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Josh Hawley’s Strange New Twist on Christian Nationalism

by Brian Taylor and Jeremy Fuzy

Editor’s Note: Rev. Brian Kaylor is editor of Word&Way, and Dr. Jeremy Fuzy is Word&Way’s digital editor. This post appeared originally in Word&Way’s e-newsletter, A Public Witnessand is reposted here by permission.

“Some will say now that I am calling America a Christian nation. And so I am. And some will say I am advocating Christian Nationalism. And so I do.”

Sen. Josh Hawley made that declaration to applause at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday (July 8). For those who have followed the Republican senator from Missouri, the idea that he espouses Christian Nationalism wasn’t surprising. He’s written clearly about his belief the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation.” His campaign is even invoking such ideas in his reelection bid this year. But in the past, he had avoided embracing the “Christian Nationalism” label, even attempting to differentiate his vision from those who have adopted the term. Now, like some other conservative figures, he has embraced Christian Nationalism as a badge of honor. 

Best known for his fist pump to the pro-Trump mob outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 (before later running away from the crowd as they stormed the building), Hawley is an embodiment of the dangers Christian Nationalism poses to U.S. democracy. So while it’s not surprising to see Hawley again espouse Christian Nationalistic ideas, it is significant he has become only the second member of Congress — after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — to embrace the label. 

In addition to helping normalize Christian Nationalism with a senatorial endorsement, Monday’s speech and Hawley’s promotion of it on social media also seems to mark a new tone for him as he prepares to evangelize even more forcefully for transforming the character of the nation. Fist-pumping for Christian Nationalism isn’t just something Hawley does on insurrection mornings.

Hawley’s speech also did something else worth noting: He reframed the debate in economic, class terms. His populist vision of Christian Nationalism might be novel, but also demonstrates a definitional flaw of those pushing the ideology. So this issue of A Public Witness listens to Hawley’s speech to consider how he attempts to rewrite history and redefine Christianity to support his partisan gospel. 

Screengrab as Sen. Josh Hawley speaks during the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2024.

Don’t Know Much About History

As Hawley attempted to build a vision of Christian Nationalism, he started with the fall of the Roman Empire. He mentioned that moment led Augustine of Hippo to pen a book reflecting on what happened and defending Christians against the accusation the Empire fell because of the adoption of that faith. Augustine’s famous work, The City of God, detailed a vision of the “City of Man” and the “City of God” to consider how the people of God should engage in earthly kingdoms. But while Augustine insisted Christians as members of God’s city should still engage in their earthly societies and governments, he didn’t cast the eternal “City of God” as synonymous with a “City of Man.” Hawley must’ve missed that point in CliffsNotes

“His dream became our reality. … We are a nation forged from Augustine’s vision,” Hawley insisted as he framed the U.S. as the embodiment of the “City of God” and cast Augustine as a Christian Nationalist theorist. “His philosophizing actually described an entirely new idea of the nation unknown to the ancient world: a new kind of nationalism, if you like — a Christian Nationalism organized around Christian ideals.”

Others have rejected such a reading that creates what Hawley called “Augustine’s Christian Nationalism.” For instance, Dr. George Lee, a theology professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, argued Augustine offered “insight” into understanding the danger of Christian Nationalism as defined by sociologists like Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

“Augustine’s political vision is utterly incompatible with the Christian Nationalism that Whitehead and Perry have analyzed. Unlike Christian Nationalists, Augustine rejects the centrality of any nation to God’s purposes in history,” Lee explained. “Christians must root their history and identity in Scripture as opposed to nationalist myths.”

Yet, for Hawley the Puritans were “practicing Augustinians” who came to create “the City on a Hill” — which in Jesus’s sermon is a phrase referring to followers of God, not members of a nation. Hawley then insisted the Puritans “gave us limited government and liberty of conscience and popular sovereignty.” The idea that the Puritans believed in “liberty of conscience” would come as quite a shock to religious dissenters banished from the colony (like Puritan minister John Wheelwright, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams) or executed (like Mary Dyer, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stephenson for being Quakers). The Puritans didn’t believe in religious liberty; they created a state that persecuted anyone who stepped outside the official orthodoxy. But for Hawley, the Puritans banishing and executing people because of religious beliefs are the heroes he wants to emulate in government today. 

Casting the Puritans as the founders of the American view of church-state relations, Hawley ignored what happened at the actual founding period of the United States as politicians like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and preachers like John Leland and Isaac Backus worked to separate church and state — even undoing the official state church in Massachusetts that the Puritans had set up generations earlier. But with all those pages missing from his history book, Hawley tried to equate the Puritan church-state vision with that of the United States. 

“The truth is, Christian Nationalism is not a threat to American democracy. Christian Nationalism founded American democracy,” claimed a man who supported an effort to overturn a democratic election as a violent mob waved Christian flags while storming the Capitol.

Building a Christian Nation

Insisting the U.S. was founded to be a “Christian nation,” Hawley argued that “the great loves that define America” are “work, family, God.” Thus, he called on Republicans — as “a party of a Christian nation” — to push those areas as policies. 

“Conservatives must defend our national religion and its role in our national life,” he argued. “They must defend this most fundamental and ancient of moral bonds — as Macaulay put it, “the ashes of [our] fathers, and the temples of [our] God.”

Hawley edited the line from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem about a pre-Christian Roman soldier. Not only did he change “his” to “our,” but he changed “gods” to “God.” Like the rest of his historical revision, he baptized the poem to make it support a Christian Nationalist vision it was never intended to back. 

With this rewriting of history (and poetry), Hawley wants to remake the U.S. into a “Christian nation.” For him, that means specifically pushing Christian symbols and language in public schools and government to mark this nation as a “Christian nation.” So he called for “prayer in schools” and for lifting up God in public buildings with the national motto.

“Why don’t we take down the trans flag from all of the public buildings over which it’s flying around the world and instead inscribe on every building owned or operated by the federal government, our national motto: ‘In God We Trust,’” he argued. “Our national faith is there on our currency: ‘In God We Trust.’ President Eisenhower summed it up well when he said about that motto back in 1954: “Here is the land of liberty — and the land that lives in respect of the Almighty’s mercy to us.”

What Hawley missed in the history there is that such efforts to mark this nation with that motto didn’t come from the founding era but later by people pushing Christian Nationalism. As documented in Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, the phrase “In God We Trust” went on coins during the Civil War out of fears God might support the Confederacy since the Confederate Constitution defined the breakaway government as a “Christian” nation. In 1954, the phrase went on a postage stamp — with a ceremony where Eisenhower uttered that line Hawley quoted about the phrase that was not actually the nation’s motto yet. It didn’t become the official motto until 1956 and showed up on paper currency the next year. 

Hawley used examples from the 1950s — often called “civil religion” by scholars — to justify his Christian Nationalism today. And while Hawley now attends an evangelical church, he was raised in a United Methodist congregation that is part of the mainline Protestant tradition that created that earlier wave of Christian Nationalism like the motto. It’s exactly the stuff Hawley wants more of now: “We need more civil religion, not less. We need open acknowledgment of the religious heritage and the religious faith that bind Americans one to another.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gestures toward a crowd of Donald Trump supporters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory on Jan. 6, 2021. (Francis Chung/E&E News and Politicovia AP)

Hawley also articulated how this push to make the U.S. a “Christian nation” means some people will be second-class citizens, expected to promote religious ideas that they don’t actually agree with in order to be a good American. He insisted that “whether you are a Christian or not, a person of a different faith or none at all,” all people must work to “recover the principles of our Christian political tradition” because it is “the American tradition” and “it is the Christian tradition of nationalism that unites this country.”

“Work, home, God. These are the things we love together, that sustain our common life together, that make us a nation,” he added. “And this is what Christian Nationalism means, in the truest and deepest sense. Not every citizen of America is a Christian, obviously. Never has been, never will be. But every citizen is heir to the liberties, to the justice, to the common purpose our biblical and Christian tradition gives us.” 

He’s not for forced conversions, but he expects everyone to support Christianity in a privileged place in U.S. society and government. If not, he’ll attack you as not just anti-Christian but also anti-American as he did in his speech when he criticized “the Left.” 

While the partisanization of Christian Nationalism isn’t unusual, Hawley did offer a novel twist. 

From Culture War to Class War

One of the overarching themes of Hawley’s speech is that Christian Nationalism is “not for the rich or for the strong, but for the ‘poor in spirit,’ the common man.” He argued that we are “a nation defined by the dignity of the common man, as given to us in the Christian religion.”

Between discussing how we should be afraid of illegal migrants and college students protesting Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians, Hawley offered a fairly trenchant critique of our current situation: “Our economy has entered a new and decadent Gilded Age, where working-class jobs disappear and working wages erode and working families and neighborhoods fall apart — while denizens of the upper-class live a cloistered life behind gates and private security and woke CEOs rake in millions in pay.”

In order to save the United States from this, Hawley argued, conservatives must start by defending the common man’s religion. This will serve to fight elites and “the Left” who want to silence Christians and preach deliverance from God. He derisively declared, “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are their watchwords, their new holy trinity.”

While Hawley mostly caricatured anyone who is not a conservative Christian Nationalist, he’s unsparing and much more tethered to reality in critiquing the failures of his own party. He argued Republicans are currently too interested in capitalism’s “cold profit” and are “busy tending the dying embers of neoliberalism.”

“Republicans of the Bush-Romney era have championed libertarian economics and corporate interests. Their fusionist faith has become one note: money first, people last. In the name of ‘the market,’ these Republicans cheerleaded for corporate tax cuts,” he argued. “And somewhere along the line, Republicans fell in love with profit at any price. And they seem almost embarrassed that their most committed and reliable voters are people of faith.”

What, then, is his proposed solution to this problem? Republicans must alter their path and put people before money: “In the choice between capital and labor, between money and people, it’s time for Republicans to get back to their Christian and nationalist roots and start prioritizing the working man.”

Hawley drew quotes from pre-Civil Rights Movement Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to argue that labor is superior to capital and manhood should come before business. Embracing this will make it possible to take on “woke corporations” through embracing private sector unions. (He made it clear which unions he doesn’t support: “I’m not talking about public sector unions.”)

Equivocating once again between civil religion and Christian Nationalism, he decried experts who have painted religion as divisive and out of bounds within the political sphere. Everyday Americans, he said, share “broad and basic religious convictions: theistic, biblical, Christian.” But it’s not just that he defines non-Christians as not really American; he also defines them as “the elite” instead of “the common man” or “working people” — regardless of their actual economic status.

“Working people believe in God, they read the Bible, they go to church — some often, some not. But they consider themselves in all events members of a Christian nation,” he argued. “The campaign to erase America’s religion from the public square is just class warfare by other means: the elite versus the common man, the atheistic monied class versus America’s working people.” 

Sen. Josh Hawley stands in his U.S. Senate office in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2022. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

A Definitional Error

Jesus was indeed particularly concerned with people on society’s margins. But we should treat with skepticism a wealthy and powerful man who grew up as a banker’s son and attended Ivy League schools now claiming to speak for the working class as he tries to climb the political ladder. Even more so when his claims about the religiosity of blue-collar workers conflict with the overwhelming social science data on religion in America.

Ryan Burge, an American Baptist pastor who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University, has noted that religion in the United States has “become a luxury good” for the middle class — not the working class.

“People with higher levels of education are less likely to identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular when it comes to religion,” Burge wrote. 

He demonstrated that people with a master’s degree have the highest levels of religious affiliation, while the most likely to be nonreligious are those who didn’t finish high school. And a similar relationship is present when measuring who attends services weekly. Using data from 15 years of the Cooperative Election Study, Burge showed that “the people who are the most likely to attend services this weekend are those with college degrees making $60K-$100K. In other words, middle class professionals.”

This certainly complicates Hawley’s Christian Nationalist narrative of atheist elites versus the religious common man. But ultimately, the argument fails because he makes a simple definitional error. 

What the data analyzed by Burge and others demonstrate is the absurdity of taking a category of people organized based on their economic status and then claiming they are instead organized by religion or some other completely different variable. It’s like dividing people up by race and then claiming one group are Christians and the other atheists. Or like dividing people by whether they prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream and then claiming the two groups were organized according to whether they have a pet or not. Even if there’s some overlap in a Venn diagram, they aren’t synonymous categories. Even if Hawley was right that the working class was more likely to be Christian than wealthier “elites,” it still wouldn’t be a one-to-one association because dividing people by economic class is not the same as grouping them by faith.

This bait-and-switch approach is what all Christian Nationalism does. It might not always be as obvious as with Hawley’s attempt to make religion synonymous with class and anti-Christian Nationalism efforts equal to class warfare. But Christian Nationalism at its core takes a group of people defined by one variable (their national identity) and instead pretends they’re organized according to their religious identity. Such arguments like what Hawley offered aren’t just bad history; they demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of nations, economics, and the Christian faith. 

As a public witness, 

Brian Kaylor & Jeremy Fuzy 

Hell: Jesus, the Early Church, and Answers in Genesis

by William Trollinger

Image of an unhoused person, via invisiblepeople.tv.

And now, the final movement in my “Summer of 2024 Hell Quartet.” (For the first three movements, see: here, here, and here.)

Ken Ham, Martyn Iles, and their compatriots at Answers in Genesis (AiG) are fully committed to promoting the idea that God has created and oversees a Hell that involves torment of billions of individuals for eternity, an idea that has been included in the Faith Statement that all AiG employees and volunteers are required to affirm: “those who have rejected [Christ are condemned] to conscious and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (hell).” 

Not surprisingly, the folks at AiG know very well that many people will be aghast at the idea of a God who is the divine torturer of billions. As AiG contributor Tim Challies observed in an article addressed to fellow fundamentalists, “Would He Condemn People to Eternal Torment?,” “if you haven’t been asked this question, you will.” 

According to Challies, the key to answering this question is to look at it “from a different angle – what kind of God would not condemn His enemies to an eternal hell?” 

Come again?

Reiterating standard arguments made by fundamentalist and evangelical preachers over the past century, Challies explains why “God’s Eternal Holiness Demands That Hell Be Eternal, Conscious Torment”:

  • “The eternal, never-ending nature of the sinner’s punishment is directly related to the infinite and eternal nature of God. When you sin against an infinite God . . . you accrue an infinite debt.”
  • “The torments of hell are directly related to the transcendent holiness of God . . . God’s holiness is unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy; His holiness is like a gag reflex that acts out in wrath against all sin.”
  • “Those who have sinned consciously must also bear their punishment consciously . . . Justice demands conscious punishment, not mere annihilation of the person or his or her sin.”

If you don’t find Challies’ logic compelling, or even logical, take a look at Doug Frank’s powerful book, A Gentler God, where the author questions the idea of a God who “vomits at the sight of sinful humanity,” and unpacks how fundamentalism and evangelicalism have been warped by holding to this understanding of God. 

The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are all about the “vomiting” God who —  necessarily, according to their logic – spews forth the vast majority of human beings into Hell. In that regard, the Museum has a placard in their three-room Jesus exhibit that includes this rebuke from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Given that the Museum is steeped in culture war rhetoric, it is obvious that it expects that visitors will assume that the list of the “cursed” who are condemned to “everlasting fire” includes evolutionists, those who are LGBTQ, those who are pro-choice, feminists, liberals, and socialists. That is to say, it includes all those who have been condemned by the Christian Right. 

But here’s the problem. Even though Matthew 25 is the place in the Gospels where Jesus elaborates on the Last Judgment, the Museum has removed the verses before and after Matthew 25: 41. Here’s the full passage (Matthew 25: 34-45):

Then the king will say to those at this right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

They will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

This text could not be clearer as to who will be rewarded and who will be punished at the Last Judgment. And it could not be clearer why AiG and the Creation Museum have eliminated these verses. Jesus’ emphasis that whether or not one has cared for “the least of these” determines one’s fate at the Last Judgment absolutely does not square with their culture war rhetoric. 

What makes all this so egregious is that it is so contrary to how the early Church understood and made use of Matthew 25 and the Sermon of the Mount.  My colleague and good friend, Meghan Henning, pointed out in her brilliant book, Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, that 

Parallel to Jesus’ radical ethical demands in the Sermon on the Mount, there are several texts in Matthew that make clear that it is one’s deeds that determine his or her eternal fate. In fact, the culminating message of the “Coming of the Kingdom” discourse (Matt. 24-25) is that those who did not care for the hungry, the stranger, the sick, or the imprisoned would go away into “eternal punishment” whereas those who did would enter into “eternal life.” . . . Matthew’s emphasis on behavior as the criterion for eternal punishment and reward was foundational for early Christian paideia [cultural and ethical education]. For later Christians, Matthean ethical norms would become the “essential law of Christianity” and provide a codified set of rules and expectations that defined the community (168). 

Such a different Christianity from that promulgated by AiG and the Christian Right. Alas.

Ignorance is Bliss, or, The Joys of Not Thinking about Those Enduring Eternal Torment

by William Trollinger

“The Cry of the Damned Souls in Hell,” produced by Holiness Revival Movement Worldwide

A few years ago here at the University of Dayton a very bright evangelical graduate student took my M.A. class on Protestant Christianity. While we devoted some time in this class to the study of evangelicalism, she wanted more, and pitched the idea of doing an independent study with me. As she put it in an email to me, “I would love to get into all the messy stuff that we didn’t get to in class . . . I’ve been going crazy on Netflix watching documentaries like ‘Jesus Camp’ and stuff about Westboro Baptist – probably not good for my soul but sooo interesting.”

Of course, I said yes. I created an independent study course entitled “Contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.” And one of the books I assigned was Doug Frank’s masterful and disturbing A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus.

In Part One of this book Frank “takes a long, hard look at the God who hides within and maintains the institutional structure of evangelical Christianity,” a God who “does not give evidence of a truly loving heart” (22-23). Frank grew up in this world, as did I, and he is right to say that the business of many evangelical sermons is to convince listeners that God loves them while also ready to “send them to the lake of fire.” As Frank puts it, 

The “conversion formula” insists, of course, that God devised his plan of salvation because he loves and wants us to be with him forever. It also assures us that God continues to love us even after we reject his plan of salvation. But if we happen to die before we’ve changed our minds, then he sends us to a hell of constant, unbearable pain. This translates as: God shows us his eternal and unconditional love by rejecting us if we reject him – by sentencing us to unspeakable agony and declaring that he has no further interest in us (43).

In an effort to make this point as vivid as possible, many of these sermons and revival messages are quite specific in detailing the stark contrast between what it’s like in hell as opposed to what it’s like in heaven. But taking one step back from these sermons, all sorts of logically and morally troubling features emerge. For example, in analyzing one of Billy Graham’s stock revival messages Frank notes that, in Graham’s telling, 

The people in hell are crying [in agony, while] the people in heaven are laughing, as if they are not touched by the agony of the lost, a group that surely includes personal friends or family members (45).

My M.A. student found A Gentler God to be a compelling and extremely unsettling book. We spent a fair amount unpacking what Frank had to say about the God envisioned by evangelicals. Regarding the above observation, I suggested that she check in with the folks in her evangelical Bible study group, asking them if/how, when they are in heaven, they will think of their family members and close friends who are suffering eternal torture in hell. So she did, and her anecdotal report was that  

What I’ve heard most often is kind of like the “ignorance is bliss” option. That we know of them, but we are incapable of anything but joy [in heaven]. So I guess that would mean that we don’t think of them?

This is very much in keeping with responses to this question that I have gotten over the years from evangelicals and fundamentalists. And I confess that I have not known what to do with such a response. Your mom or dad or child or sibling or best friend have been condemned to conscious and eternal torment – torture that goes beyond hundreds or thousands or millions or billions of years – and you simply forget about them?

But all this is very much in keeping with Answers in Genesis’ [AiG’s] Ark Encounter. As noted in  earlier posts, visitors to the Ark are told that the global Flood killed up to 20 billion people (!), and that this Flood is a sign of what’s ahead for billions of people, who will be condemned to “conscious and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (hell).” But according to AiG, the Noah family on the Ark ate great food and created art and read books and generally had a great time, oblivious to the slaughter going on outside the boat. Bringing the point home, the Ark has a “keepsake photo” placard near the door that supposedly stands in for the door that God shut and locked before the waters rose. 

That is to say, visitors to Ark Encounter are explicitly invited to imagine that they are in heaven, and explicitly invited NOT to think about all those billions who, as they understand it, are condemned to hell. So if, say, mom has to endure horrific torture every moment for the rest of eternity, well, I am in heaven . . . so forget about her!

To be fair, if you believe in this notion of hell, how else could you imagine heaven? What sort of heaven would it be if you had to be thinking of people you loved being tormented forever? 

And yet, if we are going to take these notions seriously, isn’t it possible that the truly loving action would be to leave heaven and join – suffer with – those who are suffering in hell?

Talk about radical love.

At Ark Encounter, It’s All About Hell 

by William Trollinger

Placard from inside the Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan L. Trollinger.

In my last post, I highlighted the ways in which the Noah family featured at the Answers in Genesis (AiG) tourist site, Ark Encounter, bears remarkable similarities to Commandant Höss and his family, who (as dramatized in The Zone of Interest) happily lived in a beautiful house adjacent to Auschwitz. At Ark Encounter, Noah and wife and three sons and their wives are happily and stunningly unconcerned by the fact that, according to AiG, outside the walls of their big boat up to twenty billion people are drowning. And visitors are encouraged to join the Noah family in their moral obliviousness by taking “keepsake photos” at the door that, according to AiG, God shut tight just as the waters were rising and the drowning was commencing. 

Of course, Young Earth Creationists (YECs) need the global Flood as their explanation for why the Earth is not ancient, as the year-long Flood created the geological formations (e.g., the Grand Canyon) that make the Earth look old when it isn’t. That is to say, it makes sense why YECs would create a tourist site that highlights the Flood.

But what is not clear is why they need to make the absurd claim that up to twenty billion human beings drowned in this Flood, nor is it clear why (using “artistic license”) they need to create a little family that is so morally vacuous that they can play music, read books, and eat good food in the midst of a divine genocide. 

It’s not clear, until one realizes that, when it comes down to it, the message of Ark Encounter is not simply about the global Flood that supposedly proves the YECs to be right. That is to say, the main message of Ark Encounter is not simply about the past. Instead, it is also about the future.

This all becomes clear when one enters the “Fairy Tale Ark” exhibit, where all sorts of Noah’s Ark books are displayed, many or most of which are children’s books. Through a series of placards, visitors are instructed that these books are “deceptively cute” but “destructive,” as they “disorient” the reader, “disregard” God’s Word, “discredit” the Truth, and – in their portrayal of “cute animals and a fun boat ride” – “distort” the message. In short, these books are in the business of “defaming God’s character”:

By treating Noah’s Ark and the Flood as fairy tales rather than sobering reminders of divine judgment on a sin-filled world, these storybooks frequently trivialize the Lord’s righteous and holy character.

In case all of this is too subtle, there is the red-orange serpent looking at you while wrapped around this message: 

If I can convince you that the Flood was not real, then I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real.    

Heaven is an after-thought (at best) at Ark Encounter. The point is Hell. And as the folks at AiG see it, if you have trouble accepting the notion that a “righteous and holy” God drowned up to 20 billion human beings (including children, infants, and the unborn) – if you struggle to wrap your head around this sort of genocidal God – you might also doubt the notion that there is a God who is planning to subject billions of humans to eternal torment. On the other hand, if you believe in the notion that God drowned up to 20 billion human beings (again, including children, infants, and the unborn), then you should have no trouble believing that God is quite capable of consigning billions of human beings “to conscious and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (hell)” (proposition #45 in the AiG Statement of Faith). 

In the end, this is the point of Ark Encounter. And there’s no point in thinking about all those who will be tortured, forever. They deserve it.
(Note: Check out Paul Braterman’s 3 Quarks Daily piece about Ark Encounter, “Toilet Train Your Tyrannosaur.” Yes. Toilet training.)

The Zone of Interest, Auschwitz, and Ark Encounter

by William Trollinger

Still photo from of The Zone of Interest (2023), directed by Jonathan Glazer. Image via bookandfilmglobe.com.

The Zone of Interest will be on my mind for a long, long time. This powerfully disturbing film about the Holocaust (perhaps the best I have seen) vividly evokes Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” (which she coined in Eichmann in Jerusalem).

Directed by Jonathan Glazer, this 2023 film – which won an Oscar as Best International Feature Film – is a historical drama that is based on a true story, and that is a loose adaptation of Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name. At the center of the film is the Höss family: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller), and five children. Their residence? “The Zone of Interest,” right next door to the death camp. 

Remarkably for a movie about the Holocaust, this film only takes viewers inside the camp once, and we do not see any of the atrocities committed therein. Instead, The Zone of Interest begins with the Höss family luxuriously picnicking by a lake in the summer sunshine. At dark they return to their lovely two-story villa. On the grounds of their estate is a beautiful greenhouse filled with plants, a huge garden, and an adorable little in-ground swimming pool (where we see the children happily splashing). Throughout the film we see various spreads of delicious-looking food, arranged on tables inside and outside the house. Add to all of this numerous shots of beautiful flowers and lots of bird songs in the background. 

When Hedwig’s mom comes for a visit, she is blown away by the place: “It is a paradise garden. . . . you have really landed on your feet, my child.” But of course, this “paradise” is adjacent to Auschwitz. And along with the bird songs, we sometimes hear other sounds, including shouts and screams and gunshots (it’s for good reason that The Zone of Interest also received an Oscar for Best Sound).  And in the visual background we see the walls around the camp, the security tower, the barbed wire at the top of the walls, and the cremation chimneys, sometimes with fiery smoke emanating forth; at one point the designers of the crematoria meet with Höss to explain how the chimneys successfully alternate burning and cooling (the commandant is duly and coolly impressed). A pile of clothes is brought to the house for the Höss family: Hedwig is particularly thrilled with a fur coat (that needs a little mending), and it takes a few seconds to realize that this coat and the other clothes were taken from Jewish prisoners as they were heading to the gas chambers. 

The film’s dramatic “high point” comes when Rudolf informs his wife that he is being transferred from Auschwitz to a new position elsewhere. Hedwig is absolutely furious, and informs Rudolf that while he can go, she and the children are not leaving their house. Why? Because, as she puts it, “this is the life we have always dreamed of living.” 

Banality of evil, indeed. 

While I was watching this incredible film, I confess that I could not stop thinking about the striking similarities between the Höss family/house in the “Zone of Interest,” and Noah’s family/boat at Ark Encounter.

For those of you who don’t know, Answer in Genesis’ (AiG’s) Ark Encounter is located along I-75 near Williamstown, Kentucky. Featuring a giant replica of what is supposed to be Noah’s Ark, this fundamentalist tourist site commemorates/celebrates the biblical flood that – according to AiG – was an actual global flood that killed all but eight human beings on the planet: Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. 

Taking “artistic license” to a whole new level (as very, very little of this in the Bible), placards accompanying the dioramas of Noah family’s invent personalities and skills for the three sons, and names, personalities, and skills for the sons’ wives. Most striking is the plushness of the living quarters, which include a library, large kitchen, and lots and lots of delicious-looking food. 

Life for these eight individuals is very good indeed – a paradise, as it were. And while the Noah family is blissfully reading, making music, creating artwork, eating, and so forth, what is going on outside the boat? Well, according to Ark Encounter, up to twenty billion (!) people were drowning. This includes folks with various disabilities as well as toddlers, infants, newborns, and the unborn. Regarding the latter, it is estimated that at any one time 2% of women are pregnant. So if there were 20 billion people who were drowned, 10 billion of whom were women, then — given that some of the women would be too young to be pregnant — let’s say that (according to Ark logic) 150 million unborn drowned in the Flood — just on the other side of the exterior walls of the Ark.

Ark Encounter diorama of the living quarters of Noah’s family. Photo by Susan L. Trollinger.

But like the Höss family, the Noah family is blissfully unconcerned with the horrors of this divine genocide. According to Ark Encounter, the only person on the boat who expresses the slightest concern about the divine slaughter is Japheth’s wife, Rayneh. But according to the placards, her concerns are placated by the fact that since God “gave life, He has the right to take life,” and that all human beings “deserve death and judgment.” 

Questions answered! Twenty billion dead – so be it! Meanwhile, Noah cheerily asks his wife (Emzara), “Is dinner ready?”

In contrast with The Zone of Interest, Ark Encounter is quite blatant in encouraging visitors to identify with the comfortably content, albeit morally vacuous (to understate the case), Noah family. Inside the walls of the Ark, visitors can happily and smugly enjoy that they too are safe. To make this point unmistakably obvious, Ark Encounter has positioned a “keepsake photo” placard near the door that they assert God shut and locked before the waters rose, before – to say it again – up to twenty billion people were drowned. 

Smile for the camera!

Note: See also The Commandant’s Shadow, a documentary about Höss’ son and grandson and an Auschwitz survivor.

Posting the Ten Commandments in Louisiana Schools Is Idolatry

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Kansas, New York, and Pennsylvania. He is now a full-time writer, and lives in Louisiana. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

Poster of The Ten Commandments. image via https://bym-sas.blogspot.com.

Louisiana has an irrevocable commitment to the petro-chemical industry, a leading cause of global warming. Global warming is the most dangerous issue facing our planet. Yet, Louisiana has passed a law making abortion medication a dangerous drug. Our chemical plants spread cancer, and our legislature, in its infinite wisdom, makes abortion medication illegal. 

Louisiana has also voted to make castration of sexual offenders a legal sentence after conviction. 

Now, Louisiana has voted to require the posting of the Ten Commandments in every classroom in the state. There seems no end to what good Christians can legislate once they have the taste of power. 

A poster of the Ten Commandments gives the picture of putting a patch on the wall to ward off wickedness, evil, and manifold transgressions. While some patches have positive impacts (think NicoDerm for smokers), the Ten Commandments patch is a joke. . 

The Louisiana Legislature, members of the least credible profession in the nation, wants to put a patch on the wall containing the Ten Commandments. These are the same Ten commandments from the Hebrew Bible that many politicians routinely disobey. See Donald Trump (darling of the Christian Right), who blew through the 10 Commandments as if they were an obstacle course keeping him from lying, cheating, and bullying his way to the top. 

But it’s not just Trump. One loses count of the number of politicians “caught” in adultery, convicted of taking bribes, lying to the FBI, making stock purchases with insider information, and worshiping at the idol of power. Sticking to Louisiana, a New Orleans Times-Picayune headline shouted,  “71 Louisiana politicians who were sentenced to prison or probation.” And a New York Times headline: “Louisiana Has a Long Line of Jailed Officials.” From fudging their expense accounts to outright theft to extortion and racketeering, Louisiana politicians could fill an entire wing at Angola State Prison. 

The Ten Commandments belong in the home, synagogue, and church. For example, if you attend a local Episcopal Church, during the Season of Lent, each Sunday the congregation stands to recite in unison The Decalogue (The Ten Commandments). Democrat state Senator Royce Duplessis had the good sense to say, “As I said on the Senate floor, if you want your kids to learn the Ten Commandments, you can take them to church.” 

Yet undeterred by common sense, the First Amendment to the Constitution, or a basic understanding of our nation’s laws, the bill’s sponsor, GOP state representative Dodie Horton, argued that the Ten Commandments are the basis of all laws in Louisiana. She said, “I hope and pray that Louisiana is the first state to allow moral code to be place back in the classrooms.” She then added, with absolutely no self-awareness, “Since I was in kindergarten [at a private school], it was always on the wall. I learned there was a god, and I knew to honor him and his laws.” 

Ms. Horton has imbibed too much North Louisiana fundamentalism. She talks as if she has been indoctrinated by the fake historian and political hack, David Barton. Barton teaches people the First Amendment is the work of the devil. He came up with the demonstrably false conclusion that ACT scores fell in schools after the Supreme Court ruled on prayer in schools. He routinely makes up “sayings of the Fathers” and repeats his lies at rallies across the country. The Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, an avowed Barton disciple and Christian Nationalist, is from Mr. Barton’s “neck of the woods.” Baptist fundamentalism is in the water in North Louisiana. 

Ms. Horton mistakenly believes that posting the Ten Commandments on the walls will place “the moral code” back in classrooms. Doesn’t she know our laws are a statement of our values and morals? It is a silly argument to say you are putting back something that has never left the building. It’s like saying, “Make America Great Again.” 

Elections may be won with slogans, but posting the Ten Commandments on the wall will have zero impact on the power of evil in our culture. The act of posting the Ten Commandments violates the First Commandment. The act itself is idolatry because it reduces the Ten Commandments to a talisman. 

Instead of relying on Christian faith, Louisiana’s legislature has decided to practice apotropaic magic (from Greek αποτρέπειν “to ward off”) to turn away harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye. Apotropaic observances may also be practiced out of superstition or out of tradition, as in good luck charms (perhaps some token on a charm bracelet), amulets, or in gestures such as crossed fingers or knocking on wood. Many different objects and charms have been used for protection throughout history.

In the movie Bull Durham, there’s a scene where Millie surveys team prospects sitting on the bench, one of the superstitious players Jose (Rick Marzan) was rubbing his bat with a string of chicken bones – a voodoo practice that he believed would improve his hitting: “Chicken bone cross. Takes the curse off the bat that brings me hits.” He called himself “a switch-hitting witch.” Desperate team-member Bobby (in a batting slump), wondered if it would improve his game too, and begged to spread the magic to his bat. 

Treating the Ten Commandments like Voodoo “chicken bones,” the Egyptian “Eye of Horus” and the ankh, the “Triple Goddess”, the “Horned God,” and “Hecate’s wheel”, or amulets of the Norse god Thor’s hammer, “Mjolnir,” is – simply stated – idolatry. 

These good people can’t get it through their minds the reality of God’s omnipresence. As Christians they supposedly believe God is always everywhere. They supposedly accept Paul’s expression “in God we move and have our being.” Yet they have the gumption to claim God has been kicked out of public schools. Exactly how does one go about kicking God out of schools or anywhere else? 

The Ten Commandments poster ploy is of the same cloth as previous battles over prayer, Bible classes, praying before graduation ceremonies and football games, and allowing nativity scenes in malls. It’s all there in a neat emotional package – fake issues eliciting fake outrage in an attempt to fool people. 

If our politicians are interested in the Ten Commandments, let them stop bearing false witness against one another. Let them agree not to commit adultery. Let them give up stealing through insider trading, and backroom deals, and taking bribes.  

Maybe we could get politicians to give up idolatry – the idolatry of wealth, power, and success. And while we are cleaning up our moral behavior, our legislators can make capital punishment illegal in honor of “Thou shalt not kill.” 

Book Review: Who Am I? Solving the Identity Puzzle, by Martyn Iles, Executive CEO of Answers in Genesis

by Paul Braterman

Paul Braterman is Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, University of North Texas, and Honorary Research Fellow (formerly Reader) at the University of Glasgow. His research has involved topics related to the early Earth and the origins of life, and received support from NSF, NASA, Sandia National Labs, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He is now interested in sharing scientific ideas with the widest possible audience, and was involved in successful campaigns to persuade both the English and the Scottish Governments to keep creationism out of the science classroom. He is a regular contributor to  3 Quarks Daily, and blogs at  Primate’s Progress, paulbraterman.wordpress.com

Book cover of Martyn Iles’s Who Am I? Solving the Identity Puzzle. Image via Amazon.

Martyn Iles, as many readers will know, was managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby until sacked by the Board in February 2023, was appointed Chief Ministry Officer of Answers in Genesis in May of that year, and in November was promoted to Executive CEO, working alongside Ken Ham, who remains as Founding CEO.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

There is one important difference in style between Iles and Ham. Ham, in the tradition of Henry Morris and, before him, George McCready Price, argues that science supports his version of Bible-based Young Earth Creationism. Iles, however, does not even condescend to discuss such mere details. As he posted on Facebook in October 2022, “Truth is in the [biblical] word itself. Other things are true insofar as they conform to it.” Moreover, Iles is clear in his own mind that his understanding of the Bible, however far-fetched, is the correct one. So when he tells us what it means, he is speaking for God.

On his appointment, Iles wrote,

Just as evolutionary naturalism has threatened the faith of so many, postmodernism and new critical theories threaten the faith of a new generation. 

Given his position at the head of the world’s leading Young Earth Creationist organization, we need to know what he has in mind by this laconic statement, and we can gain some insight into this from the book under discussion here.

The book itself, like others from the same publisher, appears to be directed at young adults. It is an easy read, with large clear print, and the text is liberally illustrated by silhouettes of young people, generating a warm and welcoming impression at odds with the fundamentally dictatorial nature of the content.

 . . . . . . . . . .

Iles begins by deploring what he sees as the modern emphasis on the self:

Actually, I didn’t realize you could use it [self-] as a prefix quite so much until I started my research. Self-ideation, self-love, self-discovery, self-definition, self-perception, self-determination, self-narrative, self-image, self-concept, self-esteem … All of these I have encountered in contemporary works on identity. This word has brought with it the age of the inward turn — the looking at the self. 

Notably absent from this list: self-knowledge.

He goes on to build up an enormous superstructure on a very narrow theological base. He makes extensive use of a handful of verses from the opening chapters of Genesis:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Genesis 1:28) 

Increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it. (Genesis 9:7) 

While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22) 

From this he infers that there cannot be an overpopulation problem, that it is a duty of fertile couples to have children, and that concerns about such large-scale matters as climate change are fundamentally misplaced, since these things are in the hands of God and, to use his expression, when we imagine that we can affect them we are “getting too big for our boots.” This is the sin of pride, and pride is a very serious sin indeed. Climate alarmism (his expression) is only one example of such pride, part of a list that includes

abortion, transgenderism, queer sexuality [sic], critical race theory, feminism, family breakdown, …, childlessness, cultural Marxism, post-modernism, and all that stuff. The common thread is this: all of them seek to usurp God’s authority as Creator by redefining what He has already defined. All of them seek to do His job for Him, only better. 

He accepts unquestioningly the interpretation of Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

as the very first prophesy of the coming of Jesus. In this interpretation, which goes back to the 2nd Century CE, the serpent is identified with Satan, the woman’s offspring is Jesus, born of a woman, the bruising of his heel is the agony of the crucifixion, and the bruising of Satan’s head is Christ’s triumph over evil.

From this he infers that the highest vocation of woman is motherhood, and that Satan bears special enmity towards pregnant women and babies. Satan is very prominent in Iles’s view of the world, and is mentioned 11 times in this short book.

Male and female roles were spelled out at the creation. God decides to create woman because:

It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2:18) 

And Adam is duly appreciative:

This at last1 is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:23). 

Thus, according to Iles,

woman was made with such care and purpose that she perfectly complemented and completed him [man]. She too was not made to be alone. The two became one. 

One, but different:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15) 

Iles draws our attention to two words, which define a man’s God-given purpose; first, to “work,” and second to “keep.” The reference to “the garden” directs attention to his external responsibilities. And so, he tells us, men are called to industry and must beware the sin of idleness.

Why, Iles asks, was it Adam that God addressed by name after the Fall:

Adam, where art thou? (Genesis 3:17, KJV) 

This although Eve and the serpent were also present at the scene, the serpent was the primary initiator of the sin, and Eve was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit. The reason for singling out Adam is that, as a man, he had primary responsibility for what had happened in the garden that had been entrusted to his care. Responsibility is a male prerogative.

Of women, Iles says

The woman was at her best when making another person their best. That was her commission. And it spills over into her motherhood too. Only women are mothers, and this is a good and beautiful thing indeed — a commission from God, for which she is designed biologically, psychologically, and spiritually. 

Iles goes on to mentions meekness as part of woman’s special virtue, and uses the word “meek” with reference to women on seven separate occasions.

In a passage worth quoting in full, he compares the different ways in which men and women go about getting their own way when not entitled to:

While men might prefer to exercise illegitimate control through brutishness, force, and cruelty, women tend to use different methods. They play games. They manipulate circumstances. They might even get their girlfriends involved to “make” things happen or drop ideas, seeds, and prompts through third parties. Their minds are always storyboarding, working out what people are thinking, how they’re feeling, and preempting next moves. They operate in the realm of the emotional, subjective, and interpersonal. To use such powers of discernment to manipulate circumstances and control outcomes is ultimately an abuse of those feminine giftings. They were given to be exercised selflessly and meekly, without the taint of self-will and premeditated outcomes. There is a difference between godly help and controlling “femcraft.” 

And when challenged as to what the besetting sin of woman might be, as compared to idleness in men, he answers “Control.” As he put it on Facebook (6 June 2023):

A word like “independent” is a direct assault on God’s design for women… A woman who prizes strength in independence is a woman rebelling against her nature. 

There you have it. You and I may think that our identity is a puzzle, but the book promises in its title to solve it for us, and does so. We may even have imagined that there are many possible solutions, but Iles knows God’s design, and there’s the end of it.

The rest of the book is devoted to theological questions, with heavy emphasis on our sinful nature, but since I have no special insight to offer on such matters, I will leave it there.2


  1. “At last” because in between the two verses cited, we have the creation of the animals, and their being brought to Adam as potential partners and found wanting for that purpose. But if you include this in your materials, you will find yourself with something far more interesting than Iles’s blinkered moralizing. ↩︎
  2. This review originally appeared at Panda’s Thumb; for the full review, see here. ↩︎

Undergraduate Insights on Ark Encounter

Compiled by Susan Trollinger

University of Dayton students visit Ark Encounter. Image by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

This spring, I taught a class in which we devoted a unit to studying the arguments and visual/material rhetorics of Protestant fundamentalism. We enjoyed the wisdom of scholars of fundamentalism who visited us in person or via Zoom, including William Trollinger, Jr, Jason Hentschel, and Sean Martin. At the end of that unit, we made a trip to Ark Encounter, or the Ark Park, in Kentucky that features a life-size re-creation of the Ark described in Genesis. And the class period after that visit, I asked my students  to reflect on their experiences. Below, you will read some of the very insightful comments they shared. They know that I am putting together this post. I offered anonymity to anyone who wanted that. None requested it. So, I am using their first names. I have arranged their responses topically.

First Impressions

“I was surprised that I got my tiny purse checked by a security guard, and he joked: ‘Are you hiding a Glock in here?’ I was also surprised how expensive the tickets were and that they were selling season passes.” Gabriella

“I am a little confused by the message AiG wants to send, because they market the Ark as a place of entertainment rather than a museum where you can learn their truth. Maybe that’s so you feel like you can lower your guard so you ask fewer question about their exhibits.” Kate

“As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, the Ark was visible through a gap between trees, which I think was intentional. Its size is shocking itself, but the way it is positioned to be seen from the parking lot make the Ark almost seem holy and hugely important.” Megan

Inside Deck 1 of Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Deck One

“I think the purpose of Deck 1 is to build tension within the visitors. When I first walked in, I was bombarded with the sheer amount of sound that they were playing over speakers. The sounds of waves and raging storms created anxiety in me, and hearing the squeaks of animals solidified a feeling of dread in me. I think they wanted to place visitors in emotional vulnerability, which is easily achieved through fear and tension.” Rachel

“As for the exhibits on Deck 1 themselves, it was hilarious to me that all of the non-existent creatures were labeled as ‘presumed extinct’ instead of extinct, implying that these animals could still exist somewhere humans have not found.” Alex

Image of Noah at his desk in Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Noah

Ava wrote about a short film in which Adah, a woman skeptical of Noah’s prediction of the Flood and his building of the Ark, interrogates Noah. 

The ethos of Noah is an ethos of a good moral character, industrious, and empathetic. Above all, he is a character driven by his belief in God. . . . I am a skeptic, and one who is in a class that is specifically focused on examining Protestant fundamentalist rhetoric. So, I cannot see this as an effective representation of Noah. I am only led to wonder why Noah is depicted in this way, and why the sinners surrounding him seem to be more caricatures than characters.

Display of Children’s Books about Noah’s Ark inside Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Exhibit on Noah’s Ark Children’s Books

“This display is intended to discredit the children’s literature that paints Noah’s Ark as lighthearted. AiG claims such retellings of the Ark are not harmless . . . .One mother remarked to her son, ‘as you can see, people think the Ark was a great thing, but it was a monstrous event that we all should have gone through.’  I had to ask myself, ‘isn’t Ark Encounter an attraction and fairy tale?’ With every floor came a gift shop, souvenir cups to purchase, donation links on posters, and concession stands.” Alexandria

Figure of a woman pondering God’s judgment. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

The Door

“I found it interesting that an exhibit displaying a woman [one of Noah’s daughters-in-law] having an existential crisis, pondering the cruelty and implications of her reality, was also next to a fun tourism picture site (the Door]. Other parts of the museum stress the importance of depicting the severity of the Flood, so it was jarring to see them do the exact opposite in this scene. I can’t imagine believing in the story of the Flood and being like, ‘this is the door that separates everything on the Ark from everything drowning and dying outside—let’s get a picture!’” Maya

Visitors take photos at the Door of the Ark. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

“I think the Keepsake Photo site with the Ark’s door is totally indoctrinating propaganda meant to argue that the YEC Christian Right is divinely ordained and has supreme authority. The photo is literally meant to instill a sense of confidence in the museumgoer that they are on the right side of history, that God backs them up, and that everyone else is drowning in a flood. . . . this exhibit is meant to say ‘God killed them all because they were sinners! But you’re not a sinner! Get a photo . . . to prove that God loves you and you would have been saved if you lived back when the Flood happened.’” Matthew

“The door seemed like something designed to strengthen people’s beliefs, like a prize of the visit. The large door with the cross on it may represent a doorway or wall between many worlds or states of existence, perhaps alluded to by themes of exclusion, safety, or salvation.” Dylan

Inside the Ark Encounter’s display of Living Quarters for Noah and His Family. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Living Quarters

“If the living quarters were as nice as they are made out to be at Ark Encounter, that would stand in strong contrast to the rest of the Ark, which is cramped, dimly lit, noisy and probably smelly. One has to wonder why God would subject all the animals . . . to cramped cages with no room to roam, and grant Noah and his family a nice living area where they can walk freely.” Ava

“Something that really struck me was how their living quarters seemed so modern. These living quarters did not appear to be those of someone that lived over 4,000 years ago.” Natalie

“Building on the claustrophobia of Deck I, Deck 3 was almost luxurious, almost as if it was trying to present Noah’s family as rewarded for being worthy of boarding the Ark. It almost felt narcissistic that the humans get so much attention to what they would be doing on the Ark compared to the rest of the species.” Ian

Twin placards describing Noah’s Family and noting Artistic License of Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Artistic License

“I was intrigued by the multitude of placards entitled ‘Artistic License’ as a justification for AiG to take liberties and bend the story from the original Genesis narrative. AiG heavily addresses a literal interpretation of the Bible. Who are we as sinners to enhance and add to the word of God that they believe has no errors?” Alexandria

Groups of families visit Ark Encounter. Photo by Susan Trollinger, 2024.

Visitors

“The most interesting behavior that I noted was between young children and their parents. The children that I heard talking, for the most part, were pretty bored and skeptical of the whole affair. They asked a lot of questions about this and that, or just complained about the place as a whole.” Ava

“I saw a lot of elderly couples and families with young children. The families often explained exhibits to their children. Everyone was taking pictures. I wondered what they would do with the pictures of all the placards. Also, the shirts that said “Need an Ark? I Noah guy.” Gabriella

Final Thoughts

“For a place so focused on biblical inerrancy, there were so many plaques about artistic interpretations of stories of the Bible. This plays into the ideals of patching the holes of the Bible that fundamentalists try to suppress. This Ark is a place that is meant to act as a wow factor. With a majestic size, impressive architecture, and striking exhibits, this encounter is meant to be memorable even if one does not believe or support the message.” Caleb

“Overall, the experience at Ark Encounter left me with malaise. It was an incredibly educational experience but quite unsettling. The devotion to these ideas on paper is different from seeing them in person. Specifically, the number of young families just left me a gross feeling because these ideas will continue to be perpetuated.” John

It’s easy to imagine that young adults from the ages of 18 to 22 (or thereabouts) have a lot to learn. And perhaps they do. They are also incredibly insightful. I am grateful to all of them for sharing with me their observations and interpretations of Ark Encounter. I hope you found them interesting too!

I thank the College of Arts and Sciences, the Core program at UD, the English Department, and a grant from ELIFF (that supports experiential learning at UD) for making it possible for these students to experience Protestant fundamentalism in 3D. Their insights may tell us a lot about why the White Christian Right is worried about attrition among young adults. 

Being Anti-Gay Is Not “Because the Bible Tells Me So”

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Kansas, New York, and Pennsylvania. He is now a full-time writer. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

A woman holds a sign saying “I heart [love] gays” standing next to anti-gay protesters. Image via Patheos.

Cal Thomas has written a scurrilous, sloppy screed attacking the United Methodist Church. He accuses the Methodists (and other mainline denominations) of losing their prophetic voice because they voted to accept the ordination of gays. 

Here’ a quote from Thomas’s piece:

To put things on a secular level, most businesses that lose customers would change their way of doing business to win them back. Not the Methodists, Episcopalians, United Presbyterians, and a branch of Lutherans among others. They are doubling down. Strongly evangelical churches that believe and preach Scripture are growing. Heresy is a bad “business model” for the church.

Interesting, Cal, that you failed to mention the Southern Baptists, who are in a membership freefall? What is the heresy they need to expunge? Would it be their tolerance of sexual abuse? Would it be their antipathy to women pastors?  

Anyway, Thomas’ self-righteous presumption that he is right about human sexuality is exactly that – a presumption. I’m not sure what motivated Thomas, because he doesn’t seem to “have a horse in this race.” He was not a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. But he does put in popular language the basic understanding of conservatives about human sexuality. 

I am “triggered” by Thomas’ use of Scripture to defend the anti-gay stance of conservatives. In response, I make this audacious claim: being anti-gay is not about being faithful to the Bible. To suggest that anti-gay supporters are not being biblical will strike many as absurd. They may assume I am being hyperbolic. Is it not the constant claim of conservatives that the Bible completely condemns homosexuality? Yes, but I am not convinced by the pitiful little six verses so often thrown out in defense of being homophobic. But of course, using the Bible, like using God to approve a nation’s propensity for war, is not a new strategy. 

Christian conservatives in major mainline denominations – the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian USA Church, and the United Methodist Church – have now all split over gay rights, the focus being issues of ordination and marriage. And there’s much more to it than the Bible. 

Identity 

The real issue is identity. Why do conservatives feel threatened and morally outraged when gay couples are married, or a lesbian is ordained as a pastor? The explanation has nothing to do with the Bible. There can be no gays in the conservative realm. The presence of married and ordained gays is a threat to the legitimacy of the world conservatives have created. Marriage and ordination are not the real issues. The Bible is not the real issue; the real issue is identity. 

Conservatives left the United Methodist Church even though they were on a long winning streak of maintaining the language of “incompatibility” in the Book of Discipline in relation to homosexuals. They left the UMC even though they had won every argument about homosexuality at every General Conference since 1976. 

An army doesn’t desert the field of battle when it is winning. A football team doesn’t go to the locker room when leading 60 – 40 in the third quarter. Conservatives were unwilling to make accommodations for those who dissented from the severe anti-gay stance. Even one gay bishop was enough to drive them away from a denomination they otherwise controlled. The issue: identity. The conservatives did not want the UMC to have an identity as accepting of gay clergy. 

For the conservatives, The Book of Discipline was being disobeyed, and disobedience can’t be allowed in the conservative worldview. The conservative point of view is concerned with authority, with obedience, with discipline, with punishment. In the new Global Methodist Church, authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment, organized in a package. The issue is identity. 

The Theory of Essences

Why did homosexuality become the deciding issue? Why not divorce and remarriage? Mainline Christians have never all been of one accord on all matters of doctrine, but there are almost no debates at general conferences and synods about divorce and remarriage. Only one issue has been selected as the proverbial line in the sand: gayness. In this one case, conservatives have decided there must be an absolute right and wrong, and the category of human sexuality must be absolute. 

George Lakoff offers an explanation: If category lines are fuzzy, it could be hard to tell if a rule or a law was broken. Absolute categorization requires essences, properties that define absolute categories. Though it took Aristotle to spell out how the theory of essences worked, he was simply noticing the everyday version in the cognitive unconscious. There is an unconscious but pervasive folk theory of essences, in which essences define strict categories. Essences in this folk theory are inherent, don’t change over time, and are the causal sources of natural behavior.

The logic of essences dominates conservative thought. In human sexuality, if a baby has the if essence of a heterosexual being at birth, then they had the essence of a heterosexual before birth… all the way back to conception. The folk theory of essence is not conscious. It just defines intuitive “common sense.”

In other words, “folk common sense” has more influence on conservative ideas about gays than the Bible. Essences existed long before the appearance of Christianity. As such, the theory of essences has more of a pagan origin than a Christian one. 

The theory of essences has gradually evolved into an American belief in “common sense.” Stanley Hauerwas argues we are “trained to believe we are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation.” We “read the Bible not as Christians, but as democratic citizens who think our ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture.” 

The reduction of interpreting the Bible according to “common sense” occurs in every conservative flagship issue from creationism to nativism. Absolutes are good companions for “common sense.” American evangelicals possess an unshakable faith in common sense. I think this attitude can be traced to the political philosophy of fundamentalism. One sees in particular Francis Bacon’s influential inductive reasoning and Scottish “common sense” philosophy. Bacon is as necessary to fundamentalism as eggs to breakfast. But I will not attempt to make that case in any detail here. 

In contrast, mainline denominations have not been defined by absolutes. What preachers believe and preach has been an odd assortment of beliefs ranging from one end of the theological spectrum to the other. 

For evangelicals to insist the Bible is the only guide for decisions on human sexuality opens the door to a bewildering array of sexual ideas, beliefs, and behaviors within the Bible itself. The Bible doesn’t have a developed theology of sexuality. But the reality is that conservatives can’t stand to be told that other Christians have as much epistemic and hermeneutical right as they do when it comes to the Bible

For example, conservatives would never tolerate the interpretative principles offered by Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, which she develops in her seminal article, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic.” Davis says: 

  • First, the text is difficult — that is, it presents ethical difficulties for its interpreters.
  • Second, the difficult text is worthy of charity from its interpreters.
  • Third, ethical consciousness, informed by prayerful life within the faith community, is a legitimate hermeneutical tool.
  • Fourth, the validity of a given interpretation does not depend on the interpreter’s proximity to the authorial source, since an authoritative text is one authorized for repeated rereading and reinterpretation within the faith community.

But mainline Protestants and other Christians now live under the suspicion, held by many conservatives, that we do not take the Bible seriously as a guide for faith and life. And that is because conservative Christians assume they have all the religious “experience” they need to know exactly what the Bible says.

The conservative argument here borders on the absurd. Claiming total epistemic control of the Bible, they cry: “The Bible as we read it – love it or leave it.” “Obey what we say the Bible means, or leave it.” That is to say, the issue is one of obedience, not biblical content. And love of the Bible is never to be equated with blind obedience to fundamentalist dictates. 

When evangelicals shake the Bible in our faces and claim we no longer believe the Bible, I have to stifle a laugh. It may actually come as a shock to some conservatives how seriously liberals take the Scripture. We take the Bible seriously, but not literally. To assume otherwise can only mean conservatives have completely ignored the rich contributions of biblical and theological scholars to the faith over the last one hundred years. 

Lacking the copyright, the patent to the Holy Word of God, conservatives don’t have the right to cut off the biblical readings and interpretations of other Christians. But I argue this is the exact move they have attempted to pull off. In their view, they are the true defenders of the Bible. The rest of us are unbiblical and most likely no longer even Christians. 

This reaches the nub of the issue. Conservatives insist on reading the Bible within the frame of Aristotle’s “essences.” No other reading is allowed. The conservative love for Scripture and reason has crashed right into and up against a limit: a lover of truth and reason doesn’t have the right to deny epistemic status to other readers. 

Essences and a monarchical epistemic attitude – these are the twin pillars of the conservative onslaught against gays. 

The tragedy here is that both sides in this Christian dispute have had a basic resource at their disposal – a resource provided by the people who gave birth to Christianity – the Jews. Christians, imprisoned by Descartes’ insistence that if two people are disagreed, one must be wrong, have not noticed that such dualism is ineffective. 

What if when two people disagree, both may have reason on their side? What should be done with members of a community disagree? How should the conflict be adjudicated? What sources of authority should be privileged? 

There’s a rich irony at play here. Conservatives, the group most likely to be anti-scientific, have embraced a Cartesian dualism that defines reason in scientific and mathematical terms and assumed that there was only one right answer to a given question. 

Let me offer an alternative from the teachings of the rabbis. Talmudic reason is plural, revealing many answers to the same question. 

A historical example is the conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. As David Frank has pointed out,

The school of Hillel very often tended to allow what the school of Shammai forbade. One controversy lasted three years, each school claiming that the Law conformed to its teachings. The Talmud tells what Rabbi Abba in the name of Rabbi Samuel says. The latter addressed himself to Heaven to know the truth; from on high a voice responded that both interpretations expressed the word of the living God. The two diametrically opposed interpretations command equal respect because they express thoughtful and recognized ways of thinking and in this they are both reasonable. 

As Frank goes on to say, 

The schools of Hillel and Shammai held opposing views, but both revealed dimensions of a truth that could not be expressed in one opinion, contained in one ideology, or owned by one school …. In the Jewish tradition, the search for truth was seen as contested and elusive.” 

The story of the Oven of Akhani is a famous Jewish tale. Rabbi Eliezer claimed the Oven of Akhnai was pure. The majority of the Rabbis disagreed and held that the Oven was impure. In defense of his position, Rabbi Eliezer called on heaven for proof. And heaven responded to his plea as a tree was uprooted and thrown one hundred ells; the current of a stream was reversed; and the walls of the academy started to fall. The other Rabbis were not persuaded by these miracles. So Rabbi Eliezer appealed to God and the Divine Voice declared Rabbi Eliezer in the right. Rabbi Josue, speaking for the majority, said, “The Torah is not in heaven.” 

The story teaches us that decisions about what is pure and impure are to be made by the human community. The choice is between humans and is not the affair of God. Chaim Perelman reminds us that “Jewish law authorizes the creation of actions which are tailored to the needs of the moment.” This may include “adding flexibility to the texts by resorting to general principles and every to fictions.” 

Majority and minority points of view are emphasized and sanctified. Majority rule, while privileged, was held in check by dissenting voices that could at some future point move the community, through persuasion, in a different direction. 

Conservative Christians, impatient at the difficulty of the democratic processes of debate, argument, consensus, and dissent, have put down the epistemic hammer and declared an end to the discussion. 

In the conclusion of the story of the Oven of Akhani, God is asked what God thought when Rabbi Josue declared “The Torah is not in heaven.” God responds with laughter and joy, declaring, “My Children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” 

Identity, common sense, and essences turn out to be less than admirable defenses for the anti-gay Christians. Let those who have ears to hear, hear what the Jewish masters have taught. 

A Virtual Presentation: From Creationism to QAnon

Please join us Thursday evening for our virtual presentation for the Bay Area Skeptics! Our host is the remarkable Eugenie Scott, who was the long-time director of the National Center for Science Education, and who is the inventor of the term “Gish Gallop” (Gish being young Earth creationist Duane Gish), which refers to the creationist technique of piling on so many weak arguments that debaters are not able to rebut the entire argument.

This event begins at 7pm PDT/10pm EDT. (Ok, we may be taking a short nap before we present!) All are welcome, and there will be opportunities to comment and ask questions.

And here’s the thesis of the talk: “At Answers in Genesis all these conspiracy theories – climate change denialism, COVID/anti-vaxx, QAnon, young Earth creationism – are wrapped into one tight conspiratorial package.”

Hope to “see” you there!

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