by William Trollinger
Saturday we attended the wedding of the daughter of dear friends of ours. It was a beautiful autumnal outdoor ceremony. And at the reception we toasted the happy couple, chatted with other close friends, and danced in celebration.
But in those moments when I was waiting for the ceremony to begin, and when I was standing in line for a glass of wine, and when the conversations at the reception lagged, I found myself thinking about the night exactly 25 years before.
Just after midnight on September 24, 1997, I was 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 a “Bible-believing” church led me to dissent from my family and church, as my reading of the Gospels convinced me 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).
In my teenage 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 then, 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 92 individuals, ranking #5 among states that kill (behind Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas, the latter state having executed 575 individuals in the past 43 years).
Having completed my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1984 I accepted a teaching position at the School (now College) of the Ozarks, near Branson, Missouri. Now in a death penalty state, I felt I needed to do something. But I was not aiming to be heroic. What I settled upon was corresponding with someone on Missouri’s death row. I contacted the Death Row Support Project (which is under the auspices of the Church of the Brethren) 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 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 heroin, and without anything in the way of adequate medical and psychiatric support. Over the next decade, he lived the life of a petty criminal.
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 drove to the local liquor store.
At the store, they made their purchases and headed out the door. In the parking lot, they encountered Sam. 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 and 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, and this provided him a great political opportunity. 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 cut out on typing paper (and sent to me before he was killed).
But in our conversations 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.
All this to say that, much to my surprise, Sam McDonald and I became 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. The governor of Missouri was adamant that he would not grant clemency; my letter pleading for Sam’s life could not have been more 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, as I grappled with the fact 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.
Then, 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 the University of Dayton’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. The guard who had yelled at me sat at a desk behind me, clattering away on a very loud typewriter, presumably reporting on what was being said 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, of 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). We were 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. And then, after only a minute or two, the drugs kicked in, Sam shuddered, and then 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.
Note: This is a revised version of my September 24, 2019 blog post. Also: the writer Christopher Hitchens happened to be in the state witness booth for Sam’s execution. He wrote about this experience for Vanity Fair.
by William Trollinger
Last Friday a reporter visited my office to interview me about the KKK in 1920s Ohio. He came here having just visited Ark Encounter, and so I naturally asked him for his impression of Ken Ham’s big boat. His response: “A monument to stupid.”
So it seems fair to ask the question: Do we really need another huge temple to the idea that the Earth was created around 6,000 years ago? I ask because it appears that the Answers in Genesis (AiG) tourist sites – the Ark and the Creation Museum – are about to get some major young-Earth-creationist competition. And it will be located less than five hours south of the Ark.
As we have noted here many times before, AiG – in an effort to secure financial support for the building of the Ark – sold the little town of Williamstown (KY) on the idea that they would attract at least 1.2 million of visitors in the first year of operation, and that there would be an annual attendance increase of 7% for the next decade.
And the sales job worked. In hopes that the flood of visitors would revive their economically shaky (to say the least) town, Williamstown floated $62m in junk bonds to enable AiG to build the Ark. What made this deal particularly sweet for AiG is that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes instead has gone to paying off the bonds. (Talk about a government subsidy!)
Well, Ark attendance has fallen far, far short of its projections. It has never reached the 1.2 million mark that was projected for year one. And while, according to AiG’s own projections, 2022 should see 1.8 million people pouring into the Ark, as of August 31 (that is, after the end of the summer tourist season) there had only been 528,105 visitors to the giant, non-seaworthy boat. (Thanks to the City of Williamstown and Dan Phelps for these numbers). And as was made clear in the terrific documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, Williamstown has definitely not reaped the economic benefits they hoped for in floating the bonds and foregoing the property taxes.
And very soon now, the AiG tourist sites will face a new challenge.
The David Rives Ministries describes itself as “the most trusted name in Biblical scientific research” (would AiG agree with this statement?) providing “true facts” to counter “atheists” who use “evolutionary theories” to “claim they have refuted the Bible’s accuracy.” And Rives does seem to be everywhere in the land of young Earth creationist media, with his (to give just a few examples):
- Genesis Science Network, which “airs to millions globally”
- Creation in the 21st Century, which airs weekly on the Trinity Broadcasting Network
- The Creation Club magazine, distributed bimonthly
- Genesis Science Minute, a daily radio feature
- Changing the Narrative, a weekly podcast
- Secrets Beyond the Rim, a documentary on the Grand Canyon as a product of the Flood as described in Genesis 6-8
But now, the David Rives Ministries are moving beyond media. The organization has purchased the more than 100,000 square foot Renaissance Center (Dickson, TN) from Freed-Hardeman University, and is in the process of transforming it into a tourist site. According to Rives,
upon opening [in 2023] The Wonders Center & Science Museum will be the largest science museum in the world that upholds biblical values . . . Plans . . . include replicas of life-size dinosaurs, hands-on experiments for children, space-themed exhibits, and a rare historical collection of artifacts, including ancient Bible scrolls . . . [plus] an incredible 140-seat Planetarium [that] will allow visitors to experience the cosmos in real-time as well as view shows with groundbreaking visual effect.
Wow. Sounds a lot like the Creation Museum, only bigger.
Now, let’s be clear. At Rives’ Creation Superstore, described as the “World’s Largest Origins-Related Store” (Rives definitely has an affinity for hyperbole), books and DVDs by Ken Ham and other AiG folks are for sale. Put another way, AiG and the David Rives Ministries are clearly on the same team.
That said, one has to wonder what The Wonders Center & Science Museum means for the AiG tourist sites. Will it negatively affect Creation Museum attendance? Will Ark Encounter fall even further short of AiG’s attendance projections?
Or will this new museum inspire visitors to hop in their cars to make the five hour trek northward to visit Ken Ham’s monuments to a young universe?
We shall see.
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, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
Bill Nye, the science guy, has a new Peacock TV series, entitled “The End is Nye.” The series examines “the mystery and reality of such threats as viruses, volcanoes, asteroids, authoritarianism, climate change, and chemical warfare.”
The revelation that science was going apocalyptic stunned my evangelically trained ears and mind. You can’t have 18 years of evangelical Sunday school classes and King James Version Bible reading in your system and not gulp when someone says, “The end is nigh!”
“The End is Nye” is a very clever title. But this is more than clever programming, as it builds on almost two centuries worth of doom-and-gloom preachers telling us the end is nigh.
The King James Version word that the end of time is “nigh”, and the television program is “The End is Nye.” Clever. But this is more than clever programming. We have had almost two centuries worth of doom-and-gloom preachers telling us that the end is nigh. These preachers love to quote Jesus from Matthew 24:33 – 37: Jesus says,
Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Robert Jeffress, in Countdown to the Apocalypse, makes much of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. According to Jeffress, “Jesus gave a detailed outline of the end times of his return.” While Jeffress criticizes those preachers who have predicted the exact time of Jesus’ return, he too is unable to completely distance himself from the allure of making a prediction:
I am more convinced than ever that we are living in the period the Bible calls “the last days.’” If that is true, then we may be the generation that sees the Second Coming of Christ.
There’s an eerie connection between Jeffress and his certainty about the end of time, and the scientific analysis of the approaching end. Both sides are apocalyptic but have different understandings of what apocalyptic means.
The details of the rapture/tribulation/second coming of Christ/millennial reign/final judgment are well-known and endlessly repeated in evangelical sermons and books. Suffice to say here that Jeffress is “pre-trib” (Christ will return in the air to rescue all true Christians, an event followed by seven years of tribulation) and “pre-mill” (after the tribulation Christ will return to Earth with the army of saints to slaughter the non-believers, after which he will establish the millennium on Earth.
Jeffress also believes the second coming will happen in his lifetime. (Ironically, he is 66 years old, a number he probably never mentions since 666 is the alleged “mark of the beast” in Revelation.) If Rev. Jeffress lives to be 96, he is telling us that Jesus will return at some point in the next 30 years.
The evangelical apocalyptic plan insists that the apocalypse is God’s doing. Jesus is coming back to make things right. Jesus is returning to make sure that those who have it coming are finally going to get it. The end becomes a violent act of divine revenge, a planetary genocide.
Into this melodramatic fiction of a God-caused apocalypse, science bravely offers an alternative plot. I don’t always trust scientists when they venture into the briar patch of theology, but I respect their dogged pursuit of truth.
While the idea that science and religion are at war is a fiction, the reality is that science has frequently disagreed with the evangelical take on the world. For the past two centuries or so the center of the dispute has involved the scientific consensus that the universe is billions of years old. Many evangelicals have responded by arguing that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Evolution, for evangelicals, like Ken Ham, is a lie of the devil, and evidence for the age of the universe is dismissed as unbiblical, unchristian, and dangerous.
Visitors to the Creation Museum travel on Kentucky Route 20 to arrive at Ken Ham’s monument to young Earth creationism. This highway cuts through part of a famous rock formation known as the ‘Cincinnatian’ that contains some of the richest fossil beds in the world. In other words, visitors to the museum pass through the road of evidence and truth about the age of the Earth in order to pay a lot of money to see a false idol attesting to a young earth. It seems that evangelicals prefer shouting, “The evidence be damned” to being damned by the evidence.
Science has never faltered, fumbled, nor failed in dismissing the pseudo-arguments of creationists. At the same time, creationists have continued to fire back at science without any success except in the alternate universe of evangelicals determined to believe whatever they like despite the facts. For several years in the late 20th century, creationists attempted, in lawsuits, to insert the teaching of Intelligent Design into biology textbooks. An impressive array of our best scientists testified in state courts across the country to the validity of evolution and the “nothingness” of Intelligent Design. Like people predicting the rapture, creationists became members of the 100% wrong club. They lost every case because the truth has always been that Intelligent Design is a religious theory and not a science of any kind.
Science, then, is no stranger to disputing the false claims of evangelical Christians. From the Scopes Monkey Trial to the most recent case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, science has prevailed. Professor Kenneth Miller, biology textbook co-author, and cell biologist, testified in many of the court cases brought by creationists. He says, “In almost every respect Darwin did get it right. The very ground on which we stand is eloquent testament to the age of this planet.”
For evangelicals, there is no retreat from the daily pounding they take from science. There is no acceptance of truth, facts, or reality. When science, in its relentless pursuit of truth, discovers new evidence, creationists dispute the evidence – including the fact that the recent drought in the Southwest has revealed dinosaur footprints dating back over 113 million years – and cling to a literal reading of Genesis and a nonsensical creation “science.”
The Creation Museum obsesses about dinosaurs even though there would not have been room on the Ark for these ancient creatures. Ironic that dinosaurs are supposed to be evidence of a literal creation, but virtually all – in their telling – are destroyed in the Flood despite not ever being guilty of anything other than being created by God. The dinosaur ruse attempts to cover how evangelicals refuse to accept scientific facts, truth, reality.
Faced with the scientific consensus that climate change is the most dangerous reality humanity has ever faced, evangelicals have chosen to take the same approach that they take to creation. Already battle-tested in the battle over how the universe began, evangelicals appropriate these arguments and apply them to how the earth will end. They insist that God created the earth in six literal days, and that God will destroy the earth at the end of time. They seem unfazed that the god of their version of the beginning and the end appears to be a capricious, meddling, bad-tempered god with more in common with the gods of the Greeks and the Romans than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the Creation Museum, Mr. Ham has recently added Jesus exhibit, but it is the militant, military, wrathful rapture Jesus that is celebrated. It’s the same old apocalyptic fear-mongering.
Apocalypse in both evangelical and scientific variations posits an impending catastrophe, a prophetic burst of signage, and a promise of salvation. On the evangelical side, there is the promise of divine intervention that will save the true believer and condemn the rest to eternal flames. On the scientific side, there is the inevitable collapse of civilization consistent with widespread destruction caused by human beings. In the book of Revelation, evangelicals point to the four horsemen of the apocalypse as pestilence, war, famine, and death. In the world of climate change science, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are nuclear winter, global warming, economic collapse, and pandemics.
The evangelicals can’t be trusted in the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. The scientific reading tells us the truth that we still have time to change. That is, the End is nigh (or Nye), but it can be different. Stewardship, environmentalism, and an array of steps to change our greedy, self-destructive ways are all within our grasp.
A character in an Allan Gurganus story engages an angel in her backyard. The angel has fallen from the sky and injured one of his wings. The old woman gives the angel warm milk. She gets the impression that the angel, in gratitude for her hospitality, wants to take her back to heaven with him. Gurganus describes the moment: “She presses both palms flat to dirt, says, ‘The house is finally paid off – Not just yet,’ and smiles.”
With a smile, a wink, and a nod to my evangelical brothers and sisters, “Not just yet.” We have a planet to save one planted tree, one removed piece of plastic, and one responsible habit at a time. The end may be nigh/Nye, but not just yet.
Daniel Phelps, Strimple Award Winner: Fighting the Good Fight on Behalf of Science, Reason, and the Separation of Church and State v. Young Earth Creationism
Daniel Phelps is a retired environmental geologist for the commonwealth of Kentucky. He has also taught part-time in Kentucky’s Community College system. Phelps is founder and president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society. His work to expose the pseudoscience behind Ham’s Ark Encounter was featured in the award-winning 2019 documentary, “We Believe in Dinosaurs.”
In 2021 the Paleontological Society – the world’s leading scientific organization devoted to studying invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, micropaleontology, and paleobotany – awarded Phelps the prestigious Strimple Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in paleontology by someone who does not make a full-time living from paleontology. The following is Phelps’ response to having received this award. Here’s the original response, which appeared in the Journal of Paleontology, along with Dr. Colin Sumrall’s comments in presenting this award.
I want to thank Colin Sumrall for nominating me for this prestigious award and the wonderful people who wrote letters in support of the nomination.
The Kentucky Paleontological Society (KPS), like similar organizations, has done a number of public outreach activities. We have monthly lectures on paleontology and field trips. We put on fossil displays at science fairs and regional libraries, and members give talks to school groups. The KPS has had many people active in it over the decades. These include Rick Schrantz, Ann Watson, Jerri Higginbotham, George Weems, Judy Lundquist, Susan Miller, Jozsef Gal, Richard Smath, David Fine, Jack Moody, and many others. Drs. Donald Chesnut and Frank Ettensohn have served as scientific advisors to the Kentucky Paleontological Society since its founding.
Kentucky lacks a natural history museum. Thus, I’ve supported the Cincinnati Museum Center whenever possible and donated numerous specimens.
Science does not exist in a vacuum. Our culture has an unfortunate streak of anti-intellectualism and science is often the target of movements that disagree with its findings. Besides generating new ideas, scientists have an obligation to be part of the culture they live in. Thus, since the 1980s, when creationists attempted to get “equal time” in my hometown’s schools, I’ve been opposing creationism in Kentucky.
By 2013, I co-founded Kentuckians for Science education, a group that supported implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) into Kentucky’s schools. These standards engendered much opposition, mostly from creationists and climate change deniers, who have considerable political backing in the state at the highest levels of government. The hearings for the standards were a circus, but we eventually prevailed and science education in Kentucky improved.
The NGSS comes up for review late in 2022, and at least one state Senator on the Education Committee has voiced opposition to the standards. This individual has also proposed anti-vaccination and anti-mask legislation. We have a tough battle ahead.
Kentucky is a beautiful place with many positive aspects, especially our bourbon and racehorses. Alas, our universities are known more for athletics rather than their excellent academics. Unfortunately, Kentucky has also become known for two creationist museums, both owned by the same ministry.
The Creation Museum opened in 2007 and depicts dinosaurs living in the Garden of Eden and as being responsible for legends of fire-breathing dragons. I have been involved in many disputes over the influence the organization behind the “museum” has in the state.
One important dispute was when Kentucky’s Tourism Commission granted $18.25 million in tax incentives so the Ark Encounter could be built. Although the Ark discriminates in hiring based on religion, sexuality, and other criteria, they applied for state government tax incentives. They also received numerous local tax breaks, land, cash, and a $62 million bond sponsorship from the adjacent small town. Even though the Ark Encounter eventually won the state tax incentives after a Federal lawsuit, I did what I could.
The Ark has displays depicting dinosaurs, giants, and humans in a three-way death match. They also have an “arkload” of misinformation about geology, paleontology, climate change, and other scientific and historical subjects in the Ark-shaped building.
As paleontologists and earth scientists, we have an obligation not only to do research, but to go outside of that and teach everyone about our science and what constitutes science. Sometimes, we must force ourselves to be activists. We can also lead by example and demonstrate the values that all people should share. Living during the coronavirus pandemic is a powerful reminder of the importance of the public understanding scientific thought. Paleontology should be at least one gateway to understanding how science works.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to the Paleontological Society for this award. This is a true honor.
by Paul Braterman
Editor’s Note: Below is Dr. Paul Braterman’s review of Righting America at the Creation Museum. For us, the best part of this generous review is that Braterman covers and understands all parts of our argument. More than this, we appreciate his scientific interventions, and we absolutely agree that we should have included Henry Morris’ biblical racism in our book.
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 perusuade 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.
Science And Politics At The Creation Museum
Originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily.
Do we really need 230 pages of at times closely argued text, followed by 70 pages of footnotes, just to tell us about Kentucky’s intellectually bankrupt Creation Museum and the authoritarian organisation, Answers in Genesis, that brings it to us? The answer, I fear, is yes.
For instance, this book will tell you that Ebenezer the Allosaurus, prize exhibit at Answers in Genesis’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, was donated by the Peroutka Foundation. It will also tell you that Michael Peroutka, in a 2013 speech still available on youtube, states that government schools indoctrinate children away from Christian ideas (a theme that recurs throughout this book), and that this is what they were designed to do. The book also points out that he served on the Board of Directors of the League of the South, whose chairman had defined southern people as white. I recently learned that Peroutka is the official Republican Party candidate for the post of attorney general of the State of Maryland in the November 2022 elections. We had better pay attention.
There is no shortage of books refuting antiscientific creationism, but this volume nonetheless manages to find many new and important things to say about the subject, as manifested at the Museum. Susan Trollinger is an Associate Professor (now Professor) of English at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, while William is Professor of History at the same university, and author of God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Both are committed Christians and critical Catholics. Thus they are unusually well-placed to analyse the rhetorical devices, the historical roots, and the theological assumptions and moral universe of the Museum, and its parent organisation, Answers in Genesis. On their blog, they have applied much the same critique to the Museum’s sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, which was under construction when this book went to press and features here in an epilogue.
I have been watching Answers in Genesis myself for some time, and my own additional comments here are in [brackets].
We already have abundant material rebutting creationism on scientific grounds, but the Trollingers explicitly refrain from discussing the science. What they do instead is much more interesting. In an extended and detailed analysis, they apply the Museum’s own criteria to the Museum’s own display. It does not fare well.
We start with a short history of creationism, including the events leading up to the formation of Answers in Genesis (henceforth AiG),1 and an account of that organisation’s other activities and prolific outpourings. The Museum itself had topped a total of 2 million visitors by 2015, and claims that the average visitor has a college or advanced degree. There is much more about AiG’s extended campaigns and their political implications in the last chapter of the book, and I would have welcomed clearer signalling of this early on, to avoid the risk of burying the lede. I would also have liked to be told more about the deep connections, going back a century, between US creationism and right-wing politics, a subject on which one of the authors is an expert. Relatedly, I regret that AiG’s repeated denial of the importance of human-caused global warming is barely mentioned, not only because of the importance of the topic but because it illustrates how committed AiG is to the use of the Bible in forwarding the American Right’s political agenda. However, these criticisms serve only to underline the book’s ongoing importance.
As the book points out, all museums are rhetorical devices. Modern2 Natural History museums emerged from the private collections of cabinets of curiosities as part of the democratising and educational efforts of the late 19th-century. Their function was not merely to display, but to educate, and convey a sense of scientific mastery. Dioramas were used to impart a sense of immediacy, while simultaneously imposing one particular view of the world; typically, male animals would dominate the scene, with smaller females playing a lesser role. Dioramas also impart a spurious sense of objectivity, since visitors see with their own eyes, without being aware that what they are seeing is a highly edited version of reality. The museum further conveys its message, by leading visitors through numbered rooms in a particular order, in order to enhance its narrative.
Contemporary2 museums have come to challenge this top-down narrative. Current educational thinking requires visitors to be free to examine objects in their own way, in their own chosen order, and often with hands-on exhibits, in order to construct their own personal narratives. The goal is to make the visitor an active partner in the creation of knowledge, rather than its passive recipient.
The Creation Museum has all the trappings of a contemporary museum. It is technically sophisticated, with sound effects accompanying dioramas, animatronic human and dinosaur figures, and special effects including a movie theatre with seats that shake. Moreover, it claims to be offering visitors their own free choice between its own Young Earth evolution denial, and mainstream science. This claim is reinforced by one of the early dioramas, in which two men are shown excavating a dinosaur skeleton. A narrator tells us that one of these is an evolutionist and the other a creationist, but that both are scientists. This claim is central to the AiG version of creationism, which argues that biblical and evolutionist perspectives are equally valid. The next room reiterates the same point, proclaiming “Same Facts, but Different Views… Why?”, explicitly asking visitors to choose between God’s Word and “their own arbitrary philosophy”. Ken Ham, founder and CEO of AiG, and his son-in-law Bodie Hodge, have in interviews both stressed the claim that they “give both sides”.
A good-faith discussion of such a choice would require an evenhanded depiction of the two contrasting worldviews, but this is not what happens. Instead, as the book enumerates, we have a sequence of displays presenting Young Earth creationism, claiming the authority of biblical figures, and speaking of a culture in crisis as the wrecking ball of “Millions of Years” destroys the foundation of the church (that last image occurs repeatedly in AiG publications). We are shown a peaceful Eden, with humans (just two of them, of course) and dinosaurs peacefully coexisting, until T. rex is transformed into a fearsome predator by the Fall, which allows Death into the world. We have animatronic scenes from the building of the Ark, and an exposition of Flood geology with the Flood responsible for the breakup of the continents and the formation of their features, and also for subsequent cooling (in their publications, AiG does admit the existence of one Ice Age). This, visitors are told, led to the formation by natural selection of today’s diversity of species from the smaller number of kinds present in the Ark (in AiG’s private language, such natural selection does not count as “evolution”). At various points there are photographs, videos, and displays showing the wonders of nature, to prove that “there has to be a powerful Intelligence behind the universe.” Evolution is indeed presented, or rather misrepresented, in such a way as not to be believed, an approach that is also advocated on the AiG website and elsewhere.
The Museum’s own account of past, present, and future is embodied in the 7 Cs of Creation, Corruption (the Fall), Catastrophe (the Flood), Confusion (Tower of Babel), Christ, the Cross, and Consummation (when Earth will be restored to the perfection it had had before the Fall). Running through all of this, we have the recurring theme of human disobedience to God’s word, bringing down His punishment. Our present social problems are manifestations of this disobedience, as is the acceptance of evolution by compromising churches. The visitor moves along a predetermined path illustrating this narrative, with a simple clear overarching message of salvation for the faithful, and well-deserved damnation for the rest. As in the days of Noah, so today. The presentation and trappings of the Museum belong to the 21st century, but its authoritarian top-down control of movement and message places it firmly in an older era.
This is particularly clear in the Voyage of the Ark room, which shows the misery of those trapped by rising waters, from the perspective of the saved. The message is clear. Go through the open door and be saved, or it will be shut on you and misery and death will follow. As other exhibits make clear, a direct analogy is being drawn between the wickedness of the Flood generation and the moral depravity of our own times. The visitor has two clear options; to accept God’s word, or to stand among those condemned.
Here as elsewhere, the Bible itself is massaged, manipulated, and misquoted. Crucially for AiG’s theodicy, we are told that drowned humanity had ignored Noah’s warnings, and thus lost the chance to enter the Ark with him, but biblically there was no such chance and no warning. We are shown an animatronic Methuselah telling us how Noah attempted to warn the people, but there is no reference to any such thing in Genesis. Noah is described as a preacher, although there is no biblical basis for this either. There are even textual changes; in Genesis 11:2, “They journeyed from the East” becomes “They moved down from the mountains of Ararat”, to impose AiG’s smoothed out Flood-to-Babel narrative. There are also some strange interpretations. For example, in Genesis 3, the ground brings forth thorns as part of Adam’s punishment, therefore thorns were created during the lifetime of humanity. But we find thorns alongside dinosaurs in the fossil record. Therefore dinosaurs must have coexisted with humans. And since creation was “very good”, death could not have existed before the Fall, therefore all these dinosaurs were originally vegetarians.
A Natural History museum is rich in actual objects, such as fossils or stuffed animals. The Creation Museum is much poorer in actual objects, but derives its emotional impact from meticulously detailed dioramas, allowing us peepholes into the worlds of Adam and Eve or Noah. The real subject matter of the Museum is, then, not creation as a whole, but Genesis 1 – 11, treated as actual history.
Next, the book discusses AiG’s central claim to be presenting science. The core argument here is based on a distinction between “observational science”, which depends on repeatable experiments, and “historical science”, which according to Ham lacks any such secure foundation, since the past is not repeatable and the attempt to discover it therefore depends on unverifiable assumptions. This same argument occurs ad nauseam throughout the whole of AiG’s output, and is implicit in the presentation and objects in the Museum. Placards repeatedly state (emphasis in originals) “The evidence is in the present. But what happened in the past?”
It is not difficult to show (I have done so myself) that the elevation of observational over historical science is so much pseudophilosophical twaddle. But again, this book follows the more interesting path of applying the Museum’s criteria to its own exhibits.
If the only kind of science with objective weight is observational science, that is what the Museum should be presenting. But where is it? AiG claims that such evidence is to be found in the Museum’s planetarium, and in the rooms dedicated to the Wonders of Creation, and the presentation of Flood Geology. This book examines those claims, and finds them wanting. The planetarium tells us of the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, but even if this is taken as evidence of a Creator, that is no proof of a biblical God, let alone a recent six-day creation. Blue stars, we are told, cannot last for billions of years (true), therefore the universe cannot be billions of years old (false; the very same science that tells us that such stars cannot last also tells us that they are continually being generated). The planetarium also speaks of unspecified theoretical problems, and claims that star formation has never been observed. These are not convincing arguments.3
Of 38 placards in the Flood Geology room, 15 represent theoretical models of past events, and are thus, by the Museum’s criteria, not science at all. However, 26 placards to display some kind of scientific information. But much of that information is merely historical science. The Mt. St Helens eruption, 1980, is presented as a model of rapid catastrophic change, but all the data here are firmly in the past and unrepeatable. There is genuine observational science describing for example blind cave fish, but arguing (more historical science!) that these represent adaptation through loss of genetic information. It is implied without any justification that all adaptation is of this kind, and the diversity of species is then explained away in terms of such adaptation. Thus all canids (dogs, wolves, jackals, foxes etc) have been adapted by information loss from an original created canid “kind”. This concept of a kind is crucial to flood geology, in order to explain how the ancestors of all existing animals could have been squeezed into the Ark.
We share in the authors’ glee when they point out how thoroughly one of the Museum’s prize examples violates the Museum’s own logic. This is the skeleton of the Allosaurus nicknamed Ebenezer, who, we are told, was drowned, and his body then swept away among sedimentary debris, quickly buried lying on his left side, and rapidly fossilised. But none of this is observational science. Even the fact that the skeleton was buried on his left side is strictly speaking historical science, since it has now been moved, so that the observation cannot be repeated. No one has ever observed the rapid fossilisation of a skeleton, so that’s not observational science either, there is no evidence that the Allosaurus drowned, and the idea that sedimentary debris would be swept along by a current of water is exactly the kind of extrapolation from present to past that AiG is fundamentally opposed to.
The Museum also relies heavily on the word “suggests”. For example, we are told that the fact that the Coconino Sandstone is several hundred feet thick “suggests rapid, thick deposition.” Why should it, when we are later told that thin layers also “suggest” rapid processes? [Actual examination of the sandstone suggest no such thing, since it shows every sign of gradual wind-driven deposition with very occasional rainfall, including round pitted grains, cross-bedding, ripple marks, drying cracks, and animal footprints, completely inconsistent with a flood origin.] Here, and in case after case, as the authors show, we are presented with suppression of crucial data, and the imposition of far-fetched models (the Museum’s own word), that bring the observations into line with biblical literalism. And so the Museum lives up to its promise of seeing the data through the prism of Young Earth biblical literalism. But this means that the data are not allowed to tell us anything except the predetermined narrative, and the entire programme of enlisting scientific observation in support of creationism is a cheat.
At this point, the book reminds us of what the Bible actually says on scientific topics. It is very much what you would expect, given its time and place. The Earth is a flat disc, with a lower world beneath it. The sun, moon, and stars are set in a dome or firmament, which the sun traverses daily from East to West before returning beneath the Earth at night. The upper waters are beyond the firmament, and heaven itself beyond that.
Unsurprisingly, you will not find this out at the Museum. On the contrary, the Museum repeatedly shows the Earth as a rotating sphere, part of the solar system, embedded within the Milky Way galaxy. Our modern cosmology is presented throughout all the exhibits described as evidence for the biblical account, even though biblical and modern cosmologies are completely incompatible.
Next, the book discusses how the Museum uses the Bible. It is of course presented as absolute truth, so that any falling away from this is compromise and corruption. In particular, Genesis 1 through 11 (from creation to the Tower of Babel) is straightforward narrative history. For AiG, there must have been a literal Adam and Eve and a literal Fall, otherwise the atonement through Christ’s death on the Cross makes no sense. The authors illustrate this in a footnote through copious quotations, but I think the point also deserves heavier emphasis in the main text. Theologically, AiG agrees on this point with the Rev John MacArthur, whom AiG quote copiously with approval, and who says that “in an important sense, everything Scripture says about our salvation through Jesus Christ hinges on the literal truth of what Genesis 1-3 teaches about Adam’s creation and fall. There is no more pivotal passage of Scripture.”
The most remarkable fact is that there is not a single Bible accessible, not even Genesis 1 – 11 is quoted in full, passages are presented with undeclared omissions, and single verses are presented in a manner totally unrelated to their actual context. Videos and diverse illustrations ranging from the solar system to the double helix to birds and fishes to aeroplanes are said, according to the Museum’s official guidebook, to “scientifically confirm” creationism. We have “15 Amazing Science Videos on the six Days of Creation”, coupled with quotations based on New Testament verses, to prove that “men are Without Excuse” if they fail to recognise this. There is endless attention-grabbing and distraction, more like scanning the Internet than serious discussion, with every obstacle placed in the way of thoughtful engagement.
AiG claims that its own viewpoint is beyond question, because it is directly based on the plan text, without added interpretation. Yet exposition always implies interpretation, all the more strongly when dealing with a text written in an ancient language thousands of years ago. The Museum, preparing to denounce the heresy of Old Earth creationists, discusses and rejects the possibility that the Hebrew word yom could mean anything other than a 24 hour day. But it passes over in silence the controversy surrounding word bara, second word of the text, and conventionally translated as “created”. Does this mean, as has been suggested, creation out of nothing, or the imparting of orderliness to a pre-existing chaos, or fashioning to some specific form or purpose? The Museum bypasses all such discussion, quoting the assertion in the Westminster Confession of Faith that it means creation out of nothing, implying that this interpretation is in the Bible. But it is not. [The controversy even extends to the very first word, Bereishith, as a comparison of translations will show.]
In the Museum’s Biblical Reference room, we don’t have any bibles, but we do have a list of those who wrongly chose human reason as opposed to God’s Word. Descartes is in there, along with Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Darwin, condemned as we would expect for their appeal to human reason, but so is C. I. Scofield of the Scofield Reference Bible, much favoured by creationists a century ago. This is,we are told, represents “Scripture Abandoned”, leading directly to the horrors displayed in the Museum’s Graffiti Alley; terrorism, school shootings, gay marriage, drug abuse, and the Church compromising with evolution.
So what was Scofield’s offence? He advocated an Old Earth interpretation of Genesis, with an unstated time gap implicit in the early verses. Literalism indeed, but not as the Museum understands it, and for this he is justly condemned.
But does the Museum live up to its own standards? I fear not. It shows a rotating earth, and this, as Cardinal Bellarmine reminded Galileo, flatly contradicts Joshua 10:12-13, which says that “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven”. The Museum has already been criticised for this by the Association for Biblical Astronomy, and, as the book shows at some length, AiG’s self-defence is clearly a departure from its own standards of literalism. Playfully, the authors imagine a future in which AiG’s own approach is denounced as compromise, and treated as scornfully as the Scofield Bible is here, by some future even more rigorous creationist organisation. [I would add that these days, AiG also feels the need to defend itself against a well-argued Bible-based flat-earthism.]
The Starting Points room at the beginning of the Bible Walkway Experience poses a question that is central to the Museum’s claims, and AiG’s entire programme; God’s Word, or human reason. And anything that disagrees with God’s Word, as interpreted by AiG, is at best misguided, at worst damnable. This is a doctrine with massive political implications. People must be saved from the corrupt doctrines of secular education, and we even have a film in which two angels take on the job of rescuing one particular individual. In the process, they triumph over a nerdy but strangely ill-informed science teacher at Enlightenment High School by producing arguments (actually, extremely bad and long debunked arguments) for rejecting deep time geology. Thus faith and common sense are enough to expose the godless elitism of the scientific establishment.
For Ham and his colleagues, the regular scientific narrative is “the religion of atheism” designed to “explain the universe and life without God,” so that in public schools “sadly those of the teachers… are the high priests of this religion imposing an anti-God worldview on generations of students.” Evolution teaches that “young people are just animals in a struggle for survival” and this is what accounts for school shootings.
The Museum’s Graffiti Alley laments the removal of prayer from US schools, the legality of abortion, assisted suicide laws, and the decision to turn off life support for a brain-dead patient. This, together with origin of life research and study of prehuman fossils is linked to “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” For AiG, the US was founded on Christian principles, by founding fathers who believed in the truth of the Bible, and to invoke the separation of Church and State is to attack Christianity. Graffiti Alley also has numerous newspaper headlines regarding gay teens and gay marriage, although when challenged the Museum disingenuously pointed out that none of its own signage was anti-gay. Vast inequalities of wealth, the plight of the poor, and corporate malfeasance are absent from Graffiti Alley, and the only specific teaching of Jesus that seems to concern AiG is his use of Genesis in his teaching regarding marriage.
In the Bible Walk-through Experience, the Tower of Babel exhibit tells us that the Bible teaches that we are all one race, one blood. This is contrasted with evolutionary thinking, described as a recent excuse to reject God’s Word. The only image of a slave in the Museum is juxtaposed with a quotation from Stephen Jay Gould, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increase by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”4 It is as if 1859 had been the start of slavery in the US, as opposed to being within six years of its abolition, and as if the Bible had not been used even into the late 20th century to justify racism, antisemitism, and segregation. [I would mention here Henry Morris’ own explicit racism, in The Beginning of the World, reprinted 2005 and now also available on Kindle, according to which (1977) the descendants of Ham (said to include Africans and Chinese, among others) are racially (or in the 1991 printing genetically) restricted to material matters, in contrast to the spiritual and intellectual destinies of the other two brothers. Henry Morris, as many readers will know, was co-author of The Genesis Food, foundational document of modern Young Earth creationism, and founder of the Institute for Creation research, with which in 1991 Ken Ham was himself associated.]
When challenged as to why the Bible does not explicitly forbid to slavery, but on the contrary incorporates it as an institution, AiG replies that “neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic covenant had anything to do with the sort of slavery where ‘Black’ people were bought and sold as property by ‘White’ people in the well-known slave trade over the last few centuries,” refers to “the extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible” (where?), points out that Hebrew slaves were held in bondage for only six years, and assert that “Biblical Christians led the fight against slavery”.
This is an extremely selective reading of history. Those who fought to retain slavery in the Americas were also, like most of their contemporaries, biblical Christians, and biblical Christians were prominent in the defence of segregation in post-World War II America (see e.g. Mississippi Praying, cited by the Trollingers). So these excuses are not perhaps very convincing. But even if they were, that would not help AiG’s cause, since a sincere literalist has no business making any excuses at all.
Ken Ham maintains that a large section of the Museum is devoted to combating racism, but the reality is that his “one race” strategy is dedicated to ignoring the racism still present in American society and forgetting the reality of the civil rights struggle. Ham’sDarwin’s Plantation is described on Amazon as a “thorough history of the effect of the theory of evolution on the history of the United States, including slavery and the civil rights movement”, but that book devotes less than two pages the civil rights movement, does not even mention Martin Luther King Jr., and devotes 18 pages to attacking the use of human rights language to advance the “homosexual agenda”. [I would add that eight weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Ken Ham showed on his blog images linking Black Lives Matter to Angela Davis and Karl Marx.]
The final chapter before the Epilogue is entitled “Judgment”, and focuses on the Museum’s teachings regarding judgement, atonement, and redemption. Here the Museum’s film, The Last Adam, describes Jesus as expiatory sacrifice. Lots of blood. And to emphasise the seriousness of sin, and of the shedding of blood to atone for it, the young Mary is made by her parents to witness the gory annual sacrifice and slaughter by a priest, in her village, of one of her father’s lambs. Sin has terrible consequences, and atonement comes at a terrible price.
As the authors point out, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest any such event. [Indeed, they are far too kind here. The events described could not possibly have happened. The annual atonement sacrifice, as anyone familiar with the Day of Atonement ritual knows, was a goat (or rather one of two goats, the other one, the scapegoat, being cast out into the wilderness), and all such sacrifices had been centralised at the Temple in Jerusalem for several hundred years before the time of Jesus, and, according to biblical literalists, since the time of Solomon.] Whatever is going on here, it is decidedly unbiblical. However, all too biblical is a verse from Revelation, shown on-screen directly after the depiction of the crucifixion, “And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” The flames are heard crackling.
The Dragon Hall Bookstore derives its name from rhetorical suggestions that legendary dragons, and of course the unidentified beasts in the Book of Job, could have been dinosaurs. The bookstore’s offerings include the MacArthur Study Bible (I have discussed John MacArthur above, and elsewhere), copious offerings from AiG and from Henry Morris, and books and DVDs supporting traditional sex roles and the belief that America is based on Christian principles, and attacks on climate change science and on public schools as an institution. Materials designed for schools, homeschooling, and church study groups include textbooks showing God’s special grace to the United States, and how science supports the biblical record. This is only part of what is available through AiG’s online store, including online college courses for credit. All of this, AiG tells us (and we would be foolish not to believe them), is in support of a “spiritual war… In our homes, churches … schools (whether public or private it), workplaces, courts”, for which AiG the is providing “advanced ‘weaponry’ ” and “Christian ‘patriot missiles’ .“ Ominous enough when this book was written, how much more so now.
This spiritual war is being pursued far beyond the Museum. AiG had, while the book was being written, twenty-five available speakers in the US, and seven in the UK, and gave 48 presentations in a four-month period, including the UK Creation Mega Conference in the English Midlands. 39 of the presentations were in churches, mainly Baptist or nondenominational. The authors attended one such presentation in a rural Ohio church, given by Bob Gillespie (now with his own Creation’s Hope Ministries), a graduate of Cedarville University, a private Baptist university with 4,700 students. Gillespie asked the audience how many had been to the Creation Museum. About 2/3 raised their hands. He emphasised the importance of the Museum’s Starting Points room, explaining that the reason some people are atheist is because they do not want to obey God’s rules. He then launched into a rapid, detailed exposition of creation science, reminiscent of the Museum itself in its level of overload. Dinosaurs could indeed have been fitted on the Ark, since there were only 50 or so different kinds, so this makes sense once “we put our biblical glasses on.” Besides, there is biblical and folklore evidence for dinosaurs. When science disagrees with the Bible, the evidence later proves that the science was wrong. Examples include the pig’s tooth offered in evidence at the Scopes Trial [actually it wasn’t, because of its dubious scientific status] and junk DNA which isn’t junk at all [actually it is; for an amusing proof of this, see here]. Current cosmology is “just belief”, macroevolution is impossible because it would require the addition of “new information”, evolution is refuted in a three-minute video that he showed, observational science will someday provide the answer to the “distant starlight” problem, and according to a slide that he showed, hundreds of physical processes (actually the slide, on screen for under half a minute, listed just 56) set limits to the age of the world. As to how these processes, such as “tight bends in rocks”, “Stone Age burials”, and the inevitable “radiohalos” entailed a young Earth, there was no chance to ask. While Gillespie made little effort to establish rapport with the audience, the audience were very eager to establish their rapport with him, as allies against the evolutionist enemy.
Ham has devoted one book, Already Compromised, to lamenting the fact that even colleges identifying as Christian do not share his view of what Christianity entails, and another, Six Days: The Age of the Earth and the Decline of the Church, to his claim that such compromise, especially within the church, unlocks the door to disbelief. AiG seeks to correct this at the Museum, in its outreach activities, in its educational programs available to home schoolers and Christian schools. It even provides a list of questions to probe the credentials of what claims to be a Christian college [for my own take on colleges that meet Ham’s criteria, see here], and has a close relationship with Cedarville University (already mentioned as Bob Gillespie’s alma mater), the first to offer a geology program that “teaches young-earth and world-wide flood cataclysm.”
The Trollingers cite Cedarville as an example of what happens when a College aspires to meeting AiG’s standards. In the period between 2012 and 2015, during all of which AiG was in close contact with Cedarville, it carried out a purge of faculty, removing a theology professor who believes in a literal Adam and Eve but for the wrong reasons, getting rid of the philosophy department altogether, triggering the exodus of 43 faculty and staff and 15 trustees, and leading to the resignation of one Bible Professor when the school ruled that women should not teach theology classes that included men, because of what St Paul said about men’s and women’s roles.
They also cite the example of Bryan College. In 2010, Ham attacked Bryan College by name for compromise, because it was teaching textbook evolution science in conjunction with separate discussions of other views, saying that it was about time that such colleges were held accountable for undermining Scripture. He did not need to wait long for such accountability. In 2014, the trustees issued a “clarification” of their College’s Statement of Belief, replacing “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the book of Genesis” with “We believe all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.” This led to the departure of at least nine instructors, four board members, and additional staff cuts.
[I see that Ham received an honorary degree from Bryan in 2017; the AiG website tells us of this, under the modest headline Recognizing the World’s Foremost Authority for Creation.
Meantime, AiG campaigns on behalf of laws designed to protect the right to teach creationism and climate science denial, in the name of academic freedom. It is a big mistake to imagine that creationists are going to play fair. They don’t.]
The book tells us of AiG’s other campaigns, such as that against Calvin College, and the organisation BioLogos. BioLogos, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation, is an organisation founded by Francis Collins, bringing together mainly evangelical Christians who seek to understand what they call “evolution creationism” in a Christian context. [I would add that one of the clearest expositions of evolution science that I have seen is that given by Dennis Venema on the Biologos website.] Ham has rejected an offer to meet with BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma, describes BioLogos as “helping the devil in leading this and coming generations away from the truth of God’s Word,” and warns that, along with churches that accept same-sex marriage, it will have to face God’s judgement for doing so.
In conclusion the authors lament that the Museum, and AiG’s entire programme, are based on a stultifying doctrine of God’s fierce judgement based on salvation through belief, with the whole of religion reduced to a simple binary based purely on acceptance or rejection of one particular interpretation of the Bible. The Jesus of Matthew 25, who identified himself with the stranger, the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, is nowhere to be found, nor is any of Christianity’s rich intellectual and social justice tradition, from Augustine to Bonhoeffer.
“Sad indeed. For all of us,” they conclude. I can only agree.
1] Including juicy details not present in the more compressed account in Ronald Numbers’ classic, The Creationists.
2] Here “modern” and “contemporary” should be seen as technical terms used by historians, so that “modern” here means roughly the style dominant from the 19thinto the first half of the 20th centuries, as opposed to the more recent “contemporary”. I would have preferred a different choice of words, since in this context “modern” means “old-fashioned” rather than “up-to-date”.
3] This is a common style of creationist argument. For example, creationists argue that since comets are relatively short lived (this is true), the existence of comments proves that the solar system is young, as if we did not know that new comets are being generated all the time. Science is complicated, and our knowledge does indeed have gaps, but “God of the gaps” arguments have been ridiculed by theologians themselves for over a century. And in the nature of things we could not have directly observed processes, such as the formation of a new biological genus, that take more time than the length of time we have been observing.
4] Gould is of course correct. As long as educated opinion accepted biblical creationism, racism was justified on biblical grounds. When this view was replaced by evolution, then naturally racists began to use biological arguments to justify their position.
Museum images under Creative Commons, via Wikipedia.
by William Trollinger
Sometimes this blog simply writes itself.
A few weeks ago we ran a post on Kathleen Wellman’s Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2021). In this terrific (albeit depressing) book, Wellman reports on what she found in world history textbooks produced for fundamentalist homeschoolers and fundamentalist Christian schools, books that are published by Abeka Books, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press.
Among other things, Wellman discovered that these books:
- declare that “America was founded as a new Christian nation,” and thus “God’s favor blesses America’s foreign interventions and sanctifies (or whitewashes) its domestic history”;
- endorse “the Lost Cause myth while idealizing the Confederacy and white Southern culture, with its concomitant downplaying of slavery and endorsement of white supremacy”;
- claim that colonialism was a benign and humane institution that benefitted the indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa;
- assert that laissez-faire capitalism is God’s economic plan, with benefits that far exceed any minor inconveniences for the poor;
- say little about fascism, but are fully on-board with McCarthyism; and
- “condemn movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, [as] redress of social ills is not the proper concern of Christians”.
And then there’s what these textbooks say about the ancient and medieval world:
- Greek and Roman civilizations, pagan as they were, were inherently and fundamentally flawed, and thus had nothing to recommend them;
- “the early Christians became pagans, and so they remain[ed] until the arrival of Luther . . . The early Christians were Protestants until they became paganized Catholics”; and
- “the Middle Ages experienced a ‘distorted form of Christianity,’ and the Renaissance merely created beautiful art while promoting pagan philosophies. Only the Reformation would free Europe from Catholicism and revive biblical Christianity . . . These educational materials essentially dismiss 1500 years of history as little more than a waiting period between the earliest Christianity and the coming Reformation.”
As a friend who is a medievalist wrote after reading the post on Wellman’s book: “OMG, Bill! This fundamentalist ‘history’ is appalling . . . I hardly know how to respond.”
Trigger alert, my friend. Another OMG moment is on its way, courtesy of Answers in Genesis (AiG).
Patricia Engler is youth outreach coordinator for AiG Canada. As noted on AiG’s website, where she is a blogger, “her passion for biblical apologetics ignited at age 14, when she first heard a seminar by AiG founder Ken Ham.” Homeschooled for 12 years, she then attended “a liberal Canadian university,” where she “learn[ed] firsthand how Christian students can navigate secular education without compromising their biblical worldview.”
(For those unfamiliar with this argument, the notion that there is a small set of unified and easily delineated “worldviews” – including the one and only “biblical worldview” – is central to contemporary fundamentalism. See below.)
In her most recent blog post, “Resistance, Reformation, and Renaissance: Lessons from the Worldview Battle in Rome,” Engler – who, I have to say, seems to be a sweet and extraordinarily earnest fundamentalist – announces an exciting new venture:
With its significance for the early church, Reformation, and Renaissance, Rome offers a central vantage point from which to understand the worldview battle still raging in Western culture – a battle which extends to the Neo-Marxist ideas storming society today. That’s why I’d chosen this city as the official starting point for my backpacking journey to trace the history and consequences of Marxism.
From this paragraph alone, one gets a clue that Engler is well-steeped in the history presented by fundamentalist homeschool textbooks, including the notion that laissez-faire capitalism (and certainly not socialism) is God’s economic plan for the Earth.
Given the times we live in and the fact that she is in Italy, one might imagine Engler would choose this as the starting point for a backpacking journey to trace the history and consequences of fascism. But as Wellman establishes, fundamentalist history textbooks bend over backwards to say little about fascism. So, will Engler make a stop in Orban’s Hungary? And if so, will this be a moment of celebrating the triumph of neo-fascism over neo-Marxism?
But it’s in the rest of Engler’s post that she reiterates what Wellman describes in Hijacking History:
- “The Romans [and Greeks] worshipped a pantheon of mythic deities. But no idols – not even those hewn from the toughest stone – can provide a solid worldview foundation on which to build a culture.”
- “Thousands of believers refused to compromise with the Roman government’s unbiblical demands . . . Where culture and Scripture disagreed, many believers in Rome followed God’s Word on pain of death.”
- “As the centuries unfolded, three related veins of compromise corroded the worldview foundation beneath Western culture’s Christianized veneer.
- Compromise on biblical authority: Instead of accepting God’s Word as their authority for truth, many Christians began viewing human-made teachings and church traditions from outside the Bible as though equal to Scripture. . . .
- Compromise on biblical doctrine: Tolerating the syncretism of man’s word with God’s Word opened the door for Christians to import more and more unbiblical teachings into their beliefs. . . .
- Compromise with pagan philosophy: Along the way, many mainstream believers began incorporating secular teachings into their Christianity. For instance, the prominent theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) emphasized the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle to the point that Aristotle’s teachings became treated as official church doctrine.”
- “Realizing that Western culture’s mainstream religion had drifted alarmingly far from God’s Word, Reformers, including Martin Luther, urged the church to return to its foundation of biblical authority.”
- “In the years between Aquinas and Luther, Western culture’s renewed emphasis on pagan Greece and Rome gave way to a full-blown revival of classical philosophy – a shift known as the Renaissance . . . Following the teachings of Aristotle, Renaissance thinkers believed that humans could construct their own meaningful view of reality by reasoning about the pieces of the world they could perceive around them rather than by beginning with God as the objective authority for truth and meaning.” Note: Engler uses Michelangelo’s “The Creation” in the Sistine Chapel as her example here.
- “Humanistic thinking gained rapid traction during the Renaissance, reflecting Satan’s original lies, ‘Did God actually say . . . ?’ and ‘You will be like God.’ To believe these lies and make ourselves the authority for truth is to leave the ultimate foundation for truth, logic, morality, justice, and human value, which God’s Word supplies. This leads to disastrous consequences and paves the way for later totalitarian regimes, including those influenced by Karl Marx.”
- “In today’s Western society, the cultural descendant of Rome, we see the same pattern unfolding at every turn. We again find ourselves at the front lines of the ancient worldview battle where humans wage a futile war against their Creator. We see this battle in Marx’s call for man to create himself via communism. We see it in the Renaissance times and the centuries of church compromise which led to the need for the Reformation. And we see it among the early believers in Rome, where standing on God’s Word over man’s meant facing horrific deaths. . . . Surrounded by the roar of [hostile] crowds, we must join the early Roman believers in resolving to standing on the Word.”
It is not surprising that Engler makes great use of the writings of pseudo-intellectual Francis Schaeffer to bolster her case. As Molly Worthen says about Schaeffer in her book, Apostles of Reason:
Schaeffer was notoriously irresponsible as a scholar . . . Schaeffer wowed audiences by explaining 500 years of intellectual history in a paragraph and a casual chalkboard diagram – but he did so with exaggerations, oversimplifications, and misinformation that would make a specialist cry. He was a brazen editor of history. He ignored the ferment of Greco-Roman “pagan” thought that informed Christian scripture. He declared the Reformers creators of a “definitive culture” pure of the “humanism” and “despair” latent in the Renaissance. (Never mind that Luther and Calvin were trained humanists. Schaeffer denied any link between them and his godless twentieth-century foe.) But then, he never claimed to be a professional scholar . . . His mistakes did not matter much. He turned history into a weapon in the culture wars. (216)
Yep. That’s what we see in fundamentalist history textbooks, and on the AIG website, and in this post. Appallingly bad history in behalf of right-wing culture war.
That said, Ms. Engler, I want to extend an invitation. Here at the University of Dayton seven colleagues and I teach a year-long interdisciplinary course – History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Rhetoric – on the history of the world, with a focus on the West(s). We start with Hammurabi and end with, well, today.
Yes, we are a Catholic university; yes, we talk at length about Aristotle and Aquinas and Marx (as well as Luther and Calvin, and much, much more); yes, we present a history at odds with the history you gleaned from your homeschool textbooks.
That said, you are more than welcome to come down from Canada and sit in on our course!
by Carl R. Weinberg
Carl R. Weinberg is Teaching Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of History at the Indiana University Bloomington, where he is also the Director of the PACE Institute for Role-Immersive Teaching and Learning. He is also the author of Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America (Cornell University Press, 2021). For the rightingamerica interview with Weinberg about this important and provocative book, see here.
Below is an edited version of Weinberg’s response to a critical review of Red Dynamite by a scholar from the Discovery Institute. For Weinberg’s full response, see here.
In early June 2022, historian Richard Weikart published a three-part review of Red Dynamite on the EvolutionNews website here, here and here. Maintained by the Discovery Institute, EvolutionNews promotes the theory of Intelligent Design (ID), a phenomenon I analyze in Ch. 8 of my book. Weikart is a Senior Fellow at the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and, as an opponent of evolutionary science, has focused on demonstrating a link between Darwinism and Nazism. His best-known book is From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004). While Weikart acknowledges that Red Dynamite takes a “meticulous” look at its subject, he also calls my arguments “bizarre,” “convoluted,” “slanderous,” and “balderdash.” He describes my Epilogue as “a virulent rant.”
Since I wrote the book to engage in a scholarly conversation about the history of creationism, I’m always glad to see a fellow scholar take the book seriously enough to review it, especially in three separate installments. At the same time, Weikart misrepresents my arguments in a number of ways that might mislead someone who has not read the book. Here I respond to a number of Weikart’s critiques in the interest of clarifying the issues under debate. I encourage everyone interested in these issues to read the book, which is available both as a free “open-access” download and a regular paperback, and come to their own conclusions.
The main point
In the first paragraph of his first post, Weikart summarizes the book’s purpose as “exposing creationism as a tool of Christian fundamentalists to attack communism (as well as other progressive moral causes, especially sexual immorality).” More accurately, the book is about anticommunism as a tool that Christian conservatives used to attack evolutionary science. It documents in great detail a rhetorical strategy pioneered by George McCready Price to link evolution to the alleged dangers and immoralities of communism, a connection Price labeled “Red Dynamite” in his 1925 book, The Predicament of Evolution.
In the heart of my book, I demonstrate how succeeding generations of Christian conservatives and self-described “scientific” creationists continued this tradition. They included William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, Gerald Winrod, Aimee Semple McPherson, John R. Rice, and Henry Morris, among others. (Price’s name does not appear in Weikart’s review, continuing an unfortunate tradition of marginalizing this Seventh-day Adventist creationist pioneer.) Weikart’s first paragraph does have a plus side: he lays his own worldview on the table by describing sexual immorality as a “progressive moral cause.” In case you are wondering what kind of “immorality” progressives might consider moral, here’s a short list drawn from my book’s narrative: abortion, premarital sex, premarital dancing, masturbation, and same-sex marriage.
All about anticommunism?
The rest of Weikart’s first post is devoted to assessing what he takes to be my major causal argument. As he indicates, I pose the following question in my introduction: “Why has creationism persisted into the twenty-first century in the most scientifically advanced country in the world?” According to Weikart, my answer is that creationists embraced creationism because of its association with anticommunism. “Balderdash,” says Weikart. Well, if that’s what I argued, he would be right. But my actual answer was different and broader: Christian conservatives “convinced their followers that evolutionary thought promotes immoral social, sexual, and political behavior, undermining existing God-given standards and hierarchies of power” (p. 13). Anticommunism was, I contend, not the whole deal, but “a key part” of this strategy. Socialism and communism, in this view, were “among the evil fruits” produced by evolutionary thinking. Evil fruits, I might add, that no historian before me has taken seriously.
The politics of religion
But even if Weikart were to accept my correction, we do have a real disagreement over how we interpret creationism. In my introduction, as Weikart notes, I assert that creationist opposition to evolution is not “primarily about science or religion, in a narrow sense, but about morality and power.” Weikart objects, saying that I’m ignoring creationist arguments that do rest on science and religion. For me, he says, “it must all be political.” Creationism, in my view, according to Weikart, “is just a bourgeois tool in the class struggle and serves as a justification for the oppressive capitalist system.”
Well, the book does show in many ways how creationism served to uphold existing relations of power, including between capitalists and workers. But I show that even Karl Marx did not dismiss religion as “just a bourgeois tool”. Moreover, I do not argue that religion has nothing to do with creationism. After all—and Weikart’s readers might be surprised to discover this—my second chapter features a deep dive into George McCready Price’s Seventh-day Adventist theology and how it provided a rich basis for his anti-evolutionary ideas.
The question really is, can religion and politics be disentangled? In my book’s introduction, I contend that “religion and politics . . . have always been inextricably intertwined.” That is, there is no religious realm that is completely disconnected from issues of power and morality. For me, that’s what politics is: who has power over whom and on what moral basis? For me, this inseparable connection between religion and politics explains why Answers in Genesis recently opened a major new exhibit on abortion at the anti-evolutionary Creation Museum. The exhibit’s name, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, does come from scripture (Psalm 139: 14). But abortion is a deeply political matter. It is all about morality and power.
Indianapolis protesters denounce bill banning abortion in Indiana, July 2022.
. . . . . .
Have I slandered Henry Morris?
. . . . . . [Weikart also accuses] me of “making accusations” against Henry Morris “that are bizarre and even slanderous.” Here Weikart is referring to my discussion of Henry Morris’s 1989 book, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict.
Weikart takes exception to my commentary on Morris’s chapter called “Political Evolutionism—Right and Left.” In Long War, Morris provides a wealth of examples from both sides of the political spectrum. As I note, this evidence “supported Morris’s contention that his opposition to evolution was not political, since both left- and right-wingers were, in practice, evolutionists.” I also observe the “seeming impartiality” of Morris’s treatment of Hitler and communists. Morris argues that Hitler was “the ultimate fruit of the evolutionary tree” and points out accurately that Marxists supported evolutionary science. But for all his attempts to place Hitler in the evolution camp, Morris was aware, as he admitted, of “certain attempts” to identify Hitler as a right-winger and even a Christian.” No, he wasn’t a Christian, says Morris, though he was an anticommunist.
At this point in my text, I write the following, quoted in full by Weikart:
“Morris offers no additional information to his readers about Hitler’s anticommunism—an essential ingredient in Nazi ideology. In effect, Morris admits that Hitler was ‘one of us’ in his militant anti-communism but fails to explore that common ground that had led William Bell Riley—who had chosen Morris as heir apparent at Northwestern—to praise Hitler and led others to sympathize more quietly with him.”
Weikart objects to my statement that Morris considered Hitler “one of us,” since Morris’s description of Hitler as “evil fruit” shows that he opposed Hitler. And Weikart says that I have unfairly linked Morris to Riley through “guilt by association,” implying falsely that Morris supported Hitler. I therefore owe Morris a “posthumous apology.” (He died in 2006.)
Morris and Riley’s tainted legacy
Let’s first deal with the relationship between Morris and William Bell Riley. In 1946, as I detail in Chapter 6, Morris published his first book, That You Might Believe, in which he attributed a wide variety of social, moral, and political evils to the “atheistic and satanic character” of evolutionary science. After reading the book, William Bell Riley called Henry Morris and offered him a job as his successor at Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis. In the previous decade, Riley had tied evolution to an international Jewish communist conspiracy, based on the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and publicly hailed Hitler for standing up to this alleged conspiracy in Germany. Though Riley did a rapid about-face when the US entered the war and then blamed evolution for Hitler, he said not a single word about Hitler’s Jewish victims. (For more on this, see Trollinger, God’s Empire, pp. 68-82.).
Though nowhere in my book do I say that Morris shared Riley’s views on Hitler and Jews, I stand by the following: “Riley was correct to see in Morris’s writings a continuation of what the older man had started. Not only did these two men share a fundamentalist Baptist faith, but they agreed that evolution posed great dangers for American society, morality, and politics.” Though Morris declined Riley’s offer—for one thing, Morris was then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota planning a secular academic career—he maintained links with Riley’s bible college for decades after the old man’s death.
How did Morris think about Hitler? It was 1989. The political environment had changed drastically since the 1930s, when Henry Ford, William Bell Riley, and Gerald Winrod had all publicly lauded the Nazi party. It had become rare for anyone, even on the political right, to openly express admiration for Hitler. What we do know, and what I document in the book, is how Morris compared the Nazis and the communists in Long War Against God. What I find is that Morris links communists, evolutionists, and Satan (but not Hitler) in a centuries-long conspiracy that has killed more people in the twentieth century (in the “class struggle”) by a factor of “ten or more” than the number of Hitler’s victims.
So, let us return to the “offending” sentence: “In effect, Morris admits that Hitler was ‘one of us’ in his militant anti-communism but fails to explore the damaging implications.” That is, Morris says essentially, yes, Hitler was a right-winger in that he was a militant anticommunist. I don’t write that Morris literally said that Hitler was “one of us.” I wrote, “in effect,” which is to say, Morris acknowledged that he did share some political common ground with Hitler. What were the implications of this common ground that Morris failed to explore? One of them was that for William Bell Riley, the “grand old man of midwestern fundamentalism,” the man who launched the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and who offered Morris a job as his successor, anticommunism had led to public political sympathy for Hitler’s Nazi Party. That is, the movement Morris was now leading had a historical tie to open support for Hitler based on a shared Jew-hating, conspiracy-mongering anticommunism. Saying this is neither bizarre, nor slanderous. It’s simply, if uncomfortably, true.
Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute
In Weikart’s third and last post, he addresses a subject that cuts closest to home for him—Intelligent Design (ID) and the organization he is affiliated with, the Discovery Institute. Weikart argues that my discussion of the Discovery Institute is flawed in a number of ways and concludes: “Thus, Weinberg’s argument here is extremely weak: he never shows that ID proponents at Discovery Institute link intelligent design with anti-communism.”
And yet, Weikart neglects my entire discussion (pp. 259–61) of the infamous “Wedge document”. This was an initially private, internal, five-year fundraising plan for the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC) that was leaked online in 1999. The content of the document made it clear that the Discovery Institute operated from a particular worldview that aimed, in their words, to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies.” That is, the leaders of the Discovery Institute were looking to demonstrate more than the truth of intelligent design: they sought to reverse social changes they thought were harmful. Among these were the projects of “materialist reformers” who “promised to create heaven on earth”—that is, socialists and communists. By the way, the document identified the chief advocates of the “materialist conception of reality” as Darwin, Marx, and Freud. The fallout from this episode led the Institute to rename the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture as the Center for Science and Culture (with which Weikart is currently affiliated). Removing Renewal downplayed any sense that the Institute was practicing politics. So, while it may be true that I could have spent more time fleshing out the details of ID, the Wedge Document is positive evidence that, in Weikart’s words, “ID proponents at Discovery Institute link intelligent design with anti-communism.”
A virulent rant?
Last but not least, I will address Weikart’s claim that the Epilogue of Red Dynamite is a “virulent rant against Trump and his supporters.” Especially because Weikart couches this comment with an acknowledgement that “For the most part the book is not a diatribe,” his claim about my Epilogue may sound credible to his readers. When I initially read Weikart’s review, I decided that due diligence required me to reread my Epilogue and look for evidence of a virulent rant. I first consulted the Oxford English Dictionary for some definitions. Virulent means “violently bitter, spiteful, or malignant.” A rant is “an extravagant, bombastic, or declamatory speech or utterance.” If I had written such a rant, Weikart could have easily demonstrated my virulence to his readers with some well-chosen quotations. But he does not offer a single example. As it turns out, that’s because there are no such quotations to be found in my Epilogue.
The actual Epilogue
Upon reviewing the text of my Epilogue, here’s what I did find: I discuss the 2016 election campaign and conservative evangelical support for Trump. I bring attention to the seeming oddity of anti-evolutionists supporting “’social Darwinism’ incarnate.” I document how Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis spoke favorably about Trump. Here’s a representative sample of how I write about Trump and his prominent evangelical supporters such as Rev. Robert Jeffress: “Like Ken Ham, they recognized that millions of rank-and-file evangelicals were drawn to Trump’s plainspoken calls for barring immigration from Mexico and the Middle East, his denunciation of trade deals, his ‘outsider’ status, his nostalgia for a mythical American past, and his willingness to tell the truth about the miserable economic conditions facing working people” (pp. 272–73).
Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University during 2016 presidential campaign.
As for those working-class Trump supporters, I do write about one group of them in the Epilogue—the coal miners from Harlan County, Kentucky who blocked train tracks and prevented their employer, Blackjewel LLC, from shipping coal in protest of non-payment of wages. As I note, Harlan County went 85 percent for Trump, and these workers probably voted for him. In any event, they are among my heroes. In sum, I have failed to find any ranting, virulent or otherwise.
Coal miners block railroad tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky to protest non-payment of wages by their employer Blackjewel LLC, July 2019.
All in all, I thank Richard Weikart for giving me the opportunity to clarify these matters. I thank him as well for using the ancient, charming word “balderdash.” I look forward to sharing that word, his review, and this response with my students.
by Neall Pogue
Neall Pogue is an assistant professor of instruction at The University of Texas at Dallas. His research on the relationship between the environment and white conservative evangelicals of the religious right was published in April of 2022 by Cornell University Press. The book is titled The Nature of the Religious Right: The Struggle Between Conservative Evangelicals and the Environmental Movement.
This post analyzes the environmental messages taught by popular Christian school publishers who produce educational material for students attending Christian day schools and home schools throughout the United States. The educational material is largely written by and for white conservative evangelicals, who understand the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who make up much of the religious right movement.
The year 1993 marked the first time A Beka Book (Abeka since 2017), a top selling Christian school textbook publisher, denied the existence of human-caused climate change. In addition to stressing this sentiment in bold and italicized type, the authors stated that if it did occur, the increased carbon dioxide would benefit crop production. This assurance was reprised in a poem on the top of the page that read: “Roses are Red; Violets are Blue; They Both Grow Better with More CO2.” The section concluded by advising the reader that any lingering concerns were unwarranted because the “fate of the earth rests not in the hands of chance but in the hands of its all-powerful Creator.” Such was the three-pronged rejection of climate change as portrayed by the science textbook.
In addition to addressing climate change, the book took a noticeable stand against any other contemporary environmental concerns. Elsewhere for instance, students were incorrectly told that pesticides like DDT were harmless to bird populations, and that worries about acid rain and ozone depletion were simple fabrications from extremist environmentalists who were wasting taxpayer money by pushing the government to study nonproblems.
What is particularly fascinating about this textbook is that it not only marked the adoption of a new anti-environmental attitude, but it reversed previous eco-friendly lessons commonly taught by A Beka Book and other Christian school publishers.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, A Beka Book’s environmental messages were relatively sparse, but nevertheless consistently supported the message that Christians should be responsible caretakers of the earth. This view, which could be called Christian environmental stewardship, was structured very similarly to the idea of conservation, in which people could use nature but must do it carefully without abusing and wasting resources. The idea included the theological warning that the earth is owned by God and therefore humans are simply caretakers. Other popular publishers such as Bob Jones University Press (BJU Press) also communicated the idea of Christian environmental stewardship in their science textbooks first published in the later 1970s.
As late as 1989, like BJU Press, A Beka Book continued supporting Christian environmental stewardship, as demonstrated in an economics textbook that praised capitalism, but not if it meant the destruction of the environment. For evidence the author cited famous economist Adam Smith in a section titled “Pollution, Waste, and Ugliness.” Here students were warned that unrestricted capitalism ruined the environment of Smith’s hometown of Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Later the author stated, “The short-run costs of pollution prevention, conservation, and urban restoration are high. Yet the long-run costs to humanity of neglecting those economic responsibilities would be far higher.”
Such Christian environmental stewardship messages, as reflected by the A Beka Book economics textbook, were commonplace amongst wider conservative evangelical culture throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
It was in the early 1990s, however, that these traditional environmental messages were contested by conservative think tanks and special purpose groups like the John Birch Society, who increased the amount of anti-environmental information disseminated to readers. This information found its way into the hands of everyday Americans, including the churches of traditionally politically conservative white evangelicals associated and within the religious right movement.
With the increase of material attacking environmental protection efforts, it is no coincidence that the same arguments from the think tanks were repeated in Christian school educational material. In the 1993 science textbook cited above, the idea that increased CO2 levels would be good for plants could easily be found beyond the conservative evangelical community (also see William Trollinger’s excellent analysis of creationist Ken Ham’s anti-environmental information). In time other Christian school publishers reproduced similar statements.
Today A Beka Book continues to deny the existence of environmental concerns including acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change. The writers frame environmentalists and sympathetic scientists as misguided souls who fabricate these problems. Although the science books do repeat the tenets of Christian environmental stewardship, it has become marginalized and a shell of what it once was. In this vein, Christian environmental stewardship can be ignored by stating that environmental problems do not exist.
This situation presents our society with an interesting dilemma that centers around the extremely important issues of democracy and education. Students in secular schools may be taught that human-caused climate change is real, while the opposite is learned by Christian school and home school students.
These conflicting beliefs are not harmless differences of opinion. When a fact is confirmed by the scientific community, the information traditionally finds its way into student textbooks and the general public. When this process is hindered, it puts the wider community at risk because the education system is failing the students who then cannot make informed decisions when they become voters as adults. The result is political inaction because the voting populace continues to debate the legitimacy of a confirmed fact.
Although this ongoing situation seems grim, the positive view is that denying climate change among conservative evangelicals lacks theological support. More than this, in their effort to bypass traditional understanding of Christian environmental stewardship, conservative evangelical textbook authors simply state scientists are wrong.
Consequently, anti-environmentalism among conservative evangelicals has met challenges. The Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, knows climate change denial is scientifically and theologically indefensible and as a result they have successfully grown a small but noticeable group of supporters since its founding in 1993. Other gains include the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative and recent eco-friendly publications produced by the National Association of Evangelicals.
This environmental conversation evolving within the conservative evangelical community should also encourage outsiders to think about engagement. In today’s extremely polarized political and social climate it may be easy to “other” groups, in the process leading some to think of the religious right supporters as unchangeable social and political enemies. The religious right may indeed hold a number of views that seem totally alien to those outside the movement, but at least when it comes to the environment, history reveals that the situation is somewhat nuanced and has evolved over time. Perhaps by taking into consideration the history of this topic, bridges of communication could be built to find solutions to environmental problems.
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, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).
The pictures from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have delivered the most astounding infrared image of our distant universe so far. What we see, in a tiny sliver of the vast universe is space teeming with thousands of galaxies. Light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us.
And Job’s magnificent question deserves at least a stab at forming an answer? “Where were we?” We were still stardust. Astronomer George Coyne – Jesuit priest and astronomer who also served as director of the Vatican observatory — said that we are literally made of stardust. “The elements that enable life are formed in the stars themselves, and only a universe like ours could have formed these elements in abundance sufficient to produce planets where life was possible.” “Stardust thou art and to stardust thou shalt return.”
Gazing at the Webb pictures gives me sensory overload. Webb’s MIRI image offers a kaleidoscope of colors and highlights where the dust is – a major ingredient in star formation, and ultimately life itself. The red objects (galaxies) in the pictures are enshrouded in thick layers of dust. Green galaxies are populated with hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds essential to life. These pictures reveal God’s creation workshop.
The meticulous and painstaking development of life is beautifully expressed in Martin Rees’s book, Just Six Numbers. Rees chose six numerical constants and demonstrated how slight changes in any of them would have made life literally impossible. For example, Rees considers a fused helium nucleus which consists of two protons and two neutrons. This fused helium nucleus weighs exactly 0.7 less than the two protons and two neutrons from which it was formed. If the helium nucleus has weighed 0.8 there would have been a plethora of runaway fusion reactions that would have drained the infant universe of its hydrogen atoms and there would have been no stars such as the sun, no solar system, no earth, no water, and no life.
If the force had been a little weaker, say 0.6, there would have been no helium nucleus, only hydrogen atoms. End result: No life. The science – the physics and chemistry – had to be exactly right. One wonders how many failed attempts are scattered across the vast background of the universe before a patient, loving, sharing God got it all just right and created life. Science, after all, is organized common sense. A good scientist keeps experimenting, keeps failing, in order to get to the right result. This process merely imitates the work of God gently persuading the various elements to move in the direction of life and flourishing. In this way chaos became cosmos, darkness became light, and the Word became light and lived among us.
Take one more example from Rees. “The cosmos is so vast because there is one crucially important huge number N in nature, equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This number measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If N had a few less zeroes, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist; no creatures could grow larger than insects, and there would be no time for biological evolution.” Imagine that this process had been shortened, and N had been 3 zeroes short. We could then imagine that we had a universe that only produced minions (to use a bit of creative fantasy from the cinematic world).
The science of creation demonstrates that time and speed, energy and motion, were critical to the universe’s appearance. In the case of time and speed, both were precisely tuned. Ken Ham’s creationism based on a literal six-day calendar is an impossibility even for God. As Rees notes, “The cosmic number Ω (omega) measures the amount of material in our universe – galaxies, diffuse gas, and ‘dark matter.’ Ω tells us the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. If this ratio were too high relative to a particular ‘crucial’ value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned.”
At the heart of every entity, every bit and particle of matter, every seemingly solid thing, is this intense energy and movement. The scientists call it the dance of the subatomic particles. Christians take delight in the scientific notions of energy and movement, because we believe that the choreographer of the dance of the subatomic particles is God. We call the energy and movement the breath of God. That’s the combination essential to creation: Stardust and breath of God.
Self-awareness enables us to see that the environmental crises we now face emerge, like us, from the stars of the universe. We have before us the opportunity to develop an extraordinary environmental stewardship that will enable us to deal wisely with global warming, overpopulation, and extinction. Looking at the ancient stars, we have a cosmic picture of what will happen to earth if we persist in science-bashing and climate denial. “The lesson of evolutionary cosmology is that each moment of our existence is a gift from the stars, to be experienced, treasured, used wisely, and enjoyed” (Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory).
Science has taught us that our existence requires a universe of vastness and great age. Only a precise mix of materials and constants could have brought all of this into being. “Our very being requires that exactly such a universe be spread out before us in all its stirring beauty” (Miller). Life has been built, over the billions of years on the physics and chemistry of matter itself. We live in a universe in which life is contingent upon the laws of nature and woven into the fabric of the universe itself. God, taking her sweet time, didn’t have any “corporate” deadlines. This was no ”rush” job that had to be completed in six days. From stardust to humanity involved a precise formula that couldn’t be deviated from in the slightest. Such precision required time and, at the right time, the kairotic moment: “the Lord God formed man from the starddust of the galaxies, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
When I look at the pictures from the Webb Space Telescope, at the heavens, the stars, the work of God’s fingers, I can only ask; what are human beings that God is mindful of us? We are the work of God’s hands. She made us from stardust and the great wind of God’s breath blew that stardust across the empty vastness until humans were formed after billions of years. God made us a little lower than herself and crowned us with glory and honor. Then God commanded us to have dominion over the intricately developed universe, not in terms of power and oppression, but as stewards protecting, enhancing, and encouraging all the entities of the universe to respond to God’s gentle persuasion. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
by William Trollinger
Kathleen Wellman is Dedman Family Distinguished Professor of History and Altshuler Distinguished Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. She is also the author of Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2021). You can read my post on this terrific book here. We at rightingamerica are very pleased that Wellman was willing to be interviewed about Hijacking History.
1. What prompted you to research and write a book on what is taught in high school history textbooks produced by fundamentalist publishers? I gather from your introduction that Texas – particularly, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards – played a role in your decision to conduct this research. Could you also say something about that?
Hijacking History was not a book I would have ever imagined writing. I am an early modern Europeanist. My earlier scholarship focused on intellectual history, the history of science, and the history of women in early modern France. But every ten years the State Board of Education of Texas establishes standards for instruction. Some standards for world history of the periods of history I know best were simply bizarre. One standard stipulated that Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin be discussed as important Enlightenment figures who had a profound impact on the founding fathers—a claim both inaccurate and anachronistic. Other standards insisted that Moses was a prime influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that Mosaic law is fundamental to our laws. When the Texas Freedom Network, a non-partisan organization committed to religious freedom, individual liberties, and public education, recruited scholars to evaluate educational material produced to conform to the standards, I discovered that publishers had actually not been able to figure out how to incorporate Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin beyond listing them as important religious figures, which of course they are. They did, however, claim Moses as a significant source of the crucial documents of the American founding and of American law. When I began to investigate possible sources of these rather bizarre ideas about the eighteenth century, I became familiar with the fundamentalist textbooks published from the 1970s onwards—the focus of my book. They not only repudiate the Enlightenment but also affirm the importance of Moses and John Calvin to the founding of America. According to these textbooks, Moses provides a bedrock for the Christian-nation thesis and John Calvin a foundation for the Founders’ deep sense of sin, which meant they realized that human society was irremediable. Most importantly, these textbooks defined a consistent but disconcerting historical narrative. Their market has expanded from Christian schools, to homeschooling, and increasingly to publicly funded voucher programs, making them even more significant than their fifty-year history suggested.
2. How do these textbooks understand and present “history,” and how is their approach at odds with what historians actually do?
These histories proudly differentiate themselves from others: they claim to present the Truth. Historians would not do so. They understand that their work explores the past by raising new questions about it and uncovering new evidence. They also understand that the present shapes historical investigation. Just one example: changes in climate have led to more intense exploration of environmental history. Historians study change over time and appreciate that their work contributes to a development or change in our knowledge of the past. Historians do not begin with tenets of faith, unlike these textbooks, which proclaim their authors’ faith as crucial. History, according to them, tells the story of how God has dealt with human beings through time. They trace a series of God’s providential relationships with His Chosen People from the Jews of the Bible, to Reformation Protestants, to present-day Americans. Their faith allows the writers of these textbooks to differentiate the godly from the sinful through biblical “proof-texting.” That is, history is a narrative of faith corroborated by the Bible—the crucial key to historical interpretation. These textbooks, unlike the work of historians, dismisses much of human history and denigrates most human accomplishments. Only human efforts undertaken to support “biblical truth,” meaning evangelical Protestantism, are godly and have any value; all others reflect sinful “humanism.” Therefore, the ancient world, except for Jews of biblical times, is of little interest, the Middle Ages dismissed as heretical, and modern culture denounced as secular or evil. These histories also make judgments about the past from the perspective of current religious and political right-wing ideas and values, which they consider both unquestionably Christian and as reflections of unchanging biblical truth. The writing and teaching of history thus becomes religious and political proselytization rather than a historical investigation of the past.
3. One of the things I love about Hijacking History is its attention to detail, with thirteen chapters organized chronologically from “The Beginning of History” to “The Righteous Right.” Surely there were moments in your research when it was painful to record the appalling nonsense (my phrase) that these books convey. How did you muster the intellectual and emotional stamina to do this work?
I grant you that the historical narrative I relate from prehistory to the present is often disconcerting and cumulatively quite disheartening. While it is full of “appalling nonsense,” as you call it, even the most bizarre particulars contribute to a coherent world view that was fascinating to uncover. I was intrigued by what I learned by putting the claims these textbooks make into historical context and tracing their development over time. Studying them gave me an opportunity to explore the history of religion in America from the Puritans, through the First and Second Great Awakenings, through the preeminence of Protestantism in American public life in the nineteenth century, through the separation of fundamentalists from evangelicals, to the political mobilization of the religious right at the end of the twentieth century. As these textbooks map the evolution of evangelical and fundamentalist ideas onto their world history, it was important to explore that history. I also investigated the history of education in the United States, particularly the curricular wars fought over the teaching of history. These curricula played a vital role. Created to serve the so-called “segregation academies” of the 1970s, which were created in response to desegregation and Supreme Court rulings against Bible reading and prayers in school, these textbooks subsequently appealed to parents who wanted to protect their children from the counterculture of the 1960s and more recently from multiculturalism. I studied how conservative politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders forged a symbiotic relationship post-World War II: politicians used religion to repudiate social programs that might dilute their political power or wealth; religious leaders used politics to advance their vision of a Christian nation as well as their political influence and wealth. I wanted historians and American citizens to know about this narrative because of its serious threats to our democracy. It rejects religious toleration and pluralism and the separation of church and state. It urges acceptance of political leaders as God’s anointed and the status quo as a sign of His will. It even rejoices in natural disasters as eagerly awaited signs of the apocalypse. The need to tell this story gave me a sense of urgency; it seemed to offer a specific but useful vantage point from which to view our contested present. Since the publication of the book in October 2021, some ideas these textbook promote, which initially seemed surprising or even nonsensical, have become more widespread in public discourse, reflected primarily in overt assertions of Christian nationalism.
4. In this regard, could you mention two or three “historical” details that you found most disturbing?
There are so many disturbing “historical” details that it is hard to pick just two or three, but here are a few. The commitment to elements of the Lost Cause myth with the idealization of the Confederacy and white Southern culture, with its concomitant downplaying of slavery and endorsement of white supremacy, is especially disturbing. As a historian who studies France, I could not overlook their deep antipathy to France, which they denounce as heretical (read Catholic), sinful, socialist, and the antithesis of virtuous, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon (read white) England. It was particularly jarring to have disastrous events explained as punishment for sins, most notably that World War I and World War II were divine punishments for the adoption of biblical modernism by German Protestant theologians. Finally, despite the obvious political stance of these educational materials, I was taken aback by how overtly partisan they are, especially in treating the period after the religious and political right allied. They describe Republican presidents as strong leaders who advance effective foreign policies and moral values; Democratic presidents are weak, their policies undermine the status of the United States and the moral standards of its citizens.
5. I am particularly struck by the moral callousness that comes through in these textbooks, particularly (but not only) regarding slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. But notwithstanding this moral callousness, these textbooks purport to be Christian. Do you have some explanation of this? How do these textbooks understand Christianity?
Moral callousness is an apt term to characterize the stance these textbooks take and cultivate in students. Their discussions of slavery and colonialism most forcefully reveal it. Those specific examples define how Christians should see those most unlike them in race and religion. These textbooks foster a kind of Christian superiority vis-à-vis other peoples and cultures. They presume that God shares their religious and political views. They erode empathy and cultivate intolerance, while, at the same time, urging the conversion of individuals and the imposition of their version of Christianity on the world. They connect Christianity explicitly (and rather unbelievably) to capitalism: God condemns socialism and endorses capitalism. The study of world history then reveals a divinely-ordered playing field where God determines economic success or failure. Christianity thus construed is loosely tied to Calvin’s notion of the elect and to his presumptive signs of election but deployed to harshly condemn the unsuccessful as ungodly. These economic arguments have roots in the division among nineteenth-century evangelicals.. Some were deeply committed to social action and public charity. Others, primarily in the South, rejected the Social Gospel largely because it would threaten the social structure of the segregationist South. These histories align with the earlier views of Southern evangelicals and attack every measure taken to provide for the poor as subverting God’s plan for man, from Roman “bread and circuses” including every American social program from the New Deal to the Great Society to the Affordable Care Act. They condemn movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, and women’s rights. Redress of social ills is not the proper concern of Christians. To claim that the Bible has no social message and that Christians must not intervene in the social and economic reality God has constructed profoundly distorts Christianity. Nonetheless, these are the essential political and economic positions these textbooks take. And while Christianity is harsh, judgmental, and uncharitable, Christianity affirms American exceptionalism: America was founded as a new Christian nation; God’s favor blesses America’s foreign interventions and sanctifies (or whitewashes) its domestic history. Even these few examples reveal connections between the Christianity of these textbooks and the moral stance they cultivate—complacency at best, complete callousness at worst.
6. Where else do you see this fundamentalist history in other discussions of education? What purposes does this fundamentalist education serve in contemporary politics?
When I began to work on this book, I thought the Texas standards for history were anomalous. As I explored these curricula, I found aspects of their narrative being promoted in contemporary politics, largely because they so successfully fuse their ideas about Christianity to the political right. Recent attacks on the teaching of history in public school and upon certain books in libraries directly conform to positions these textbooks advance. State legislatures and school boards assert with ever greater vehemence that America is a Christian nation and should be again. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Makin v. Carson required Maine to use public funds for explicitly religious education. The furor over critical race theory, a legal theory not taught in any American public school, allowed parents to object to teaching about slavery or race relations in American history, and state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting it and any subject that makes students uncomfortable! Florida is paying public school teachers to attend a “civics education” program, essentially an indoctrination in Christian nationalism. The 1776 project, initiated under Donald Trump to contest the 1619 Project’s insistence on the preeminence of slavery and African American culture in American history, instead largely excised slavery from American history. The founders, according to this history, opposed slavery and intended to establish a Christian nation. Hillsdale College developed school standards based on the 1776 Project for states, which will impose essential tenets of these textbooks on public schools that adopt them. Proposals for voucher programs intend to both advance this history and to defund public schools offering a counternarrative. Efforts to privatize education serve the financial interests of the political right, by creating opportunities for private investment of public funds. All of these measures will expand the diffusion of these textbooks, as have existing voucher programs, with this unorthodox history. Its wider diffusion serves right-wing political and religious interests by promoting as “Christian” a history which idealizes Republican economic policies. It will allow this history to define “real” Americans and “real” Christians—categories increasingly significant in American public discourse.
7. As I noted in my post about your book, you make a powerful argument that “bad history matters” (298). And then you conclude Hijacking History with suggestions as to how we might combat the effects of this “bad history.” Could you say a little more about what we might/should do?
The perniciousness of this narrative demands refutation, especially since the implications of the Christian-nation thesis, according to some of its proponents, require that only Christians hold public office and that Jews and non-Christians be excluded from public life. Historians can and should confront this narrative wherever it occurs. Historical studies of Christian nationalism, its roots and its dangers to democracy, have begun to appear, but they need to be better known. Journalists too have made the Christian Right a more frequent topics of op-ed pages. But their views need to garner as much attention as those generated by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and incredibly effectively disseminated through right-wing media. His two most noteworthy attempts to generate cultural outrage in advance of the midterm elections include the purported crises of sexual education as “grooming” and teaching about slavery as CRT. Similar media savvy should be deployed against the Christian-nation argument and its attendant claims.
Educators at all levels and others opposed to the imposition of this historical narrative should pay attention to politics at the local level. They need to be aware that school board elections have long been a focus of the Republican party’s efforts to undermine public education and impose historical narratives like these. Well-organized local opposition can thwart even well-funded efforts. A national commitment to campaign finance reform could reduce the role of money in politics and thus diminish its role in local elections.
Christians, Christian churches, and religious leaders should resist efforts to redefine Christianity in ways that conform to these curricula. They should repudiate the political use of churches by the Republican Party, which includes church-issued voting guides and sermons giving explicit instructions on how to vote. While the “big tent” notion of evangelicalism makes criticizing other Christians or specific pastors or churches particularly difficult, they should recognize the existential threat this politization of religion poses. Christianity is being redefined in ways that make it deeply unattractive to those who reject the values and ideas of these curricula. To the extent that Christianity becomes Christian nationalism and its adherents “real Christians,” the message of the Gospel is subverted and Christianity distorted into a political message fueled by grievance and hatred. This prospect should galvanize a concerted rejection of this message by Christians and their leaders.
8. What research project(s) are you working on now? Are you staying with the Christian Right, or are you taking a break?
I remain interested in participating in public discussions of efforts to spread the narrative advanced in these textbooks. I recently analyzed a draft of world history standards proposed for consideration by the State Board of Education and was pleased to see that the draft standards are both more inclusive and less tendentious than the former standards. I see the issues surrounding history teaching as a focus of my on-going advocacy and political engagement but not of another scholarly project, at least not at this point. Instead, I am returning to my earlier research interests in eighteenth-century medicine and philosophy to study how a group of French physicians contributed to the emerging Enlightenment movement in France.