Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Evolution of Creationism in American Higher Education: Part 1 | Righting America

by Adam Laats

In the “Suggested Readings” section of Righting America (313-316) we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works.” And the hits just keep coming. Over the next few months we will highlight a number of books on fundamentalism and evangelicalism that will soon be published or have just been published. We start with Adam Laats’ eagerly-anticipated (and not just by us!) Fundamentalist U. In this post and the next Adam draws from his book to discuss the emergence of young Earth creationism at fundamentalist colleges.

Today’s post is authored by Adam Laats, Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, is due out in early 2018 from Oxford University Press. His earlier books include The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015) and, with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.

The Evolution of Creationism in American Higher Education: Part 1

Adam Laats

We all know the numbers. Since the 1980s, somewhere around forty percent of adult Americans have told Gallup that they think humans were created by God in their “present form” within the last ten thousand years or so. That number is shocking enough. Buried in the latest Gallup poll results, however, is an even more astounding fact. Of the college graduates who responded, about a quarter picked radical creationism. And just over a fifth of people with graduate degrees did so.

Humans evolved, God guided process Humans evolved, God had no part in process God created humans in present form within last 10,000 years
Education % % %
High school or less 33 12 48
Some college 38 16 42
College graduate 45 27 24
Postgraduate 45 31 21

How is this possible? How can so many people be educated, hold college degrees, and yet disagree so very radically with a central fact of modern science? In spite of what pundits in the evolution/creation battles have always said, our disagreements about evolution and creationism aren’t simple fights between science on one side and ignorance on the other. They are not conflicts between knowledge and non-knowledge. Rather, the creation/evolution fights are fiercest between two groups of people who “know” very different things, between two groups of people who have been educated very differently.

In my new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press), I explore the most important network of educational institutions that have midwifed and nurtured American creationism. These colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes include some familiar names such as Liberty University in Virginia, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and Wheaton College in Illinois, as well as some less-familiar schools such as Biola University in California, Gordon College near Boston, and a host of others.

Political cartoon showing a graduate with the note "Many College Graduates" putting a bible into the mythology section of a bookshelf.

From Biola’s student newspaper, The Chimes, 1939.

Why did creationists want their own colleges? They thought “many college graduates” were learning too much of the wrong ideas and not enough of the right ones.

Identifying these creationist colleges is a far cry from understanding them. Throughout the twentieth century, the schools in this network have served as the institutional homes for American creationists. They have shaped and debated the nature of American creationism. But besides their universal agreement that evolutionary ideas constituted a clear and present spiritual danger to young people, creationist colleges haven’t agreed on much else.

By looking at the history of those creationist schools, we can get a much better sense of the real contours of American creationism. Perhaps most important and most shocking to people who don’t know the history of these schools, the radical young-earth creationism that attracts so many headlines these days—the kind on display at the Creation Museum—is not a holdover from Puritan days or even from Scopes-Monkey-Trial days.

Rather, as the career of creationism in higher education shows, radical creationism is a novelty of the space age. The ferocious defense of orthodoxy staged by the folks at the Creation Museum is not a defense of traditional fundamentalist beliefs, but rather a 1950s innovation. More on this in the next post.