admission that he never asks forgiveness of God for his sins, he has difficulty convincing anyone that he is part of any Christian faith community. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that conservative evangelicals’ embrace of Trump is a radical departure from the norm.” Why do you say this?

A superficial analysis of Christian political commitments would suggest that evangelicals respond to “faith-based” appeals, and so it seems puzzling that so many (white) evangelicals would gravitate to such an obviously profane, un-religious character. And yet, if we take a look at the central characters in my book going back to the early twentieth century, we find that even if they expressed their ideas in a Christian, Bible-based idiom, their worldviews were deeply political in the broadest sense. They were ultimately concerned with the questions of power—who should wield it over whom and on what moral basis?  

The clearest explanation of all this comes from Rev. Robert Jeffress, a vocal Trump supporter, an ally of the Institute for Creation Research, and pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church. Asked how he could support Trump, Jeffress answered that if the American president were at war with ISIS, “I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. I want the meanest, toughest, son of a gun I can find.” It’s no accident that Jeffress grew up at First Baptist hearing Rev. W. A. Criswell preach, a fundamentalist and fierce segregationist, who inherited his role from prominent antievolutionist and anticommunist J. Frank Norris. As I note in the book, Norris retained the fanatical loyalties of his congregation at First Baptist in Fort Worth despite the fact that he stood trial for shooting a unarmed man to death in his church office (Norris claimed self-defense). It’s hard not to recall candidate Donald Trump’s boast that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”  

  1. Do you have any new projects in the works, or are you simply relaxing after having completed this terrific book?

The main project I’m working on is an author’s website where I can share a sample of the voluminous amount of material that didn’t make it into the book but is still relevant and compelling. How did twenty-first century Christian conservatives employ Red Dynamite rhetoric to demonize President Barack Obama? How does pioneering sex researcher Alfred J. Kinsey fit into my story? And why did I voluntarily get into an armored car and drive into Mexico with Tom Cantor, the owner of the Earth and Creation History Museum in Santee, California? Stay tuned. 

Thanks Carl . . . and I can’t wait to read about the armored car excursion into Mexico!