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Slaves Should Have Stayed Put on the Plantation: Al Mohler’s “Apology”

by William Trollinger

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. April 27, 2006. Photo Credit: james.thompson via Wikimedia Commons.

Southern Baptist fundamentalists are not having a good time of it these days. There is, for example, the ongoing and deepening scandal at Cedarville (how is that the president and his top administrators are not gone?)

Then there’s Southern Seminary in Louisville, which 15 months ago produced a report detailing the central role of racism in the school’s history. While this was seen in some quarters as a way for the seminary to clear the slate, it turns out the school’s president (who commissioned this report) has his own significant problems with racism.

Frequent rightingamerica contributor Frederick Schmidt has written an arresting article on the situation at Southern Seminary. Here’s a slightly truncated version of Schmidt’s article: 

In breaking news, it has been revealed that in 1998, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, defended slavery and condemned the bravery of Harriet Tubman.

An article from the Religious News Service resurrects the conversation and the context for Mohler’s remarks:

On June 12, 1998, Mohler was a guest on “Larry King Live,” along with the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. and Patricia Ireland, then-president of the National Organization for Women, to discuss the Southern Baptist Convention’s belief that women should submit to their husbands. The conversation eventually expanded to include a discussion of slavery.

According to a transcript obtained from CNN, Mohler asserted that he agrees with the New Testament’s command for slaves to obey their masters. This doesn’t mean the Bible “endorses” slavery, Mohler said, “but it does say, if you’re a slave, there’s a way to behave.”

King asked whether such a belief meant he would “condemn those who ran away,” like Harriet Tubman.

“Well, I want to look at this text seriously, and it says submit to the master,” Mohler replied. “And I really don’t see any loophole here as much as, in terms of popular culture, we’d want to see one.”

Seemingly stunned, King cut to a commercial break.

Mohler had addressed the racism that dogged the seminary he leads as recently as 2018, but over the years since the interview, he has conveniently omitted any public reference to his own racism.  When the Larry King interview surfaced this week, Mohler apologized, or so it seemed at first blush.

On Friday (May 15), Mohler told Religion News Service he was wrong. “It sounds like an incredibly stupid comment, and it was,” he said, after hearing his remarks from 1998. “I fell into a trap I should have avoided, and I don’t stand by those comments. I repudiate the statements I made.”

A Trap of His Own Making

However, the reference to falling “into a trap I should have avoided” erodes any sense in which  Mohler might claim to have really apologized.  He should have stuck with “stupid,” and he should have considered adding the modifiers, “racist, immoral, and despicable.”

But, since he mentions it, what – exactly – is the “trap” to which Mohler refers?  It certainly isn’t Larry King’s follow-up question.  That was a legitimate, probing inquiry, that simply asked Mohler to draw the inferences that flow logically from his position.

The answer, rather, seems to lie with Mohler’s approach to Scripture, which reads it as uniformly timeless, prescriptive, and the only source for thinking theologically (sola Scriptura).  It cannot be said often enough what a non-starter all three categories are.

Timeless

That some portions of Scripture are meant to be timeless observations of one kind, or another, is obvious.  The difficulty, of course, is deciding when and where to assume that Scripture speaks in timeless categories and – as the example above suggests – it is impossible to make universally applicable rules for when and where to assume it does.  What becomes immediately obvious is that making the assumption that Mohler makes is untenable.

If Scripture communicates any of the truths that Christians claim for it, some observations certainly are timeless, but others are clearly not. The recommendations Paul makes to both slaves and slave owners in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 constituted a radical departure from the norms of his day, but they are hardly adequate now, and the moral bankruptcy of the system itself is apparent and has been for centuries.

Prescriptive

Somewhat similar observations could be made about the prescriptive approach that Mohler takes to Scripture.  Some of it is, to be sure, explicitly prescriptive.  The Ten Commandments certainly are.  But even when the behavior prescribed in the Bible is fairly specific, that does not mean that it can be or should be obeyed in the form that it appears.  This is true of a fair number of prescriptions in Leviticus which have no application in the absence of the Temple.  It is true of dietary laws which Christians ignore without a second thought, and it is true of the prescriptions in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where both the experience of the church and the development of the church’s tradition suggest that – as they stand – the prescriptions surrounding slavery have no application.

Sola Scriptura

Both of the assumptions that Mohler makes are all the more problematic, however, when the other trap that his own hermeneutic lays for him is that of sola Scriptura.  Whether it is acknowledged in other denominations or not, most churches acknowledge that they are dependent upon both the growing body of reflection on the Gospel that has been passed down through the centuries and on the experience of the church, as guided by the Holy Spirit.

In churches of that kind it is more accurate to talk about prima Scriptura or “the primacy of Scripture,” than it is to talk about “Scripture alone.”  It is also easier to acknowledge that – as important as Scripture is – our interpretation of it is dependent upon far more.

Read in this way, one can acknowledge the importance of Paul’s advice to slaves and slaveowners and its contemporary inadequacy at the same time.  Paul’s directive is a break with the values of his day, but the value of Paul’s directive does not lie in the advice itself, but in the liberating trajectory of God’s grace.  The institution of slavery and a wide array of behaviors that enslave people in ways both old and new are now, rightly, our focus.

Given the way that he reads and uses Scripture and the exclusive place that it occupies in his theology, Mohler cannot do that.  So, instead, he is – to use own words – trapped.  Trapped by a single understanding of what the text suggests.  Trapped by what Paul could see, given his own historical horizons, but ironically, closed off to the grace of God in Christ that liberated him.

The Cruelty of Fundamentalism

Perhaps that is why Mohler cannot really apologize.  Even though the fundamentalist use of Scripture is predicated upon faithful adherence to Scripture, its approach to Scripture often cuts itself off from the breadth of God’s grace, and that is evident in Mohler’s truncated apology. We owe far more to those who hear nothing but appalling cruelty in Mohler’s so-called apology. For the full version of Schmidt’s article, see: Al Mohler, Slavery, Tainted Apologies, and Biblical Interpretation

Charles Taylor and the Disenchanted World of Fundamentalism

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. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Breaking of Inner Harbor Levee, New Orleans, August 2005. Image via if i only had a time machine

Fundamentalists apply what they consider “science” to the Bible and insist that they have discovered all truth. Instead, what they have actually done is flatten faith, mystery, creation to the empirical. Almost in a state of denial, they resist the reality that they themselves live in a “secular” world sanitized of faith and transcendence, flattened to the empirical. 

Of course, young Earth creationists seek to defend the intervention of the “supernatural” (God) in the creation of the universe. But in A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that to hold to the natural/supernatural distinction – so central to fundamentalism – is itself is an effect of the “immanent frame” (542, 548), in which the world is disenchanted, and in which the presence of supernatural beings or forces are impossible or nearly impossible. So in conceding the natural/supernatural binary young Earth creationists actually place themselves squarely within the paradigm of the immanent frame, which is why Taylor says that fundamentalists and materialists actually share the same “view of things” (547) – they are modern cousins.

This is obvious in the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. George Marsden says that fundamentalists assumed (and assume) that their approach to the Bible – their biblical inerrancy – represents the intellectual and scientific approach to Scripture. They were (and are) convinced that they were just taking the hard facts of Scripture and discovering what was actually there. 

But such an approach leaves no room for a reading like Rowan Williams gives us in Tokens of Trust, in which Genesis doesn’t give us a view of the modern cosmologist, but instead the view of a person of faith expressing joy in the purposes of God to create beings capable of experiencing the ecstasy of aliveness. Creation, in Genesis, is doxological before it is theological, and to flatten the story to our reduced prose of the immanent frame is to destroy the praise.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it in Finally Comes the Poet, we now do business with a “truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane” (1).

So the fixation on intelligent design, on a young Earth, is already a sign of the waning of devotional practice: 

once people come to live more and more in purely secular time, when God’s eternity and the attendant span of creation becomes merely a belief, however well backed up with reasons, the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts (Taylor 328).

Fundamentalism arose as a fearful response to the emerging new disciplines of knowledge, especially in science and theology. In his 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”,” Harry Emerson Fosdick saw clearly the fundamentalist response to new knowledge: 

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere.

Basing theology on the fear of new ideas just feels wrong from the outset. Such epigrammatic attempts at doing theology seem like reducing thought to bumper stickers or tweets. Nineteenth century fundamentalists assumed that the “enemy” was science and critical study of Scripture. But the idea that science is the cause of unbelief is to pick the wrong enemy. 

But when it comes to creation, Christians possess an unlimited appetite for picking or even creating the wrong enemy. For example, young Earth creationists are repeating an earlier mistake made when, in the second century, theologians (primarily Irenaeus) rushed to defend God against the charge of “creating evil” by making up the doctrine of ex creatio nihilo. (Odd isn’t it to create out of “nothing” a doctrine of nihilo?) 

To this day, self-righteous preachers leap from bridges of irrationality to blame God for hurricanes and tsunamis and COVID-19.  Besides producing a doctrine of divine omnipotence that led to an insoluble problem of evil, this postbiblical doctrine of creation from nothing has been the primary basis for thinking that the Christian faith is incompatible with scientific naturalism in the generic sense. 

Once this gate opened, there would be no limit on the ability of fundamentalists to name “enemies,” to create “devil” terms. For example, in the early 20th century, fundamentalists decided that evolution was the enemy. The Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee brought the fundamentalist claims about the evils of evolution to the nation’s attention. And it went badly for fundamentalists. The biology textbook that roused the ire of fundamentalists not only advanced evolution, but also taught eugenics. Think what a difference would have occurred if fundamentalists had picked eugenics as the primary enemy of the faith.

To a fundamentalist the advances of science and “new knowledge” feels as “scary as hell.” Thus, the fundamentalists scurry about, anxiously, frenetically, piling sandbags on top of a river levee that will not be able to resist the rising waters, that will eventually break the levee and flood everything. It is not a good place to inhabit. One day the levee will break. At the Old River Locks in Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers has constructed a huge floodgate system to keep the river from changing course and flowing into the Atchafalaya River. The engineers admit that the structure will not hold forever because of the sheer power of the Mississippi River. Analogically, one day the fundamentalist “floodgates” will open.

Yet fundamentalists, like Ken Ham, continue defending a theistic universe rather than a biblical cosmos. Eliminating mystery as a consequence of Protestant critiques of allegorization, positing a flat literalism as the only way to read the Bible, believers end up reading the Bible as if it were a scientific treatise on such a universe. In short, you get the emergence of young Earth creationism. The so-called war between science and religion has been reduced to an intramural spat, as secularism – the modern cosmic imaginary – has seeped into both believers and unbelievers. In other words, no one is more modern than Ken Ham and the folks at Answers in Genesis, and the face-off between religion and science “has a strangely intra-mural quality” (Taylor, 331).     

Young earth creationists are like football players, who, for reasons unknown, insist on challenging a basketball team to a game of basketball. Instead of postulating that God endowed creation with all the necessary elements for life, that humans came to a universe prepared for our appearance, young earthers insist on creating “out of nothing” a doctrine that finds no actual support in Scripture. Instead of engaging Scripture seriously, they pretend to be scientists. With a wink and a nod to the Bible, they set it aside and step into the ring as amateur scientists. 

Of all the problems with young Earth creationism, nothing is more difficult for Ham and fundamentalists than the fact that they are squarely stuck in the immanent frame. In their disenchanted world they have reduced the glory of creation to a surfeit of implausible explanations, pseudo-science, and impossible doctrines. Young Earth creationism is left with telling us what creation can’t do rather than glorying in a creation that has such ongoing creative powers. 

I confess to a certain happiness, as a debater, in facing opponents who reject physics, geology, astronomy, and biology. The fundamentalists’ real problem is with science, all of it, as they engage in an utter rejection of science in order to prop up alleged literal Bible beliefs. I’m not sure how much longer this charade will continue, but it has proven to be rather resilient, especially in the alternate universe inhabited by evangelical Christians adept at believing impossible things and following false messiahs. Still, the waters are rising.

Where does this leave the story? In How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K. A. Smith argues, 

Those evangelicals who have been raised and shaped by forms of Christianity that are roughly “fundamentalist” will either: 

 1. Become taken with the modern moral order and thus sort of replay the excarnational development of modernity, just now a few centuries later, sort of catching up with the wider culture; so under the guise of the “emerging church” or “progressive evangelicalism,” will be set on a path something like Protestant liberalism, a new deism; or

2. Recognize the disenchantment and excarnation of evangelical Protestantism, and also reject the Christianized subtraction stories of liberal Christianity, and feel the pull of more incarnational spiritualities, and thus move toward more “Catholic” expressions of faith – and these expressions of faith will actually exert more pull on those who have doubts about their “closed” take on the immanent frame.

I am especially attracted to the possibility of the move toward more “Catholic” expressions of faith as a response to the disenchanted world of fundamentalism! It is a breath of fresh air after breathing the polluted adumbrations of young Earth creationism. I will leave them to their jeremiads, their elliptical arguments, their inapposite conclusions and their constant cavils of protests. Instead I will, with the church, affirm that “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of all that is, seen and unseen.”

No Safeguard, No Whole: Why I Left Cedarville University

by Julie L. Moore

Julie L. Moore is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Full Worm Moon, which won a 2018 Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award, and which received honorable mention for the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2018 Book of the Year. She now teaches at Taylor University, a long-standing member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Photo Credit: CNS/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales – Blessed John Henry Newman is seen in a portrait provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales, via https://www.cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com

As you may have heard, this past week, Tim Bray, a Vice-President at Amazon Web Services, announced he quit his job because Amazon would not establish safe working environments in its warehouses, as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) had demanded a year ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions only worsened, and eventually, Amazon fired AECJ leaders who’d blown the whistle on the company. 

Bray walked out, saying: 

Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.

I made a similar choice when I walked away from Cedarville University (CU) in 2017.

As a CU alumna who attended the then-college under President Paul Dixon, I have always appreciated my undergraduate experiences. To be sure, the school was known more for its strict rules back in the 1980s than for its educational prowess, and those rules were sexist (women had to wear skirts) and ridiculous (movie theatres were banned but VCRs weren’t). 

Yet, somehow, Cedarville still fostered open discourse. I have fond memories of debating the ideas behind free will and predestination with Calvinist and Arminian friends alike. Likewise, professors disagreed, amicably, upon such beliefs. Furthermore, while most professors did ascribe to the conservative “complementarian” views of women’s roles, some were beloved egalitarians who helped me realize my own potential. In college, I read Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, philosophers like William James and John Dewey, and a wealth of literature and literary criticism (I was an English major) in addition to many other theological works. No one ever told me certain works of literature should not be read.

Graduate school at the University of Dayton and a decade teaching at Wilberforce University followed. By 2000, CU had dropped most of its illogical rules and under Dixon’s last years, was progressing toward even more open discourse as well as sensitivity toward marginalized people groups. Because WU was facing financial stresses, it seemed like a good time to return and join the effort to bring CU into the 21st century. 

Shortly after I began teaching there, Dr. Bill Brown was hired as its new president, and CU enjoyed an unprecedented time of renewed scholarship and investment in culturally relevant discourse. Students became deeply concerned about human trafficking, care of the environment, and other social justice issues, and the university began to connect with organizations like International Justice Mission, the Preemptive Love Coalition, and The Luke Commission. A Young Democrats organization even began, led by a veteran Education professor. In short, although Dr. Brown’s decade at CU was far from ideal, CU did earn a reputation for its educational excellence, and expanded its student population beyond just Baptists.

Unfortunately, though, Brown’s presidency also suffered through an abundance of internal conflicts between fundamentalists and open-minded conservatives (yes, there is such a thing). Amid such conflicts, a fundamentalist Bible professor was fired, who then sued the school. The conflicts and the litigation both communicated to the fundamentalist constituency that CU was “going liberal,” a fate worse than death for such folks. Thus, these troubles drained the school of money, energy, and unity of vision, leading to Brown’s eventual (forced) resignation and the hiring of Dr. White.

Righting America  —  here and here – has done an excellent job tracking what led up to that point and thereafter, so I won’t repeat that information here. 

Suffice it to say, in 2012, CU set off on a trajectory of purging perceived liberalism from its school. Of course, such a mission rests solely on perceptions. 

After teaching at CU for 18 years, I left to escape the toxic environment and to pursue the idea of a real university. (I didn’t leave CU because White hired Anthony Moore—that happened a month later—and covered up Moore’s sexual assault. I do believe White’s decision was unethical and rooted in cronyism, however; he should be fired.)

Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, written in 1852, imagined the university as a place where students would discover the connections and relationships between disparate fields of knowledge because of their common Creator. Newman’s work resonates with me because, as a CU student, I’d been taught that all truth is God’s truth, so discovering it anywhere we could find it is as necessary and invigorating as, say, reading our Bibles or attending church. Though Jesus and the Bible are God’s “special revelation,” the rest of the world’s knowledge, when true, is God’s “general revelation.” One Creator of all truth. 

Yet, under Pres. White, there was a massive shift away from this understanding. This shift has not really been visible to parents, prospective students, or even present students (they don’t know what they don’t know), but those students who endured the transition between Brown and White saw it clearly. Many professors suffer under it. White has elevated the Bible Department above all else. Now that the vast majority of professors there are his chosen people (he forced out a dozen of the professors he inherited), and the long-time veterans have been demoted to teaching mostly general education classes, that department is the crown jewel. It’s what White values most and admires most.

Science and math are necessary, but not profitable, thus the reason the physics major was also cut. They don’t make money like engineering, nursing, and pharmacy, which are also non-suspect. White and his Vice President of Academics are suspicious of psychology and social work as well as all the liberal arts: literature and philosophy (the latter, a major CU also got rid of), film and creative writing, art and theatre. 

Indeed, under White’s administration, all the liberal arts must now be “pure,” a la the censorship policy, which was foisted upon faculty in 2017. Then VPA Reno, who is now the acting president in the wake of White’s administrative leave, wrote the policy. Reno resigned as VPA immediately after enacting the policy against faculty opposition—no faculty vote was allowed, by the way. The present VPA, Tom Mach, now enforces the policy. 

Supposedly based upon Philippians 4:8, the policy requires faculty to choose materials that balance the pure with the noble, the true with the lovely, and the admirable with the just, but should not merely focus on what is “just.” Simultaneously, however, the policy bans anything the administration considers “pornographic,” “erotic,” “obscene,” or “graphic.” As a result, the policy clearly elevates sexual purity above all else, introducing an incorrect interpretation of and application of the verse (and even the term “purity” itself, as CU limits its meaning only to sexual purity, but no other kind of purity). All academic disciplines’ standards, scholarship, and best practices are, therefore, subjected to and censored by that narrow view of “purity.” 

And so, the policy dictates that faculty “run material and media by their dean or chair prior to presenting it to students if it approaches the category of ‘unacceptable.’” And it ends with this bold-faced threat: “Before God and the administration, faculty are accountable for their choices, and deans and chairs for their oversight of this material.” 

Once censorship begins, it’s hard to stop, and it gets enforced in pell-mell fashion, as complaints arise. So films like Schindler’s List, a Latina author’s memoir about surviving sexual abuse at age 9, certain Native American trickster myths, acclaimed graphic novels such as Persepolis—and the list goes on—are all banned. Inexcusably, many censored published works are written by authors of color, showing a complete lack of understanding about cultural differences, a disregard for diversity, and in some cases, a lack of compassion for the “least of these” caught in poverty and war.

In fact, despite the policy’s claim that it is “not designed to restrict the free discussion of ideologies, philosophies, or schools of thought that may or may not run counter to biblical truth,” the reality is, administrators have, indeed, used it to censor many ideologies, such as literary theories, books by Shane Claiborne, and even non-Republican political views. (A student Democratic organization used to exist on campus, but it’s long gone now.) 

Even worse, CU administrators often kowtow to infantilized high school students and freshmen who don’t have the maturity to encounter certain legitimate assignments. Faculty, therefore, now teach at CU fearing that at any time, a student may complain (through their parents, of course) to Dr. White or the VPA about assigned material, then get reprimanded, or worse, forced out (complete with a non-disclosure agreement required for severance). 

The main goal of every faculty member now is to stay off the administration’s “purity” radar. 

In short, CU’s toxicity is just as bad, if not worse, than Amazon’s. Present and former CU professors have now spoken out about the toxic culture, which includes public shaming of sexual abuse victims via the censorship policy: https://julieroys.com/professors-describe-public-shaming-toxic-culture-at-cedarville-u/.

This policy certainly does not cohere to the idea of a University. Nor does it cohere with much of Christian Higher Education, as represented by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), which White yanked CU out of in 2016. It doesn’t abide by the accreditation guidelines the Higher Learning Commission mandates either. (CU’s accreditation was renewed in 2016, just months prior to the censorship policy’s enactment.)

Cardinal Newman warns against disconnecting disciplines from each other, as has happened at CU. He explains that doing so distorts the teaching of truth: “There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others.” Indeed, a censorship policy removes the natural “safeguard” of other disciplines themselves, much like John Milton argued in Areopagitica:

And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter. Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

How can there be true education without such encounters and juxtapositions? Truth is strong, not weak, and God is big enough to handle the challenge. 

And what of multiple truths existing simultaneously—paradoxes, those apparent contradictions inherent in any Christian faith? 

That’s the meat we must teach and allow our students to chew on, for doing so will help students develop both a “philosophical habit” and a “truly great intellect,” which, according to Newman, see a “connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre” (emphasis mine).

After all, any university education is so much more than job preparation. Students will not become mere workers serving the state or the GDP. They’ll become active citizens, too, who hopefully will vote and continue to educate themselves about their local and global problems and solutions. They may become church members, spouses, and parents. Perhaps, they’ll become blood or organ donors, activists, or ministers. They may even become community organizers, volunteers, and political leaders.

Their intellects matter. 

Incidentally, the same year the CU administration passed the censorship policy, they also became the first university in Ohio to allow concealed carry consistent with state law. I couldn’t abide the thought of any one of the antagonistic male administrators, who often boasted about their gun play, packing heat on campus. 

So like Tim Bray, I had to leave the culture engineered on fear, an environment so in love with its own homogenous ideology that anyone who appears even slightly different is likewise assumed to be out of line, liberal (gasp!), and worst of all, unChristian. Indeed, the climate was and is poisonous.

Even a CU alumna like me—Christian to my core!— no longer felt welcome there. 

The Scandal Deepens at Cedarville University

by William Trollinger

Portrait taken by HAF/IMMP, via thouarttheman

Things are bad at Cedarville University, with the revelation a few days ago that in 2017 the school knowingly hired a sexual predator who rapidly became a central figure at the school.  (Go here for the full recap.) 

But while Cedarville has taken action, of a sort, the situation at the school is definitely not getting better. In fact, all indications are that the situation may be getting worse.

Last Friday the Cedarville University Board of Trustees put President Thomas White on administrative leave. Since this statement is relatively brief, I will include it in its entirety here:

The Board of Trustees at Cedarville University was recently made aware of additional information related to Dr. Anthony Moore’s past that led to the termination of his employment by our president, Dr. Thomas White, on Thursday, April 23, 2020. The board is incredibly grieved over this new information and the questions it raises. This matter was our priority at our spring Trustee meeting. We understand the gravity of this situation, and we covet your continued prayers.

The trustees have endorsed and ordered the following three courses of action:

1. We are hiring an independent firm to conduct an internal investigation to ensure nothing inappropriate involving Dr. Moore took place on our campus or with any of our students elsewhere. This firm will report to the board, and the board will then report the findings to the Cedarville University community at-large.

2. We are retaining an independent firm to conduct an audit of the entire process surrounding the hiring of Dr. Moore. This will include a thorough review of all relevant communication involving Dr. White and Dr. Moore, the trustees, The Village Church, employment references, etc. The firm will report its findings to the board.

3. We have placed Dr. White on administrative leave during these investigations and have appointed Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Loren Reno as acting president of Cedarville University. Gen. Reno currently serves as senior advisor, office of the president, and was formerly vice president for academics at Cedarville. Dr. White has pledged his full support of both internal reviews being conducted and will make himself available to respond to either inquiry as requested. Dr. White will also fulfill his commitment to participate in the Senior Celebration online event on Saturday to honor the class of 2020. 

As our Cedarville University community processes this situation, we pray we would do so with humility, grace, mercy, integrity, civility, and respect. Above all, we pray God would be honored by our deliberations and actions. [Emphases in original.]   

There are so many problems with this statement. Here are just four, from least to most problematic:

  1. “We have placed Dr. White on administrative leave during these investigations . . . [but] Dr. White will also fulfill his commitment to participate in the Senior Celebration online event.” So White’s possible administrative and moral failings are so great that they require him to be placed on leave, but they are not so great that he cannot participate in the graduation ceremony. What does it mean at Cedarville for an administrator to be placed on leave, and what does this “leave but not leave” suggest about the seriousness of the “investigation”? And is this further confirmation of the fact that, in fundamentalism, male leaders can simply act with impunity, with minimal negative consequences?
  1. “We are hiring an independent firm to conduct an internal investigation to ensure nothing inappropriate involving Dr. Moore took place on our campus or with any of our students elsewhere.” Let me see if I have this right. The school knowingly hired a man who – in his previous position as campus pastor of the The Village Church (TVC) in Fort Worth, Texas – had secretly videotaped a male youth pastor showering in Moore’s home on multiple occasions. More than this, they failed to inform students, parents, staff, and faculty as to what Moore had done, and they failed to institute a rigorous protocol to ensure that students, staff, and faculty were protected from a predator they did not know about. And now, after Moore is gone, Cedarville is investigating to “ensure” that nothing inappropriate happened. That is, they are investigating to confirm what they already believe to be true (which does not sound like an “investigation” as the word is understood outside of the world of fundamentalism). And there is another question regarding this “investigation”: Does the independent firm have access to Moore’s cellphone(s) and other recording devices?  
  1. “We are retaining an independent firm to conduct an audit of the entire process surrounding the hiring of Dr. Moore.” Given how much is already known, at one level this is simply absurd. In January 2017 the lead pastor of TVC publicly announced that Moore had been fired for “grievous immoral actions”. In summer 2017 – as Cedarville was preparing to hire Moore as Multicultural Recruiter and Biblical Research Fellow – the TVC pastor “thoroughly informed Dr. White and Cedarville University about the details of Anthony’s dismissal and our belief that Anthony was not fit for ministry of any kind.” Last month Thomas White acknowledged that he did know about Moore’s voyeuristic videotaping, although his ludicrous defense is that in 2017 he was told about “at most two videos,” while  he has now learned there are at least five. As I said in my previous post: “Two videos ok, five videos bad?” When it comes to Thomas White’s role in the hiring of Anthony Moore, I am at a loss to know what else Cedarville needs to know. This said, it absolutely would be worth investigating who else in the administration and who on the Board knew Moore’s story. There seems to be no question that others knew, given that – on the day White announced Moore was going to be hired – he went out of his way to mention that 

When it comes to Thomas White’s role in the hiring of Anthony Moore, I am at a loss to know what else Cedarville needs to know. This said, it absolutely would be worth investigating who else in the administration and who on the Board knew Moore’s story. There seems to be no question that others knew, given that – on the day White announced Moore was going to be hired – he went out of his way to mention that 

I have been working this summer with . . . our Trustees, Jason Lee [Dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies],  Tom Mach [Vice President for Academics and Chief Academic Officer], Scott Van Loo [Vice President for Enrollment Management], and others on a multiyear plan were we will walk with Anthony through his continued restoration and reentry into ministry.

All signs are that other male leaders at Cedarville, and perhaps many male leaders at Cedarville, were complicit in the hiring of Anthony Moore. And yet, it seems that there is virtually no chance that there will be an actual investigation into who knew what and when. And that leads to point #4.

  1. We “have appointed Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Loren Reno as acting president of Cedarville University. Gen. Reno currently serves as senior advisor, office of the president, and was formerly vice president for academics at Cedarville.”

Given that he only has a M.S. in Systems Management, Lt. Gen Reno has had quite the academic career at Cedarville University. He was hired in 2012 as the dean of the School of Business Administration, an appointment that coincided with the beginning of Cedarville’s fundamentalist crackdown. In 2015 he was appointed the Vice President for Academics. In that role he enforced Cedarville’s notorious “Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy”; as a former faculty member reports, Reno and President White used this policy to publicly shame a faculty member for assigning a Latinx memoir that included graphic language regarding the author’s experience of sexual abuse. (Assigning a book that talks about having been sexually abused, bad; hiring a sexual predator and not revealing this to the community, good.) In 2017 Reno stepped down to become a professor of management and special adviser to President White. And now, three years later, he has become acting president of the university while the institution engages in an internal investigation of the hiring of the aforementioned sexual predator.

But it turns out that Lt. Gen. Reno was intimately involved in the “restoration” of Anthony Moore, meeting with him on a regular basis to mentor him in the basics of leadership.

So the Cedarville Board places Thomas White on administrative leave while the school investigates the hiring of Anthony Moore. In White’s place the Board inserts White’s special advisor Loren Reno – a military man with a master’s degree, and with a track record of academic censorship – into the role of acting president. And given how closely Reno worked with both White and Moore, it is inconceivable that Acting President Reno did not know the full story of Moore’s sexual predation, and was not fully complicit in Moore’s hiring.

In this climate, the investigation looks much more like a cover-up.

As I have said before, if Cedarville were a normal institution of higher, Thomas White would be fired, along with the other administrators – such as Loren Reno – who had a hand in this. But Cedarville is a fundamentalist school with a fundamentalist Board of Trustees.

So it is that the scandal deepens at Cedarville.

“Biblically Consistent” Cedarville University Knowingly Hires and Then (Three Years Later) Fires Sexual Abuser

by William Trollinger

Inauguration of Thomas White as President of Cedarville University.
Photo Credit: Samuel L. Huck, Cedarville University (2014)

Just when I thought I had seen it all in American evangelicalism, here comes this story from Cedarville University.

First, some necessary background. As we detailed in our book, Righting America at the Creation Museum (Righting), and then on this blog, in 2012, the authorities-that-be at Cedarville initiated a fundamentalist crackdown (complete with the requisite purge of faculty and others). Here’s a timeline of the first five years of the crackdown: 

  • August 2012: Theology professor Michael Pahl was fired because he “affirmed the historical Adam and Eve, but for theological reasons and not for reasons of biblical exegesis” (Righting 212).
  • October 2012: President William Brown resigns.
  • January 2013: Vice-President for Student Life Carl Ruby resigns. While neither Brown nor Ruby explained their decisions, one Board of Trustees member (who also chose to resign) noted that both Brown and Ruby “’were considered problematic by the faction of trustees fearful of what they perceive as a creeping liberalism.’” In Ruby’s case, this included having too much compassion for those “people struggling with gender identification” (i.e., LGBTQ students) (Righting 213).
  • January 2013: The philosophy major is eliminated “in the wake of a furor over an anti-Romney-for-president editorial penned by two philosophy professors” (Righting 213). 
  • June 2013: The fundamentalist takeover of the Board of Trustees is now complete, including the addition of the (now-disgraced) Paige Patterson, who had helped lead the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • July 2013: Patterson protégé, Thomas White, from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Patterson was at the time was president), is appointed as Cedarville’s president.
  • Spring 2014: Cedarville hardens its commitment to patriarchy: “In line with the ‘complementarian’ position that women are not to teach men in theological/biblical matters and that they are to submit to their husbands, President White and his administrative colleagues determined that biblical and theological studies classes taught by women could no longer include any male students” (Righting 213-214).
  • Summer 2014: Two years after the beginning of the fundamentalist crackdown, 43 administrators, faculty members, and staff members were either forced out or they escaped to other institutions/jobs, and 15 trustees departed, many in response to the crackdown. “As is almost always the case in fundamentalist crackdowns, the Cedarville purge focused on clearing out the Biblical and Theological Studies Department (fourteen of the faculty who left Cedarville were from this department and were replaced in good part by faculty from Southern Baptist fundamentalist seminaries” (Righting 213).
  • February 2016: Cedarville withdraws from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) because the Board determined that the Council was not conservative enough regarding homosexuality, despite the fact that the CCCU holds to heterosexual marriage as the ideal.
  • Spring 2017: Cedarville implements its “Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy.” This policy establishes that in the classroom “the lines of propriety must be drawn with an eye toward what is pure, not simply what is just.” According to this policy, faculty must not show or assign “images, movies, songs, plays, or writing that may be considered ‘adult’ in nature, that represent immorality, or that may be a stumbling block to students . . . ‘Artistic bareness’ [?] may be appropriate in courses studying art . . . [but] the use of images should be handled judiciously.” Driving home the threat, “faculty are wise to run material by their dean or chair prior to presenting it to students if it approaches the category of ‘unacceptable.’ Before God and the administration, faculty are accountable for their choices, and deans and chairs for their oversight of this material.” (Emphasis mine.)

It turns out that just a few months after Cedarville implemented its Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy – the centerpiece of the school’s fundamentalist crackdown –  the school hired Anthony Moore (an old friend of White’s from Southwestern Biblical Seminary, and also a Paige Patterson protégé) to serve as a Multicultural Recruiter and Biblical Research Fellow at Cedarville. Within fifteen months or so of his hire, the Board of Trustees agreed to give Moore faculty rank within the Biblical and Theological Studies Department, and in January 2019 his titles expanded to include “Special Advisor to the President for Kingdom Diversity.” More than this, Moore was an assistant coach of the Cedarville basketball team (and coached local soccer teams). This spring he taught a course at Cedarville on “Counseling and Mentoring Men.”

In short, it did not take Dr. Moore long to become a central figure at Cedarville University. But there was a problem.

It turns out that in his previous job – as campus pastor of The Village Church (TVC) in Fort Worth, Texas – Moore had secretly videotaped a male youth pastor showering in Moore’s home on multiple occasions. More than this, Moore emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused the victim for almost a decade. While the videotaping could have brought a two-year jail sentence in Texas, the victim chose not to press charges.

But in January 2017 Matt Chandler, TVC lead pastor, announced in a statement to all TVC campuses that Moore had been fired for “grievous immoral actions against another adult member that disqualify him as an elder and staff member.”

Nevertheless, within a few months Moore was hired by his old friend, Thomas White, to work at Cedarville. 

It is obvious that White and the Cedarville administration and the Cedarville Board of Trustees did not come close to practicing due diligence. Not close. And that’s a serious indictment.

But it’s worse. It turns out that TVC Fort Worth had “thoroughly informed Dr. White and Cedarville University about the details of Anthony’s dismissal and our belief that Anthony was not fit for ministry of any kind.” A wise word.

But not to President White or the Cedarville Board. They knew better. As White explained in a statement released four days ago, he and the Trustees sought to help restore Moore to the place where he could resume “meaningful ministry.” So, on August 11, 2017 White spoke to the faculty “with the goal of transparent restoration”:

I am thankful that we serve a God of grace – a God of second chances, third chances, and more . . . As much as possible, we want to have this same culture of grace at Cedarville University . . . This year we have a new staff member. His name is Anthony Moore. In January, Anthony was serving as pastor of the Village Church’s Fort Worth campus. He sinned. His mistake resulted in him stepping down from that ministry. Through consultation with others, we believe his sin, while serious, does not permanently disqualify him from ministry. I have been working this summer with the elders at the Village Church, two counselors who have been working with Anthony closely, our Trustees, Jason Lee [Dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies], Tom Mach [Vice President for Academics and Chief Academic Officer], Scott Van Loo [Vice President for Enrollment Management], and others on a multiyear plan where we will walk with Anthony through his continued restoration and reentry into ministry.

Such a problematic statement. First, given that White did not tell the faculty or staff or students/parents what Moore had done, it’s ludicrous for him to claim that he was seeking “transparent restoration.” Second, it would be interesting to ask the faculty and staff who were forced out of their jobs by the White administration if they think of Cedarville as manifesting a “culture of grace”.

But ok. White and top administrators and the Board of Trustees created a “multiyear” plan to restore Moore to ministry . . . and, amazingly enough, the “multiyear plan” only took about fifteen months. So, if everything was going so well with the restoration plan, why was Anthony Moore fired on April 23, 2020?

Here is White’s explanation:

On April 22, 2020, I learned that I did not have all the information about the original incident. Instead of at most two videos, I heard that there were at least five videos. Instead of this being over a short period of time, I heard that these were taken over a period of at least five months. I also heard details of an unhealthy friendship.

Two videos ok, five videos bad? And as regards the “unhealthy friendship,” might White have learned about this if he had actually contacted the victim (which he did not do until a few days ago)? 

All this to say that White’s explanation of why Moore was fired six days ago is nonsensical, and a study in evasion. It seems obvious that Moore was fired because, thanks to intrepid bloggers, the story is now in the public realm. I confess that I find it bizarre that White and his compatriots seem to have assumed that they could keep Moore’s story under lock and key. But it is out now, and the publicity has forced White and Cedarville to fire Moore.

If Cedarville were a normal institution of higher education, Thomas White would be out of a job, along with the other administrators who had a hand in this.  

But Cedarville is a fundamentalist school, and fundamentalist schools operate according to their own logics. 

Word on the street is that White and his administrative collaborators may be fired after Saturday’s virtual graduation ceremony. We shall see.

The (De)Evolution of Truth

by Rachael Griggs

Rachael Griggs is a science advocate and a Jesus advocate. Her awe of nature and appreciation for the sciences began with her first telescope at the age of twelve. As an adult, she participated in various evangelical congregations until she converted to Catholicism in 2011. She holds the harmony of faith, science, and reason within the Church in high esteem. She is a military Veteran and a former schoolteacher. Currently, she is pursuing a M.A. degree in Religious Studies at the University of Dayton. 

What is truth? Christ and Pilate, by Nikolai Nikolavich Ge, 1890, (via Wikimedia Commons)

Nikolai Nikolavich Ge’s oil painting “What Is Truth” (1890) is one of my favorites. The image captures a clip of dialogue between Pilate and Jesus in John’s Gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.” Pilate then asked Him, “What is truth?” (18:38). 

After spending some time with the painting, it doesn’t take too long to notice the artist’s use of light and shade; the sun illuminates Pilate’s body, his arm stretches out to Jesus in his philosophical moment. From head to toe, Pilate is clean and neat. Light, symbolizing the favor of the gods.

Not so with Jesus. His back is to the wall. His arms are behind him, perhaps clasped at the wrists with chains or rope. His disheveled hair and beard, coupled with his torn and uneven robe, place him into the condemned position. Darkness, symbolizing God’s abandonment. 

I think about Pilate’s question. I wonder about Truth with a capital “T” and the dangers in attempting to claim it as my own or assign it some black-and-white definition. The truth for Pilate (or Truth?) is up for grabs. 

Yet, despite Jesus’s underdog position in this painting, I know He is King. This is my Truth, and the Truth that Christians profess. I commit my heart to the Truths of the Nicene Creed. But, I’m also careful. Pilate’s musings, for me, are jolting. My challenge, therefore, is to negotiate his question within the parameters of my faith and the reality in which I live.  

It’s all about truth. Or, Truth. I’ll only know the Truth in part as long as I’m alive here on Earth. 

And I’m totally okay with that. 

Some aren’t. 

In an attempt to reconcile the Genesis creation myth (or “account,” as young Earth creationists insist) with Darwinism, scientists and theologians with a fundamentalist lens have invented ways, rather ingeniously, to circumvent laws of natural science as evinced by leak-proof empiricism in order to safeguard their belief in an inerrant Bible. 

We have a menu of options from which to choose. First up, and popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, is “old Earth creationism,” with both the gap and day-age theories. But, perhaps due to the evolution of human thought, which may naturally select an even better, more fit model over time, “progressive creationism” surfaced from its warm pool of goo and began to walk on all fours in the mid-twentieth century. However, the 1960s created a drastic change in the environment, from which emerged “young Earth creationism,” drowning out all previous models with its faith in flood geology. 

And of course, these feats at stuffing science into the Genesis paradigm would not be complete without a random mutation: the geocentric model. Yes folks, the sun revolves around the Earth. 

It’s the Truth.

Now, I could spend a couple paragraphs reviewing the wonders of E = mc2 or Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize winning work in chemistry and physics. I could discuss carbon dating, half-life, and the Hubble Space Telescope. Or, I could get creative (and a bit sassy), and personify an extinct Woolly Mammoth, make him talk to you, saying things like, “Excuse me, but I am not any younger than the Holocene epoch. Thankyouverymuch.” 

But I’ve realized that, when looking again at Jesus in Nikolavich Ge’s painting, assertions about science and the real age of our Earth might be beside the point. Instead of defending His Truth, Jesus does not insist on standing in the light. In fact, in the other three Gospels, Jesus says even fewer words during his trial. 

Instead, he continues to the cross. 

Perhaps, then, these creative creationist “spins,” crafted to align scientific theory with an inerrant Bible, are not about Truth. All this hullabaloo might instead be about salvation, life, and what happens after our physical bodies expire. After all, if God did not create our world according to the methods and times which the Bible ascribes, then what would be the purpose of existence? If we’re random accidents, what then are the implications regarding our souls?  

These questions are scary. On par for imperfect Homo sapiens, we instead succumb to our fears and we force. We insist. We spend millions of dollars on buildings, exhibits, animatronics, videos, television airtime, and educational materials in order to assuage our dread of the unknown. Unlike Jesus, we step into the light and impose our Truths, robbing God of the chance to be God.

The most evolved action I can take as a follower of Jesus is to trust in His wisdom, love people, care for this world, and follow Him to the cross. As I continue my own Christian journey, I’ll regard quantum leaps in science as additional revealed glimpses of the Divine Artist at work—not to mention the obvious testimonies of the night skies. 

I don’t have all the answers, but Jesus, as Truth, is more than enough.  

It’s the End of the World As We Know It…and I Feel…Weirdly Ok?

by Jennifer Jones Hamilton

Jennifer Jones Hamilton is an Instructional Assistant and Substitute Teacher with Carroll County Public Schools in Eldersburg, Maryland, as well as an application reviewer for Teach for America.  She has a bachelor’s degree in History and is a 1994 graduate of Messiah College.  She is an avid reader of all varieties of books, a lover of music, a runner, and a person with deep curiosity about the world we live in.  She continues to work on figuring out what she wants to do when she grows up, and while doing so enjoys life with her husband, Bill, and their three teenage children.  

“Revenge Party” from the musical Mean Girls. Image via YouTube.

It doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic for certain Christians to start fantasizing about the imminent return of Jesus, but it sure doesn’t hurt.  

I generally know which friends to avoid on Facebook, but I failed to avoid one who posted something along these lines a couple of weeks ago: “Since it seems obvious that Jesus is about to return, we need to start sharing the Good News with the people in our lives…” 

You get the gist.  It takes minimal effort to look back and find all the times in history that Christians of a certain bent were eagerly anticipating the coming apocalypse.  Much like earlier conversations on this blog where Bill and Sue have questioned the way Christians celebrate the Flood (and, according to Answers in Genesis, the subsequent deaths of billions, including the unborn), I also question just why so many Christians seem nearly giddy about an event which, according to their own view, will mean the eternal damnation and torture of, again, billions.  

My own mother has been an apocalyptic enthusiast since her earliest days as a Born Again Christian. She eagerly devoured all of John MacArthur’s end times gobbledygook, and took it upon herself to save me and my sister and all of our family members with great zeal.  I don’t know if any of you have seen the musical Mean Girls but the song “Revenge Party” comes to mind.  A giddy, happy-go-lucky ditty about a party “that ends with somebody’s head on a spike!”  

Ever since I earnestly “prayed the sinner’s prayer” when I was about 15, I have been utterly terrified of even the idea of the apocalypse.  One of my biggest fears as a child was nuclear annihilation. A true child of the Cold War 80’s, I clearly remember the heart-warming evening when my parents sat my sister and I down and told us just what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack by Russia.  This memorable conversation sparked years of nightmares, ill-advised letters to the Russian premiere of the day that were variations on the theme “Don’t Kill Us Please Just Because Reagan Is Terrible,”and a life-long love of the song “Russians” by Sting.  

So when I “gave my heart to Jesus,” the apocalypse became the new nuclear war.  In all my years in the Christian church I was never able to wrap my head around why people were so eager for Jesus to return.  I liked my life, generally, even though there were certainly things I would change…I wasn’t ready to give up my relatively happy life on planet earth for an eternity in a heaven that wasn’t entirely clear and seemed to involve a lot of my favorite people burning in hell forever.  While this vision inspired people like my mom to evangelize more fervently, it just made me a lot more confused. I avoided reading the Book of Revelation at all costs.

Fast-forward to middle-aged me.  I’ve been out of the church for five or more years, much to the dismay of some friends and family who now see me on the same path as Muslims and Atheists and Catholics and Mormons.  The High Road to Hell. The fundamentalist/evangelical view of the “end times” was a major reason why I just couldn’t do it anymore. It no longer jived with my experiences and world view, and I couldn’t believe something just because I was afraid of going to hell.  

Once I let go of that belief, that idea that if I didn’t believe some bullet-pointed pamphlet to the letter then I’d be damned to eternal suffering, I weirdly became in some ways less afraid of death and less afraid of God, even as my definition of “God” became much more nebulous.  Still, as the coronavirus epidemic began to unfold this past month, it was hard not to wonder if perhaps I might be wrong. I’m sure my mother thinks I am, although she’s wisely avoided talking to me about it; the last time she brought up Obama the Antichrist I didn’t speak to her for 2 months.  

Recently I happened upon a short video from author Glennon Doyle, reading from her new book “Untamed.”  In the video here, she is sharing a story about her wife, soccer star Abby Wambach, and how she left the church years ago as a child,  feeling like she had to choose between being her authentic (gay) self or God/church. It’s a beautiful story, but the thing that hit me square in the chest, that spoke directly to me was this quote: “When you walked away from church you took God with you.  God is in you.” Now this…THIS seems true. So much more true than the idea that – because I have questions, because I have doubts, because I walked away from church, from a religion – I deserve eternal punishment.

Maybe it is the end of the world as we know it.  But mostly, I feel, well, if not totally fine, certainly closer to fine than I was before when I contemplated the end of things. 

“There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line.  And the less I seek my source for some definitive…the closer I am to fine.” (“Closer to Fine” -The Indigo Girls)

Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

by William Trollinger

Ken Ham. Image credit: John Foxe, 2012, via Wikimedia Commons.

As Rod Kennedy put it in the last post, the widespread adoption of young Earth creationism by American evangelicals is directly connected to the evangelical willingness to disregard scientific expertise in the face of the coronavirus. So it is that Solid Rock Church just north of Cincinnati continues to hold in-person worship services, with church members convinced that the “blood of Jesus” will protect them, and the pastor reassuring folks that none of his congregants is contagious, because he would know if anyone in his church was ill with the virus. 

That said, we can be grateful that Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) are not (as far as I can tell) promoting coronavirus as a left-wing hoax. And at least for the time being they have shut the doors to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, although Ham is now complaining that – in the context of not knowing when they will reopen –  “every day now there seems to be a new surprise restriction on our freedoms.” (Thanks to Dan Phelps for pointing me to Ham’s Facebook post in this regard.)

So what is Ham saying about the COVID-19 crisis? To answer this question I have done a content analysis of the four substantive articles Ham has written on this topic over the past month. 

Given that one of the features of AiG articles is that they say the same things again and again, I am not surprised that in the approximately 7610 words Ham has written on the coronavirus, there are basically five different (and overlapping) themes: 

  1. Coronavirus is a Threat to the Financial Survival of AiG (but God and Donations will see this ministry through). (4506 words – 59.2%)
    • “So how does God get us through these Red Sea events? Through you, our faithful supporters. And perhaps God is calling you to be his instrument as we travel this unprecedented path of financial stress on this ministry. We would be so grateful. If you can assist us in sustaining the ministry at this difficult time, please send in a gift today or go to AnswersinGenesis.org/donate.” (Emphases in original.)
    • It seems there’s an analogy between the struggles we’ve had over the years and the battles the Israelites had when they were claiming the Promised Land. They had to battle Jericho and Ai. God had given them the land, but they still had to do the physical battle. It’s like the Christian life in general: we are pilgrims battling through this hostile world.”
  1. The Ongoing Persecution of AiG (1207 words – 16%)
    • As I pondered Herod’s opposition to Christianity, I thought of the many ‘Herods’ we’ve had to deal with over the years at Answers in Genesis (AiG). Herod obviously hated Christianity. But really, it was a hatred of God. In a way Herod, to me, represents the ‘broad way’ – those who love darkness rather than light (John 3:19). And those who seem to have an illogical obsession with going after anything that’s Christian. The world has always been opposed to the Christian message, Christian faith, and the church.”
    • Now over the years, those who oppose us (atheist groups, secular media, compromising Christians, including Christian academics, liberal church leaders, and so on) continue to level false accusations against us in various ways. They seek to do all they can to undermine our integrity, thinking they may stop the impact of the AiG ministry. But in reality, God has used this opposition to publicize the Creation Museum and AiG ministry even more.”
  1. Coronavirus is a Soulwinning Opportunity (1201 words – 15.8%)
    • Quoting Dr. Andrew Fabich: “’I’m convinced that this coronavirus outbreak is possibly the greatest outreach opportunity for the church worldwide. . . [Churches should] purchase as many personal hygiene products that are currently in high demand . . . Churches should stock up on these supplies for distribution to their local communities . . . Have someone creative and biblical write a tract for distribution to each person receiving the personal hygiene products. What a travesty to meet people’s physical needs and neglect to tell them about their most important spiritual need: a relationship with the Creator Redeemer Jesus Christ.”
    • Sadly, many people will consider their mortality and, when this threat is past, return to their normal lives, forgetting their brush with disease and death. Don’t let that be you! Death comes to ten out of ten people. The death rate from sin is 100%. And when you do, you will stand before God and face his judgment. But you don’t have to take the wrath (which we all deserve) for your sin – God is merciful and, in his mercy, sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die  in our – your – place.”
  1. America’s Great Sinfulness (373 words – 4.9%)
    • Now, I don’t believe God is finished with this nation! Yes, the sins of this country are a stench before the Lord. Sins such as the murder of 61 million babies in the womb through abortion; our perversion of sex, gender, and marriage through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and now in the current LGBTQ revolution; our expelling of God and his Word from public life in television, movies, K-12 schools, halls of government, etc.; the compromise seen in the church over the lies of evolution and millions of years; and many more. Oh how this nation needs to confess and repent of such sins before the Lord.”
  1. Coronavirus Has Had an Economic Impact on Staff and Supporters (326 words – 4.3%)
  1. Coronavirus Has Killed over 100,000 People across the Globe, and over 22,000 in the United States  (0 words – 0%)
  1. Coronavirus Has Wrought Immense Economic Misery across the Globe and in the United States (0 words – 0%)
  1. We as a Society Need to Care for the Suffering (0 words – 0%) (unless one counts Ham’s reference to the fact that some folks struggling financially may need to “fill out certain forms”).
  1. We as Christians Need to Care for the Suffering (0 words – 0%) (unless one counts the proposal to distribute personal hygiene products + fundamentalist tracts).

Given that the centerpiece of the AiG ministry is a gigantic tourist attraction that celebrates the survival of eight human beings while – according to AiG – as many as 20 billion human beings (including toddlers, infants, and the unborn) were drowned in a divine genocide, I am not surprised that Ham spends no time on the physical, economic, and emotional suffering wrought by the coronavirus – except insofar as it applies to AiG.

Appalled, but not surprised.

A Scopes Trial Redux: Evolution, Coronavirus, and the Evangelical War on Science

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. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.

Anti-Evolution League, at the Scopes Trial, Dayton Tennessee From Literary Digest, July 25, 1925. Image by Mike Licht – Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

Evangelicals have massed at the border of science and religion to unleash a new anti-science attack. I will argue that this is just a new mutation of the old war on evolution in the early 20th century. And evangelicals seem to have forgotten the outcome of the last war. It’s as if the Confederate States of America would have made the same mistake twice. 

The evangelical and right-wing attacks have most recently been directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 36 years, is a widely-respected immunologist and major public face of the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. Despite his credibility established over decades as a public health official, right-wing media have begun to launch attacks against “Dr. Doom Fauci,” blaming the medical expert for allegedly harming the economy and undermining President Donald Trump. 

Lou Dobbs recently led the attack on science represented by Dr. Fauci, gleefully reporting that “Dr. Fauci is wrong.” Dobbs has been mimicked by a plethora of FOX talking heads and right-wing pundits. Fox News host Steve Hilton aired a segment chastising Fauci as an out-of-touch elitist who has an “easy” time overreacting to coronavirus because “he’ll still have a job at the end of this, whatever happens.” Hilton added that while “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces” like Fauci “can afford an indefinite shutdown, working Americans can’t, they’ll be crushed by it.”

Evangelical leaders sing the chorus to this awful song. The River Church in Tampa, FL was packed last Sunday in violation of a “Stay-at-Home” order. The pastor called people concerned about the disease “pansies,” and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.” The pastor has since been arrested. In Baton Rouge, LA, pastor Tony Spell held services in violation of Governor Edwards’ orders not to have large gatherings. Pastor Spell said, “We’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well.” Jerry Falwell, Jr. – who proclaimed the coronavirus as an overhyped effort to bring down President Trump – has reopened Liberty University, and twelve students now have the coronavirus. 

Evangelicals and right-wing politicians are two peas in the same poisoned pod. Evangelicals are leaders of the anti-science movement and have been since the Scopes Monkey Trial caused them to obsess about evolution. Haunted by “evolution,” some of their leaders have managed to blame “evolution” for every disaster that has happened since 1925. 

The message is clear from the right-wing media and preachers: Scientists are to be mistrusted and ignored because they are out-of-touch, elitist, and hate Donald Trump. This anti-science message is one that evangelical Christians, not all of them, but a vast majority, are already predisposed to hear. 

The idea that science and religion are at war is actually a rhetorical creation of modern thought and ignores the long history of science and faith. For example, the Church was the incubator for the birth of western science. As David Lindberg demonstrates so thoroughly in his magisterial work, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, by founding and funding the ancient universities the Church provided the means for the production of what became science. While the church’s relationship with science has experienced its ups and downs, as Copernicus and Galileo, two historical examples of the complicated relationship, can attest, by and large the relationship of church and science has not been adversarial over the centuries. The precursor of scientific naturalism, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, dominated the first fourteen centuries of the church’s thought. Aquinas was such a fan of Aristotle that he simply referred to him as “the philosopher.” Even the current outbreak of anti-science fervor, some might say fever, has affected or infected only a portion of the Christian church, in particular the evangelicals. 

But it needs to be noted that in the 18th and 19th centuries, American evangelicals were not anti-science. They pursued investigation of the physical world with vigor. If, indeed, all around us was God’s work, exploring and understanding what he had accomplished was divine labor. George Marsden, historian of modern evangelical thought, wrote that the evangelical approach to science 

provided a firm foundation for a scientific approach to reality. In a nation born during the Enlightenment, the reverence for science as the way to understand all aspects of reality was nearly unbounded. Evangelical Christians and liberal Enlightenment figures alike assumed that the universe was governed by a rational system … guaranteed by a … benevolent creator. The function of science was to discover such laws.          

One word reversed this historic connection between evangelicals and science: evolution. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, conservative evangelicals in America had a reaction that bordered on panic. In the early twentieth century, they mounted a wholesale attack on Darwin and the new biblical criticism originating in the German schools. Already thinking they were supremely rational and in possession of the best possible scientific method (Bacon’s inductive reasoning), fundamentalists reached the conclusion that, in the words of Charles Blanchard, the new higher critics of the Bible “have been usually men who have poisoned their nervous systems and injured their minds by the use of narcotics and other poisons.”            

So, these conservative evangelicals, or fundamentalists, declared war on science. As Carlyle Marney said, “Science and reason [were] made dragons at which believing Don Quixotes tilt with blunted lances.” This ill-begotten war would end for the fundamentalists in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, with the same sense of tragedy as the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox.  Clarence Darrow, in the courtroom, humiliated William Jennings Bryan, and H. L. Mencken added his vitriolic satire to make it a rout. Fundamentalists slipped back into the woods like Lee ferrying his defeated army across the Potomac.

From the Scopes Trial to the coronavirus pandemic, the pandemonium among evangelicals has always been about opposition to evolution. The symbolic epicenter of the anti-coronavirus movement is the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Inside the tech-savvy Disney theme park edifice is enthroned the king of anti- evolution – Ken Ham. Neither scientist nor theologian he routinely rips apart science and theology. He assures his adoring fans that he doesn’t interpret the Bible; he merely reads it and its message is at once plain and clear. Ham is perhaps the quintessential example of the evangelicals who routinely believe that the Bible gives up its treasures to nothing more complicated than “common sense.” 

The Creation Museum is the Temple of Doom, as it defiles, denies, and attacks science. Ham’s obsession with painting evolution as the “beast out of the bowels of Darwin” provides the foundational ideology for the anti-coronavirus movement. Behind the mistrust of science and expertise, behind the denial of the pandemic’s scope, behind the spectacle of pastors holding mass services in states where people are fighting for their lives : behind all this is the anti-evolution movement.

Ken Ham’s message has found ardent support among the millions of evangelical Christians who are easily persuaded that science and scientific expertise is an attack on the Bible, the American way of life, and on Christianity itself. So, it is that the ghosts of fundamentalism’s last stand at the Scopes Monkey Trial have returned in evangelicals like ancient witches and wizards gathering for the triumphant return of Voldemort. At the opening of the Creation Museum Ham expressed this residual resentment against Darrow and spoke of repairing the damage: The Scopes Trial “was the first time the Bible was ridiculed by the media in America. We are going to undo all of that here at the Creation Museum.” 

The declaration of the continuing war could not be clearer. Every week, some business person or politician with evangelical ties adds to the creationist-inspired movement against science movement. Hobby Lobby, in direct violation of orders to be closed, reopened its stores, before announcing they would close again. The mayor of Cummings, GA rescinded his lock-down order and re-opened his city. The governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, has chosen prayer over following the recommendation of health officials. The governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, resisted issuing any order to shut down before relenting by telling the people of Alabama a shutdown was the only way to salvage football season. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has appealed to Christian convictions in his call to reopen schools and businesses. 

But with the coronavirus pandemic, evangelicals may have overplayed their hand, and finally exposed the soft underbelly of their anti-science, anti-intelligence, anti-history bias. Evolution isn’t as scary as COVID-19. Evangelicals may have once again picked the wrong enemy, allowing Americans, who usually pay no attention to evangelicals, to see just how dangerous they can be. This seems like a foolish attack akin to Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. When General Lee told General Pickett to rally his division, Pickett allegedly told him, “Sir I have no division.” When this current battle over science plays itself out, one can only hope that the forces of anti-science evangelicals will have been shredded and sent back to the woods from whence they emerged. Perhaps we will look back and say that the Trump presidency was the “high watermark of the evangelical movement,” before its collapse. If that is the case, it will be a tragic end to a once proud movement. 

Update: The Kansas City Star has published my latest letter to the editor on the subject, which you can read here.

Solid Rock Church and the Evangelical War on Scientific Expertise

by William Trollinger

The King of Kings statue at the Solid Rock church in Monroe, Ohio, before and during the fire that destroyed it. Photograph: Nick Graham/AP and Tiffani West-May/AP via The Guardian.

Just down the road from us along I-75 is the evangelical Solid Rock Church, until now best known for the “Butter” or “Touchdown” Jesus that was hit by lightning on June 14, 2010. Within a few years the obliterated figure of Jesus was replaced by another equally odd figure of Jesus. 

While most other churches in the Dayton area – including our own – are abiding by Governor DeWine’s call for services to be cancelled and churchgoers to stay at home, Solid Rock has resolutely ignored this call. They have ignored this even as the governor has called large church gatherings “not a Christian thing to do” in the midst of a pandemic, and even as the mayor of Monroe (where the church is located) has implored the church to halt in-person services.

“Lux Mundi,” the sculpture of Jesus at Solid Rock Church. Artist Tom Tsuchiya’s digital rendering of the statue. via Wikimedia Commons.

In response to the barrage of criticisms it has received, Solid Rock has posted a formal statement on its website, which includes the following:

We are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of anyone who comes to Solid Rock Church. We have scaled back our normal services; and there are not large numbers of worshipers in the facility, but we are open and continuing to practice and sustain our faith. Fortunately, our facility is large enough that we are able to easily ensure that everyone who is physically in the facility is practicing the physical distancing; we are providing additional cleaning and hand sanitizing stations; and we are holding some services outside to allow for more distance. We have canceled any youth activities; we are encouraging older members to stay home and access services electronically. We are not shaking hands or greeting members with hugs. There is no collection or communion in a normal sense, just prayer and worship. Our protocols are such that there is no contact. And we also use this time to educate and inform everyone on the best practices. (Emphases mine.)

CNN sent a crew to Solid Rock. They were not allowed to enter the church, so they stayed outside, filming congregants as they entered the church. Whatever Solid Rock has said about “not shaking hands or greeting members with hugs,” it is clear from the CNN video that congregants were definitely hugging each other and definitely not practicing physical distancing.

CNN’s reporter talked to congregants in their cars as they were leaving the worship service, repeatedly asking a variation of the same two questions. 

  1. Aren’t you worried about getting sick? 
    1. “No. No. I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”
    2. “I am absolutely not concerned.”
    3. “The blood of Jesus cures every disease. Psalm 91. Read it.”
    4.  “It’s called values and liberty. You have a choice as an American [to attend church.]”
  1. Aren’t you worried about getting others sick?
    1. “I’m in the grocery store every day. I’m in WalMart, Home Depot. They [others who are shopping] could get me sick! But they’re not, because I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”
    2. “What if you [the reporter] got it? You could get me sick!”
    3. “Why not flip it the other way? [They could get me sick.]”

A few comments. First, the “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood and thus I am immune” argument – is this being preached from the Solid Rock pulpit? – is not only absurd and dangerous, but it also strongly suggests that at least some Solid Rock congregants believe that only non-Christians can contract COVID-19, which would be news to the residents of Albany, Georgia who became ill (some have died) after attending a church funeral.

Second, it is appalling that these evangelicals are so unconcerned that they may infect others. In fact, their answers – all a variation of, “Well, other people could get me sick!” – are not only beside the point, but they fail to take into account that many of the people they encounter at the store have been following social distancing guidelines; that is to say, given the ways in which the Solid Rock congregants have gathered together during the pandemic, they are much more likely to be a threat to others than others are a threat to them. More than this, their turn-the-table type of responses suggest that they imagine themselves having come up with an argumentative slam dunk designed to silence the “liberal media.”

And that leads to the most disturbing conversation recorded by CNN, with the Solid Rock pastor:

CNN: What if you get others sick who don’t go to this church?

Pastor: There’s not one person sick [in the church].

CNN: How do you know?

Pastor: I’m the pastor. I would hear about it if somebody were sick.

CNN: You could be asymptomatic.

Pastor: You had better not print no fake news about me, or you’ll hear from me.

It is not surprising that the Solid Rock pastor followed the Trump “fake news” playbook, given that one month ago he and his church hosted an Evangelicals for Trump rally, which included the president’s spiritual adviser, Paula White.

In a soon-to-be published essay, “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right,” I argue that:

While the Christian Right has enjoyed significant political success, its fusion of evangelicalism/Christianity with a particular right-wing politics – which includes white nationalism, hostility to immigrants, unfettered capitalism, and intense homophobia – has driven many Americans (particularly, young Americans) to disaffiliate from religion altogether.

In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, I think it’s safe to add ignorance of and hostility to scientific expertise as yet another way in which the evangelicalism/Christian Right fusion is driving folks away from Christianity.

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