Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Talking Young Earth Creationism with Historians | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Well, that was fun!

At yesterday’s American Society of Church History session here in Washington on “Christianity in 20th Century American Politics” – which was ably and energetically chaired by Rebecca Koerselman (Northwestern College) – our paper on Ark Encounter and Creation Museum was well-received, as there was a lively discussion with many good questions. Here are a few of the questions, with our responses:

Is Answers in Genesis (AiG) the work of one person? No and yes. No, in the sense that there is a small cadre of creationists who produce the overwhelming flood of print, online, and social media materials (a task made easier because they say the same things, again and again). Yes, in that Ken Ham is the driving force that makes AiG go. As is the case with many other evangelical parachurch organizations, the question of who will succeed the leader remains to be seen.

Has young Earth creationism simply won the day among evangelicals?  No. There are evangelicals who also hold to evolution; BioLogos is the best-known evangelical organization making the case that one can be a person of faith and accept evolution, and they are also – as we discuss in Righting America at the Creation Museum – one of Ken Ham’s favorite targets. There are also evangelicals who reject evolution but who accept the old Earth; at the Creation Museum – as we also discuss in Righting America – they are blamed (along with Descartes, Darwin, et al.) for the rapid decline of Western civilization. But young Earth creationists have to worry about “more literal” creationists, such as those who hold to an earth-centered universe, who make exactly the same sort of arguments against young Earth creationists as young Earth creationists make against old Earth creationists.  

Does the Creation Museum simply dismiss Intelligent Design arguments? No. The museum makes great use of ID claims that the design and beauty of creation are evidence that there must be a Creator, while then going beyond this to specify the particulars of Who this Creator is. For all of young Earth creationism’s critiques of ID, we see at the Creation Museum that ID and young Earth creationism can work together very well.   

How do you compare the Bible Museum with the Creation Museum? As we have not been to the Bible Museum, we cannot make any definitive comparisons. It is clear that the Bible Museum is working much harder than the Creation Museum to be academically “respectable” and more “neutral” in its presentation. On the other hand, Ken Ham proudly attended the Bible Museum’s black tie opening, and Hobby Lobby Bibles remain on display at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. (For a fascinating comparison of the Bible Museum and the Creation Museum from someone who has been to both, see this Weekly Standard article).

What’s the deal with evangelicals and fundamentalists building “museums”? What is the appeal? The short answer is that museums attract more than 850 million visitors a year. The term “museum” carries with it a particular cache, a sense of cultural authority. Of course, whether this understanding of “museum” can survive the likes of the Creation Museum is an open question.

Given that Ken Ham and AiG focus so much on cultural and political arguments, have they given up on “creation science”? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that – as we point out in Righting America – Ken Ham figured out that the way to appeal to evangelicals and fundamentalists was to focus on cultural and political issues, especially given that “creation science” has produced such meager results. But no, in that AiG remains interested in trying to produce a “science” that will overturn evolution. Most recently that appears in the person of AiG’s Nathaniel Jeanson, who claims — with breathtaking hubris — to have overturned Charles Darwin with his book, Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.   

One final point. We concluded our paper with the argument that, in the effort to fuse evangelical theology and culture war politics, Christian Right institutions such as the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter may actually be accelerating the advance of secularization by driving evangelicals into the category of the religiously nonaffiliated. While Ken Ham and AiG would vehemently disagree, to the church historians, this seemed to make sense.