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When College of the Ozarks was School of the Ozarks

      by William Trollinger

My first college teaching position was at the College of the Ozarks (C of O). When I say this to people who know something about the school – who have heard that it has been rated the  most anti-LGBTQ college in the nation and/or that the president issued an edict that the school’s athletic teams will not play any school that has any athletes that kneel during the national anthem  — the response is often a combination of astonishment and horror.

In response, I point out that the college I taught at was very different from today’s Christian Right bastion.  Even the name was different: The School of the Ozarks (S of O).

I arrived at campus in the fall of 1984, a shaggy-haired, left-leaning, newly-minted Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had never heard of Branson, I did (and do) not care for mainstream country music, and I was now living in Nashville West. Coming from Madison, where I had been depressed for weeks because a New Deal Democrat defeated a mayoral candidate with socialist-leanings, the politics of southwest Missouri were farther to the Right than anything I had ever experienced (for one thing, the Klan was active in the area). And having never lived in the South, I was now just ten miles from the Arkansas border.

In short, the move from Madison to Branson was jarring. Ditto for the move from the University of Wisconsin to School of the Ozarks, where I was assigned courses ranging from Colonial America to the American Presidency to U.S. Women’s History, where I was required to teach eleven courses over the fall, spring, and summer semesters (a 4-4-3 load), and where in academic year 1987-88 I taught 323 students (all the while trying to finish book revisions).   

For all of this, I look back on my four years at S of O with great affection. As is still the case today, students worked on campus for their tuition, room, and board. Most students came from Missouri or Arkansas, and many or most were first-generation college students. Some came from families of very limited means – I had students who had grown up without indoor plumbing in their homes – and this was their chance to secure a college education. And they knew it. While many arrived at S of O poorly prepared for higher education, I have never taught students more eager to learn (one sign of which being how many students wanted to take independent study classes with me, on top of their regular load). Thanks to my time there, I have retained an extreme impatience with upper-middle-class students who refuse to see that a college education is a privilege most people on the planet do not have.

I will never forget my first commencement ceremony at the school. Exhausted from my first year at the school, and vocally unhappy that I was required to attend and wear regalia, I was in the bathroom washing my hands before I had to line up for the processional. I looked up into the mirror, and saw two men in their dress overalls – who I took to be a father and grandfather of a graduate – staring at me. I turned around, and the father nervously said to me, “Are you a professor?”

Thus ended my whining.

I assume that there are some current C of O faculty members who would share some of these sentiments. But in contrast with the militaristic patriotism that is at the heart of President Jerry Davis’ claustrophobic educational vision, at S of O we offered our students something much more in keeping with a traditional liberal arts education.

One way to see this is to contrast the outside speakers who have come to C of O recently with the speakers who came to S of O when I was there. Speakers at C of O convocations and forums over the past few years have included Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, and the late Charles Krauthammer (and of course, there was the recent visit of “Fox and Friends”).   In contrast, during my four years at S of O students had the opportunity to hear feminist author Susan Brownmiller, First Amendment absolutist and anti-abortion activist Nat Hentoff, former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who spoke in a variety of classes and then – in a remarkable evening convocation to an overflow crowd – on the dangers of technological “progress.”

Moving from Madison to Branson was a shock to my system. But I could not be more pleased to have spent the first four years of my college teaching career at the School of the Ozarks. And while I could not have known what was coming to the school that I had come to love, I was so fortunate to have driven away the very week that Jerry Davis arrived.

Even if I had wanted to, I would not have been allowed to stay.

Hard Right U

by William Trollinger

When one thinks of the quintessential Christian Right university, Liberty immediately comes to mind, perhaps followed by Bob Jones. Here in Ohio one thinks of Answers in Genesis University, a.k.a. Cedarville. But there is another school that deserves placement at the top of the Christian Right list: the College of the Ozarks (C of O), in Branson, Missouri.

This image features a bell tower of a chapel on the campus of College of the Ozarks. It was taken during autumn, as there are brownish-orange leaves on the nearby trees.

“College of the Ozarks-Branson Missouri” by Donahos. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The school refers to itself as “Hard Work U,” and for good reason. Students work on campus 15 hours a week during the semester, plus two 40-hour weeks when school is not in session, all toward the end of being able to graduate from C of O debt free. This is quite the benefit, especially given that most of the students (70% of whom must be from Missouri or Arkansas) come from families for whom paying for college would be a hardship.

That said, the education that students receive at C of O is a very particular Christian Right education. As regards the Christian part of the education, the school affirms the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and requires that students take two courses in “Christian Worldview” (this emphasis on a single Christian “worldview” that is at odds with “other prevalent worldviews” is very much in keeping with other evangelical colleges).  Also in keeping with other evangelical institutions, C of O is also hardline in its attitudes regarding sexuality, so hardline that the Princeton Review rated the school the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in the United States.

But what really makes C of O distinctive among evangelical schools is the degree to which its Christian commitments are subsumed in a militaristic patriotism. The school asserts that one of its goals is “Patriotic Education,” by which students are to gain “an understanding of American heritage, civic responsibility, love of country, and willingness to defend it.” Toward this end there is a required course in “Patriotic Education and Fitness (Military Science).” There are also “Patriotic Education” study abroad trips to places such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, during which students are paired with veterans to gain “an appreciation for the sacrifices of American servicemen and women.” (It is not clear if the sacrifices of the residents of, say, Hiroshima or My Lai are part of the Patriotic Education curriculum.)

Perhaps most remarkable, there are six separate military memorials on campus, including the “Korean War Memorial,” the “September 11 ‘Lest We Forget Memorial,’” and the “Missouri Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” which includes a “bed of red roses . . . in the shape of the letter ‘V’ for valor” which represents “the blood shed by servicemen and women.”

So it is that C of O declared that it would not compete against teams whose players knelt during the national anthem, and that it would abandon its Nike uniforms because that company has made use of Colin Kaepernick in its advertising. No wonder Fox and Friends made a special visit to the school, during which enthusiastic students praised Trump and proclaimed their patriotism, and C of O president Jerry Davis – in response to a question about the school’s mission – asserted that

Since the Vietnam War, unfortunately, higher education has drifted farther and farther to the left. In my opinion, we have too many colleges and universities that have become little more than liberal enclaves of snowflakes that whine about everything and accomplish nothing.

Davis has been C of O president since 1988, and much of what he has achieved in those three decades is laid out in a largely admiring piece in Forbes, “Bible Belt Ivy.” The “Ivy” refers not to scholarly achievements on the part of the school’s faculty, nor to the academic quality of the school’s students, but because C of O accepts but 11% of its applicants, and because the school’s endowment is approximately 500 million dollars. In fact, the school has an endowment-per-student ratio that ranks the school 59th out of Forbes’  top 650 colleges.

While the article’s author does not make the point, the latter is not particularly shocking. It would make lots of sense that wealthy conservative donors would be pleased to give money to a flag-waving institution that is lodged on the right edge of the political spectrum.

It is also odd that the author simply reports the 11% acceptance rate without asking what criteria are used by C of O in saying yes or no to applicants. Given that – as noted in the article – 75% of the students have ACT scores below 25, it would seem that academic qualifications are not the primary measure. One has to wonder if there is an ideological test that is used to select students, to help ensure that the students who attend are ones who would support (or, at least, not raise questions about) the school’s Christian Right commitments, who would enthusiastically welcome Fox and Friends to campus?

Actually, there is nothing in this article to suggest that there any dissenters among faculty and students at C of O. But surely there are, as there are at places such as Liberty, Bob Jones, and Cedarville. Surely there are folks at C of O who struggle with the school’s aggressive militarism and anti-LGBTQ hostility. Surely Jerry Davis has not succeeded in creating a hermetically-sealed Christian Right bubble.

I view all of this from an unusual vantage point. I spent the first four years of my career as an Assistant Professor of History at the College of the Ozarks. In fact, our family drove out of Branson the very week that Jerry Davis arrived at the school. More on this in the next post.

Six Smart Responses to the Wedding of White Evangelicalism and the Political Right

by William Trollinger

We have said it again and again, but the emergence of the Christian Right as the GOP’s most reliable constituency AND then – most dramatically – the election of Donald Trump as president has resulted in all sorts of very smart people looking closely at white Evangelicalism.

This post will take note of six of these commentators. We will start with a lively exchange that appeared on Facebook between Elesha Coffman and Rodney Kennedy in response to Rod’s recent blog post here at rightingamerica, “Jesus and the Anti-Abortion Gospel.”

EC: There might be a difference between an argument that “drives” people and a rhetorical trump card (pun intended). Abortion abolition is seen as the unassailable position for people otherwise backed into a corner, but it doesn’t seem to be the thing that drives opinions or behavior. I think that white evangelicals have decided to be Republicans, and when it’s pointed out to them how unchristian many GOP stances are, they cry “but abortion!” because no other claims are available to them. But if asked to rank priorities (as in the recent Christianity Today/Lifeway study), lots of things – taxes, immigration, “traditional” sexuality – come in above abortion or judges. The CT study is flawed in lots of ways, but I think it got that part basically right.

RK: You may be right but my conversation partners indicate that they believe God put Trump in office to abolish abortion by appointing conservative judges. At times, they bemoan his despicable behavior but always rotate back to he’s a “godly” man doing God’s will. Perhaps the conservatives do vote Republican for a variety of reasons, but I’m not convinced that taxes really drive evangelicals to the polls. What people say in response to a survey may never touch their deepest held convictions. Sometimes they just don’t admit the truth. That being said, the flaw in my argument is that my sample size is way too small. It’s sort of like asking my family and three friends to name a great preacher and I publish the results of that survey which then includes me in the list. Thanks for your response because I think this is a really important conversation as we try to unpack how Christians are responding to secular politics that are divorced from basic Christian understandings and convictions.

EC: You’re absolutely right about surveys missing deep, inarticulate, and/or shameful beliefs. Hardly anyone will tell a pollster, “I’m selfish and refuse to believe that other people are as good as I am.” But “I just want lower taxes” means basically the same thing.

RK: If that’s the reason that evangelicals are voting Republican then they are worshiping Mammon.

EC: I think I’d say they are worshiping their own security, and money is the means to that end. I’m pretty Niebuhrian in my view of human nature.

Now let’s look at an article in the latest issue of The American Historian, where four historians answer a series of questions regarding “their analysis of evangelicals’ affinity for Trump and of their commitment to the conservative movement more generally.” The four historians are: John Fea (Messiah College), Laura Jane Gifford (independent scholar), R. Marie Griffith (Washington University in St. Louis), Lerone Martin (Washington University in St. Louis). What we have below is a quote from each of them. This is a 13 page article, so these quotes are just tiny snippets of what each of them has to say. But as these quotes should make clear, the full article is worth reading, so at the end we provide a link to the full article.

JF: “I am sorry to say that we have made little headway in convincing my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply about the relationship between faith and politics and links between Christianity and American identity. . . . Evangelicals continue to gaze nostalgically into a past that is never coming back and, in the case of America’s supposedly ‘Christian roots,’ may have never existed in the first place” (33).

LG: “Pro-Trump evangelicals are willing to forgive behavior that would get one kicked out of Sunday School if the leader of their party will articulate their policy priorities – and nominate conservative candidates to the Supreme Court. What remains to be seen is whether evangelical support for Trump will cause them to ‘gain the whole world and lose [their] own soul’ (Mark 8:36)” (27).

RMG: “Analysis of the differences between the Trump-voting ‘evangelicals’ and the Clinton (or Bernie Sanders)- supporting ‘progressive Christians’ has really helped illuminate the fact that there are not just different types of Christianities in the United States today, there are actually polar opposite versions of Christianity that are warring against one another in the name of their faith” (35).

LM: “There are themes among modern white evangelicals today that harken back to yesteryear, including the utilization of the traditional jeremiad in religious and political discourse, belief in a worldwide religious conspiracy, abortion and sexuality, the courting of white supremacist ideas and support, and the overwhelming support of laissez faire/free market capitalism” (27).

To read more, visit “Evangelicalism and Politics”, The American Historian (November 2018): 23-35.

Jesus and the Anti-Abortion Gospel

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 now the interim senior pastor at the Upper Merion Baptist Church in King of Prussia, PA (which is also an American Baptist church) while also teaching homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump. 

Time and again I attempt to engage conservative friends on Facebook regarding the teachings of Jesus. The subjects vary from the social gospel, to immigrants, to interpretation of Scripture, to American Christianity as Gnosticism, to patriotism is not a Christian virtue.

The back-and-forth will often go on for more than 25 replies from each of us. When my conservative friends tire of my arguments, when they weary of calling me names or spouting personal opinions without ever referring to the Scripture or making an argument, they fall back on the default argument of conservative evangelicals: Abortion. As one of my interlocutors sputtered in frustration, “What is your position on abortion? Tell me right now!” When I am slow in responding, the frustration builds. “What’s your problem? Why can’t you respond? Tell me now!” 

What puzzles here is how this becomes the only argument that matters to my Facebook friends, and by expansion, to their friends. My question is simple. Why is the final weapon in the arsenal a bomb about abortion? When I argue that the earth is millions of years old and the universe is billions of years in the making, my conservative friends offer no evidence of their belief in a 6,000 year-old-earth. They just get frustrated and ask me about abortion.

When I assail the rapture as fake and dangerous ideology, there’s no pushback except that switch the subject to abortion. No one bothers to make the case for dispensationalism. They just drag out “abortion” from the broom closet and believe they have carpet bombed me back to the Stone Age.

From the many discussions I have had, here’s just one representative example. I was having an argument with one of my Facebook friends about illegal aliens. I mused that he seemed to lack compassion for illegal aliens. He insisted that he was compassionate and that charity should begin at home. He said, “I have a lot of compassion but not for people coming here to try to destroy our country and our religious beliefs. Are you sure you are a preacher? Charity begins at home.”

I decided to increase the pressure on my friend. I suggested,  “If Jesus thought like you, he wouldn’t have gone to the cross. God loves the world, not just America.” Then I asked him to read Leviticus 19: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Then I asked, “where’s your hospitality for strangers, your love for enemies, your provision for the poor?”

His response ignored everything I said: “Yes, I am a Christian. If these people wanted to live the way we do, it would be ok, but they do not. They are carrying a flag of the country they came from. They were offered asylum and a job in Mexico, but all they want is the free things here in America. Open your eyes!”

This went on for hours. Responses piled on top of responses. Then he reached the end of his patience, and issued his final word: “Rod Kennedy, you would rather have Hillary in charge, the abortion queen plus too many other crimes to mention. You don’t sound too Christian to me. If that is what you think, may God have mercy on your soul.”

I will take the mercy from wherever it is offered, but I am still puzzled by this pattern of argument. Is abortion really the only argument that drives evangelical Christianity? Is evangelical commitment to Donald Trump only about conservative judges being appointed to overturn Roe vs. Wade? After multiple conversations, I am more and more convinced that this is a distinct possibility.

Incest Used to be Ok. Gay Marriage Never Was.

William Trollinger

For Righting America we were determined to read the Creation Museum as a text, taking the time to understand the messages that the museum is conveying. Toward that end, I visited the Creation Museum eight times, and Sue seven.

Some aspects of the museum did not become clear to us until after multiple visits. For example, while I teach on the Reformation here at the University of Dayton, it took me four or five visits to notice that what the museum’s Martin Luther was posting on the imitation Wittenberg church door was not the 95 Theses. Instead, it was a call to culture war in behalf of a literal reading of the Word from a character in a late nineteenth-century novel.  (Sometime after 2016 the museum replaced this fake history, not with material from the 95 Theses, but with a quote from Luther when he spoke before the Diet of Worms in 1521.)

But other aspects of the museum were clear from the beginning. For example, on our very first visit to the museum in 2008 we were stunned by what remains for me the strangest (and creepiest) spot in the museum. It is near the end of the “Bible Walkthrough Experience,” after Adam and Eve have been ejected from the Garden of Eden for having eaten the forbidden fruit. There is a diorama of an extremely buff Adam tilling the soil; Cain and Abel are assisting, and a beautiful and pregnant Eve is observing. Adjacent is another diorama that portrays the immediate aftermath of Cain’s murder of Abel, with Abel face down on the ground and Cain looking upward, presumably to God.

On the wall opposite these dioramas is a placard with the title, “Where Did Cain Get His Wife?” While that was not the first thing that popped into my mind when viewing these two dioramas, the museum understands this to be a pressing question. And the placard provides the answer: given that all human beings descend from Adam and Eve, and given that Genesis 5 reports that Adam and Eve had daughters as well as sons, then Cain married his sister. The placard goes on at great length to explain why this fact should not trouble us. Quoting from our summary of the placard in Righting America:

For starters, “all humans are related” and thus “whenever someone gets married, they marry their relative.” Moreover, the historical account in the Bible makes clear that it was not until many generations after Abraham, who himself “was married to his half sister,” that God finally “instructed the Israelites not to marry close relatives.” Biologically, God’s delay in banning incest makes great sense, given that “at the time of Adam and Eve’s children, there would have been very few mutations in the human genome.” While “sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage, whether between close relatives or not, has been wrong from the beginning,” marriage “between close relatives was not a problem in early biblical history,” as long as “it was one man for one woman (the biblical doctrine of marriage).” The placard concludes by noting that “since God is the One who defined marriage in the first place,” then “God’s Word is the only standard for defining proper marriage”; those “who do not accept the Bible as their absolute authority have no basis for condemning someone like Cain marrying his sister” (176-177).

There is so much to unpack and critique in this very odd placard. But what really stands out here is the argument that while for the first third of human history (according to the young Earth creationist calendar) God was fine with incest – and it seems from the placard He only became less than fine with incest because of issues with genetic mutations – gay marriage was and is absolutely wrong.  

So, it is not surprising that over the past 29 months Ken Ham has written at least 60 posts and articles on the LGBTQ menace threatening Western civilization, there has been virtually nothing from the CEO of Answers in Genesis (AiG) on sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

Heterosexual sin is just not that noteworthy.  


Righting and Wronging America at the Creation Museum

by William Trollinger

What will happen to museums in this post-truth age? Is there a productive way in which to respond to culture war rhetoric?

These were but two of the questions Sue and I were asked in response to our presentation last Wednesday on “Righting and Wronging America at the Creation Museum” here at the University of Dayton. The audience – 175-or-so students, faculty, and community members – was great. Many thanks to our colleagues Sandra Yocum, Meghan Henning, and Jessie Duckro for making this possible – and everyone should have the privilege of being introduced at least once by Meghan Henning.

This image features the book cover for "Righting America at the Creation Museum" by William and Susan Trollinger. It also features a headshot for William Trollinger and Susan Troliinger and the date, time, and location of the event: November 14 at 4pm in Sears Recital Hall.

Flyer for William V. Trollinger, Jr., & Susan L. Trollinger’s talk at the University of Dayton. Copyright 2018 by Meghan Henning.

It was a lot of fun, and it was also a challenge, in that we attempted in 45 minutes or so to summarize our book of  327 pages. In keeping with the book, we began with a methodological and historical introduction to our topic. Sue talked about how we approached the museum as a linguistic, visual, and material text that seeks to shape visitors as they move within it and through it. I talked about how the Genesis creation account (not accounts) is so important for conservative evangelicals in confirming biblical inerrancy.

Then, to the substance of the book. Talking about the museum as a museum, Sue noted that, in keeping with dioramas at places such as the Field Museum, the life-size diorama depicting the Garden of Eden – which includes Adam naming the animals and Adam and Eve enjoying each other in the Garden – invites visitors to see these scenes as re-presenting a real historical referent. She then talked about science at the museum, using their treatment of an Allosaurus skeleton — named “Ebenezer” – to highlight the point that the museum’s approach is to begin with their particular literal reading of the Bible as Truth and then build scientific “models” that confirm what the Bible says. And if the model fails to confirm what they say the Bible says, well, the model needs to be scrapped and a new model developed, for their particular literal reading of the Bible cannot be wrong.

In sum, for the Creation Museum the primary evidence for a young Earth is the inerrant Bible. That said, and as I noted, it is weird that there is no display of Genesis 1-11 at the museum; what Bible is there is presented is verses or snippets of verses on placards, sometimes with words or phrases removed. In short, the Creation Museum is less about science and the Bible and more about politics, with videos and exhibits and placards that claim, among other things, that public schools are sites of atheistic indoctrination and that America was once a Christian nation but is now mired in an antibiblical decadence best exemplified by gay marriage. This is a politics that portrays America as divided into two warring camps: the righteous Bible-believers, and the ungodly enemy made up of atheists, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, the LGBTQ community and others who are destroying and who are, in the end, headed to hell.  

In the Q/A afterwards we were asked some very good questions, a number of which focused on how flood geology does not make scientific sense. Our general answer to these questions was: Right, but it is also important to understand that young Earth creationists have answers for every objection.

This picture is a head shot of Susan L. Trollinger as she speaks during a presentation at the University of Dayton.

Susan L. Trollinger presents at the University of Dayton. Photo Credit William V. Trollinger Jr., 2018.

As regards the question of what becomes of museums in the current post-Truth age (or, are the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible portents of the future?), Sue responded by noting that this is why it is incumbent on all of us – and particularly those of us at a university — to teach the importance of evaluating sources for their accuracy and credibility. If we abandon this basic responsibility then, indeed, museums will cease to exist as institutions of public trust.

As regards how we might respond to culture war rhetoric, I said that we should refuse to participate. That does not mean we are to abandon the field of argument; in fact, it is incumbent to make arguments against culture warriors. But we must not resort to ad hominem arguments; more important, we must not lose sight of the fact that we should all be about “the common good.”

In saying this I had in mind a remarkable recent article in The Guardian by Rebecca Solnit, “The American civil war didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate president.” Solnit begins with this arresting sentence: “In the 158th year of the American civil war, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” She connects our contemporary plague of racism and anti-Semitism back to the post-Reconstruction re-establishment of white supremacy and the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. She talks about a president who defends Confederate statues, who wants to end “birthright citizenship,” who talks endlessly about immigrants and refugees as criminals, and who uses anti-Semitic code language to inspire the wrath of his followers against George Soros.

But what is most interesting and surprising about this article is that Solnit ends on a hopeful note. She notes that the United States – past and present – is rife with examples of Americans who “subscribe to a grand inclusive ‘we, the people.’” She suggests – I want to believe this – that the future is on the side of those who hold to equality and justice for all people. Most germane for our purposes here, she ends by calling on those of us who hold such commitments to reject culture war rhetoric, and instead invite “people to wander out of their bunkers and put down their weapons and come over.”



Attacking the Media for Reporting the Facts

by William Trollinger

Borrowing from the Donald Trump playbook, Ken Ham has again lashed out against the media:

There are times I just get so tired of the secular media’s bias against Christians! Actually, what the secular media does a lot in politics (spread misinformation) has been done against Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum, and [the] Ark for many years.

The source of Ham’s ire is a recent Lexington Herald-Leader article:  “Ark Encounter has been ‘very busy,’ founder says. Admission numbers show decline.”  According to the article, Ark Encounter attendance this past September was 69,207, which marks a 17 % drop from the 83,330 who visited the previous September. These attendance numbers come from the nearby town of Williamstown, which “calculates the number of tickets sold” from the money it receives from the Ark — 50 cents per ticket – for a “safety fee” that pays for emergency vehicles.

This image shows the full length of the Ark Encounter, a large replica of Noah's Ark.

View of Ark Encounter. Photo Credit: Susan L. Trollinger (2018).

The math seems pretty straightforward, and the calculations are based on payments made to Williamstown by Ark Encounter. But Ham has multiple complaints:

  • No one interviewed him.
  • The safety fee “cannot be used as basis for calculating an accurate attendance count,” because, as he explains elsewhere, it does not take into account children under the age of 5 who get in free, as well as folks who have purchased lifetime and annual attendance passes.
  • The article fails to credit the Ark with creating a “tourism boom” in northern Kentucky, a boom evinced by the fact that business at B & B Riverboats – located in Newport, along the Ohio River – has “doubled since the Ark opened.”
  • While this “attack piece” is designed to hurt the Ark, it may instead hurt Williamstown, in that “commercial developers” may read this and “become skittish about developing [local] hospitality venues.”
  • Most important, “the ultimate source for this article is not AiG but local atheists [emphasis Ham’s] who have continued to voice their disdain/hatred against the Ark (and Creation Museum) and do all they can to spread misinformation in their failed attempts to undermine the phenomenal success of the Ark and Museum attractions.”

There is much that could be said about Ham’s response. As regards including lifetime and annual passholders in the attendance numbers, Ham could simply provide those numbers. (Side note: all of this raises the interesting question – at least for Williamstown – as to whether folks purchasing such passes are paying a safety tax). Moreover, it is not at all clear why non-paying visitors – including infants and toddlers – should be counted in attendance numbers.

As regards B & B Riverboats, it may simply be a coincidence that they have done well in the 28 months since the Ark opened – a possibility that is more likely given that this boating enterprise is located 40 miles to the north of the Ark. And as concerns Ham’s claim that this article may hurt Williamstown, it must be said developers are not going to be dissuaded by a local newspaper story: if they conclude – and apparently they have not – there is money to be made, they will put up hotels.

Most troubling is Ham’s employment of the ad hominem fallacy. And it is not at all clear whom precisely he is attacking. Given that Williamstown city officials are the source for the Lexington Herald-Leader article, are they the disdainful, hateful, and misleading “local atheists”? Or is it Mike Stunson, the reporter who wrote the article?

In his blog post Ham also notes that “Ark attendance was actually up for the second year of operation.” This seems an oddly misplaced point, given that the article centers on the decline in Ark attendance in its third September of operation as compared to its with second September.

That said, it is interesting to note that – as reported by Williamstown – paid attendance in the Ark’s second year of operation was 862,471. This is a far cry from what Ark officials claimed in the feasibility study designed to convince Williamstown to award Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding while also allowing the Ark to forego paying 75% of its property taxes for three decades. In that report Ark Officials asserted that there would be 1.2 million to 2.0 million visitors in the first year, with an average increase in attendance of 7% per year over the next ten years.

The discrepancy between the feasibility study (and even more extravagant promises from Ham) and the reality on the ground is never acknowledged by the folks at Ark Encounter. And the discrepancy only gets larger over time. Whatever might be said about media bias, these are facts.

Facts that Williamstown residents have to live with.


Immigrants, and a Better Way Forward

Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

The 2018 midterm elections are over, finally, and immigration and immigrants played a central role. Fear of immigrants, in particular. Fear that immigrants will take something from Americans (jobs). Fear that immigrants will bring something unwelcome to America (crime, disease). The word “immigrant” was weaponized to elicit fear in the electorate.

We can do better than this.

For over a year and a half, the church where I am the pastor has been actively welcoming east African immigrant families into our community. Last year, I wrote two blog posts for rightingamerica (here and here) that describe how my aging, mainline church has found new life by forming relationships with these immigrants.

Corinth Kid’s Club. Photo courtesy of Herbie Miller (2018).

Our efforts first took shape last year when we offered English-language tutoring classes twice a week. This year our outreach efforts have changed. The tutoring classes are held in the public schools during school hours, so the students can have easier access to the services. And our church is now offering a weekly, multi-cultural youth group for immigrants and Americans called the Kids’ Club.

The Kids’ Club is my church’s attempt to create a space where the east African immigrant kids we’ve come to know through tutoring have the opportunity to develop friendships with the American kids who come to our church. Each week we share a meal together at 5:30 and then at 6:00 we enjoy youth group for an hour and a half. We do most of the stuff any youth group does—sing songs, have a Bible lesson, pray together, talk about life issues, and play games.

Children playing at Corinth Kid’s Club. Photo courtesy of Herbie Miller (2018).

Currently, 25 kids come each week—about half are immigrants and half are Americans. Not only has it been a joy to see the kids make new friends, it’s been heart-warming to see the members of my church grow in their love for the kids and learn about the challenges immigrant families face in the United States. As is common with any mission God calls us to, my church is being blessed by the friends we’ve been called to serve.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

One of the immigrant kids who’s been coming to the Kids’ Club is a middle-school-aged girl. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah lives with about a dozen other people in her house in a crowded blue-collar neighborhood in Dayton. Across the street from Sarah’s house lives an American family who has a daughter that’s about her age. Sarah and this girl (I’ll call her Melissa) quickly became best friends. One Wednesday, while Sarah was waiting for her ride to the Kids’ Club, she invited Melissa to come with her. Melissa came and loved it. That night Melissa diligently acquired a permission slip to take home and have signed, so she could keep coming back. And she has.

Melissa’s story is not unique. Two other families (one American, one Asian immigrant) have started coming to the Kids’ Club because of an invitation that was extended by an east African immigrant child.

When I first proposed the Kids’ Club to the elders of my church, I didn’t anticipate this happening—immigrants bringing Americans to church! I simply believed our congregation was being called by God to start a multi-cultural youth group as a way to participate in his mission of reconciliation in east Dayton. But our immigrant friends have truly been a gift to us from God, surprising and delighting us by bringing new friends to our doors. And in response, my church’s posture toward immigrants is one of trust — in God and in our new friends – and welcome.

Learning vocabulary at the Corinth Kid’s Club. Photo courtesy of Herbie Miller (2018).

As a Christian, as a pastor, and as an American, I would like to call on the allies of immigrants to do two things to combat the pervasive and politicized rhetoric of fear. First, get to know—or deepen your friendship with—the immigrants in your life. When we get to know a person we stop seeing them as an abstraction and start seeing them as an individual with a unique story. Stories of joy, sadness, hope, anger, and every other emotion. Stories just like our own.

Second, share the story of your friendship in respectful and appropriate ways with people who are suspicious of immigrants. The key here is to speak about the shared experience of friendship between yourself and your immigrant friend. If we frame our discussion of immigrants around friendship, then the conversation more easily moves toward the idea that this relationship is mutually enriching.

As we walk alongside our immigrant friends and neighbors during these turbulent times, we will show the world that they are not taking something from us. Instead, they are bringing us gifts.

I believe this is the better way forward.


The Making of a Creationist Theme Park: Part Two

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018) is the latest work from James Bielo. Below is the second half of the rightingamerica interview with James regarding this fascinating book.

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). He is the author of four books and more than 50 scholarly articles, chapters, & essays. He is the project director for Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project that explores the social, material, and political dimensions of biblically-themed attractions. And, he is co-editor of a book series with the U of Nebraska Press, Anthropology of Contemporary North America

This image is the book cover for James Bielo's Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. It features the bow of the wood Ark against a blue sky.

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018)

1. At the end of your chapter on “The Past is Not History” you ask this provocative question:

“In contrast to the hotly contested field of public school curricula, where symbolic capital derives from scientific legitimacy, can creationism score a victory in the court of public entertainment, where creative capital speaks in an artistic and affective register? When it comes to history-making, is creationism more fun than evolution?”

Can you explain what you mean here, and how would you answer your own questions?

Ark Encounter, and the Creation Museum, use the power of entertainment to advance their ambitions of religious publicity. In posing this question, I’m trying to reveal the wager that the creative team is making. Their wager is that through entertainment they can win visitors to their cause, and intensify the commitments of those already won. In this wager, they don’t have to compel non-creationists within the playing field of science; they just have to grab their attention within the playing field of entertainment. In their calculus, if visitors are wowed then they will walk away changed: if not converted, then at least re-oriented to the potential legitimacy of creationism.

So, how would I answer? You’re not supposed to ask me that 😉

Of course, it’s meant to be a rhetorical question. That being said, it’s worth adventuring an answer. To begin, we should clarify the kind of visitor we’re talking about. Creationist visitors, I suspect, do experience the creationist past — as performed by Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum — as fun and, indeed, more fun than an evolutionary past. But, what about non-creationist visitors? Of course, the category “non-creationist visitor” entails tons of variation. But, if you don’t live in the creationist lifeworld, then no matter your orientation you are being asked to do the same thing: to play in this frame of reality. You are asked to consider creationism as viable and, in turn, to work with their terms and exist in their lifeworld. For visitors who engage in this play, part of their experience upon leaving is reflecting on what kind of experience they had onsite. How did they feel? How did they respond: bodily, emotionally, and cognitively? Irrespective of whether they are confused, disturbed, amused, or whatever, they will confront what it was like to play in this world. Did they have fun? Ultimately, I think we just need more ethnography with different kinds of visitors to meaningfully address that.

2. Related to the previous question, a recent online article argues that Ark Encounter is “a boring homophobic mess.” Leaving aside the question of homophobia (unless you want to say something in that regard!), does it make sense to you that folks find Ark Encounter boring? Put another way, could Ark Encounter actually lose in the court of public entertainment?

I read this article as well, published by Vice. It certainly makes sense that some visitors will find Ark Encounter boring. Again, not everyone will get caught up in the experience of play. For some visitors, the kind of entertainment strategies the attraction uses will not work. For others there will be ideological and/or theological conflicts. For some, both.

What I find more interesting, though, is how winning and losing in the court of public entertainment is figured (especially, beyond the level of the individual visitor). In part, it is about making a lasting impression, creating a memorable experience. Over time, it is about perceived innovation. The Creation Museum opened in 2007. Almost without exception, each year they have expanded or changed the visitor experience in some way (often, this has been timed with Memorial Day weekend, which in the seasonal ritual cycle of U.S. mass tourism marks the beginning of summertime travel, especially for families). I suspect Ark Encounter will aim for much the same. While many people will never visit because of ideological opposition, and many visitors who are ideologically opposed to creationism will find the place boring and disturbing in equal parts, its eventual success or failure will be determined otherwise. In part, it will be determined in how well they innovate to entice visitors to return, to invite others, and, for non-creationists, to play a bit in this lifeworld.

3. You conclude Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park with this statement: “For the fundamentalist gaze to work at Ark Encounter, it must absorb the commercial gaze of an entertainment-savvy public that is poised for accusations of religious idiocy.” Can you explain what you mean here, and do you think Ark Encounter will succeed in this regard?

What I mean is that even creationist visitors, because of their broader cultural repertoire, will demand that Ark Encounter be a good/memorable/fun experience. For long term success, it must meet a threshold of quality that is not defined within the world of fundamentalism, but within the broader world of entertainment. The creative team was quite attuned to this, and they talked constantly about the need to “surprise” visitors by measuring themselves and their work against the highest possible industry standards. The need to innovate over time is part of this, as is the need to mobilize strategies and techniques that read, for visitors, as up-to-date (i.e., fun/engaging/interesting) and not outmoded (i.e., boring/lame/tired).

Perhaps not surprisingly, most visitor accounts that I’ve seen are polarized. Creationist visitors largely praise the experience, critics largely ridicule the experience. Apart from some good ethnography with other visitors (which I encourage scholars to pursue), there are some hints in circulating media about the Ark’s perceived quality. For example, an anthropologist named Scott Lukas has been studying themed environments (mostly not faith-based attractions) for several decades. Writing for Attractions Management, a leading trade magazine in the themed entertainment business, Lukas reviews Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. He writes, “look beyond the controversies surrounding the monumental Ark attraction and its sister museum and you’ll find some of the best examples of immersive theming in the US.” Throughout, he takes the self-identified stance of an expert on themed environments who is assessing the attractions on how well they perform within this genre of place (not, for example, how well they meet the imperatives of fundamentalism or how much they clash with non-fundamentalist sensibilities). He observes various features, from architecture to the choreography of the senses, and continually returns to one point: he was deeply impressed.

So, will Ark Encounter be successful? If success means impressing a non-creationist public, it may already be. If success means remaining open for years/decades to come, and perhaps expanding to include additional exhibits (e.g., a proposed Tower of Babel replica), then a major variable will be their capacity to innovate: to keep the experience entertaining for new and returning visitors. Innovation includes multiple things. On one hand, it includes changes/expansions in exhibit designs, uses of technology, and multi-media experiences. On the other, innovation will likely include responding to socio-political life as it unfolds in a fundamentalist vein (e.g., connecting the visitor experience at Ark Encounter to the wider ideological concerns of fundamentalism).

4. Ok, your book just came out, so it probably is not fair to ask. But could you say a little about your next project?

I appreciate you asking. My fieldwork with the Ark Encounter creative team inspired me to examine other attractions that “materialize the Bible.” This began with a digital scholarship project, Materializing the Bible  https://www.materializingthebible.com/}, which I curate with undergraduate research assistants. This project is an interactive, curated catalogue of biblically-themed attractions throughout the world. Working on this project has helped me to think comparatively and historically about this phenomenon, inspiring analyses of biblical gardens and Protestant mobilizations of biblical landscape items. Materializing the Bible has also prompted more ethnographic work with different attractions. For example, I have done participant observation work at the Garden of Hope in northern Kentucky, which features a replica of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb. And, I have done some observation and interviewing on the newly opened Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C. The article I’m working on right now focuses on MOTB and, like Ark Encounter, is interested in questions of immersive entertainment. MOTB is especially fascinating because, unlike Ark Encounter, most of the creative talent were not part of faith-based design firms. What will we learn about this place – and, more broadly, about religious publicity and the entangled relationship between religion and entertainment – when we foreground the voices of these designers?

The Making of a Creationist Theme Park: Part One

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018) is the latest work from James Bielo. Below is the first half of the rightingamerica interview with James regarding this fascinating book.

This image is the book cover for James Bielo's Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. It features the bow of the wood Ark against a blue sky.

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018)

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). He is the author of four books and more than 50 scholarly articles, chapters, & essays. He is the project director for Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project that explores the social, material, and political dimensions of biblically-themed attractions. And, he is co-editor of a book series with the U Nebraska Press, Anthropology of Contemporary North America

Before we get started, I’d just like to say thanks for this opportunity. These are really thoughtful questions and it’s helpful for me to reflect on them.

1. We have been asked again and again how we ended up writing a book on the Creation Museum. So we ask the same question of you: How did you end up committing years of your life to researching and writing on Ark Encounter?

It was a mix of good timing and proximity, an openness from the Answers in Genesis (AiG) staff and gracious reception from the Ark design team, and my interest in speaking from an unexpected ethnographic vantage point. I first heard about Ark Encounter in December 2010. After considering it for a few months, and knowing AiG was based only 1 hour from my home, I reached out to the ministry. Surprisingly, I only encountered two gatekeepers before I was standing in the Ark design studio in October 2011.

Such pragmatic issues are always important to consider in fieldwork, but there was also a methodological and theoretical interest that drew me in. From the get go, and still today, the idea of conducting fieldwork with creationists and writing about creationists only to ask questions about creationism per se was not all that compelling to me. Going back to anthropological scholarship in the 1990s, folks like Susan Harding and Chris Toumey, we have a pretty good handle on who creationists are in cultural terms. For me, the really fascinating questions were always about the process of cultural production, the possibility of tracing the making of a creationist theme park from a backstage vantage point. I was always more interested in the creative team, who so often are unknown (even within creationist networks), than I was in public figures like Ken Ham. I wanted to know how a project of religious publicity like Ark Encounter develops and changes as it forms, not merely the finished product that visitors experience. I wanted to learn how fundamentalist Protestant commitments structured the process and the decisions being made on a daily basis, but I also wanted to ask if the process was shaped by other cultural logics, tensions, and contingencies. As it turns out, it absolutely was.

2. How did you secure “backstage” access to Ark Encounter, what was that experience like, and how and why did this access come to an end?

I invite readers to consult the book’s Appendix, which charts the methodological journey of the project. But, I can offer an abbreviated version here. The first AiG staff member I spoke with was an administrative assistant, who had very few questions for me. Fairly quickly, she put me in touch with one of the ministry’s co-founders who was also working as the organizational lead for Ark Encounter. We had a 1-hour phone conversation in August 2011. I asked some basic questions about the Ark, but really this conversation was about him interviewing me. He wanted to know what kind of research I had in mind and what kind of writing I was hoping to produce. I explained that my goal was to analyze the process of production as an anthropologist interested in how cultural systems work, not as someone looking to write any kind of expose. At the end of the call, he invited me to the design studio for a tour, which we set up for October 2011. I spent several hours there and later learned that, at the time, this kind of tour of the studio was primarily given to potential (and, potentially, deep-pocketed) donors. I returned a few weeks later for the first day of full fieldwork, at which point I met the team’s creative director, whose thumbs up or down would really decide my access. He too seemed to appreciate the fact that I wanted to focus on the creative process, and that I wanted to stick around as long as they would let me.

My fieldwork ended in June 2014. In late February 2014, AiG announced that the Ark project had raised the necessary funds to begin construction. At this time, the creative director and I spoke about how my fieldwork could continue, if in an adjusted form. Up to this point, I would spend a full day at the studio once every couple of weeks or so. I sat in on team meetings, talked with the artists in their cubicles while they worked, and (with a few exceptions) was provided generally open access to the team’s process. For example, they would share work-in-progress with me, materials that would not be seen by anyone else outside the studio. The creative director explained that with the green light to begin construction, their design work would increase considerably and my presence sitting in cubicles would soon not be possible. We agreed that I would focus only on team meetings and their more public-facing work. For whatever reason, he changed his mind and my access ended. I never learned the full reason for this decision, but ultimately, I am quite grateful that they were as open as they were over the course of those 43 months.

3. In the introduction to Ark Encounter you note that you want to move analysis of creationism beyond questions of “religion-science” to questions of “religion-entertainment.” What do you mean by this, and why is this important?

Yes, I hope this will be an enduring contribution of the book. As I said above, the creationist movement is well understood in the anthropological record and in the critical, interdisciplinary study of religion. The lion’s share of this scholarship analyzes, interprets, and explains creationism within the framework of religion-science. In other words, the questions posed and arguments advanced engage creationism in terms of how this movement appropriates the symbolic and material infrastructures of mainstream science. This is both good and necessary. Really, there is no understanding of creationism without an understanding of how creationists and creationist institutions continually re-create an antagonistic relationship with science (in particular, of course, evolutionary science). It’s important work and should continue.

My intervention in the book is to say that the frame of religion-science, while productive, does not exhaust the questions we can and should ask about the social life of creationism. What is illumined when we shine the light elsewhere? Through my fieldwork with the Ark Encounter design team, I learned quickly that a different analytical frame would be necessary to understand their creative process and labor. While they did participate in standard creationist discourses about science as part of their design work, this was far less significant than their engagement with other cultural assemblages, namely the world of entertainment. Moreover, it was a particular form of entertainment defined by immersive experience, world-making, and play. As I ask in the book, what do we learn from the ‘creationist imagineer’ that we don’t/can’t from the ‘creation scientist’? So, by shifting the focus to religion-entertainment, I hope to make legible key elements of how Ark Encounter, as a project of religious publicity, was produced and how it works as a visitor attraction. By highlighting the relationship between religion and entertainment I am also setting the stage for the book’s central argument: with Ark Encounter, creationists seek to mobilize the legitimacy and authority of entertainment to advance fundamentalist Protestant claims to cultural legitimacy and authority.  

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