Righting America

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Studying Religious Rhetorics in the Time of Trump and Kavanaugh: Part One | Righting America

by William Trollinger

On the Saturday that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate as the newest justice on the Supreme Court, it was energizing and therapeutic to be in the company of smart and gracious scholars devoted to studying and explaining religious rhetorics.

The conference on “Rhetoric and Religion in the 21st Century” was sponsored in part by Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning, and was hosted by the Department of English at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We had never been to Knoxville – even while we had heard LOTS about it from friends and colleagues who are UT alumni – and we loved it, including the sunrises over the Appalachians, the restaurants on Market Square, and this historical marker (we had no idea of the dramatic story behind Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, which was the last ratification needed for the amendment to be added to the Constitution).

Burn Memorial commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Photo courtesy of Susan Trollinger, 2018

In our paper session we were paired with Brent and Tyler Kibbey (Princeton and Kentucky, respectively), who gave an interesting paper on “A Case Study in the Religious Rhetoric of Gender in Tennessee Politics.” In this paper they devoted much attention to Tennessee’s 2017 “Natural and Ordinary” Amendment, which seeks to restrict LGBTQ rights by limiting how words like “husband” and “wife” are defined.

Given Ken Ham’s conviction that legal rights for gays and lesbians rights are – as discussed in Righting America at the Creation Museum – the best evidence that America’s Judgment Day is nigh, it makes sense that we were paired with the Kibbeys. Our paper was on “Artistic License and the Impossibility of Inerrancy: The Fundamentalist Rhetoric of Young Earth Creationism at Ark Encounter.” As suggested by the title, we look at how the folks at Ark Encounter give themselves permission to use “artistic license” to dramatically expand upon the biblical story of the Flood, even to the point of creating nicely-furnished living quarters for Noah and his family. As we noted in the paper, biblical inerrancy may be impossible, given that there are no inerrant readers, but “this is not to say that [inerrancy] is not productive – in fact, quite the contrary.”

The discussion was quite lively (we went past our allotted time). Here are a few examples of questions we received:

  • Q: Does the Creation Museum also make use of artistic license?

A: Oh yes. Actually, Ark Encounter is simply an expanded version of the Voyage Room in the museum, where much of the artistic license found in the Ark is found in miniature dioramas that depict the living spaces in the Ark, and that include people not specifically mentioned in Genesis. Genesis 6-8 just does not have enough for the story that Answers in Genesis (AiG) wants to tell.

  • Q: Does the Ark Encounter include the Genesis 9 story of Noah getting drunk and lying naked, his son Ham telling his two brothers of Noah’s plight, and Noah cursing Ham’s son Canaan into slavery?

A: No, and this is a good observation. Artistic license at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter also includes the license to omit stories that do not fit the narrative. There is also no discussion of the first few verses of Genesis 6, which tells of godlike beings who came to Earth and impregnated human women. In fact, when one includes those first few verses one can easily read the god-human sex as the reason God flooded the Earth.

  • Q: Given that at both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter the claim is that the global slaughter of Noah’s Flood prefigures the global slaughter of millions or billions at the end of history, how else does apocalypticism play out in fundamentalism?

A: Yes. The response to climate change is a great example. The argument goes something like this: There is no significant climate change taking place; OR, There is significant climate change taking place, but humans are not responsible; OR, There is significant climate change taking place and humans are responsible, but it is not bad; OR, There is significant climate change taking place and it is bad, but it is not something we need to be concerned with, given that the end of history is probably imminent. The apocalyptic argument is the clincher. [For the latest on what all of this costs us, see this from the New York Times: “Ignoring Climate Science, FEMA is Mired in Cycle of Repairs” (this is the title from the print version).

  • Is there a way to have meaningful and civil dialogue with fundamentalists?

Variations of this question came up again and again during our three days in Knoxville – evangelical support for Trump and the fight over Kavanaugh’s confirmation loomed large – and in fact gave “Rhetoric and Religion in the 21st Century” an energy unusual for an academic conference. I will talk about this in my next post.

After our session one of the conferees said to us that “I really like what you are doing in your scholarship. You do not mock and dismiss the young Earth creationists, but at the same time you maintain a critical edge in your assessments.”

It is hard to imagine a better compliment.