by William Trollinger
Camille Kaminski Lewis is, as of this fall, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal. And she is currently working on a manuscript titled Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance.
And she has just published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang, 2020). This anthology makes for both appalling and inspiring reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Camille was willing to be interviewed about White Nationalism and Faith.
- Could you give a brief overview of what this volume contains, and how you imagine it being used in the classroom?
- I include American texts since the Civil War that both featured white nationalist arguments in religious rhetoric as well as those texts that countered those same arguments. For instance, after James Forman read his “Black Manifesto” at Rockefeller’s Riverside Church in Manhattan, Carl McIntire came back with his own “Christian Manifesto.” McIntire (poorly) imitates Forman’s organization and arguments – an imitation that my students perceived was very similar to current #AllLivesMatter appeals. Thus, each set of artifacts in the book is a conversation that might give us solutions in countering white nationalism and faith.
- Since I just finished using the volume in my classroom this semester, I have a very clear picture on its use. I coupled my volume with Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy. The students read the secondary source every Monday and these primary sources every Wednesday. And then on Friday they were tasked with facilitating the class discussion. The selections worked both to inform the students about the persistence of demagogic white nationalism in our public conversations as well as to help them imagine democratic solutions to them.
- In introducing this collection of documents you make – drawing from Kenneth Burke – this powerful (and on point) assertion: “Ignoring the rhetoric with the strain of One-Hundred Percenters – or what current conversations dub ‘white nationalists’ – will vandalize our civic sphere. Knocking off a few adverse memes will only gratify ourselves. Our job, then, is to find all the available ways of making the white nationalist distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of this kind will be ineffective in performing their swindle.” Can you say more about what constitutes civic vandalism, and what it is that we need to do?
- I have regularly confessed to my students over the last five years that I feel very gratified when I post a meme about our former “Cheeto-in-Chief.” That is what Burke is talking about in his “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Calling Hitler in Burke’s time or Trump in our time “a clown” does not take him seriously enough but only makes us feel pious. That self-righteous political piety is how Burke described what we today call “purity politics.” Voltaire is referencing the same thing with his aphorism, “il meglio è l’inimico del bene” or “the best is the enemy of the good.” Piously clinging to the purest of motives or piously spitting on the evilest of actors ruins the political sphere. It’s a kind of vandalism. I remember when I tried to grow a tea rose in this Southern climate. I was constantly pruning and powdering and spraying and plucking, and the plant grew to take over the entire bed. And I never got a bloom. The dumb plant was ruining the looks of that flower bed and grating on my last nerve, and for what? That’s what “knocking off a few adverse attitudizings” does for our public sphere. We need to resist that and get to work solving the rhetorical problems before us.
- In your estimation what is the most appalling document you have included here? (I will nominate Billy James Hargis’ “The Cross and the Sickle.”) What is the most inspiring?
- I didn’t get permission for one text that I wanted to include: Bob Jones, Sr.’s Easter Sunday morning sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” So I would nominate that one especially since its counter-statement is also my most inspiring. At a Springfield, Missouri town hall Pastor Phil Snider took Bob Jones’ text and changed “racial segregation” to “gay rights” to show how similar the arguments against marriage equality were to the arguments against racial integration. Snider’s speech makes me sweat every time I hear it, and my students get enraptured with his creativity.
- But yes, Billy James Hargis is perfectly terrible, isn’t he? It might be that he’s preaching in such a familiar, anti-logical, midwestern, mid-century way.
- In your acknowledgments you make this arresting statement: “I am also grateful to those rhetors who took umbrage at the mere suggestion that I include them in a volume on white nationalism and faith.” Could you elaborate on this?
- Well, three people objected to my even asking for reprint permission. Instead of just saying, “no,” or not responding at all, they took this opportunity to preen and strut. And after several cordial phone conversations with Franklin Graham’s press agent, I received the following boiler-plate refusal: “Franklin has publicly denounced all forms of racism and bigotry. As president of Samaritan’s Purse, he has dedicated his life to serving people of all races and backgrounds. His ministry is currently providing spiritual and physical aid to victims of war, natural disasters, disease, famine, poverty, and persecution in more than 100 countries. Franklin has already made his position on this issue clear, so permission will not be granted to reprint his sermon in this publication.”
- Fair enough. Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch List includes John Weaver, who objected to my using his “The Truth about the Confederate Flag” and stated, “I have learned not to trust people who want to ‘use my materials’ and then take everything out of context or present it in a liberal, leftist, humanistic light.”
- But Bob Jones University’s Chief of Staff, Randy Page, was the most insulting and, frankly, revealing. He stated to my assistant: “We have no interest in providing information for an academically farcical publication.” I wanted to include Page’s statement especially since I was acting as that “Modern Woman” Bob Jones railed against in the now-public-domain sermon I could include. But the editors suggested I be more euphemistic in my mention.
- What is your current scholarly project?
- I am about 75% done with my next project called Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance. I have named the rhetoric that supported and perpetuated this intersection of conservative politics, revivalism, and white male supremacy, “Klandamentalism.” Contrary to the academic assumption that the Ku Klux Klan exploited naïve and pious evangelicals for its own gain, a close reading of twentieth-century revival sermons and their media coverage shows that the Klansman and the fundamentalist spokesman were promoting the same ideology, from the same pulpits, and with the same rhetoric. My neologism features this fusion. Through rhetorical analysis, I will map the trajectory of Klandamentalism from the Civil War through the twenty-first century.
- Bob Jones melded an orthodoxish vocabulary with a violent white male supremacy that sets up one strain of the American citizenry to be comfortable with a tyrant. Klandamentalism starts with a forceful, egocentric singular personality and a small but secret cadre of young, white males who alone act upon their neighbors, employees, families, and nation to “bring them to God” in order to earn their own entry into Heaven. Their actions are imprecise and bland. Their antagonists—usually gendered feminine—flamboyantly lure the white male believers’ attention away from their heavenly destination.
- Throughout the twentieth-century, Jones laid his Klandamentalist cards out on the table for us to examine. His hand has been passed to four generations now, and the latest one has picked it up to win the presidency for its own demagogue all with white evangelical support—with Klandamentalist support. This twentieth-century “Klandamentalism” persists past Bob Jones’ prolific public life and continues to goad a particular American subculture into the twenty-first century. The current civic conversation in the United States is caught in a trap of religious arguments masking white supremacy. We as a nation are struggling with how to identify, address, and counter an ideology that can be alternatively too religious to be public or too racist to be admitted. But we have encountered this same rhetorical strategy before. Our great-grandparents addressed white supremacist religious arguments in their civic conversations, and unraveling how they countered those white supremacist strategies will help us solve inequality today.
Thank you Camille!
by William Trollinger
In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) legalizing same-sex marriage, a good friend of mine predicted this day was coming. This past weekend he sent me a one-sentence email: “And now the other shoe has finally dropped.”
33 current and former college and seminary students have filed a class action lawsuit seeking – to quote from the suit filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) – “to put an end to the U. S. Department of Education’s complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.”
The schools that the plaintiffs attend or attended constitute a veritable Who’s Who of evangelical and fundamentalist educational institutions (plus a Mormon and a Seventh-day Adventist school, for good measure) that are not customarily grouped together (just note the first four schools on this list):
- Azusa Pacific University (CA)
- Baylor University (TX)
- Bob Jones University (SC)
- Brigham Young University (UT)
- Cedarville University (OH)
- Note: As discussed here, a group of Cedarville students have created an anonymous online magazine in which they critique the repression and hypocrisy that is Cedarville. Coincidentally (or not), their most recent article – which appeared two days before the lawsuit was filed – deals with the experiences of LGBTQ students at Cedarville.
- Clarks Summit University (PA)
- Colorado Christian College (CO)
- Dordt University (IA)
- Eastern University (PA)
- Fuller Theological Seminary (CA)
- George Fox University (OR)
- Grace University (NE)
- Note: Grace shut its doors in 2018. If you are interested in reading about how this Mennonite school became “fundamentalized,” see here.
- Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
- La Sierra University (CA)
- Liberty University (VA)
- Lipscomb University (TN)
- Messiah University (PA)
- Moody Bible Institute (IL)
- Nyack College (NY)
- Oklahoma Baptist University (OK)
- Seattle Pacific University (WA)
- Toccoa Falls College (GA)
- Union University (TN)
- Westmont College (CA)
- York College (NE)
According to the lawsuit, the Department of Education’s
inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness . . . The status quo, where the Department leaves such students on their own in this perilous limbo, results in concrete, verifiable, and widespread harms. Each Plaintiff has their own story of oppression to tell, and each Plaintiff represents thousands more whose stories deserve to be heard.
One of the plaintiffs is Lucas Wilson, who attended Liberty University from 2008 to 2012. As Wilson recounts in an NBC News article, “Liberty University is a ‘thoroughly homophobic institution’” that not only administers “conversion therapy in the form of a student club” – then called “Band of Brothers,” but now called “Armor Bearers” – but also devotes many classes to “’the evils of the homosexual lifestyle.’”
In explaining the lawsuit REAP Director Paul Southwick argues that the government is unconstitutionally allowing the “religious exemption to Title IX” to be used by evangelical colleges to target “people based on sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, for inferior treatment.” In this lawsuit REAP is making use of Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), in which the Supreme Court ruled that BJU “did not get to maintain its tax-exempt status due to an interracial dating ban – a policy the university claimed was based in its sincerely held religious beliefs.” According to the Court, the government’s interest in proscribing racial discrimination overrode the religious exemption clause.
Not surprisingly, Christian Right leaders are apoplectic over the REAP lawsuit. This past Saturday Ken Ham posted this on his Facebook page:
As we at Answers in Genesis have warned, gay “marriage” was the door that opened the LGBTQ agenda. It ramps up more each day. And for those who profess Christianity who support such an agenda, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law [God’s Word], even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
This lawsuit, combined with the outrage from Ham and others in the Christian Right, puts evangelical and fundamentalist schools in a very difficult position. I assume that many of these institutions will (implicitly or explicitly) concede that the religious exemption clause should not apply to racial discrimination, but that it should apply as regards sexual orientation and gender identity.
But on what basis? In the 1980s Bob Jones University was simply repeating what millions of white evangelicals said about slavery and what millions of white evangelicals said about racial segregation, that is, slavery and segregation were in keeping with a literal reading of the Bible. If racial discrimination is not allowable – despite the raft of biblical arguments made in its behalf – at institutions benefitting from tax monies, then why is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation acceptable at such institutions?
What is the argument, Ken? And were the prayers of the millions of white evangelicals who supported slavery and segregation – as well as the prayers of the untold numbers of contemporary Christian white supremacists and Christian neo-Confederates – also an abomination before the Lord?
What makes this lawsuit a very difficult moment for more moderate evangelical schools – and I taught at one of them for eight years, so I know whereof I speak — is that they have been playing to two different audiences at once. Internally, they reassure faculty that they just need to wait until the older generation of evangelicals has passed, and then there will be a blessed tolerance when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. But externally, they reassure their conservative constituency that they are holding to a firm biblical line when it comes to issues of sexuality — they are “safe schools” (thanks Adam Laats for this descriptor) that are not bowing to the decadent liberal culture.
But now the issue is being forced. The “two audience” strategy is going to be much more difficult (if impossible) to maintain. No matter how this particular lawsuit turns out, this matter is not going away. The apocalyptic moment is here.
How will evangelical colleges respond?
by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
For at least one hundred years, evangelical/fundamentalist preachers have demeaned moderate-to-liberal preachers as children of the devil, as the spawns of hell, as a raving pack of socialists, communists, and atheists. They have fearlessly, loudly, and repeatedly attacked us as the enemies of God who do not believe in the Bible, in God, or in America.
Perhaps the great granddaddy of attack rhetoric was J. Frank Norris, the fire-breathing Texas fundamentalist who has been dubbed “God’s rascal” by historian Barry Hankins. In a sermon series against municipal corruption, Norris preached on “The Ten Biggest Devils in Fort Worth—Names Given.” Most of the men Norris named in the sermon were in attendance on that Sunday night. Enraged community leaders tried to run him out of town, and his life was threatened. A later generation, led by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson, perfected the art of blasting every person, institution, and entity with accusations like a southern farmer firing his twelve-gauge shotgun at teenage watermelon thieves. Accusations are the evangelical brand.
Turning the tables, I am arguing here that evangelical preachers are a species of “devil.” I am using the word “devil” in the sense of the Hebrew word for “Satan,” the accuser. This name defines the rhetoric of evangelical leaders. Their words imply a form of violence, usually a white hyper-male violence of control, dominance, abuse, and degradation. Their words consummate a series of lies that are cloaked in the language of Christian piety.
To suggest that some evangelical leaders are “devils” will strike many as absurd and harsh, but this is a war of metaphors and meanings. This is the march of the rhetorical tropes. Call it the “war of hyperboles.” While I am not exactly saying that evangelical leaders are devils, I’m just saying they are devils in the Hebrew sense of the word “Satan” – accusers. In other words, I “see” your paralipsis and I raise you a paralipsis. This is a serious condemnation, with evidence and warrants, for a group of people who are telling lies while knowing they are lying. In that spirit, here are the “Seven Biggest Devils in Evangelicalism – Names Given.”
1. Robert Jeffress
Chief among the evangelical devils is Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Jeffress has been called “Trump’s Apostle,” and has been labeled as one of the leading “court evangelicals” (John Fea, Believe Me). Embracing all the false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous theology of dispensationalists, Christian nationalists, and young earth creationists is trouble enough.
But Jeffress goes further, calling Democrats “false religious leaders who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He says that “when they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible.” Instead, “these liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.” In short, Democrats are atheists: “The democrat party has become a godless party and so that’s why you find such animosity against conservative Christians and against the Bible. They hate God and I think the President knows that.” (https://harbingersdaily.com/dr-robert-jeffress-the-radical-democrat-party-has-become-the-godless-party/). “It is no coincidence, that 70 percent of atheists identify as democrats and only 15 percent as Republicans.”
Jeffress routinely mixes fearmongering with his distortions: “And if the left ever gains control of this country again, I predict it’s going to be like the French Revolution. It’s going to be ‘bring out the guillotines,’ [as they] execute every thought they object to, and every person who holds every thought that they object to.” https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2020/06/13/robert-jeffress-if-democrats-ever-win-they-will-bring-out-the-guillotines/. By his own words, Jeffress is a devil.
2. David Barton
One of major propagators of evangelical falsehoods is the “hobby” historian David Barton. Jeffress and Barton are two Texas peas in a devil’s pod. Barton, a Republican operative, has spent his career debunking the First Amendment and insisting that America was founded as a Christian nation. He has claimed that taking prayer from public schools caused a precipitous drop in ACT scores. He is the pseudo-scholar of the entire Christian nationalist movement. Barton fills his books and videos with inaccurate facts to fuel his imagined “Christian America.” His teachings have been debunked by nearly every American historian, including those who teach at evangelical schools. Barton referred to Trump as “God’s guy,” and has pushed his nativism to the maximum. Barton wrote a book, Jefferson’s Lies, that is so filled with distortions and misstatements and “made-up” quotes that Nelson Publishers, a conservative evangelical publishing house, removed the book from publication. It turns out the only lies in the book were “Barton lies.” As Andre Chouraqui puts it in “The Psalms,” the Devil is the Accuser, so styled by his name in Hebrew, Satan: “His every word consummates a lie.” Lies are the primary tool of a devil, and writing a book full of lies means Barton joins the devil tribe.
3. Tim LaHaye
The most influential teacher of end-time prophecy was the late Tim LaHaye. Followed by more than 100 million believers, his creative, speculative, and literalistic approach to the symbolic language of apocalyptic passages in the Bible read current events into Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. He attacked those who disagree with him: “These are usually liberal theologians that don’t believe the Bible literally.” Respected evangelical and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that LaHaye’s “Left Behind” vision is a “pseudo-theological version of Home Alone” (The Anointed, 18).
Glen Scherer, in “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” argues that a delusional mix of ideology and theology, centered in the rapture, has moved from the wacko fringe of American life to the center of political power. At least half the members of Congress are rapture believers, which endangers environmental policy, and which has dangerous implications for foreign policy. LaHaye’s teachings are untrue, unbiblical, and dangerous. The devil, here, is in the details of how God will allegedly be the supreme perpetrator of genocide. The rapture ideology is the devil’s playground.
4. Ken Ham
The Creation Museum may look like any other tourist-trap theme park, but the dark themes of this ministry, promoted by Ken Ham, tells a different story. The danger here is not so much the naïve assumption that God created the world in six literal days, but in the anti-science movement that Ham and company have enabled across the nation. The anti-science movement, claiming to be about “real science,” has fueled anti-Vaxxers and climate denial. “Climate denial is certainly the most ‘epic’ form of fake-news our culture has ever known,’ according to philosopher Rupert Read. Climate-denial pretends to give the deniers power of nature itself and freedom from truth. While insisting that he is the “answer man,” Ham and his followers are unwilling to be bound by anything, even truth itself.
Ham talks a lot about how much he believes in science and how many young earth creationists scientists are intellectually respectable, but in the words of biologist, Kenneth R. Miller, “there’s no there there.” Ham has claimed that evolution is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. He has blamed evolution for every known disaster on the planet. The reality is that Ham’s message is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. His Answers in Genesis ministry is a powerful shaper of popular opinion with simple, comfortable, easy answers. The Creation Museum is a seductive experience, a veritable devil’s den of misstatement, false claims, and dangerous ideology.
5. Franklin Graham
Franklin Graham has a very long track record of anti-Islam bigotry. A month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Graham, speaking at the dedication of a new chapel, told an audience that Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion.” Pressed to clarify his comments by NBC, Graham said, “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/franklin-graham-islamophobia-trump-inauguration_n_587e3ea5e4b0aaa369429373. He has also accused Islam of being a “religion of war.” In 2014, Graham attacked the National Cathedral for allowing a Muslim prayer in its worship. He said, “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins.” Notice how seamlessly he promotes his Islamophobia with Jesus.
Following the example of Donald Trump, Graham doubled down to imply that Obama was a Muslim. “We’re going to see persecution, I believe, in this country because our president is very sympathetic to Islam and the reason I say that … is because his father was a Muslim, gave him a Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama.” Graham paints a picture of a holy war, and he promotes an ideology that is xenophobic, patriarchal, idolatrous, bloodthirsty, and elitist. These are the clear earmarks of a Satan, the accuser.
6. Paula White
Perhaps no one has been more of an acolyte of Trump than prosperity gospel preacher, Paula White. This charismatic preacher claims she led Trump to Christ. Serving as Trump’s spiritual advisor, she was a paid employee on Trump’s staff. After the 2020 election, she held a prayer service, which was streamed on Facebook live. During the service White called on “angelic reinforcement” from the continents of Africa and South America. “I hear a sound of victory, the Lord says it is done,” she said. “For angels have even been dispatched from Africa right now… In the name of Jesus from South America, they’re coming here.” White praying for angels to bring Trump the victory has been passed off as harmless prosperity gospel hyperbole, but it is dangerous and heretical. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/05/paula-white-trumps-spiritual-adviser-african-south-american-angels/6173576002/.
White told her television audience, “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.” (Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 111, 113, 124, 125). White has asked her followers to donate their entire January paycheck to her ministry during the pandemic. She once told her audience to sow the seed of faith in the form of a $1,144 donation to her ministry. White claimed that God specifically instructed her to ask for this $1,144 because it corresponded to her sermon text, John 11:44. The prosperity gospel is the work of the devil.
7. Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. lost his ranking as a top Trump apostle when he was photographed in a compromising picture with a young woman. He still makes the list because he qualifies as a fallen angel. Falwell claimed that seeking to impeach Trump would be the Democrats’ Pearl Harbor, and the 2020 election their Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Defending the right to bear arms, Falwell reached for extra hyperbole: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to call for civil disobedience if the Democrats go through with this. You don’t mess with people’s guns in this part of the state,” Falwell said. He said the Democratic party and its supporters were “no longer liberals — they’ve become fascists, they’re Brownshirts. You believe like them or you’re out.”
Falwell attacked Christianity Today. “With the magazine’s insidious condemnation of the greatest president in American history for people of faith, Christianity Today showed that it stands with the radical progressive left that wants to deny basic Judeo-Christian beliefs throughout our culture and society. A large majority of Americans and the Christian world stands with President Trump and against the radical left because he’s the only thing that stands between us and the escalating attacks on our faith and liberty.” https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/jerry-falwell-jr-christianity-today-is-wrong-about-trump-he-is-a-champion-for-people-of-faith. Unfortunately, Falwell learned there were limits to how much “devilment” the Liberty University board would tolerate, and he was dismissed for falling for the more ordinary, garden-variety temptations of the Evil One.
I have claimed there are devils on the loose speaking in the name of Jesus. You know they are devils because they are speaking lies. They preach that America was founded by right-wing Christians who espoused the same theology as they do. They preach that God created the world in six literal days and that all the answers are in Genesis. They promote an illusory Rapture where Jesus is supposed to show up and snatch all the good people into the clouds before he commits universal genocide. They teach that God hates foreigners, especially Muslims. They know the story of Ruth and Jonah, but still they are deeply prejudiced against foreigners. They know Jesus condemned his own people for being religious elitists, and yet they insist on demeaning persons of other faiths. They make God an agent in making money to support expensive lifestyles. They demean science and create mistrust in climate scientists and pandemic research. They produce false prophets who lead people to destruction.
Accepting the judgment that those who judge will be held to the same standard, I still say, “Call these preachers what they are: devils.”
by William Trollinger
For the past nine years the Cedarville University administration has done everything in its power to eliminate discussion of any ideas mildly at variance with the patriarchal Christian Right ideology propagated by the administration as the Truth. Indoctrination, not education, is Cedarville’s goal. Dissent of any sort is simply not permitted.
And yet, it turns out that – even at Cedarville – there are students who are not willing to turn over their brains to the fundamentalist thought police. And this has to be driving President Thomas White crazy.
First, here’s an extremely abbreviated timeline of how Cedarville became the (almost) hermetically sealed, anti-intellectual right-wing echo chamber that it is today, with the school’s recent scandals included for good measure. (See the end of the blog post for a library of rightingamerica posts on Cedarville, each of which contains numerous links for further information).
- August 2012: Theology professor Michael Pahl is fired for affirming the historical Adam and Eve on theological grounds but not on the basis of biblical exegesis.
- October 2012: President William Brown resigns, pleasing those on the Board of Trustees concerned about “creeping liberalism” at Cedarville.
- January 2013: Vice-President for Student Life Carl Ruby resigns, pleasing those on the Board of Trustees concerned about “creeping liberalism” at Cedarville (especially as regards LGBTQ students).
- January 2013: The Philosophy major is eliminated after two philosophy professors write an anti-Romney-for-president editorial.
- June 2013: The fundamentalist takeover of the Board is complete with addition of the now-disgraced Paige Patterson, who had helped engineer – with the now-disgraced Paul Pressler – the fundamentalist capture of the Southern Baptist Convention.
- July 2013: Patterson protege Thomas White is appointed as Cedarville’s president.
- Spring 2014: Cedarville hardens its commitment to patriarchy by mandating that Bible and Theology classes taught by women cannot include any male students.
- April 2014: President White and other administrators prowl the campus, gathering hard copies of the independent student newspaper, The Ventriloquist, because the paper had permitted students to express opinions at odds with the school’s fundamentalist rulers.
- Summer 2014: The “great purge” of Cedarville administrators, professors, staff members, and trustees is essentially complete (as with totalitarian regimes, purges at fundamentalist institutions are never totally complete).
- Spring 2017: Cedarville puts into place its infamous “Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy,” with its focus not on social justice (that would indicate “creeping liberalism”), but on extreme sexual purity.
- Summer 2017: Thomas White hires Anthony Moore to serve as multicultural recruiter at Cedarville, knowing full well that Moore had been fired six months earlier by The Village Church (Fort Worth TX) for secretly videotaping a male youth pastor while showering at Moore’s home. Moore rapidly moves up the Cedarville ladder, securing faculty rank in the Biblical and Theological Studies Department while also adding to his list of jobs special advisor to the president and assistant coach of the Cedarville basketball team.
- April 2020: Moore’s past becomes public, and so White fires Moore.
- May 2020: White is placed on administrative leave while also retaining his job, and he participates fully in Cedarville’s graduation ceremonies.
- June 2020: After a seven week investigation (!) White is fully reinstated in his position.
Despite the fact that two trustees resigned in protest of the decision to retain White as president, despite the fact that a survey revealed that 87% of Cedarville stakeholders wanted the trustees to reconsider this decision, Cedarville doubled down. As I noted in a September 04 2020 post, “the school has gone the other direction, shutting down all dissent within the school, to the point – so I am told – of firing a long-term nursing professor for criticizing the president.”
So as of this autumn it seemed that White and company had it all locked down at Cedarville, especially given that the Higher Learning Commission – Cedarville’s accrediting agency – seems determined to turn a blind eye to the school’s various improprieties (which involve much more than the Anthony Moore affair, and which are discussed in the rightingamerica posts listed below). That is to say, as of this fall it seemed that the anti-intellectual fortress that is Cedarville was safely impregnable.
But that assessment fails to take into account the fact that not every single student is content with life in the Cedarville bubble. And in February a few of these students introduced The Cedarville Interpreter, an online and anonymous blog of dissent. As they have eloquently explained the purpose of this blog,
“Cedarville has ignored its student body for too long. Our mission at the Interpreter is to shed light on the issues students of Cedarville University grapple with and to provide information and resources for students who struggle or dare to disagree with Cedarville’s rules or all-encompassing way of life. Articles are published anonymously by students in order to protect their identities and prevent potential dismissal from the University.”About Us,” The Cedarville Interpreter
Here are a few snippets from the first month of The Cedarville Interpreter. A link to the blog is provided after these snippets. Kudos to these students for their courage, and for their determination to see.
“Picture This: You arrive on campus at Cedarville University as a wide-eyed freshman ready to experience your first taste of freedom. Your first day, yippee! As you walk into your new dorm, your RA informs you of a mandatory meeting that night so you can get to know the girls in the hall a bit better. After gathering all the gals together, your RA starts to go over some basic rules. No problem, we’ve all had a meeting like this before. You notice your RA wearing leggings and a t-shirt while discussing the dress code and think, “Maybe the dress code isn’t as strict as I thought!” But your RA informs you that the reason she is wearing leggings is for a demonstration. You start to wonder what’s going on when marshmallows are being passed out. Then something crazy happens: your RA instructs you to ‘stone’ her with the marshmallows because she deserves it for going against the rules and wearing leggings. This was the actual experience of one CU student and the rest of her hall.”“’It was the Woman’ – The Blame Game that Started with Eve,” The Cedarville Interpreter, February 20, 2021
“After Cedarville had its fifteen months of fame after shutting down The Ventriloquist and firing a plethora of liberal insurgents, they shifted their approach in order to shy away from the limelight. Nowadays, Cedarville has become much more subtle in their methods of censorship. I cannot tell you how many messages we received saying Cedarville silenced me. They have silenced the conversation on mental health. They have silenced the conversation on the LGBTQ+ community (don’t worry, our little gay rebels, we’ve got a doosie coming for you here soon). They have silenced the conversation on female leadership. They have silenced the conversation on a non-six day creation (which, does it really matter if God created the world in six literal days or created it so perfectly that over a period of many years it formed into the world we know today?) Despite what they said in chapel on Monday, they have silenced the conversation on discrimination and sexual assault and relational violence.”“The Puppetmaster: Cedarville’s Interminable History of Censorship,” The Cedarville Interpreter, February 23, 2021
“It has come to the point that even kissing your significant other or (even worse) sharing a blanket could earn you a PC (personal caution) from an RA. One time, a guy kissed his girlfriend on the cheek after a chapel message because she had been going through some hard times, and was informed that chapel wasn’t the place for that. . . . Purity culture is filled to the brim with shame. It subtly (or overtly in many cases) forces you to be ashamed of your sexuality, rather than confident in it even within the confines of marriage. The reason that this emphasis exists is because the more ashamed and scared we are, the easier we are to control. Cedarville can easily take a group of uneducated ashamed young adults and determine exactly how they are supposed to live sexually. Professors at Cedarville have gone so far as to even suggest what sexual positions are ‘Godly’ for spouses in their ethics classes.”“The Blame Game that Started with Eve, Pt. 2: Virginity Rocks,” The Cedarville Interpreter, February 26, 2021
“Many individuals, including myself, feel that the RA’s (lol don’t we love ‘em) disproportionately distribute punishment to students. The first time I noticed this was in a dorm lounge. I was sitting next to my boyfriend, about 3” away, focused on my own laptop as I wrote a paper. He tapped on me to show me a meme. I looked over at his phone right as one of the RA’s was walking past. Within an hour, I had gotten an email stating I’d earned a PC for sitting on my boyfriend. Given the fact that, well… I wasn’t, this was infuriating. It was especially so because at the same time, right behind us, a couple was expressing far more ‘physical affection’ than I was. The RA told them hello, so I know they were noticed. However, the RA and the girl in the relationship were friends, and so they didn’t get in trouble as I did.”“Student Voices: #001,” The Cedarville Interpreter, March 03, 2021
Cedarville “never allows students to fail or encounter challenging ideas, it never offers alternatives to the self-appointed truth it propagates, and it resists any sort of change or forward-thinking perceived as ‘progressive Christianity.’ Students are frozen in time: permanent residents of the Cedarville bubble whose behaviors are all but predetermined by the fear of judgement instilled by this community. Groupthink is winning the day at Cedarville. At Cedarville, you are expected to fit the mold. You must always be growing in your faith. You must be involved in as many ministries as you can handle. You must incorporate Biblical principles into every assignment even if it has nothing to do with the assignment (yep, I’m calling you out, Humanities). People who dare to break that mold are viewed as ‘struggling with their faith,’ being in pursuit of ‘liberal ideology,’ or ‘not adhering to the Cedarville covenant.’”“Cohesion or Adhesion?: Groupthink at Cedarville,” The Cedarville Interpreter, March 10, 2021
- “Cedarville University: The Purification Continues!,” rightingamerica, May 02, 2017.
- “Locked and Loaded at Cedarville,” rightingamerica, May 15, 2017.
- “Defending Cedarville, and a Response,” rightingamerica, May 25, 2017.
- “‘Biblically Consistent’ Cedarville University Knowingly Hires and then (Three Years Later) Fires Sexual Abuser,” April 28, 2020.
- “The Scandal Deepens at Cedarville University,” May 05, 2020.
- Julie L. Moore, “No Safeguard, No Whole: Why I Left Cedarville University,” May 12, 2020.
- “Rape, Sexual Harassment, and More: The Cedarville Stories are Multiplying,” May 26, 2020.
- “A ‘Culture of Silencing, Denial, and Psychological Manipulation’: The Stories from Cedarville University Just Keep Piling Up,” June 09, 2020.
- “‘You Are Made to Feel Like an Enemy’: Even More Stories from the Toxic Academic Community that is Cedarville,” June 12, 2020.
- “A Pastor’s Resignation and a Former Student’s Story: More on the Wreckage Wrought by the Fundamentalist Takeover of Cedarville,” June 16, 2020.
- “Cedarville Faculty Compile Resources for New and Incoming Students,” June 23, 2020.
- “A Whitewashing at Cedarville (Even While the Stories Keep Multiplying),” June 30, 2020.
- “Unrest and Status Quo at Cedarville,” July 17, 2020.
- “Thomas White, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the Breathtaking, Awe-Inspiring Heights of Fundamentalist Hubris,” August 11, 2020.
- “Locking It Down at Cedarville,” September 04, 2020.
- Righting America at the Creation Museum, pp. 210-214.
by John Parrett
John Parrett received his M.A. in Theological Studies from the University of Dayton. Before that, he graduated from Wilmington College with a Bachelor’s of Arts with a double major in History and Religion/Philosophy. While pursuing his master’s degree, John began working with adults with developmental disabilities, and is now a Certified Employment Support Professional (CESP). While John does not intend to further his education at this time, he continues to study religion in American culture in his spare time.
On the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Arizona is taking up a new challenge to the ruling. Arizona’s SB 1381 would make any abortion performed on the reason of sex or disability of the fetus a class 2 felony. These kinds of abortion bans are often referred to as “reason bans.”
The Right uses reason bans because such bans make abortion advocates argue the double standard that a pregnant person can take a developing life based on a class protected by anti-discrimination laws, laws that are often championed by the Left. In this debate, the Right’s favorite poster children for reason bans are those with Down Syndrome. Since March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, I thought it would be timely to address why those with cognitive disabilities are the poster children of the Right.
According to Answers in Genesis (AiG), in an article entitled “Are Humans with Disabilities Facing Extinction?,” a study from Iceland reveals that “100% of all those diagnosed with Down Syndrome have been aborted in the past several years.” According to this interpretation, we should believe that those with Down Syndrome are facing extinction. This statement is not accurately referenced from the study. While the quote from the AiG suggests that all those experiencing pregnancy opt for testing, they do not. That is to say, Down Syndrome babies are very much continuing to be born in Iceland.
More generally, AiG’s claim that humans with disabilities are facing extinction is a gross exaggeration. The most accurate testing of the fetus is not possible until 15 or 20 weeks. 80% of pregnancies are terminated before ten weeks, and little more than 5% take place after 16 weeks. These statistics show that a disability diagnosis is not a driving force for abortions, and those with disability diagnoses are not facing a eugenic genocide.
If statistics tell us that cognitive disabilities are not the leading cause of abortion, why has the Right focused on them as their talking point? It is also possible to test for Dwarfism, but no one on the Right is trying to play champion for those with Dwarfism. Why don’t we see the Right unite to protect that protected class?
The answer is because those with cognitive disabilities make good perpetual poster children, precisely because no other group of people with disabilities can more effortlessly be represented as childlike. But as a professional who supports adults with developmental disabilities in community employment, I know full well that no one stays a child forever. While the Right often falls silent on how to care for their poster children once they are born and once they become adults, we live in a capitalistic society where life is always connected to a cost. That is to say, being genuinely pro-life means that we must consider the price, even after birth.
Within their first year of life, a child with Down Syndrome will need a 2-5 times longer stay in the hospital than a typically developing child, depending on their exact diagnoses. This will add up to a child with Down Syndrome costing 2-11 times more than a typically developing child. Luckily, many government and private insurance programs will cover these costs when the child is young. Of course, that is only if the nondisabled are willing to pay the tax bill, or if the parents are lucky enough to have insurance. After the first year, the cost of caring for these children will decrease, but it will never go away entirely, as next comes adult life and employment.
The pandemic has demonstrated to the world just how hard it is to build inclusive employment. In January of 2020, the unemployment rate for those without disabilities was 6.7% and 12.6% for those with a disability. By April, 14.3% of those without a disability were unemployed compared to 18.9% with a disability. In total since March, when the pandemic began, 1 in 5 workers with a disability have lost their job, in comparison to 1 in 7 able-bodied individuals. These numbers show that inclusive community employment for those with disabilities is an ongoing challenge.
Those without a disability have always been seen as the preferred job candidate. That is a shame when we consider that if those with disabilities were included—and not just integrated—into community employment, the GDP would rise by an estimated 25 billion. Is the Right willing to take the next step and absorb the initial tax burden of creating more government funded employment services? Is the Right willing to create programs like Putting Faith to Work from the Collaborative on Faith and Disability so that congregations at the grassroots can build inclusive workspaces?
Some museums and amusement parks are starting to notice the economic power of those with disabilities. Many places now offer free online social stories to help those with developmental disabilities understand and prepare for what they will see, such as this one from the Georgia Aquarium. I often use this kind of tool to help my individuals understand and perform their job tasks. Kings Island also offers this extensive free guide for its visitors. Compared to the resources provided by these certified sites, the alternatives provided by the Creation Museum and Ark are severely lacking. Does being pro-life not mean inclusion in communal spaces?
It seems those with developmental disabilities or any disability are only being used by the Right as a means to an end. In Embrace, a Women’s Conference for Answers in Genesis, a speaker commented that “The reason that we’re saddened and shocked by disability is because we all know deep down that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we live in an abnormal world where disability is now the norm.”
This is another way of articulating the old idea that disability is a result of Adam’s sin. In her work, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Dr. Nancy L. Eiesland explains that if we believe disability is the result of sin, then those with disabilities will be sequestered away from society quickly and easily. And when those with disabilities do enter the abled community, they must be “camouflaged to make it acceptable for public discourse.” More than this, the media often camouflages disability by turning those with disabilities into “supercrips” whose task it is to teach the abled-bodied life lessons.
Disability is also “camouflaged” through systematic housing poverty. In 2017 working-age adults with cognitive disabilities had a 31.5% chance of living in poverty. Many adults with cognitive disabilities must live on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which only provides, on average, $559 a month for those ages 19-64. More than this, as of 2015 850,000 people with cognitive disabilities were living with family caregivers over the age of 60. Is the Right willing to support a hike in taxes to provide more inclusive housing, especially as individual families can no longer provide support? Is the Right willing to support a tax increase to cover the other costs associated with the long-term support and care of adults with developmental disabilities? That is to say, is the Right willing to be truly pro-life?
While providing my service out in the community, I have seen firsthand the result of misguided theology and how those with disabilities must be “camouflaged.” Just last month, while working with one of my individuals at their community job, one of their able-bodied coworkers asked me, out of my individual’s earshot, if it was fair for God to create someone like that? The coworker then explained that he believed that my individual existed as a test for the nondisabled, to see if they were deserving of heaven. Comments such as these will often come when I am assisting nonverbal individuals or individuals whose physical forms make others uncomfortable. I always brush these comments off because, when I am wearing my badge of a direct service professional, it is not the time to discuss theology. But internally I am taken aback at the ableism born of ignorance and bad theology. The individuals I serve are human. I am not being “patient” with them when I take time to walk slower or wait for them to get their words out. Instead, I am respecting them.
Building respect, equality, equity, and inclusion are uphill battles. No one person or group has the answer. However, we will not get there by using those with developmental disabilities as poster children in the pro-life movement. We will only get there together by building communities that invite and welcome all. We must move beyond asking the “why” of another’s existence, like the Right does. Instead, we must accept their being, and we must learn to support them after birth, in their health care, special education, housing, vocational rehabilitation, and more.
In short, we must do what the Right does not do. We must accept that caring for life does not end with birth.
by William Trollinger
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of religion in 21st-century America is the rapid growth of those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. As Jan Stets notes in the introduction to Empty Churches: Non-affiliation in America (Oxford, 2021), survey data reveals that between 1974 and 1991 the percentage of the religiously non-affiliated remained steady at approximately 7 percent. Then it started to rise, reaching 14 percent in 2000, 18 percent in 2010, and 23 percent in 2014. And – in data that has emerged since the writing of Empty Churches – in 2019 26 percent of all Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular.
Unimaginable to scholars of religion three decades ago, the United States seems to be headed in the direction of Europe.
A few years ago Stets (Professor and Director of the Social Psychology Research Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside) and Fr. James Heft, S.M. (just-retired President of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California) embarked on a collaborative project to help us understand this phenomenon. Toward that end they gathered 17 scholars of religion and professionals in the field who would use their expertise to reflect on and produce original research on the rapid rise of religious non-affiliation in America.
The result is the just-published Empty Churches. I am pleased to have a chapter in this volume, which is entitled: “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.” In this essay I make the case that
the quantitative and qualitative evidence strongly support the argument that the Christian Right has been a primary reason for the remarkable rise of the religious nones in the United States since the 1990s. And while it may be too early to say with certainty, it is very easy to imagine . . . that the post-2016 data will reveal that the Christian Right is driving even greater numbers of Americans to declare that they have no religious preference. Whether or not irony is the right word to apply here, one cannot escape noticing that a movement that so stridently opposes the secularizing of America is helping to accelerate this secularization. (186)
This Thursday night (March 11) at 6.30 pm Pacific Time there will be a webinar on Empty Churches. Participants include sociologist Nancy Ammerman from Boston University (“The Many Meanings of Non-Affiliation”), philosopher Bernard Prusak from King’s College (“Religious Non-Affiliation and Objections of Conscience”), and myself. After our brief presentations there will be time for questions and answers.
Registration is free – here’s the link – and we would love to have you join us!
By Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
Among evangelicals of a certain type, there is no doctrine (and it has become doctrine) that has more importance than “freedom.” In the process, they seem to have been cut loose from truth itself.
That is to say, evangelicals seek the freedom of not being lectured, shamed, and told what to do by a collection of experts. “Who are you to tell me to wear a mask?” “Who do you think you are to tell me that QAnon is a conspiracy theory?” “How dare you and a bunch of elitist experts interfere in my right to pollute this planet?”
Perhaps the reason evangelicals are not put off by Trump’s lies is that they like how it feels to watch him get away with it, in the process proving that he is stronger and more powerful than the “fake” media, the Democrats, the liberals, the scientists, the academic elitists. As philosopher Rupert Read says, “There is an active despising of truth – the practices of truth-seeking and truth-telling. In other words, the evangelical sense of parrhesia has been badly disfigured” (“What Is New in Our Time: the Truth in ‘Post-Truth” A Response to Finlayson,” Nordic Wittgenstein Review, 2019).
The ancient Greeks had a word for free speech – “parrhesia” (Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, 12). The word was used of people of virtue who spoke the truth. Trump’s followers claim they are being denied parrhesia; Trump claims to be a faithful producer of parrhesia. Both assertions are false and fake.
The supporters of Donald Trump claim they are being denied free speech and their voice has been silenced by political correctness and cancel culture. This claim rings false in the cacophony of their noisy protest from pulpits, conservative talk shows, news conferences, and magazines. What they actually fear is that they are losing the right to oppose the power of the liberal elites. This is 100% pure white pathos. The evangelical mind has devolved into an emotional black hole – “feeling free and feeling good” (Lauren Berlant, “Trump, or Political Emotions,” The New Inquiry, August 5, 2016).
Evangelical feelings of persecution, exclusion, and exile has increased their sense of alienation, of being trapped and surrounded by a horde of vicious enemies, a feeling of being besieged by an invasion of illegal immigrants, Muslims, and other foreigners, a feeling of being ignored, and plain sick and tired of being pushed out, left out, and degraded as the butt of every elitist joke in the nation. Being a Trump supporter has to be exhausting because all of media culture and academic culture and progressive Christian culture rejects everything Trump says. All that emotion: “Emotions felt, emotions expressed, emotions denied” (Roderick P. Hart, Trump and Us: What He Says and Why People Listen, 17).
Hart says that Trump supporters feel ignored, trapped, besieged, and tired. In my estimation, this comes from their sense of exile. No wonder evangelicals looked to Second Isaiah and King Cyrus as a metaphor for “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump, who would lead them home again. The evangelical lament shares much with the Jewish exiles: “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-2).
Parrhesia first enters human vocabulary with Euripides. In his “The Phoenician Women,” he displays the pain of parrhesia denied in exile. The heart of the tragedy is a fight between Oedipus’ two sons: Eteocles and Polyneices. When Eteocles refuses to allow Polyneices to reign according to their agreement of alternating years of rule, Polyneices lives in exile. I contend that this is the exile felt by evangelicals. They believe they have been ejected from the corridors of power in government, in academia, and in the public. A deeply aggrieved sense of persecution dominates their feelings.
When Polyneices returns from exile with any army, Jocasta, the mother of the two sons, persuades the two to seek a truce. She asks Polyneices why exile is so hard.
Jocasta: What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?
Polyneices: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist.
Jocasta: That’s a slave’s life – to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.
Polyneices: One has to endure the idiocy of those who rule.
Jocasta: To join fools in their foolishness – that makes one sick.
An evangelical bundle of nerves wraps around this bit of dialogue from Euripides: exile, loss of freedom of speech, and the conviction that the nation is being operated by heathens who are stupid idiots and fools. Count them by hundreds the times Trump has called people losers, stupid, idiots, sick, mentally ill. He’s playing the evangelical tune of exile.
Any number of Trump twitter attacks on Democratic leaders may be inserted here, but attempting to avoid overkill, Trump’s favorite attack on Nancy Pelosi is that she is a very sick woman with mental problems. Whether by instinct or luck, Trump sensed the evangelical angst and promised to give them once again the jouissance of parrhesia. Evangelicals flocked to his vicious, violent rhetoric, his relentless attacks on “political correctness,” on the pedagogies of shame employed by liberals against evangelicals. Trump rallies took on the aura of worship where Trump and his devoted enjoyed one another participating in cruelty. Trump took away their shame and replaced it with a sense of pride.
Herein lies the key coherence between Trump and the evangelicals. He promised them liberation from exile, he promised them redemption without repentance. They could be restored as the guardians of the nation’s moral standards and retain their emotionally satisfying themes of resentment, nativism, nationalism, triumphalism. And militarism and its mannerisms of outrageous statements, intolerance, harsh judgments, conspiracy mindedness, and overt display of religious, patriarchal patriotism. The evangelical economic angst, racism, religious bigotry, antifeminism, and hostility toward science could continue unabated, and in some cases, the oppressive rules of the liberals rolled back (among the favorite targets here – abortion, gay rights, immigrants, Muslims, religious liberty).
In other words, Trump knew his target audience. He gave them the facile promise of “Make America Great Again” as he merged his grievances with theirs to offer them redemption without repentance. From the pulpit evangelicals could keep roaring about how much their relationship with Jesus meant – and I am not disputing that their faith means a great deal to them – while living their lives as racists, homophobes, and the entire assortment of cultural maladies that afflict them. Better yet, they don’t have to offer any contrition or reparation. This is what I mean when I say that Donald Trump is the Rev. Dr. Donald Trump who preaches a gospel of redemption with no required repentance. In Trump’s gospel, the rich young ruler is a stand-in for American evangelicals to whom Trump says, “Keep your riches and your ways and come and follow me.” No repentance!
Trump’s preaching sounds as if it just exploded out of a Flannery O’Connor story as a preacher resembling Hazel Motes. Motes, one of O’Connor’s more tortured souls, was a preacher who proclaimed, “I preach a church without Jesus Christ crucified.” And when the fake blind man told Motes, “You still have a chance to save yourself if you repent,” Haze responded, “That’s what I’ve already done. Without the repenting.” Rev. Dr. Donald Trump has given evangelicals a redemption without repentance, and an atonement with the shedding of the blood of others – especially persons of color and immigrants and Muslims.
Trump leads his followers to a state of shamelessness, which is the opposite of true parrhesia. “We live in an increasingly saturated shame panopticon. This has led some of the former masters [evangelicals] to a state of shame-exhaustion, in which it becomes easier to repudiate shame altogether than respond to the moral demands placed on them” (Donovan O. Schaefer, “Whiteness and civilization: shame, race, and the rhetoric of Donald Trump,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2020). Throwing off the yoke of shame, they are free to be the exact opposite of parrhesia. As Foucault points out, “in parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy” (Foucault, 19 – 20).
Trump’s blatant misuse of parrhesia turned the truth-telling trope into the elevation of lies. Trump trumpeted his alleged “free, fearless truth” to his followers, at rally after rally, even after he became president and the evangelicals had come in out of the cold. No one cared that the rhetoric was empty, tasteless, and over-cooked leftovers from previous populist uprisings. Evangelicals, like putting ketchup on a well-done steak, swallowed the “both-sides” logic of moral equivalency particular to Trump’s expressed worldview (Hart, 2).
On December 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Georgia, Trump, like a homeless person dragging a dried-out, browned Christmas tree with a few ornaments still clinging to its broken branches and insisting that it was still Christmas, started his speech with these words:
Let me begin by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Remember the word. Remember. We started five years ago, and I said you’re going to be saying Christmas again. And we say it proudly again, although there’ll be trying to take that word again out of the vocabulary. We’re not going to let them do that.”
Here Trump’s famous reputation for telling it like it is, of being the faithful truth-teller crashes head-first into truth. The obvious truth is that “Merry Christmas” has never, at any time, been taken out of the national lexicon, or removed from the dictionary. No law has been passed to stop people from saying, “Merry Christmas.” This chimera of an argument, developed in evangelical circles, was one of the pathetic weapons of the so-called “War on Christmas.”
After the 2020 election, Trump tweeted that his supporters “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” In his January 6, 2021 speech, Trump said, “these people are not going to take it any longer. They’re not going to take it any longer.” In the same speech he repeated: “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about.” We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen. Not going to let it happen.”
A gospel of redemption without repentance and a parrhesia that is packed with lies are a dangerous combination, a rhetorical Molotov cocktail thrown at the citadel of democracy, truth, facts, and reality. The fake parrhesia and the fake cry of parrhesia denied merged to produce the Trump Super-Storm. The spell cannot be broken until the “Legion” is sitting there fully clothed and once again, in his “right mind” – aka metanoia.
Only repentance can save us now. Thank God this is Lent.
edited by William Trollinger
Two weeks ago we ran an interview with Adam Laats about his new book, Creationism USA. In response we received a set of questions for Adam from David B (he did not divulge his last name). Given that the tone of David’s questions was quite civil (this is not always the case when we hear from creationists!), and given that David nicely summarized many of the standard questions posed by creationists to those who accept mainstream evolutionary theory, we asked Adam if he would be willing to respond. Adam graciously agreed. Below is their dialogue.
Dear Professor Laats,
You say in your interview that you learned a lot from scientists such as Jerry Coyne, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins.
As far as I know, all three are atheistic evolutionists. Do you consider yourself an atheistic evolutionist as well? (Other types of evolutionists include: agnostic evolutionist, deistic evolutionist, and theistic evolutionist).
You mention mainstream science 11 times in the interview. Keep in mind that sometimes mainstream science gets it wrong. For example, mainstream science once said the coelacanth fish went extinct about 65 million years ago with the dinosaurs, until one was caught in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa in 1938.
In the 1960s, millions of children had their tonsils unnecessarily removed because evolution predicted tonsils were “vestigial organs” and had no useful function. Today, we know the tonsils are involved with immune response.
Mainstream science used to say biochemicals can’t exist in fossil bone for tens of millions of years. Yet soft tissue was found in a T-rex fossil bone by Mary Schweitzer in 2005. Since then, Schweitzer has been vindicated, and bacterial contamination in her samples was ruled out.
Soft tissue has been found in other fossils besides dinosaurs:
Published Reports of Original Soft Tissue Fossils
Does your new book focus only on young-earth creationists, or do you also mention the intelligent design movement — the “big tent” group that includes young-earth creationists such as Paul A. Nelson, John Mark Reynolds and David F. Coppedge, but also people such as biochemist Michael Behe and Stephen C. Meyer (PhD in Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)
A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism
* * *
Thanks for asking. In all these debates, it is far too common for us to get pushed onto one side or another, away from any middle ground. That’s too bad. Especially when it comes to questions about evolution, science, religion, and schools, it’s important to hear a fuller story. It’s important to note that most people are, like me, somewhere in the middle. We agree on the things that really matter, even if we might disagree here and there on other things.
I’ll give you a little bit of my story so you can get a better sense of where I’m coming from. I’ll start with your question about “atheistic evolutionism” and then consider what we should do about disputes among mainstream science.
When it comes to “atheistic evolutionism,” we should start by having Ken Ham send Richard Dawkins a muffin basket. No one has benefited more from Prof. Dawkins’ brand of “atheistic evolutionism” than Ken Ham and other radical creationists. After all, Dawkins and Ham agree on the most basic falsehood about evolution—they agree that there are only two starkly divided truths out there: evolution or the Bible.
This myth was the true genesis of radical young-earth creationism. As John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris wrote in their 1961 book The Genesis Flood, they honestly believed there were “really only two basic philosophies or religions among mankind.” One of them was Christianity. Real Christianity. The kind that took the Bible seriously and insisted on the radical idea that the book of Genesis be read at face value. The other was evolutionary theory. As Whitcomb and Morris saw it, evolutionary theory wasn’t just a scientific idea; it was an ancient evil, the temptation that lured Eve in the Garden. In their words, evolutionary theory must have its origin “in the pride and selfishness of man and ultimately in the pride and deception of the great adversary, Satan himself.”
Professor Dawkins doesn’t agree with Professors Whitcomb and Morris about much. But he does agree that evolution and religion are stuck in a bitter standoff. As Dawkins wrote in his 2006 book The God Delusion, there are only two sides, the “God Hypothesis” or the scientific “alternative view.” One side is correct, and the other is nothing but a “pernicious delusion.”
God or evolution, Jesus or the double helix…since the 1960s, the simplistic myth of either/or has dominated debates about creationism and evolution. It might be a good way to get more Twitter followers, but it is a very bad way to understand either science or religion. Nevertheless, it drives the work of today’s leading radical creationists like Ken Ham. Ham will happily debate people who represent the “other side” like Bill Nye. But he won’t even sit down to dinner with other Christian creationists—creationists who agree with him about the Bible but disagree with him about the myth.
Ham knows where his bread is buttered. He knows that he needs to be able to warn his followers that “atheistic evolutionists” are out to get them, that they are out to get their children. It makes things easy to think that there is a simple choice to make, either Jesus or atheism, evolution or creationism.
Things aren’t that simple.
You were kind enough to ask if I consider myself an “atheistic evolutionist.” The short answer is no. When it comes to my personal religious beliefs, there’s no good single label for me. I’m a bad candidate for atheism, though. I wasn’t raised in any particular church, but as an adult I worked for many years in a Catholic school. I attended Catholic church every week. I like church. I have a ton of respect for the religious people I’ve known who work every day to make the world a better place.
More important, do people like me want to push more and better evolution education into schools for “atheistic” reasons? That is, do science teachers out there scheme to take away the religion of their students by introducing them to evolutionary theory? There might be a couple of middle-school Richard Dawkinses out there, but by and large, the answer is no. By and large, as political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman found, most science teachers are from the communities in which they teach; they share the values and ideals of their communities. They teach the way their communities want them to teach. Plus, as Gallup polls find again and again, most parents trust their kids’ teachers, even if the parents are suspicious about evolutionary theory.
In the end, we all need to stop trying to push people to the fringes about religion and science. There may be some “atheistic evolutionists” and “radical creationists” out there, but they do not fairly represent the way most Americans view these questions. Like me, most Americans aren’t sure they know God’s plan better than their neighbors do. Like me, most Americans want their children to learn the best knowledge in school. Like me, most Americans do not want public schools to insult the religious beliefs of children.
You also wisely noted the many important disagreements among mainstream scientists. Shouldn’t children learn in school that scientists disagree about many things? That scientists don’t know for sure how to interpret evidence such as ancient DNA? Certainly, “mainstream science” has made huge blunders in the past. Shouldn’t students learn to be skeptical about it?
In fact, one might ask, don’t court rulings such as the one in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case say more about anti-creationist prejudice than anything else? In that case, Judge John Jones III ruled that Intelligent Design theory could not fairly be considered science, because it was motivated by a desire to spread a particular religious idea. Creationists complained. They complained that Judge Jones’s ruling slammed the door shut to any unorthodox scientific ideas, that Jones, in fact, is the one who is anti-science with his rigid insistence on a closed intellectual world. In the end, some creationists insist, their only desire is for students and teachers to have “academic freedom” to include all scientific ideas in their classes, not only mainstream evolutionary science.
Seems plausible, right? Well, not really. Maybe a story from my first days of high-school teaching will help illustrate my beef with this line of creationist argument. Back in the 1990s, when the internet was young (anyone else remember AltaVista?), I used to ask my high-school students to research topics for our unit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At first, I was surprised when multiple students reported that the first thing they discovered was that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. At first, I was surprised. How had so many students stumbled across that fairly minor historical debate?
Turns out, a white-supremacist group had manipulated the fledgling internet to promote the story of Dr. King’s academic misdeeds. They had publicized the historical debate about Dr. King’s PhD work in order to malign the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
What does any of that have to do with soft tissue in dinosaur fossils?
Just this: There were real debates among academic historians about the evidence for Dr. King’s plagiarism. But the white supremacists did not really care about teaching students to value academic debate. They were not really hoping to help students understand that historians had disagreements about evidence and interpretation. No, they only wanted to manipulate an existing debate among historians to discredit Dr. King and smear the reputation of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
Here’s the analogy: Of course students should learn that mainstream science sometimes makes mistakes. Of course they should learn that mainstream scientists disagree with one another. But groups hoping to promote a religious idea should not be allowed to manipulate those scientific controversies to fool children into believing a falsehood.
The controversies that exist among mainstream scientists are a vital part of a good public-school education. But they need to be taught in proper proportion. When interested parties push for “academic freedom” laws to teach both mainstream evolutionary theory and its critics, both sides need to be represented in their true light.
Are there controversies among mainstream scientists? Absolutely. But those controversies are not about the fundamental importance of mainstream evolutionary theory. That theory is a basic building block of modern scientific understanding, and the debates among mainstream science take place within its framework. Anyone who pushes a different understanding—one in which both “evolution” and its “critics” get equal billing—is pushing a curriculum that would harm children.
No one wants that.
The good news is that most Americans can agree on the basics:
- We all want teachers that care for their students and are devoted to helping them learn and grow.
- We all want schools that nurture critical thinking.
- We (almost) all want public schools that keep their hands off of children’s religious ideas.
- We (almost) all want children to learn the very best modern ideas about science.
It’s not that Americans don’t have disagreements about the details involved, but when it comes to science and religion, there is far more agreement than disagreement.
Thanks again for the questions. I appreciate your willingness to talk about difficult issues. From my perspective, here are the big takeaways: First, the disputes among mainstream scientists are real and important, but their intellectual importance should never be misrepresented to students in order to push a religious idea. And second, there are a few “atheistic evolutionists” running around out there, but they are a rare and unusual breed. The idea that students must pick between evolution and religion is simply not true.
by William Trollinger
Over the past few weeks Ken Ham and his merry band of creationists have relentlessly attacked Charles Darwin, with a particular focus on the racism they claim to be at the heart of Darwinism. Here is a small sample of what they have been saying:
- “Sadly, Darwin’s Descent of Man  fueled racism. It’s well documented that Hitler used Darwin’s evolutionary ideas about man (lower and higher races) to justify what he did to eliminate certain types of people (Jews, those who were disabled, etc.)” Ham, “Darwin’s Racist Descent of Man Turns 150,” February 16, 2021. Ham ratches up his rhetoric to claim that Darwinism was the culmination of Satan’s efforts “to undo what the Reformation . . . did to get people to return to the absolute authority of the Word of God.”
- “[Darwinism] was a deadly legacy. It was one of racism, eugenics (such as that practiced by the Nazis), moral relativism (as we’re seeing played out in our culture right now), abortion, and more.” Ham, “Darwin Day 2021–Why Do We Care So Much About Darwinism,” February 12, 2021.
- “If we are going to deplatform people who are deemed racist, it seems very hypocritical not to start with one of the most well-known racists of all time: Charles Darwin.” Harry F. Sanders III, “Deplatform Darwin,” February 05, 2021. Sanders – about whom AiG provides no biographical information (despite the fact that he has written numerous AiG articles) – spends much of his time in this article (in good Tucker Carlson fashion) whining about the supposed “wave of censorship and appeasement” that has swept America “on a nationwide scale, resulting in deplatforming of people whose ideas were not in step with the mainstream narrative.”
There’s much that could be said here, including the point that – to give but one example – the Darwin-Hitler trope (a commonplace among young Earth creationists) is very problematic history. So it is that the Anti-Defamation League “has vigorously critiqued the Darwin-to-Hitler trope, pointing out that such an argument, usually ‘offered by those who wish to score political points over the teaching of intelligent design,’ neatly erases the multiple factors that led to the Holocaust, including a Christian anti-Semitism that long preceded Charles Darwin” (Righting America 183).
But leaving this aside, there is a more obvious problem in AiG’s obsession with Darwinism as the engine of racism. Origin of Species appeared in 1859, 240 years after the first African slaves had been transported to North America. And over those 240 years slaveholders and nonslaveholders constructed what they considered to be an airtight defense for enslaving black people, a defense that did not derive from the yet-to-appear Origin of Species, but, instead, from the Bible:
In antebellum America millions of white Christians (in both the North and the South) held tight to a “plain-sense” reading of the Bible, one which, as Mark Noll has pointed out [in his brilliant The Civil War as a Theological Crisis], emphasized “the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words” in order to construct a powerful argument justifying the enslavement of African Americans. These white Christians stood on their literal reading of the Word of God to issue forth a raft of proslavery polemics and to deliver an almost-infinite number of proslavery sermons; in the South, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese observed that “evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to unify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and nonslaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained of God.” These white Christians argued that opponents of slavery, who struggled mightily to combat the straightforward biblical arguments of the proslavery advocates, were undermining the authority of the Bible with their unbiblical antislavery arguments that depended more on Christian experience, humanitarianism, and morality than on the “literal” meaning of the text (Righting America 186).
One might imagine that AiG would expend a little energy explaining how it is that an “overwhelming majority” of Bible-believing white evangelicals determined that a literal reading of the Bible justified – actually, ordained – the enslavement of black people and that abolitionist arguments were unbiblical and unChristian. How did these Bible believers come to such convictions? Were they, like the “evolutionists,” led astray by Satan? Was the South’s secession from the Union in an effort to preserve slavery also the product of a Satanic conspiracy? Were these proslavery evangelicals really not Christian, and thus were rightly damned to hell?
It won’t come as a surprise that Ken Ham and AiG do not address these questions. Nor do Ham and AiG address the fact that – after northern and southern whites joined forces to dismantle Reconstruction – millions of white Christians used a literal reading of the Bible, as Mark Newman notes about Southern Baptists, to bolster their arguments in behalf of segregation and against racial equality. Making the point even more forcefully, Carolyn Renee Dupont argues in Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement that Mississippi’s white evangelicals “fought mightily against black equality, proclaiming that God himself ordained segregation, blessing the forces of resistance, silencing the advocates of racial equality within their own faith tradition, and protecting segregation in their churches” (231).
As Camille Kaminski Lewis nicely documents in her edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity, from the late 19th century to the present, Americans have wielded the weapon of religion against but also in behalf of “white rule” (16). But the silence from Ham and AiG on this history is deafening.
And this silence has continued into 2021, and includes the January 06 “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol. I have to say that Ham’s January 07 blog post, “Our Nation Is a Mess — What Does the Bible Say?,” is one of the weirdest post-insurrection pieces I have read. Without any reference to the insurrection whatsoever, Ham asserts that “America is in a mess spiritually, morally, and politically”:
So many people in this nation, including many rulers (politicians, judges, etc.), have turned their backs on God. They have rejected God and his Word in the education systems. They have sacrificed millions of children to the god of self. They have rejected God in many ways through rejecting prayer, rejecting nativity scenes and crosses, and replacing the truth of God as Creator for the lie of evolution. (Even many church leaders and Christian academics have compromised God’s Word with evolutionary ideas).
Not a word about the violence and destruction at the Capitol. Not a word about the Proud Boys and OathKeepers and Patriot Pastors and others. Not a word about all the crosses and Bible T-shirts and Jesus banners among the rioters who invaded the Capitol, looking to kill lawmakers who would dare to assert that Donald Trump lost the election. Not a word about the symbols of the Confederacy that were mobilized in the insurrection. Not. A. Word.
It seems to me that there are only two possible explanations for the silence. The first has to do with cowardice. That is to say, one could conjecture that Ham and company are fearful of antagonizing their white evangelical base of support, many of whom blame the insurrection on Antifa, many of whom hold tightly to a white nationalist “Christianity.” Anger these folks and attendance is going to drop at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. In this explanation silence makes economic sense, even if it comes at the expense of courageously holding to the Gospel.
But the other possible explanation is that Ham and his comrades actually support white supremacy, white supremacist groups, and the January 06 insurrection. Given that the “color-blind society” project promoted by AiG (and the Christian Right in general) assumes that racial equality has already been achieved in America and that the real problem now is that white Bible-believing evangelicals have been “cancelled” by the culture, a resurgent white nationalist “Christianity” makes sense.
Two possible explanations for the silence regarding white supremacy and the January 06 insurrection.
Which is it, Ken? I eagerly await your answer.
Is that crickets I hear?
by William Trollinger
Adam Laats has established himself as a brilliant and prolific scholar who has produced such noteworthy works as Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), The Other School Reformers (Harvard, 2015), and Fundamentalist U (Oxford, 2018). He has now added to his oeuvre with Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution (Oxford, 2021). As I blurbed, “Creationism USA is classic Adam Laats—breezy and inviting writing style combined with excellent scholarship. This book matters, and it is refreshing to read a book that has ideas for getting us beyond the culture wars.”
Creationism USA is very much worth reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Adam was willing to be interviewed about his book.
- In the introduction to Creationism USA you write that “as a non-creationist, non-scientist . . . I’m not the usual suspect for a book about creationism.” So, why the book?
A few years ago, my late sister-in-law asked me about creationism. The two of us were fairly similar in our backgrounds: secular, left-ish, and confused. How was it possible, she wanted to know, that there were still so many Americans who doubted central ideas of mainstream science? I set out to write a book that would help explain creationism to people like us, people to whom creationism seemed absolutely bonkers.
I wanted this book to be something different.
There are a lot of great books out there for secular people that explain creationism, but mostly they explain its problems from a scientific point of view. That’s important, and I’ve learned a lot from scientists such as Jerry Coyne, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins. But asking a biologist to explain creationism is like asking a cardiologist to explain heartache.
There are also plenty of books out there that make convincing cases from a religious point of view. I’ve learned a lot from them, too. But as a non-religious person, I don’t really care what the Bible says about a historic Adam and Eve. I’m not really interested in whether or not a faithful reading of Genesis requires a belief in a literal six-day creation.
I wanted a different kind of book, a book that could join titles such as Righting America at the Creation Museum and Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists. I wanted to write a book for people who were not invested in the science or religion of creationism, but who were curious about the rest of it. I wanted to answer my sister’s question.
- Can you explain why you say that most Americans are creationists, and what distinguishes “radical creationists” from other (and more numerous) creationists?
If we want to make sense of American creationism, we have to break it down a little. By any reasonable measure, almost all Americans believe in some form of creationism. That is, most Americans think that some sort of divine force had something to do with the way humans happened. It is easy–far too easy–to conclude that such widespread religious belief is the reason for America’s continuing war over evolutionary science. It is not. Though most Americans hold some sort of creationist belief, most of them also trust in the findings of mainstream science.
In order to get a clearer understanding of American creationism, we need to start with the recognition of the fact that “creationism” as a whole does not stand in stark opposition to “science” as a whole. Instead, there is only a shrinking fraction of creationists who actively dispute the findings of mainstream science.
In order to separate out this fraction of creationists from the rest, I use the term “radical” creationism. These days, evangelical Christian young-earth creationists like the activists at Answers in Genesis are America’s leading radicals, but over time there have been different radicals. Back in the 1920s, for example, the fight against teaching evolutionary science was led by old-earth creationists. In the future, it might be led by different types of creationists, such as Islamic creationists or some kind of creationism we haven’t seen yet.
The religious distinctions between types of creationists are very important to creationists themselves, but the primary distinction that matters to the rest of us is different. For the public as a whole, the most important type of creationism is the type that gets involved in public policy, the type that tries to limit the influence of mainstream science. The public as a whole doesn’t care about the differences between Christian creationists, Islamic creationists, old-earthers, young-earthers, or anything else.
I use the term “radical” creationists to include any group that disputes the mainstream science of evolution and that gets involved in public policy to push creationist ideas.
- As with everything, radical creationism has a history, which you lay out in Creationism USA. Can you briefly lay out this history, and can you say why radical creationists like Ken Ham hate your telling of this story?
Creationists like Ken Ham rely on a historical fudge. They insist that they are holding fast to the ancient orthodoxies of the Christian religion. They insist that their belief in a young-earth is mere fidelity to the ancient truths of the Bible.
They may be sincere, but they are also wrong. The kind of young-earth creationism embraced by today’s young-earthers is a space-age novelty. It is newer than Sputnik and M&Ms.
Yes, there have always been Christians who believe in the Genesis account of creation as a literal description of how humanity came to be. And yes, those ideas were dominant in the ancient world. But by the turn of the twentieth century, they were no longer dominant.
By then, mainstream Christian thought had evolved to accept some scientific advances. The notion of an ancient earth was no longer controversial. There were a few groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and Missouri Synod Lutherans, who insisted on a literal six-day creation, but they were in the minority, even among very conservative evangelical Christians.
What happened? In the 1950s, the science of evolution had solved many of the problems in Darwin’s theories. It had become much more convincing, much more confident in its claims.
Evangelical Christians were in a bind. Some of them, such as the theologian Bernard Ramm, found ways to accept the tenets of mainstream science in broad outline, while at the same time retaining their evangelical faith.
Ramm’s modern thinking created today’s young-earth creationist backlash. In response to Ramm’s 1955 book, John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris offered a simple alternative. Instead of wading through the complex world of modern science and finding ways to adjust and accommodate scientific truth, Whitcomb and Morris insisted that true Christians could simply turn their backs on mainstream science.
In their 1961 book The Genesis Flood, Whitcomb and Morris created something new. Unlike the ancients who took the Book of Genesis at face value, The Genesis Flood insisted on taking the Book of Genesis at face value in spite and defiance of mainstream science. Being a young-earth creationist in 1961 was not the same thing as being one in 250 AD. It was a modern creation, a defiant response to the way science was causing thoughtful Christians to question their assumptions.
Today’s young-earth creationism is not about fidelity to Biblical truths. Rather, it is a protest against a changing culture.
- You repeatedly make the argument that the battle between creationists and evolutionists is not about science or religion. Why do you say this, and what then is the battle about?
American creationism is a puzzle, because it is a culture war fought in the language of science and religion, yet it cannot be won or lost by religious or scientific arguments.
Consider a parallel: After the 2020 election, ex-President Trump claimed widespread election fraud. His claims were repeatedly debunked, yet they sparked a violent attack on the Capitol and may linger in American politics and culture for years. Trump’s claims are not about election fraud, though they are expressed in the language of election fraud. The Trumpist revolt is about other things: angry nostalgia, white supremacy, and a bitter sense of being kicked out of a privileged position.
All the evidence in the world about the election cannot disprove Trumpist beliefs, just like all the science in the world cannot convince radical creationists. Radical creationism expresses its ideas in the language of science and religion, but its true power comes from the same sources as Trump’s. Radical creationists feel kicked out. They feel disrespected, powerless. Most of all, they feel that they have a fair claim to cultural influence. They feel they have a right, for example, to insist on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Like Trumpist rioters on January 6, 2021, radical creationists want to express their disgust at the vast conspiracy that has thwarted their rightful influence.
- In Creationism USA you suggest there is an approach – an obvious, commonsensical approach – we can take to get us beyond the creation/evolution wars, at least when it comes to public education. Can you explain this approach, and are you hopeful?
I am hopeful. I am optimistic that the vast common ground among Americans about evolutionary theory can overcome the lingering defiance of radical creationism. Allow me to give three reasons:
- Even the radicals now want their own children to learn mainstream evolutionary theory. Organizations such as Answers in Genesis advocate teaching evolution in private Christian schools, and advocate against teaching creationism in public schools. To be sure, there is still plenty of room for disagreement. Radical creationists DO want public schools to water down evolutionary theory, which is not acceptable to the rest of us. And they want their children to learn about mainstream science in order to know what is wrong with it, which is not what public schools should try to do. But focusing on the differences ignores the obvious similarities. Vast majorities of Americans want their children to learn evolutionary theory. We can agree on that and move forward.
- Surveys show movement in the right direction. Public-school teachers are teaching more and better evolution. They are feeling more comfortable with mainstream science and more comfortable with their role as friendly, trusted science ambassadors.
- History is going in the right direction. It might not seem like it, from headlines these days and from the number of radical creationists in leadership roles in the Republican Party. However, taking the long view, the public-policy claims of America’s radical creationists have dwindled radically. In the 1920s, anti-evolution activists hoped–and sometimes succeeded–at legally banning the teaching of evolution outright. These days, the fondest hope of radical creationists is only to have evolution taught critically, so that creationist students might have a chance to maintain their skepticism. Radical creationists no longer dream of legislating theocracy, they only plead for a seat at the public-school table.
- In your experience, have you had any luck having meaningful dialogue with radical creationists? (If I were asked this question, I would have to say: Not so much!)
Not really. I receive plenty of email from radical creationists who have read my book or commentaries. In a way, they give me some confidence that I’m on the right track about creationism. Here’s why: many of them offer long, elaborate explanations that use the language of science or religion to prove that mainstream science is a sham. However, they all rely on assumptions that are not shared outside of the insular intellectual world of radical creationism itself. They have no power to convince me or others, because although they use the language of science and religion, they rely on things such as disaffection and bitterness. They count on people desperate for a scientific-sounding confirmation of beliefs they would like to hold on to.
- Will you continue to focus on creationism, or are you heading in another direction? That is to say, what is your current scholarly project or projects?
I started a new book about evangelical K-12 education but I put it on hold. I hope to return to it someday, but now I am working on a project that I began almost twenty years ago back at the University of Wisconsin. Before I met Ron Numbers and began my study of creationism and conservative evangelicalism, I planned a dissertation about the first systematic attempt at urban school reform in the USA. Now I’ve returned to that project. It is a lot different from my work with creationism, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. I’m tentatively calling the book The Narcissist and the Schoolroom: Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840.