by Camille Lewis
Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal. She is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, while also compiling and editing an anthology – White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity – as part of Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series.
I was trying to explain “the Hegemon” to my 300-level class a few weeks back—the idea that a governing power gains its strength from those it subjugates. I think I failed. In my head, I imagined it to be King Kong scooping up radical ideas like another Fay Wray and digesting them as its own. I lumbered across the front of the room like a pre-CGI movie monster and munched on imaginary but hapless ideas I found in my path: labor, feminism, and reconciliation.
The Hegemon has been on my mind. I think I actually caught it shuffling across a church platform last month—not my own church, if that’s any consolation. I have been participating in local conversations among evangelicals – almost all of them white – about racial reconciliation. Every talk follows the same pattern.
We start with a wish disguised as a declaration that “this isn’t a fad.” We mean, “we hope this isn’t only a fad.”
Following a fad isn’t the crux of the problem. Feeding the Hegemon is the problem. A fad, in time, becomes hilarious. Have you looked at your tenth-grade school photos?
The Hegemon, however, is never funny. The Hegemon gets stronger as it digests the ideas that could topple it. Those who would critique its power are mere snacks fueling its walk between skyscrapers.
In one particular racial reconciliation talk, the speaker began by reassuring the “Truly Reformed” bow-tie crowd that he is not a member of the “radical left.” Don’t be afraid, fathers and brothers. This white cis-het male Ph.D. in History speaking in front of you is not “being led by academics,” whom he identifies as scholars of “critical race theory.”
This first step reveals the entire path. You know where the Hegemon is going when he starts with this Othering. Academics are too bitter for the evangelical Hegemon to consume. Don’t pick those. And avoid the “dark meat” of critical race theory too. Too much cholesterol.
After explaining what we are not, the speaker summarizes the available metanarratives. Predictably, in his telling there are “two schools of thought” in historical scholarship: evangelicals have either “reflected” culture (naively tripping into its vices), or evangelicals have “challenged” culture (following the Bible’s mandates).
So we have either submitted to peer pressure, or directed people to God. We have either followed blindly like dupes, or led triumphantly like heroes. We have either been influenced toward the bad, or have influenced toward the good. When we are passive, it’s unfortunate; when we are active, it’s always virtuous. King Kong either gets tricked into hurting people or leads them to a better world.
I have yet to hear an evangelical historian in these talks plainly confess the sin of our tribe. For a group that holds to the Westminster Confession (chapter 15) and that confesses our sin every Sunday in the liturgy, we just don’t confess our sin of white supremacy. We never mention that evangelicals led culture toward the bad. Never. It’s not even in our purview.
So if we’re not like those bitter academics, and we have the two choices of following the bad or leading toward the good, the third step is easy. Let’s look at all the good we South Carolinian evangelicals have accomplished. Let’s pull out the Hall of Famers! All the talks include the same ones. There’s the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston which integrated and placed African Americans at the center of the ministry, albeit with a white pastor, thirteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And yes, Black South Carolinian Robert Smalls did represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. All true.
Then it gets weird. Benjamin Franklin Perry gets props for being a Greenvillian who resisted secession, a hero whom Andrew Jackson recognized and affirmed in appointing him South Carolina’s Reconstruction Governor. Governor Strom Thurmond is another hero, didn’t you know? He condemned Greenville County’s most infamous lynching of Willie Earle in 1947.
Hell no he didn’t. Thurmond said that Willie Earle’s lynchers “ought to be strongly prosecuted. The Officers are doing a mighty fine job up there, and it won’t be long until the entire case is cleaned up.” That’s it. He praised the police. He didn’t mourn white supremacist injustice.
And Perry’s opening address to the 1865 South Carolina constitutional convention—the very convention that would create black codes eliminating freedmen suffrage—is unadulterated white nationalism. Perry conceded that, while slavery must never again exist in South Carolina, the Negro will never in any way be a citizen, no matter what the Northern radicals (i.e. “critical race theorists”) want:
The African has been, in all ages, a savage or a slave. God created him inferior to the white man in form, color, and intellect, and no legislation or culture can make him his equal. You might as well expect to make the fox the equal of the lion in courage and strength, or the ass the equal of the horse in symmetry and fleetness. His color is black; his head covered with wool instead of hair, his form and features will not compete with the Caucasian race, and it is in vain to think of elevating him to the dignity of the white man. God created differences between the two races, and nothing can make him equal.
When finally I heard the speaker actually admit, in so many words, that we are fueling the Hegemon, I genuinely questioned my participation as a listener: “White Christians in the South can benefit from studying African-American history.” Yes, the bow-tied Powers-that-Be do benefit from casting aside critical voices, from narrowing historical narratives to make us either the dupe or the hero, and from telling only the pleasant facts from the historical record. That benefit is the problem. We’re making the monster stronger.
When my students and I talked about ideological rhetorical criticism that week, I mentioned that sometimes our best analyses start by asking “What’s missing?” What’s missing in recent white evangelical racial reconciliation attempts? Dissent, truth-telling, and humility. We throw out our most pointed critics, we bend history to make us heroes, and we skip past confession.
In my framing the problem this way, I admit that I, too, am bending the story. I think we white evangelicals can do better. I think there is hope. But that hope isn’t in feeding the white nationalist monster. It’s admitting that we created him.
The Hegemon might eat that idea too. It’s a risk. The next class period I ended up describing the Hegemon as a Weeble. It wobbles, but it doesn’t fall down.
 “Sheriff Bearden Swears Warrant in Lynching Case,” Orangeburg Times and Democrat, February 22, 1947, 1 and 3. Wayne Freeman, “Constables Assisting in Lynch Probe,” Greenville News, February 18, 1947, 1.
 Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Penguin, 2008).
by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger
There have been quite a few responses on The Conversation website to Bill’s article on the 100 year anniversary of the fundamentalist movement. Most of the comments are positive and/or informative.
But responding to the point that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was developed in the late 19th century, one fundamentalist posted a response in which he labeled Bill’s argument as “deceitful” and “quite a lie,” while also describing Bill’s view of the Bible as “perverted.” He also put scare quotes around “professor“ and “scholarship,” of course suggesting that Bill is neither a professor nor a scholar. And there’s more. And all this in a tidy 44 words!
Then there was Ken Ham’s diatribe against Bill for his blog post that highlights how Ham’s Ark Encounter has not benefitted the little town that did so much to make the building of the Ark possible. Ham also employs scare quotes — “supposedly ‘scholarly’ blog” – to suggest that Bill is not a scholar since his blog post is obviously not scholarly. This suggestion is reinforced by Ham’s statement that “we do hope Prof. Trollinger is providing real academic rigor to the students in his university classes as opposed to what we have exposed here.”
Ham also asserted that Bill “repeated the misinformation and outright untruths about the Ark’s funding that permeates other atheist blogs.” Ham routinely uses “atheist” as an ad hominem attack, that is, atheists are not worth listening to. Moreover, after lumping Bill (who happens to be Catholic) in the category of “atheist” critics, Ham devoted much of his article attacking arguments that others have made. That is to say, and as Bill made clear in his response to Ham’s screed, Ham did not address much of Bill’s argument.
But Ham’s attack inspired follow-up attacks, including this one that came via email:
You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Surely you were trained better than to mix the too [sic]. Do your homework and check the facts next time. Your bias is blinding and you don’t correct yourself when the truth is obvious. I hope you are not teaching your students to do things this way – how shameful!
Leaving aside the question as to why fundamentalists seem particularly prone to launch ad hominem attacks, the fact is that we live in a society that, unfortunately, cultivates this practice. With social media, in particular, it is all too easy to launch some hateful attack on the character of another human being whom we have never met and likely will never meet. It’s a cowardly practice that seems to puff up the attacker while diminishing the attacked.
Even worse, this practice seems to have become normalized. We have come to expect it. If someone is going to be in the public eye at all, so the thinking seems to go, they should expect to get hammered in the most personal way by people who don’t even know them.
Given the normalization of the practice, we want to consider the following questions: What exactly is an ad hominem attack, what about ad hominem attacks makes them fallacious, and why should we care?
An ad hominem attack makes some kind of derogatory statement about someone who has made an argument. The purpose in doing so is to redirect the attention of the audience or reader away from the argument itself and to a concern that is not germane to the argument.
An example would be something like this: Mr. Richards makes an argument at a city council meeting that the city should expend some of its resources to build a new fire station because the current station is more than 50 years old, is not up to code, and thus poses a danger to the firefighters who spend a lot of time there. Mr. Hill, who is sick and tired of paying taxes to the city, and who finds government more of a burden than a help, rises to say that the council should reject Mr. Richards’ proposal because he is obviously a socialist (given his proposal to spend yet more tax dollars) who has three outstanding parking tickets and is rumored to be cheating on his wife.
What’s important to notice here is that Mr. Hill’s response to Mr. Richards’ proposal does not address the substance of Mr. Richards’ proposal. Instead, it encourages others present at the meeting to reject Mr. Richards’ proposal not because it lacks merit but because, according to Mr. Hill, Mr. Richards is a bad guy. What makes this fallacious is that it seeks to direct the audience’s attention away from the actual argument (which may or may not have merit) to some other consideration that bears no relevance to the argument.
It is important to remember that even people we don’t like can make good arguments.
So, even if Mr. Richards’ is a socialist who has three parking tickets and is cheating on his wife, that doesn’t mean that he made an unreasonable argument. It may just mean that Mr. Hill would prefer not to go have a beer with Mr. Richards after the council meeting. That said, it might also be true that if Mr. Hill actually went out for a beer with Mr. Richards, he might through the course of a conversation discover that Mr. Richards isn’t such a bad guy after all.
So, why should we be bothered by the all-too-common use of ad hominem attacks these days? The biggest reason is because they don’t do us as a people any good. They don’t help us think carefully through an argument. They don’t help us figure out whether we should give a reasoned argument our assent. They don’t help us make good decisions.
All that ad hominem attacks do is to further cultivate a culture-war mentality, according to which all we need to know is that someone has accused someone else (the accusation, of course, may or may not be true) of something that we are supposed to not like. On that basis, we are supposed to conclude that we should reject whatever they say, no matter the actual merits of their argument.
Ad hominem attacks are not only fallacious, but they further diminish our ability to hear one another while simultaneously increasing our ability to hate one another. This would seem to be the last thing we need in the autumn of 2019.
by William Trollinger
Note: this post is featured on The Conversation.
These days, the term “fundamentalism” is often associated with a militant form of Islam.
But the original fundamentalist movement was actually Christian. And it was born in the United States a century ago this year.
Protestant fundamentalism is still very much alive. And, as Susan Trollinger and I discuss in our 2016 book, it has fueled today’s culture war over gender, sexual orientation, science and American religious identity.
Roots of Fundamentalism
Christian fundamentalism has roots in the 19th century, when Protestants were confronted by two challenges to traditional understandings of the Bible.
Throughout the century, scholars increasingly evaluated the Bible as a historical text. In the process they raised questions about its divine origins, given its seeming inconsistencies and errors.
In addition, Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” – which laid out the theory of evolution by natural selection – raised profound questions about the Genesis account of creation.
Many American Protestants easily squared their Christian faith with these ideas. Others were horrified.
Conservative theologians responded by developing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy asserts that the Bible is errorless and factually accurate in everything it says – including about science.
This doctrine became the theological touchstone of fundamentalism. Alongside inerrancy emerged a system of ideas, called apocalyptic or “dispensational premillennialism.”
Adherents of these ideas hold that reading the Bible literally – particularly the Book of Revelation – reveals that history will end soon with a ghastly apocalypse.
All those who are not true Christians will be slaughtered. In the wake of this violence, Christ will establish God’s millennial kingdom on Earth.
Setting the stage
A series of Bible and prophecy conferences spread these ideas to thousands of Protestants across the United States in the late 19th century.
But two early 20th-century publications were particularly key to their dissemination.
The first was author Cyrus Scofield’s 1909 Reference Bible. Scofield’s Bible included an overwhelming set of footnotes emphasizing that the errorless Bible predicts a violent end of history which only true Christians will survive.
“The Fundamentals” provided the name of the future religious movement. But there was not yet a fundamentalist movement.
That came after World War I.
The birth of the Fundamentalist Movement
After Woodrow Wilson’s April 1917 declaration of war on Germany, the government mobilized a huge propaganda campaign designed to demonize the Germans as barbarous Huns who threatened Western civilization. Many conservative Protestants traced Germany’s devolution into depravity to its embrace of Darwinism and de-emphasis of the Bible’s divine origins.
Six months after the war’s end, William Bell Riley – pastor of Minneapolis’ First Baptist Church and a well-known speaker on the Bible’s prophecies regarding the end of history – organized and presided over the World’s Conference on Christian Fundamentals in Philadelphia.
This five-day May 1919 meeting attracted over 6,000 people and an all-star lineup of conservative Protestant speakers. It produced the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which birthed a movement that influences American political and social life today.
In summer and fall of 1919 Riley sent teams of speakers to spread the fundamentalist word across the U.S. In addition to promoting biblical inerrancy and apocalyptic premillennialism, they attacked socialism and Darwinism.
The anti-evolution crusade had some success in the South. Five statespassed laws banning the theory of evolution from classrooms.
In March 1925 Tennessee made it illegal to teach “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Four months later a science teacher named John Scopes was tried and convicted of violating the statute.
Fundamentalism after Scopes
Though the Scopes Trial brought ridicule by the national media, fundamentalism did not wither away.
Instead, it continued to advance during the 20th century. And it remained remarkably consistent in its central commitments of biblical inerrancy, apocalyptic premillennialism, creationism and patriarchy – the idea that women are to submit to male authority in church and home.
Fundamentalists also embraced political conservatism. This commitment grew more intense as the 20th century progressed.
When the Cold War brought the United States into conflict with the Soviet Union, their concerns about the all-encompassing, anti-Christian state intensified.
Then came the 1960s and 1970s.
Fundamentalists bitterly opposed the civil rights and feminist movements, the Supreme Court’s rulings prohibiting school-sponsored prayer and affirming a woman’s right to an abortion, and President Lyndon Johnson’s programs that sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.
Fundamentalists go political
Understanding Christian America to be under deadly assault, in the late 1970s these politically conservative fundamentalists began to organize.
The emergent Christian Right attached itself to the Republican Party, which was more aligned with its members’ central commitments than the Democrats.
Since the 1980s, the movement has become increasingly sophisticated. Christian Right organizations like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women of America push for laws that reflect the fundamentalist views on everything from abortion to sexual orientation.
By the time Falwell died, in 2007, the Christian Right had become the most important constituency in the Republican Party. It played a crucial role in electing Donald Trump in 2016.
After one century, Protestant fundamentalism is still very much alive in America. William Bell Riley, I wager, would be pleased.
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by Margaret Bendroth
Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993); Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).
I am working, rather ambivalently I confess, on another book about women and religion. This time it is about mainline Protestants, a basic “what happened” between 1920 and 1970.
Even people who have not spent time in a denominational archive can guess at the enormous potential for boredom. The subjects are not exotic in any conceivable sense of the word, and though I personally find them admirable, I do not assume for a moment that others will too. I have decided that this project is as much an artistic challenge as an academic one.
I suspect, though, that there is more to my incipient writer’s block than the materials I’ve chosen to work with. (What historian couldn’t make a similar complaint, at least once or twice? It’s kind of what we do.) I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?
I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments. But somehow these churchwomen were too canny, too repressed, too loyal, or too artful to make more than a mild fuss.
I remember being surprised, many years ago, when I made my first presentation about women and fundamentalism to a small group of male scholars. It was nerve-wracking to be both young and female in that gathering, and I worried about what kind of response I’d get. The question that took the air out of the room, however, was one I should have anticipated but did not: Given all the nasty things fundamentalist men said about women, why in the world would any self-respecting female go anywhere near one of their churches?
Looking back, I am beginning to understand why I did not ask that question myself. It just never occurred to me. As a recent Ph.D. and a young mom, I was already adept at bracketing out negativity, from the baby throwing a bowl of oatmeal onto the floor to the patronizing contempt of male academics. It wasn’t as simple as repressing rage—it was about being a mom. Every day I had to practice maintaining emotional balance in impossible situations. I learned that there is no “win/win” when a toddler is melting down in the produce aisle—you cut your losses and get the hell out of the store. That peculiar mortification of the flesh had become so second-nature that I barely recognized it; it’s an inner discipline that shaped most of my life decisions going forward.
What’s interesting in retrospect is that it took a man to pose the “why” question, to recognize and call out the sheer effrontery of the fundamentalist men I was writing about. Why would anyone stand for that?
Once, when I was a staff supervisor at a Christian summer camp, I was told that higher ups were deciding if I could be included in a particularly important prayer meeting. This was on behalf of an unusually troubled young woman, who I knew fairly well. I shared a bunkroom with her, in fact, and had witnessed several (of what I know now to be) panic attacks. I had held paper bags to her mouth to help her breathe when she was hyperventilating, tried to keep her from hurting herself when she pounded her fists up and down, prayed for her when she was on her bunk stiff and unresponsive as a washboard. But somehow praying for her, in public, was a problem. It might somehow sully something holy.
At some semi-conscious level I considered whether or not to be pissed off about this, and I decided not to be. Let’s be clear: I was no pious pushover. This was in the 1970s and I had my own copies of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, I wore overalls and worked on the maintenance crew. Some boys, I knew, were afraid of me, and I enjoyed that. I did not for one minute believe that anything St. Paul said about first-century women applied to me. But I also knew enough to do some calculating, to consider the costs of getting angry, not just in the abstract but in the concrete, in that particular setting. First of all, I figured (wondrously) that the men would be hurt—I counted them as dear friends and I knew they felt the same about me. I did not want an “issue” to hang over all of us for the rest of the summer, or perhaps ultimately, to lose the power and freedom I had gained by my honest commitment to our common spiritual goals. I was young enough to believe that my invisible act of self-abnegation would work toward the good of the whole, that in some way it would benefit people I cared about deeply.
I was, and am, still angry, of course, about lots of things by now. And I suspect, my mainline churchwomen, and their fundamentalist cousins, were too. But there’s no map for this. It’s relatively easy to track rebellion among the spiritually unconventional, the outspoken women who demanded what they knew was theirs. And, it’s a fairly short leap to conclude that an angry woman must be a feminist, even if just in the making. But what if your sources do not cooperate?
A lot of religious women’s anger isn’t righteous or revolutionary. It’s not feminist, either. It’s the underside of loyalty—to God, to church, to husband or friends. It struggles to find its object. Far too easily the anger of religiously loyal women dissolves into contempt or hardens into stubbornness. It manifests as irritation, a prickly demeanor that alienates would-be allies. It becomes unlovely, the tendency to moan and complain, or the silent enjoyment of another person’s idiocy. In every case, a lot of rage ends up as a shrug of the shoulders. “What, me angry?”
All this reminds me of an article I came across, written in 1951 by sociologist Helen Mayer Hacker, about women as a minority group. (Gunnar Myrdal did something similar, in an Appendix to An American Dilemma.) Why did women refuse to see themselves this way, she wondered? There was certainly good reason: Hacker recited a litany of the systematic ways that men had wronged women over the past century, excluding them from decent-paying jobs and then cranking out “ceaseless propaganda to return women to the home and keep them there.” Yet especially since the 1920s, Mayer observed, outright conflict had been minimal. Instead, the “dissociative process between the sexes” had devolved to “rebuffing, repulsing, working against, hindering, protesting, obstructing, restraining, and upsetting another’s plans.”
My churchwomen were rarely angry in the abstract. They were, I think, acutely attuned to institutions, understanding what made them work, and also so hard to change. They lived in a world where it was better to be smart and at least outwardly loyal—to persist in fact—than to rail. In our world, on the other side of the 1960s, their doggedness looks like repression, their cooperation like capitulation. So much of their emotional language is familiar: they were white, middle-class Protestants, kind of like me, but it’s a dialect, an inflection, that I’m struggling to understand.
by William Trollinger
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, is a big fan of the death penalty. As he told Fox and Friends (where he is a regular contributor),
Let’s admit the death penalty is sometimes inequitably and even mistakenly applied. We know that and we ought to do everything we can to prevent that. But I remind people, the greatest example of an innocent person being executed was Jesus Christ himself. He was totally innocent, and yet in spite of that, the New Testament never calls for an end to the death penalty.
What? Because Jesus was executed, we are supposed to relax about the fact that many people on America’s death rows were wrongfully convicted and some have been executed? I can see this being employed by prison chaplains: “Cheer up, death row inmate: you are on your way to being like Jesus!”
Of course, Jeffress’ comment about the death penalty is but one of a string of deplorable quotes from the Dallas pastor, including last Sunday’s Fox and Friends observation (which Donald Trump re-tweeted) that “if the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a civil war-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
But while Jeffress’ rhetoric is particularly awful, his support for capital punishment is very much in the Christian Right mainstream. At Ark Encounter, for example, a plaque informs visitors that God wants capital punishment:
God stressed the value of human life by sanctioning the death penalty for acts of murder. If a person murders another human being, he has destroyed someone made in the image of God, which is a grave offense against the Lord Himself. Other serious crimes were also deemed worthy of capital punishment under the Law of Moses, and the New Testament states that governing authorities have the right to execute judgment for such crimes.
It has to be pointed out that, in the context of Ark Encounter, the idea of God who demands death for a variety of crimes is not surprising, given that the Ark also instructs visitors that, in response to human wickedness, God used a global flood to drown up to 20 billion people, including of course toddlers and infants.
(Is the endpoint of Christian Right rhetoric always something dreadful and violent?)
In his Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, “Is Capital Punishment for Today?,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Russell Fuller expands upon the Ark plaque’s argument for capital punishment. According to Fuller, not only is the Old Testament “not obsolete,” but God’s call for “vengeance against murderers” in Genesis and elsewhere still applies. In defense of his argument that God insists on death as the punishment for certain crimes, Fuller goes on to argue that
some of the laws of the Old Testament, particularly in the Mosaic covenant, were temporary, meant for Israel and its particular circumstances. These laws include the dietary laws and worship laws. But Mosaic laws based on the character of God, such as laws against murder or adultery, or Mosaic laws based on the permanent relationships of people, such as children honoring their parents, are permanent. Such commandments, therefore, transcend the Mosaic covenant, as the Ten Commandments transcend the Mosaic covenant.
Interestingly, Fuller neglects mentioning a host of crimes – crimes that do not involve the violation of dietary and worship laws – that, according to the Old Testament, require death. Just using Leviticus 20, here’s a sample of crimes that require the death penalty:
- “all who curse father or mother shall be put to death” (v. 9)
- “if a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (v. 10)
- “the man who lies with his father’s wife . . . both of them shall be put to death” (v. 11)
- “if a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death” (v. 12)
- “if a man lies with a male as with a woman . . . they shall be put to death” (v. 13)
- “if a man takes a wife and her mother also . . . they shall be burned to death” (w. 14)
- “if a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death” (v. 15)
Add to this blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 10-16) and making sacrifices to another god (Leviticus 27:20), and this is quite the string of offenses that would require capital punishment. And there are more. Why did Fuller not make reference to these crimes? Why did he not mention that we should impose the death penalty on someone who curses their parents ? Did he run out of space? Or is he engaging in the sort of selective biblical literalism that we talk about in the “Bible” chapter of Righting America at the Creation Museum?
More than this, Fuller says nary a word about the racial, economic, and geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Nor does he say a word about the fact that the death penalty does not deter crime. Nor does he mention that innocent people are sentenced to death in America.
None of this apparently matters at all, or much, to Fuller, Jeffress, AiG, and the Christian Right. What matters is that God wants the state to kill.
And how again does this square with Jesus’ admonitions to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”?
by William Trollinger
On the evening of September 23, 1997 – before I was unceremoniously ushered into the observation booth in Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center to watch the 12.01 AM execution of my friend, Sam McDonald – I sat in a small waiting room with the other “family and friend” witnesses, including his son, cousin, pastor, and attorney. For seventy minutes or so we talked about Sam, his childhood, and how serving in Vietnam destroyed his life (and, of course, the life of the man he killed).
Along the way, Sam’s attorney let us know that through the entire appeals process – all the way up to the Supreme Court – he was optimistic that Sam would not be executed, given that Sam was a much-decorated veteran, given that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given that his defense at his original trial was woefully inadequate. When I made some comment about how unjust this was, his attorney casually noted that, in the end, the fact that Sam was going to be executed was directly connected to the fact he was poor: “whatever the crime, a white person of means is virtually never executed in this country.”
I thought of this conversation when I was at last week’s terrific panel discussion on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law,” hosted by the UD Law School, moderated by former Ohio governor Bob Taft, and sponsored by the Miami Valley chapter of Ohioans to Stop Executions and the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative.
The panelists – which included Martha Hurley (director of UD’s Criminal Justice Studies program) and Shelley Inglis (executive director of UD’s Human Rights Center) – pointed out that:
- Poverty matters: Sam’s attorney was right: if a defendant cannot afford adequate counsel, it is much more likely for that defendant to get the death penalty.
- Race matters: If a person of color murders a white person, it is much more likely for that defendant to get the death penalty.
- Geography matters: The South is responsible for 82% of executions in the United States since 1976. The seven states that have led the way in executions – Texas at the top, having killed 565 individuals in the past 43 years – were slave states or slave territories prior to the Civil War. This is no accident: as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has pointed out, “capital punishment is the stepchild of lynching.” But geographical disparities are also found within states: as Martha Hurley observed, 2% of US counties are responsible for 52% of executions.
So, we have a capital punishment system in the United States that is riddled with disparities that give the lie to any notion of impartial justice. But there is more:
- The death penalty is, as documented by the Death Penalty Information Center, “far more expensive than a system utilizing life-without-parole sentences as an alternative punishment.”
- As has been repeatedly demonstrated, capital punishment has no deterrent effect.
- As Scientific American reported in 2014, an estimated 4% of all people sentenced to death since the 1970s were wrongfully convicted. There have been over 150 death penalty exonerations in that time, and there is no question that some innocent people have been put to death.
Given all of this, it is striking that the United States – or, at least, certain counties in the United States – keeps sentencing people to death. Lots of people. And it is even more striking when one considers that, as Shelley Inglis observed, 170 of the 193 countries on the planet have outlawed or placed a moratorium on the death penalty. But the United States continues this practice along with the other 23 countries, a group which includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Given that Canada and all European nations (except for Belarus) have abolished the death penalty, the United States is an outlier in the West. As Inglis wryly noted, “this qualifies as evidence of American exceptionalism.” A violent exceptionalism, indeed.
by William Trollinger
So much time has passed, and yet September 24 remains very painful.
Twenty-two years ago today, I found myself sitting with five other civilians and four security guards in a tiny, cramped room in the bowels of the maximum security Potosi Correctional Institute, just southwest of St. Louis. The civilians were seated in two rows of chairs, facing a glass window and closed mini-blinds. I was in the front row, and I could look through a crack in the blinds to see the lower part of a man’s face, including a mouth and jaw. And I knew that was my friend Samuel McDonald, who in just a couple of minutes was going to be injected with a lethal combination of sodium pentothal (which would render him unconscious) and pancuronium bromide and potassium bromide, which would stop his breathing and his beating heart.
I had opposed capital punishment since the ninth grade. In this, as in many other things, I was at odds with my evangelical parents and my evangelical Baptist church. I was surrounded by folks who – while not bloodthirsty – wholeheartedly supported the notion of state execution. Interestingly, it was growing up in the church that led me to dissent from my family and church, as I was (and am) convinced that capital punishment violates the essence of Christ’s teachings to choose mercy over revenge, to love our enemies, and to forswear violence (which is why the Catholic church and almost all of the major Protestant denominations have come out against capital punishment).
But for a number of years my opposition to the death penalty remained an abstraction. This was because by the late 1960s capital punishment had almost disappeared from the American landscape; what seemed to be the final blow to a barbaric institution came in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is “arbitrary” and “capricious.” But just four years later, the Court ruled that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution, as long as the state has adequate due-process procedures in place. Soon, 40 or so states re-instituted the death penalty for certain types of murder.
One of the states that has proven to be most enthusiastic about applying capital punishment is the state of Missouri. Since 1976 Missouri has executed 88 individuals, ranking #5 among the states that kill (behind Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas, the latter state having executed 564 individuals in the past 43 years).
In 1984, I became a Missouri resident: having completed my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I accepted a teaching position at the College of the Ozarks, near Branson. I felt I needed to do something in response to the fact that I now lived in a death penalty state. But I was not looking to do anything heroic. What I settled upon was corresponding with someone on Missouri’s death row. So, I contacted the Death Row Support Project for the name of a condemned prisoner with whom I could exchange letters. This is how I became acquainted with Samuel McDonald.
Over the next decade or so I was able – through conversations with Sam, newspaper reports, and open access court records – to piece together Sam’s story. He grew up in a poor, churchgoing family in inner city St. Louis. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Army. It was 1967, and Sam ended up – as did so many poor black males – in Vietnam. He proved to be an efficient soldier, earning a raft of medals. But the experience traumatized him, particularly when, in the process of “sweeping” a village, he more-or-less deliberately killed an elderly woman and an infant (an incident about which he would have nightmares for the rest of his life, even the week before his execution). Like a host of other Vietnam veterans, Sam returned to the States mentally and emotionally unhinged, addicted to drugs, and without anything in the way of adequate medical and psychiatric support. Over the next decade, he lived the life of a petty criminal, arrested a couple of times for robbery.
Then, on the evening of May 16, 1981, the downwardly spiraling Sam McDonald encountered someone whose life had been going in precisely the opposite direction. Robert Jordan had been a St. Louis County police officer for 19 years; not only was this former Marine (who had earned both his BA and MA degrees) just the second African American to be hired as a police officer by the county, but he was president of the St. Louis County Association of Minority Police Officers. Besides his full-time job, Jordan moonlighted as a security guard. Which is what he was doing on the evening of May 16. And when he got off work and arrived home, where his wife Emma Jean was waiting for him, he discovered there was no beer in the fridge, and not much in the way of snacks. So, with his eleven-year-old daughter Rochelle in tow, he went back out the door and headed for the local liquor store.
At the store, they made their purchases and headed out the door. In the parking lot, they encountered Sam McDonald. Sky-high on “T’s and blues” (a heroin substitute), and accompanied by a drugged-up girlfriend (who was waiting for him in the car), Sam was looking for someone to rob, for the money that would provide him with his next stash of drugs. Encountering Robert Jordan, Sam pulled out a gun and demanded that he hand over his wallet. Jordan’s daughter ran back into the store, where she then watched through the window. Robert handed over his wallet, which also held his St. Louis County police badge. Whether Sam actually saw the badge was a matter of dispute at the trial. But we do know that he took the wallet, shot Robert twice in the chest and once in the side, and ran for the car. Dying, Jordan managed to pull out his service revolver and shoot six shots, one of which hit Sam in the side. Obviously showing the effect of the drugs, Sam had his girlfriend drive him to the local VA hospital for treatment. It was there that he was arrested for the murder of Robert Jordan.
A poor African American drug addict who killed a well-respected off-duty police officer in full view of the officer’s young daughter: it is obvious that Sam’s chances in the justice system were bleak. But things were made worse by the fact that the district attorney decided to try this case himself. The normal procedure would be for the DA to give the case to one of his subordinates, but the DA was in the middle of a re-election campaign in which he was promising to get tougher in capital cases. Worse, Sam was assigned an inexperienced and overworked assistant public defender who got into shouting matches with the judge (at one point the judge responded by swiveling his chair around so that his back was to Sam’s attorney). Worst of all, the judge refused to allow testimony regarding the impact of Sam’s Vietnam experiences on his mental and emotional health, even though there was solid evidence that Sam was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. So, it was no great surprise that, on February 22, 1982, Samuel McDonald was sentenced to die by lethal injection . . . the 17th man placed on Missouri’s death row.
Three years later, I sent Sam my first letter. We soon became regular correspondents. I also visited him in the state penitentiary.
But when I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania, I was no longer able to visit him. So, while Sam kept writing, he also began calling, generally on weekends, and generally every other weekend. I know it may seem peculiar, but we spent much of our time laughing and joking and making fun of each other; in fact, if friends were visiting they would often be stunned to learn that I was talking with a man on death row. Sam and I spent a lot of time talking about sports. We were both particularly convinced that we had special insights into football. We had an annual contest to see who could pick the most winners in the college bowl games, with the winner – usually Sam – getting to keep the “traveling crown” that Sam had drawn on typing paper (he sent this to me before he was killed).
But we also talked about conditions in the prison, and the state of his appeals up and down the court system (appeals which focused on the failure of the original trial judge to allow his psychiatric history to be considered at sentencing). We talked about politics, including the Supreme Court (which would consider his final appeal – Sam particularly disliked Clarence Thomas). We talked about God, and church, and the efficacy of prayer. We talked a lot about our families. I commiserated with him when his son – who was only three when Sam went to prison – was caught in the middle of a gang fight, and was shot and paralyzed. Sam commiserated with me when my mother died of cancer. In fact, he was probably more sensitive to my grief than anyone outside my family; a few times he called out of the blue just to see how I was doing.
Much to my surprise, Sam McDonald and I had become very close friends. I had started corresponding with him assuming that I would be the one giving to him. It turned out that I was receiving from him at least as much as he was receiving from me.
In all of this I tried very hard not to think about the fact that the state of Missouri was determined to end Sam’s life. But in the spring of 1997 reality hit. Sam’s appeals had come to an end: the Supreme Court would not stay his execution – that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran with war-induced psychiatric problems was irrelevant – and the governor of Missouri let it be known that he would not grant clemency. My letter pleading for Sam’s life was clearly irrelevant. Sam was given a firm execution date: September 24, 1997.
Sam handled these developments with remarkable grace, but I went into an emotional tailspin, contemplating that my friend was going to be killed. More than this, I started to wonder what sort of friend I was. I had a pretty strong suspicion that Sam wanted me to serve as one of his witnesses to his execution. I was a middle-class white academic who had grown up in the suburbs, and who had never seen anyone die . . . much less seen anyone be killed. So, throughout the summer of 1997 I tried to ignore Sam’ s oblique hints that he wanted me there for him. But when on Labor Day Sam asked me to serve as one of his six “family and friend” witnesses – “I don’t want to die alone, and I need to see you there” – I said yes.
The week before the execution was surreal. I ended up in a minor media vortex, as Missouri newspapers and radio stations apparently had some fascination with the fact that a college professor from Ohio was coming out to witness the execution of a person they clearly considered a “low-life.” I was a novelty act, and I ended up doing a number of phone interviews from my office in UD’s Humanities Building. I liked talking with the newspaper reporters, but the radio folks were annoyingly superficial: one even suggested that I should be happy if Sam’s execution were televised, as I would not then have to drive from Ohio.
The night before his execution, Sam called me to tell me that I would be allowed to visit him at 5 PM, seven hours before his execution. (It turns out that I was the last “civilian” to see Sam). When I arrived at the isolated, fortress-like prison, a guard – who made no effort to disguise the fact that he despised me – led me to Sam. We descended endless flights of stairs into the depths of the prison. This is where the “death cell” is located, where all death-row inmates spend the last two days of life. The guard knocked on the door. It opened, and I walked in.
There was Sam, rumpled and weary-looking, and markedly heavier than when I had last seen him. He was in a tiny cage with a bed, a chair, a toilet and not much else. Instinctively I walked up to the wire fence and put my hand against it. But before Sam could respond a voice behind me barked, “Get away from there!” Alarmed, I looked at Sam, who pointed at the floor: a white line marked off a “no-man’s land” between the rest of humanity and the condemned man’s cage. I backed up behind the line and sat down in one of two chairs bolted to the floor. I noticed for the first time a guard sitting at a desk behind me, clattering away on a very loud typewriter, presumably reporting on what was taking place in the cell (although there was also a video camera recording all). Sam McDonald’s final 48 hours were without privacy, in part to ensure that he did not commit suicide and thus cheat the executioner.
At first I struggled to make conversation with Sam. But in a few minutes, we were talking freely. In some ways, it was no different from our phone conversations. We talked about sports and our families; we had a few laughs; we talked about our friendship. But Sam also talked about himself in ways he never had before. He regretted how he had messed up his life, and he expressed remorse for what he had done. He assured me that he was prepared to die – “things on the other side have to be better than they have been here” – and to face God. For the first time in the 12 years I had known Sam, he was resigned to his impending death.
At 5:58 my angry escort returned to the cell. I stood up. Sam and I said “I love you” to each other. The door opened, and I left the death cell. Soon after I departed, Sam ate his last meal, which included steak, catfish, and eggs. Soon after that, prison authorities began to prepare him for execution.
Six hours later I was being marched to the observation booth for friends and family (in Missouri there are three such booths, with the other two for family of the crime victim, and for state witnesses), in the process being sternly warned by a guard that “there will be no standing, crying out, or knocking on the window.” Just after midnight the guards raised the blinds. There lay Sam, on a gurney with a white sheet up to his neck. He had obviously been told where we would be, as looked only at us. He spoke rapidly, but we could not make out what he was saying. But then, after only a minute or two, the drugs kicked in, Sam shuddered, and then he was still. We were then escorted out, in the process instructed that we could not stop until we were out of the prison. Not even to pray.
I felt filthy, and over the next few days I took 3-4 showers a day. Capital punishment demeans us all. And it does not bring back the victim of the crime.
In that regard, last year I received an email from the son of the man who was killed by Samuel McDonald. He ran across an article I had written about this experience, and felt compelled to write:
I too was at the execution and I prayed for Sam, and his family . . . That experience was traumatic for all involved in every facet. I would love to engage you in conversation one day. I am sure the conversation would be great. God Bless. Robert T Jordan Jr.
I look forward to that conversation.
For a Christian Century article that I published one year after the execution, which is the article I think Robert Jordan Jr. read, see here: “My Friend’s Execution.” While I borrow from this piece for this post, 21 years later I have written something a bit different.
Coincidence #1: The writer Christopher Hitchens was in the state witness booth for Sam’s execution. He wrote about the experience for Vanity Fair.
Coincidence #2: Tonight, there will be a panel discussion here at UD on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law.” See the flier connected with this post.
Creating “Models” to “Confirm” Young Earth Creationism, or, How a Pair of Tortoises Travelled from the Amazon to the Seychelles
by William Trollinger
Young Earth creationism has its own, unusual scientific method. Most scientists will not recognize it as a “scientific method.” Be that as it may, it is a method that is very easily described. As we discuss in the “Science” chapter of Righting America:
- Start with an incontrovertible truth: the earth was created in six, twenty-four-hour days about 6000 years ago, and – about 4300 years ago – there was a global Flood that created the geological strata seen today.
- With this “starting point” (a crucial phrase—given their larger rhetorical strategy—at the Creation Museum), create a model that “confirms” these truths, and plug in the appropriate “observational science” (another crucial phrase in the rhetoric of the Creation Museum) into the model.
- If the observational science does not fit the model, and/or if the model fails to confirm a young Earth and the global flood, then it is time to redo the observational science and/or the model.
- Here’s the bottom line: “Under no circumstances may observational science lead a young Earth creation scientist to raise questions about the truth of a twenty-four hour, six-day creation or a global flood.” (96)
It is all really simple. Create models to confirm what you already know. Anyone can do it. You don’t need much, or any, scientific knowledge to do so.
Take, for example, the question of how animals departed from the Ark and disseminated across the Earth very quickly (they had to, given that – according to young Earth creationism – the global flood took place so recently). To explain how this happened, the Creation Museum posits the “biogeographical rafting model”:
When the Flood destroyed the world’s forests, it must have left billions of trees floating for centuries on the oceans. These log mats served as ready-made rafts for animals to cross oceans (97-98).
The museum then offers maps designed to describe how this took place. One shows a few rhinoceros on log rafts, with arrows indicating that they crossed the Indian Ocean on these rafts to either southern Asia or southern Africa.
How those rhinoceros managed to get on a log mat and, even more, survive the voyage across the Indian Ocean is not suggested. Nor is any explanation given for why a rhinoceros would get on a log mat in the Indian Ocean in the first place (98).
But even more perplexing is the map that explains the distribution of two Geochelone (or giant) tortoises. As indicated on this map, these tortoises journeyed on land from the Amazon basin to the west coast of South America, where they boarded one of the billions of available log mats. The map then uses arrows to indicate the aquatic journey of these tortoises: from South America they journey to the Galapagos; from the Galapagos they then head out across the Pacific Ocean; after negotiating the waters between New Guinea and Australia, they proceed across the Indian Ocean; and then, just before they reach the east coast of Africa, they take a northward turn to the Seychelles Islands.
As presented at the Creation Museum, the story of the traveling tortoises is but one example of how the “biogeographical rafting model” confirms the young Earth and global flood.
Really? For starters, Geocholone tortoises do not and never did live in the Amazon basin. Leaving aside this point, the “model” presents a pair of tortoises who crossed 700 miles of land and then 14,600 miles (a conservative estimate) of sea, who successfully managed the variable current systems in the Indian Ocean, and who survived for years on log mats in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (for that is how long it would take them to get from the Galapagos to the Seychelles). As we put it in Righting America:
It may be that one can observe big tortoises that appear to resemble one another in the Amazon basin and the Galapagos and Seychelles Islands. It may be that one can draw arrows on a map from point A to point B to point C. But does it really make sense to imagine that a couple of tortoises made this trek from the Amazon basin to the west coast of South America, then to the Galapagos, and then across the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? Indeed, in what sense does the so-called observational science presented in conjunction with the “biogeographical rafting model” confirm anything, much less a global flood? (101).
Harry F. Sanders III and Troy Lacey would beg to disagree. In their recent Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, “Floating Log Rafts: A Model for Post-Flood Biogeography,” they go after those (like the authors of Righting America) who find the biogeographical rafting model preposterous. In response to critics like ourselves, Sanders and Lacey assert that “the biogeographic importance of log and vegetation mats is slowly gaining popularity, even in the mainstream scientific community,” which makes sense, given that “oysters, in particular, colonize the bottoms of boats even today.” And while
it may be frustrating to see ‘millions of years’ and ‘evolution’ appear in these papers, it is encouraging to see that creationist ideas, which were once scoffed at, are now being posited in mainstream scientific papers as legitimate and better explanatory concepts than previous evolutionary models.
Once again, really? For one thing, the Creation Museum is making the argument for the “biogeographical rafting model” not just for oysters latching onto the bottom of log mats, but for rhinoceros and giant tortoises and, in fact, for large animals of all sorts. For another, and more important, the notion of “millions of years” – which Sanders and Lacey breezily dismiss – is all important. Young Earth creationists do not have the luxury of animals very gradually dispersing across the globe. Given that they claim that all animals then in existence on the planet came out of the Ark somewhere in the Middle East 4300 years ago, they need animals to move across thousands and thousands of miles over land and over sea in an extraordinarily short period of time. For their young Earth argument to work, they have to have animals that traverse the globe at almost breakneck speed. Contrary to what Sanders and Lacey suggest, time is not irrelevant. It is the crucial variable.
And who are Sanders and Lacey? They write on all sorts of topics for AiG, from science to Bible. While AiG goes on at great length about its writers who have some level of academic, especially scientific, expertise, and while they provide biographical sketches of many of their contributors, there is nothing on the AiG website about Sanders and Lacey. Interestingly, Sarah Olson – who found nothing “scientifically sound” in Sanders’ writings – was also “unable to find information about Sanders or his credentials and experience,” which led her to suggest that “perhaps he simply hasn’t any.”
But the science created and the evidence mobilized on behalf of the “biogeographical rafting model” really isn’t the point. Instead, the point of these models is (as we suggest in Righting America) to confirm AiG’s particular young Earth creationist interpretation (there are and have been others) of the opening books of Genesis, regardless of what science and scientists might say to the contrary.
Then why bother with the science? And why be concerned with anyone’s expertise?
by William Trollinger
At its most basic level, history involves (as one of my mentors, Paul Conkin, used to say) trying to tell true stories about the past. This is much harder than it might seem, in part because history is not a neat and linear story of progress, but is, instead, a jumbled mix of the contingent, with contrary events and movements occurring very near to each other in time and space.
So, how does one tell a true story about the 1960s, given all of the different stories, given all the contradictions, contained in that decade? All of this comes home at a remarkable exhibition that has just opened as part of the first annual Cleveland Photo Fest. Here is photographer Richard Margolis’ description of his show:
Upheaval is an exhibition of contemporary prints from film that’s half a century old. These are new photographs, not just new copies, but new kinds of prints from existing negatives, many never before printed. This show includes a small slice of photographs mostly from two subjects: Ku Klux Klan rallies photographed in 1965 & 1966, and anti-war rallies at Kent State University in 1970. They may seem unrelated, but they were only 45 miles and 4 years apart, and other than the hair styles and clothing, they could be from today’s news. To me that is the power of these photographs.
On Sunday Sue and I had the privilege of attending the show’s opening reception at the charming little Images Photographic Art Gallery in Lakewood, Ohio. While readers can get some sense of the power of Margolis’ photographs from the photos included here, there is no substitute for seeing the physical photos. And these photographs are particularly powerful put into this one small space. Here we have very human Klansmen and very human antiwar protesters, articulating radically different visions of what America should be, and just a few miles and years apart. It’s jarring, overwhelming, and true.
It was great to talk with the charming Richard Margolis, as well as the three organizers of the Photo Fest. But it had not dawned on us that there would be people at the reception who had been students at Kent State and on campus on May 04, 1970, the day that National Guardsmen shot thirteen unarmed students (four of whom died). These former Kent undergraduates talked about tanks in the streets of Kent, merchants who threatened to shoot students, and the horror they felt as they heard the shots on May 04. One woman, who still lives in Kent, told us she has deliberately chosen to be out of the county when the 50th anniversary comes around next year. To be in town on that day would just be too much.
And as a nation, we are not done coming to terms with the 1960s.
Richard Margolis’ “Upheaval” will be at Images until October 12. It is worth going out of your way to visit.
by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary and interim senior minister at First Baptist Ottawa, Kansas. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
Back in 1985, a band called Jefferson Starship, belted out a song, “We built this city on rock and roll.” I have always liked the song. It reminds me of another song in the Bible that claims God built this planet on rock. And that rock has quite an ancient story to tell. In fact, the rocks have been here for more than four billion years.
But about 80 million evangelicals, with their lips pressed flat against Judgment Day, swear on a stack of King James Bibles that the Earth is only about 8,000 years old. This is known as young Earth creationism. So it is that there are ongoing attempts to teach scientific creationism or its cousin, intelligent design, in high school biology classes. The courts, even in Southern “Bible Belt” states, have always unmasked these attempts as a sneaky way to teach a particular kind of evangelical theology in science classes.
When the dominant dualism of our time insists that we must choose between a young Earth embraced theologically, or an old Earth embraced without belief in God, many of us are left out. Thank God we don’t have to choose between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists. I believe that we and the world are God’s good creation, and I believe she took her own sweet time creating the world. Creationists are right to question the atheistic, materialistic views of some scientists. Those views are not scientific; they are theological. Creationists are right to insist that viewing the world “scientifically” is only one point of view.
That said, it is not necessary to dispute the findings of science on the basis of some scientists’ theology. Rather than fight the scientists over science, why can’t Christians maintain the prophetic, poetic rhetoric (analogy, symbols, metaphor) that has long been our preferred method of truth claiming? For example, St. Paul tells us that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.” All creation longs for the revealing of the children of God – rocks, plains, mountains, trees, cats, dogs, armadillos, weeds, and even us – who are longing for God’s redemption.
Yes, I would rather praise the Lord among the rocks along the road than in places where creation is bundled and hawked as a freak show of the impossible. The psalmist seems to agree: Praise the Lord, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! In Luke 19, Jesus says that if his people stopped praising God, the rocks would cry out! Let the rocks cry! Let the rocks praise!
I find it mildly amusing that in Boone County Kentucky there are rock formations that are part of a famous formation called the “Cincinnatian” that contains some of the richest fossil beds in the world. These fossils date from a half-billion-year-old geological epoch called the Ordovician. Tens of millions of years of geological history lie exposed in these layers – chapters in the four-and-one-half-billion-year story of life on this planet.
Here’s what makes this amusing: Many people driving along Highway 20 in Kentucky are oblivious to the rock formations because they are on their way to a tourist site known as the Creation Museum. At the museum they will be told that the Earth is only about 8,000 years old. The rocks on the side of the road to the Creation Museum cry out to the glory of God’s creation. If the tourists stopped and dug among the layers of earth, they would discover fossils of trilobites, shellfish, and other ancient and extinct life forms – all continuing to give praise to God’s creative power.
But who has time for testimony from God’s ancient creation when there’s a fundamentalist tourist site just around the next curve promising to regale you with tales of an Earth that just showed up a few thousand years ago?
The rocks tell a more biblical, more truthful, more accurate story. The story at the Creation Museum is unfaithful to Scripture, misleading, and unscientific. If evangelical Christians can be this wrong on creation, perhaps we should ask if they are insisting on other questionable ideas that are just as far-fetched as young Earth creationism.