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Good and Mad: The Elusive Anger of Protestant Church Ladies

by Margaret Bendroth

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).

Courtesy of Margaret Bendroth.

I am working, rather ambivalently I confess, on another book about women and religion. This time it is about mainline Protestants, a basic “what happened” between 1920 and 1970. 

Even people who have not spent time in a denominational archive can guess at the enormous potential for boredom. The subjects are not exotic in any conceivable sense of the word, and though I personally find them admirable, I do not assume for a moment that others will too. I have decided that this project is as much an artistic challenge as an academic one. 

I suspect, though, that there is more to my incipient writer’s block than the materials I’ve chosen to work with. (What historian couldn’t make a similar complaint, at least once or twice? It’s kind of what we do.) I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?  

I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments. But somehow these churchwomen were too canny, too repressed, too loyal, or too artful to make more than a mild fuss.

I remember being surprised, many years ago, when I made my first presentation about women and fundamentalism to a small group of male scholars. It was nerve-wracking to be both young and female in that gathering, and I worried about what kind of response I’d get. The question that took the air out of the room, however, was one I should have anticipated but did not: Given all the nasty things fundamentalist men said about women, why in the world would any self-respecting female go anywhere near one of their churches?

Looking back, I am beginning to understand why I did not ask that question myself. It just never occurred to me. As a recent Ph.D. and a young mom, I was already adept at bracketing out negativity, from the baby throwing a bowl of oatmeal onto the floor to the patronizing contempt of male academics. It wasn’t as simple as repressing rage—it was about being a mom. Every day I had to practice maintaining emotional balance in impossible situations. I learned that there is no “win/win” when a toddler is melting down in the produce aisle—you cut your losses and get the hell out of the store. That peculiar mortification of the flesh had become so second-nature that I barely recognized it; it’s an inner discipline that shaped most of my life decisions going forward.

What’s interesting in retrospect is that it took a man to pose the “why” question, to recognize and call out the sheer effrontery of the fundamentalist men I was writing about. Why would anyone stand for that?

Once, when I was a staff supervisor at a Christian summer camp, I was told that higher ups were deciding if I could be included in a particularly important prayer meeting. This was on behalf of an unusually troubled young woman, who I knew fairly well.  I shared a bunkroom with her, in fact, and had witnessed several (of what I know now to be) panic attacks. I had held paper bags to her mouth to help her breathe when she was hyperventilating, tried to keep her from hurting herself when she pounded her fists up and down, prayed for her when she was on her bunk stiff and unresponsive as a washboard. But somehow praying for her, in public, was a problem. It might somehow sully something holy. 

At some semi-conscious level I considered whether or not to be pissed off about this, and I decided not to be. Let’s be clear: I was no pious pushover. This was in the 1970s and I had my own copies of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, I wore overalls and worked on the maintenance crew. Some boys, I knew, were afraid of me, and I enjoyed that. I did not for one minute believe that anything St. Paul said about first-century women applied to me. But I also knew enough to do some calculating, to consider the costs of getting angry, not just in the abstract but in the concrete, in that particular setting. First of all, I figured (wondrously) that the men would be hurt—I counted them as dear friends and I knew they felt the same about me. I did not want an “issue” to hang over all of us for the rest of the summer, or perhaps ultimately, to lose the power and freedom I had gained by my honest commitment to our common spiritual goals. I was young enough to believe that my invisible act of self-abnegation would work toward the good of the whole, that in some way it would benefit people I cared about deeply.

I was, and am, still angry, of course, about lots of things by now. And I suspect, my mainline churchwomen, and their fundamentalist cousins, were too.  But there’s no map for this. It’s relatively easy to track rebellion among the spiritually unconventional, the outspoken women who demanded what they knew was theirs. And, it’s a fairly short leap to conclude that an angry woman must be a feminist, even if just in the making. But what if your sources do not cooperate? 

A lot of religious women’s anger isn’t righteous or revolutionary. It’s not feminist, either. It’s the underside of loyalty—to God, to church, to husband or friends. It struggles to find its object. Far too easily the anger of religiously loyal women dissolves into contempt or hardens into stubbornness. It manifests as irritation, a prickly demeanor that alienates would-be allies. It becomes unlovely, the tendency to moan and complain, or the silent enjoyment of another person’s idiocy. In every case, a lot of rage ends up as a shrug of the shoulders. “What, me angry?”

All this reminds me of an article I came across, written in 1951 by sociologist Helen Mayer Hacker, about women as a minority group. (Gunnar Myrdal did something similar, in an Appendix to An American Dilemma.) Why did women refuse to see themselves this way, she wondered? There was certainly good reason: Hacker recited a litany of the systematic ways that men had wronged women over the past century, excluding them from decent-paying jobs and then cranking out “ceaseless propaganda to return women to the home and keep them there.” Yet especially since the 1920s, Mayer observed, outright conflict had been minimal. Instead, the “dissociative process between the sexes” had devolved to “rebuffing, repulsing, working against, hindering, protesting, obstructing, restraining, and upsetting another’s plans.”

My churchwomen were rarely angry in the abstract. They were, I think, acutely attuned to institutions, understanding what made them work, and also so hard to change. They lived in a world where it was better to be smart and at least outwardly loyal—to persist in fact—than to rail. In our world, on the other side of the 1960s, their doggedness looks like repression, their cooperation like capitulation. So much of their emotional language is familiar: they were white, middle-class Protestants, kind of like me, but it’s a dialect, an inflection, that I’m struggling to understand.

“Pro-Life” Christian Right Loves the Death Penalty

by William Trollinger

“san marco florence 320” by Walwyn is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, is a big fan of the death penalty.  As he told Fox and Friends (where he is a regular contributor), 

Let’s admit the death penalty is sometimes inequitably and even mistakenly applied. We know that and we ought to do everything we can to prevent that. But I remind people, the greatest example of an innocent person being executed was Jesus Christ himself. He was totally innocent, and yet in spite of that, the New Testament never calls for an end to the death penalty.

What? Because Jesus was executed, we are supposed to relax about the fact that many people on America’s death rows were wrongfully convicted and some have been executed? I can see this being employed by prison chaplains: “Cheer up, death row inmate: you are on your way to being like Jesus!” 

Of course, Jeffress’ comment about the death penalty is but one of a string of deplorable quotes from the Dallas pastor, including last Sunday’s Fox and Friends observation (which Donald Trump re-tweeted) that “if the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a civil war-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

But while Jeffress’ rhetoric is particularly awful, his support for capital punishment is very much in the Christian Right mainstream. At Ark Encounter, for example, a plaque informs visitors that God wants capital punishment:

God stressed the value of human life by sanctioning the death penalty for acts of murder. If a person murders another human being, he has destroyed someone made in the image of God, which is a grave offense against the Lord Himself. Other serious crimes were also deemed worthy of capital punishment under the Law of Moses, and the New Testament states that governing authorities have the right to execute judgment for such crimes.

It has to be pointed out that, in the context of Ark Encounter, the idea of God who demands death for a variety of crimes is not surprising, given that the Ark also instructs visitors that, in response to human wickedness, God used a global flood to drown up to 20 billion people, including of course toddlers and infants.

(Is the endpoint of Christian Right rhetoric always something dreadful and violent?)

In his Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, “Is Capital Punishment for Today?,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Russell Fuller expands upon the Ark plaque’s argument for capital punishment. According to Fuller, not only is the Old Testament  “not obsolete,” but God’s call for “vengeance against murderers” in Genesis and elsewhere still applies. In defense of his argument that God insists on death as the punishment for certain crimes, Fuller goes on to argue that 

some of the laws of the Old Testament, particularly in the Mosaic covenant, were temporary, meant for Israel and its particular circumstances. These laws include the dietary laws and worship laws. But Mosaic laws based on the character of God, such as laws against murder or adultery, or Mosaic laws based on the permanent relationships of people, such as children honoring their parents, are permanent. Such commandments, therefore, transcend the Mosaic covenant, as the Ten Commandments transcend the Mosaic covenant.

Interestingly, Fuller neglects mentioning a host of crimes – crimes that do not involve the violation of dietary and worship laws – that, according to the Old Testament, require death. Just using Leviticus 20, here’s a sample of crimes that require the death penalty:

  • “all who curse father or mother shall be put to death” (v. 9)
  • “if a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (v. 10)
  • “the man who lies with his father’s wife . . . both of them shall be put to death” (v. 11)
  • “if a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death” (v. 12)
  • “if a man lies with a male as with a woman . . . they shall be put to death” (v. 13)
  • “if a man takes a wife and her mother also . . . they shall be burned to death” (w. 14)
  • “if a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death” (v. 15)

Add to this blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 10-16) and making sacrifices to another god (Leviticus 27:20), and this is quite the string of offenses that would require capital punishment. And there are more. Why did Fuller not make reference to these crimes? Why did he not mention that we should impose the death penalty on someone who curses their parents ? Did he run out of space? Or is he engaging in the sort of selective biblical literalism that we talk about in the “Bible” chapter of Righting America at the Creation Museum?

More than this, Fuller says nary a word about the racial, economic, and geographic disparities  in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Nor does he say a word about the fact that the death penalty does not deter crime. Nor does he mention that innocent people are sentenced to death in America.

None of this apparently matters at all, or much, to Fuller, Jeffress, AiG, and the Christian Right. What matters is that God wants the state to kill. 

And how again does this square with Jesus’ admonitions to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”?

Capital Punishment and America’s Violent Exceptionalism

by William Trollinger

Potosi Correctional Center. Photo (c) 2007 by Wikimedia Commons user Americasroof. CC BY-SA 3.0

On the evening of September 23, 1997 – before I was unceremoniously ushered into the observation booth in Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center to watch the 12.01 AM execution of my friend, Sam McDonald – I sat in a small waiting room with the other “family and friend” witnesses, including his son, cousin, pastor, and attorney. For seventy minutes or so we talked about Sam, his childhood, and how serving in Vietnam destroyed his life (and, of course, the life of the man he killed). 

Along the way, Sam’s attorney let us know that through the entire appeals process – all the way up to the Supreme Court – he was optimistic that Sam would not be executed, given that Sam was a much-decorated veteran, given that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given that his defense at his original trial was woefully inadequate. When I made some comment about how unjust this was, his attorney casually noted that, in the end, the fact that Sam was going to be executed was directly connected to the fact he was poor: “whatever the crime, a white person of means is virtually never executed in this country.” 

I thought of this conversation when I was at last week’s terrific panel discussion on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law,” hosted by the UD Law School, moderated by former Ohio governor Bob Taft, and sponsored by the Miami Valley chapter of Ohioans to Stop Executions and the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative.

The panelists – which included Martha Hurley (director of UD’s Criminal Justice Studies program) and Shelley Inglis (executive director of UD’s Human Rights Center) – pointed out that:

So, we have a capital punishment system in the United States that is riddled with disparities that give the lie to any notion of impartial justice. But there is more:

Given all of this, it is striking that the United States – or, at least, certain counties in the United States – keeps sentencing people to death. Lots of people. And it is even more striking when one considers that, as Shelley Inglis observed, 170 of the 193 countries on the planet have outlawed or placed a moratorium on the death penalty. But the United States continues this practice along with the other 23 countries, a group which includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Given that Canada and all European nations (except for Belarus) have abolished the death penalty, the United States is an outlier in the West. As Inglis wryly noted, “this qualifies as evidence of American exceptionalism.” A violent exceptionalism, indeed.

Witness to My Friend’s Execution

by William Trollinger

Personal photo of Samuel McDonald.

So much time has passed, and yet September 24 remains very painful.

Twenty-two years ago today, I found myself sitting with five other civilians and four security guards in a tiny, cramped room in the bowels of the maximum security Potosi Correctional Institute, just southwest of St. Louis.  The civilians were seated in two rows of chairs, facing a glass window and closed mini-blinds. I was in the front row, and I could look through a crack in the blinds to see the lower part of a man’s face, including a mouth and jaw.  And I knew that was my friend Samuel McDonald, who in just a couple of minutes was going to be injected with a lethal combination of sodium pentothal (which would render him unconscious) and pancuronium bromide and potassium bromide, which would stop his breathing and his beating heart.

I had opposed capital punishment since the ninth grade.  In this, as in many other things, I was at odds with my evangelical parents and my evangelical Baptist church.   I was surrounded by folks who – while not bloodthirsty – wholeheartedly supported the notion of state execution. Interestingly, it was growing up in the church that led me to dissent from my family and church, as I was (and am) convinced that capital punishment violates the essence of Christ’s teachings to choose mercy over revenge, to love our enemies, and to forswear violence (which is why the Catholic church and almost all of the major Protestant denominations have come out against capital punishment).  

But for a number of years my opposition to the death penalty remained an abstraction.  This was because by the late 1960s capital punishment had almost disappeared from the American landscape; what seemed to be the final blow to a barbaric institution came in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is “arbitrary” and “capricious.”  But just four years later, the Court ruled that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution, as long as the state has adequate due-process procedures in place. Soon, 40 or so states re-instituted the death penalty for certain types of murder.   

One of the states that has proven to be most enthusiastic about applying capital punishment is the state of Missouri. Since 1976 Missouri has executed 88 individuals, ranking #5 among the states that kill (behind Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas, the latter state having executed 564 individuals in the past 43 years).

In 1984, I became a Missouri resident: having completed my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I accepted a teaching position at the College of the Ozarks, near Branson.  I felt I needed to do something in response to the fact that I now lived in a death penalty state. But I was not looking to do anything heroic. What I settled upon was corresponding with someone on Missouri’s death row.  So, I contacted the Death Row Support Project for the name of a condemned prisoner with whom I could exchange letters. This is how I became acquainted with Samuel McDonald.

Over the next decade or so I was able – through conversations with Sam, newspaper reports, and open access court records – to piece together Sam’s story.  He grew up in a poor, churchgoing family in inner city St. Louis. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Army. It was 1967, and Sam ended up – as did so many poor black males – in Vietnam.  He proved to be an efficient soldier, earning a raft of medals. But the experience traumatized him, particularly when, in the process of “sweeping” a village, he more-or-less deliberately killed an elderly woman and an infant (an incident about which he would have nightmares for the rest of his life, even the week before his execution).  Like a host of other Vietnam veterans, Sam returned to the States mentally and emotionally unhinged, addicted to drugs, and without anything in the way of adequate medical and psychiatric support. Over the next decade, he lived the life of a petty criminal, arrested a couple of times for robbery.

Then, on the evening of May 16, 1981, the downwardly spiraling Sam McDonald encountered someone whose life had been going in precisely the opposite direction.  Robert Jordan had been a St. Louis County police officer for 19 years; not only was this former Marine (who had earned both his BA and MA degrees) just the second African American to be hired as a police officer by the county, but he was president of the St. Louis County Association of Minority Police Officers.  Besides his full-time job, Jordan moonlighted as a security guard. Which is what he was doing on the evening of May 16. And when he got off work and arrived home, where his wife Emma Jean was waiting for him, he discovered there was no beer in the fridge, and not much in the way of snacks. So, with his eleven-year-old daughter Rochelle in tow, he went back out the door and headed for the local liquor store.

At the store, they made their purchases and headed out the door.  In the parking lot, they encountered Sam McDonald. Sky-high on “T’s and blues” (a heroin substitute), and accompanied by a drugged-up girlfriend (who was waiting for him in the car), Sam was looking for someone to rob, for the money that would provide him with his next stash of drugs.  Encountering Robert Jordan, Sam pulled out a gun and demanded that he hand over his wallet. Jordan’s daughter ran back into the store, where she then watched through the window. Robert handed over his wallet, which also held his St. Louis County police badge. Whether Sam actually saw the badge was a matter of dispute at the trial.  But we do know that he took the wallet, shot Robert twice in the chest and once in the side, and ran for the car. Dying, Jordan managed to pull out his service revolver and shoot six shots, one of which hit Sam in the side. Obviously showing the effect of the drugs, Sam had his girlfriend drive him to the local VA hospital for treatment.  It was there that he was arrested for the murder of Robert Jordan.

A poor African American drug addict who killed a well-respected off-duty police officer in full view of the officer’s young daughter: it is obvious that Sam’s chances in the justice system were bleak.  But things were made worse by the fact that the district attorney decided to try this case himself. The normal procedure would be for the DA to give the case to one of his subordinates, but the DA was in the middle of a re-election campaign in which he was promising to get tougher in capital cases. Worse, Sam was assigned an inexperienced and overworked assistant public defender who got into shouting matches with the judge (at one point the judge responded by swiveling his chair around so that his back was to Sam’s attorney).  Worst of all, the judge refused to allow testimony regarding the impact of Sam’s Vietnam experiences on his mental and emotional health, even though there was solid evidence that Sam was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. So, it was no great surprise that, on February 22, 1982, Samuel McDonald was sentenced to die by lethal injection . . . the 17th man placed on Missouri’s death row.

Three years later, I sent Sam my first letter.  We soon became regular correspondents. I also visited him in the state penitentiary.  

But when I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania, I was no longer able to visit him.  So, while Sam kept writing, he also began calling, generally on weekends, and generally every other weekend. I know it may seem peculiar, but we spent much of our time laughing and joking and making fun of each other; in fact, if friends were visiting they would often be stunned to learn that I was talking with a man on death row.  Sam and I spent a lot of time talking about sports. We were both particularly convinced that we had special insights into football. We had an annual contest to see who could pick the most winners in the college bowl games, with the winner – usually Sam – getting to keep the “traveling crown” that Sam had drawn on typing paper (he sent this to me before he was killed).

But we also talked about conditions in the prison, and the state of his appeals up and down the court system (appeals which focused on the failure of the original trial judge to allow his psychiatric history to be considered at sentencing).  We talked about politics, including the Supreme Court (which would consider his final appeal – Sam particularly disliked Clarence Thomas). We talked about God, and church, and the efficacy of prayer. We talked a lot about our families. I commiserated with him when his son – who was only three when Sam went to prison – was caught in the middle of a gang fight, and was shot and paralyzed.  Sam commiserated with me when my mother died of cancer. In fact, he was probably more sensitive to my grief than anyone outside my family; a few times he called out of the blue just to see how I was doing.

Much to my surprise, Sam McDonald and I had become very close friends.  I had started corresponding with him assuming that I would be the one giving to him.  It turned out that I was receiving from him at least as much as he was receiving from me.

In all of this I tried very hard not to think about the fact that the state of Missouri was determined to end Sam’s life.  But in the spring of 1997 reality hit. Sam’s appeals had come to an end: the Supreme Court would not stay his execution – that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran with war-induced psychiatric problems was irrelevant – and the governor of Missouri let it be known that he would not grant clemency. My letter pleading for Sam’s life was clearly irrelevant.  Sam was given a firm execution date: September 24, 1997.

Sam handled these developments with remarkable grace, but I went into an emotional tailspin, contemplating that my friend was going to be killed. More than this, I started to wonder what sort of friend I was.  I had a pretty strong suspicion that Sam wanted me to serve as one of his witnesses to his execution. I was a middle-class white academic who had grown up in the suburbs, and who had never seen anyone die . . . much less seen anyone be killed.  So, throughout the summer of 1997 I tried to ignore Sam’ s oblique hints that he wanted me there for him. But when on Labor Day Sam asked me to serve as one of his six “family and friend” witnesses – “I don’t want to die alone, and I need to see you there” – I said yes. 

The week before the execution was surreal. I ended up in a minor media vortex, as Missouri newspapers and radio stations apparently had some fascination with the fact that a college professor from Ohio was coming out to witness the execution of a person they clearly considered a “low-life.” I was a novelty act, and I ended up doing a number of phone interviews from my office in UD’s Humanities Building. I liked talking with the newspaper reporters, but the radio folks were annoyingly superficial: one even suggested that I should be happy if Sam’s execution were televised, as I would not then have to drive from Ohio. 

The night before his execution, Sam called me to tell me that I would be allowed to visit him at 5 PM, seven hours before his execution. (It turns out that I was the last “civilian” to see Sam).   When I arrived at the isolated, fortress-like prison, a guard – who made no effort to disguise the fact that he despised me – led me to Sam. We descended endless flights of stairs into the depths of the prison.  This is where the “death cell” is located, where all death-row inmates spend the last two days of life. The guard knocked on the door. It opened, and I walked in.

There was Sam, rumpled and weary-looking, and markedly heavier than when I had last seen him.  He was in a tiny cage with a bed, a chair, a toilet and not much else. Instinctively I walked up to the wire fence and put my hand against it.  But before Sam could respond a voice behind me barked, “Get away from there!” Alarmed, I looked at Sam, who pointed at the floor: a white line marked off a “no-man’s land” between the rest of humanity and the condemned man’s cage.  I backed up behind the line and sat down in one of two chairs bolted to the floor. I noticed for the first time a guard sitting at a desk behind me, clattering away on a very loud typewriter, presumably reporting on what was taking place in the cell (although there was also a video camera recording all).  Sam McDonald’s final 48 hours were without privacy, in part to ensure that he did not commit suicide and thus cheat the executioner.

At first I struggled to make conversation with Sam.  But in a few minutes, we were talking freely. In some ways, it was no different from our phone conversations.  We talked about sports and our families; we had a few laughs; we talked about our friendship. But Sam also talked about himself in ways he never had before. He regretted how he had messed up his life, and he expressed remorse for what he had done.  He assured me that he was prepared to die – “things on the other side have to be better than they have been here” – and to face God. For the first time in the 12 years I had known Sam, he was resigned to his impending death.

At 5:58 my angry escort returned to the cell.  I stood up. Sam and I said “I love you” to each other.  The door opened, and I left the death cell. Soon after I departed, Sam ate his last meal, which included steak, catfish, and eggs.  Soon after that, prison authorities began to prepare him for execution. 

Six hours later I was being marched to the observation booth for friends and family (in Missouri there are three such booths, with the other two for family of the crime victim, and for state witnesses), in the process being sternly warned by a guard that “there will be no standing, crying out, or knocking on the window.” Just after midnight the guards raised the blinds. There lay Sam, on a gurney with a white sheet up to his neck. He had obviously been told where we would be, as looked only at us. He spoke rapidly, but we could not make out what he was saying. But then, after only a minute or two, the drugs kicked in, Sam shuddered, and then he was still. We were then escorted out, in the process instructed that we could not stop until we were out of the prison. Not even to pray.

I felt filthy, and over the next few days I took 3-4 showers a day. Capital punishment demeans us all. And it does not bring back the victim of the crime. 

In that regard, last year I received an email from the son of the man who was killed by Samuel McDonald. He ran across an article I had written about this experience, and felt compelled to write:

I too was at the execution and I prayed for Sam, and his family . . . That experience was traumatic for all involved in every facet. I would love to engage you in conversation one day. I am sure the conversation would be great. God Bless. Robert T Jordan Jr.

I look forward to that conversation.

For a Christian Century article that I published one year after the execution, which is the article I think Robert Jordan Jr. read, see here: “My Friend’s Execution.” While I borrow from this piece for this post, 21 years later I have written something a bit different.

Coincidence #1: The writer Christopher Hitchens was in the state witness booth for Sam’s execution. He wrote about the experience for Vanity Fair.

Coincidence #2: Tonight, there will be a panel discussion here at UD on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law.” See the flier connected with this post.

Creating “Models” to “Confirm” Young Earth Creationism, or, How a Pair of Tortoises Travelled from the Amazon to the Seychelles

by William Trollinger


“Seychelles Giant Tortoise eating” by flicksmores is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Young Earth creationism has its own, unusual scientific method. Most scientists will not recognize it as a “scientific method.” Be that as it may, it is a method that is very easily described. As we discuss in the “Science” chapter of Righting America

  1. Start with an incontrovertible truth: the earth was created in six, twenty-four-hour days about 6000 years ago, and – about 4300 years ago – there was a global Flood that created the geological strata seen today. 
  2. With this “starting point” (a crucial phrase—given their larger rhetorical strategy—at the Creation Museum), create a model that “confirms” these truths, and plug in the appropriate “observational science” (another crucial phrase in the rhetoric of the Creation Museum) into the model. 
  3. If the observational science does not fit the model, and/or if the model fails to confirm a young Earth and the global flood, then it is time to redo the observational science and/or the model.
  4. Here’s the bottom line: “Under no circumstances may observational science lead a young Earth creation scientist to raise questions about the truth of a twenty-four hour, six-day creation or a global flood.” (96)

It is all really simple. Create models to confirm what you already know. Anyone can do it. You don’t need much, or any, scientific knowledge to do so. 

Take, for example, the question of how animals departed from the Ark and disseminated across the Earth very quickly (they had to, given that – according to young Earth creationism – the global flood took place so recently). To explain how this happened, the Creation Museum posits the “biogeographical rafting model”:

When the Flood destroyed the world’s forests, it must have left billions of trees floating for centuries on the oceans. These log mats served as ready-made rafts for animals to cross oceans (97-98).

The museum then offers maps designed to describe how this took place. One shows a few rhinoceros on log rafts, with arrows indicating that they crossed the Indian Ocean on these rafts to either southern Asia or southern Africa. 

How those rhinoceros managed to get on a log mat and, even more, survive the voyage across the Indian Ocean is not suggested. Nor is any explanation given for why a rhinoceros would get on a log mat in the Indian Ocean in the first place (98).

But even more perplexing is the map that explains the distribution of two Geochelone (or giant) tortoises. As indicated on this map, these tortoises journeyed on land from the Amazon basin to the west coast of South America, where they boarded one of the billions of available log mats. The map then uses arrows to indicate the aquatic journey of these tortoises: from South America they journey to the Galapagos; from the Galapagos they then head out across the Pacific Ocean; after negotiating the waters between New Guinea and Australia, they proceed across the Indian Ocean; and then, just before they reach the east coast of Africa, they take a northward turn to the Seychelles Islands.

As presented at the Creation Museum, the story of the traveling tortoises is but one example of how the “biogeographical rafting model” confirms the young Earth and global flood. 

Really? For starters, Geocholone tortoises do not and never did live in the Amazon basin. Leaving aside this point, the “model” presents a pair of tortoises who crossed 700 miles of land and then 14,600 miles (a conservative estimate) of sea, who successfully managed the variable current systems in the Indian Ocean, and who survived for years on log mats in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (for that is how long it would take them to get from the Galapagos to the Seychelles). As we put it in Righting America:

It may be that one can observe big tortoises that appear to resemble one another in the Amazon basin and the Galapagos and Seychelles Islands. It may be that one can draw arrows on a map from point A to point B to point C. But does it really make sense to imagine that a couple of tortoises made this trek from the Amazon basin to the west coast of South America, then to the Galapagos, and then across the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? Indeed, in what sense does the so-called observational science presented in conjunction with the “biogeographical rafting model” confirm anything, much less a global flood? (101).

Harry F. Sanders III and Troy Lacey would beg to disagree. In their recent Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, “Floating Log Rafts: A Model for Post-Flood Biogeography,” they go after those (like the authors of Righting America) who find the biogeographical rafting model preposterous. In response to critics like ourselves, Sanders and Lacey assert that “the biogeographic importance of log and vegetation mats is slowly gaining popularity, even in the mainstream scientific community,” which makes sense, given that “oysters, in particular, colonize the bottoms of boats even today.” And while

it may be frustrating to see ‘millions of years’ and ‘evolution’ appear in these papers, it is encouraging to see that creationist ideas, which were once scoffed at, are now being posited in mainstream scientific papers as legitimate and better explanatory concepts than previous evolutionary models.

Once again, really? For one thing, the Creation Museum is making the argument for the “biogeographical rafting model” not just for oysters latching onto the bottom of log mats, but for rhinoceros and giant tortoises and, in fact, for large animals of all sorts. For another, and more important, the notion of “millions of years” – which Sanders and Lacey breezily dismiss – is all important. Young Earth creationists do not have the luxury of animals very gradually dispersing across the globe. Given that they claim that all animals then in existence on the planet came out of the Ark somewhere in the Middle East 4300 years ago, they need animals to move across thousands and thousands of miles over land and over sea in an extraordinarily short period of time. For their young Earth argument to work, they have to have animals that traverse the globe at almost breakneck speed. Contrary to what Sanders and Lacey suggest, time is not irrelevant. It is the crucial variable.

And who are Sanders and Lacey? They write on all sorts of topics for AiG, from science to Bible. While AiG goes on at great length about its writers who have some level of academic, especially scientific, expertise, and while they provide biographical sketches of many of their contributors, there is nothing on the AiG website about Sanders and Lacey. Interestingly, Sarah Olson –  who found nothing “scientifically sound” in Sanders’ writings – was also “unable to find information about Sanders or his credentials and experience,” which led her to suggest that “perhaps he simply hasn’t any.”

But the science created and the evidence mobilized on behalf of the “biogeographical rafting model” really isn’t the point. Instead, the point of these models is (as we suggest in Righting America) to confirm AiG’s particular young Earth creationist interpretation (there are and have been others) of the opening books of Genesis, regardless of what science and scientists might say to the contrary. 

Then why bother with the science? And why be concerned with anyone’s expertise? 

“Upheaval!”: Ku Klux Klan Rallies and Kent State Protests at the Cleveland Photo Fest

by William Trollinger

Images from Richard Margolis’ exhibit Upheaval, 2019. Reproduced with permission from the artist.

At its most basic level, history involves (as one of my mentors, Paul Conkin, used to say) trying to tell true stories about the past. This is much harder than it might seem, in part because history is not a neat and linear story of progress, but is, instead, a jumbled mix of the contingent, with contrary events and movements occurring very near to each other in time and space. 

So, how does one tell a true story about the 1960s, given all of the different stories, given all the contradictions, contained in that decade? All of this comes home at a remarkable exhibition that has just opened as part of the first annual Cleveland Photo Fest. Here is photographer Richard Margolis’ description of his show: 

Upheaval is an exhibition of contemporary prints from film that’s half a century old. These are new photographs, not just new copies, but new kinds of prints from existing negatives, many never before printed. This show includes a small slice of photographs mostly from two subjects: Ku Klux Klan rallies photographed in 1965 & 1966, and anti-war rallies at Kent State University in 1970. They may seem unrelated, but they were only 45 miles and 4 years apart, and other than the hair styles and clothing, they could be from today’s news. To me that is the power of these photographs.

On Sunday Sue and I had the privilege of attending the show’s opening reception at the charming little Images Photographic Art Gallery in Lakewood, Ohio. While readers can get some sense of the power of Margolis’ photographs from the photos included here, there is no substitute for seeing the physical photos. And these photographs are particularly powerful put into this one small space. Here we have very human Klansmen and very human antiwar protesters, articulating radically different visions of what America should be, and just a few miles and years apart. It’s jarring, overwhelming, and true.

It was great to talk with the charming Richard Margolis, as well as the three organizers of the Photo Fest. But it had not dawned on us that there would be people at the reception who had been students at Kent State and on campus on May 04, 1970, the day that National Guardsmen shot thirteen unarmed students (four of whom died). These former Kent undergraduates talked about tanks in the streets of Kent, merchants who threatened to shoot students, and the horror they felt as they heard the shots on May 04. One woman, who still lives in Kent, told us she has deliberately chosen to be out of the county when the 50th anniversary comes around next year. To be in town on that day would just be too much.

And as a nation, we are not done coming to terms with the 1960s. 

Richard Margolis’ “Upheaval” will be at Images until October 12. It is worth going out of your way to visit. 

The Rocks, and Not the Creation Museum, Are Biblical and Truthful

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary and interim senior minister at First Baptist Ottawa, Kansas. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump. 

Reconstructed colony of Bryozoan, a type of aquatic invertebrate animal. (Cincinnatian Series, Upper Ordovician era; vicinity of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA). Photo courtesy of James St. John via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1985, a band called Jefferson Starship, belted out a song, “We built this city on rock and roll.” I have always liked the song. It reminds me of another song in the Bible that claims God built this planet on rock. And that rock has quite an ancient story to tell. In fact, the rocks have been here for more than four billion years. 

But about 80 million evangelicals, with their lips pressed flat against Judgment Day, swear on a stack of King James Bibles that the Earth is only about 8,000 years old. This is known as young Earth creationism. So it is that there are ongoing attempts to teach scientific creationism or its cousin, intelligent design, in high school biology classes. The courts, even in Southern “Bible Belt” states, have always unmasked these attempts as a sneaky way to teach a particular kind of evangelical theology in science classes.

When the dominant dualism of our time insists that we must choose between a young Earth embraced theologically, or an old Earth embraced without belief in God, many of us are left out. Thank God we don’t have to choose between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists. I believe that we and the world are God’s good creation, and I believe she took her own sweet time creating the world. Creationists are right to question the atheistic, materialistic views of some scientists. Those views are not scientific; they are theological. Creationists are right to insist that viewing the world “scientifically” is only one point of view. 

That said, it is not necessary to dispute the findings of science on the basis of some scientists’ theology. Rather than fight the scientists over science, why can’t Christians maintain the prophetic, poetic rhetoric (analogy, symbols, metaphor) that has long been our preferred method of truth claiming? For example, St. Paul tells us that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.” All creation longs for the revealing of the children of God – rocks, plains, mountains, trees, cats, dogs, armadillos, weeds, and even us – who are longing for God’s redemption.

Yes, I would rather praise the Lord among the rocks along the road than in places where creation is bundled and hawked as a freak show of the impossible. The psalmist seems to agree: Praise the Lord, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! In Luke 19, Jesus says that if his people stopped praising God, the rocks would cry out! Let the rocks cry! Let the rocks praise! 

I find it mildly amusing that in Boone County Kentucky there are rock formations that are part of a famous formation called the “Cincinnatian” that contains some of the richest fossil beds in the world. These fossils date from a half-billion-year-old geological epoch called the Ordovician. Tens of millions of years of geological history lie exposed in these layers – chapters in the four-and-one-half-billion-year story of life on this planet. 

Here’s what makes this amusing: Many people driving along Highway 20 in Kentucky are oblivious to the rock formations because they are on their way to a tourist site known as the Creation Museum. At the museum they will be told that the Earth is only about 8,000 years old. The rocks on the side of the road to the Creation Museum cry out to the glory of God’s creation. If the tourists stopped and dug among the layers of earth, they would discover fossils of trilobites, shellfish, and other ancient and extinct life forms – all continuing to give praise to God’s creative power. 

But who has time for testimony from God’s ancient creation when there’s a fundamentalist tourist site just around the next curve promising to regale you with tales of an Earth that just showed up a few thousand years ago?

The rocks tell a more biblical, more truthful, more accurate story. The story at the Creation Museum is unfaithful to Scripture, misleading, and unscientific. If evangelical Christians can be this wrong on creation, perhaps we should ask if they are insisting on other questionable ideas that are just as far-fetched as young Earth creationism.  

Jerry Falwell Jr.: The Latest in a Century of Fundamentalist Autocrats

by William Trollinger

Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony and delivers remarks Saturday, May 13, 2017, Lynchburg, Virginia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Over the past few months, the lid on the inner workings at Liberty University has been lifted a little. And these glimpses have revealed some seamy doings, including the fact that in 2014 and 2015 Michael Cohen hired a Liberty official to rig polls in Donald Trump’s favor, followed by (according to Cohen) the former Trump aide’s successful effort to suppress racy personal photos that would have embarrassed Falwell. 

But now, the lid is coming off.

In a remarkable Politico article that appeared yesterday, “‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence,” Brandon Ambrosino draws upon interviews and documents provided to him by more than two dozen past and present Liberty University officials to reveal “how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains.” As one university official observed, “we’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund.” 

These insiders are deeply distressed by the fact that “there’s no accountability, [as] Jerry’s got pretty free reign to wheel and deal” as he wishes. More than this, Falwell punishes anyone who dares question or criticize his decisions or statements. Here are three quotes from three different university officials:

  • “It’s a dictatorship. Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.”
  • “Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear.”
  • Liberty is “a totally dysfunctional organization. Very similar to Trump’s White House.”

All of this is remarkable. And yet, it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

In fact, and as I discuss in God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism, the founder of the fundamentalist movement was the original fundamentalist despot. In 1919, William Bell Riley created the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which he dominated for a decade while leading national crusades to eliminate liberal ideas and pastors from mainline Protestant denominations, ban Darwinian evolution from the public schools, and Make America Christian Again. 

Not only did these national crusades fail, but Riley struggled to maintain control over the movement, given all of the other equally ambitious dictatorial wannabes who were determined to run their own piece of the fundamentalist movement. (Note: this sort of competition between autocrats remains a feature of fundamentalism.)  

But while Riley failed to establish total control over the fundamentalist movement, he succeeded fabulously at the regional level (Chapter 5, “The Empire”). Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, in 1902 he founded Northwestern Bible School, which had 1700 full- and part-time students in 1946. Riley’s primary goal was to train men to serve as fundamentalist ministers or missionaries. By 1940 he had placed 220 “Riley’s boys” in churches throughout the upper Midwest, churches that were tightly linked to Riley and his school, as Northwestern provided these churches with speakers, Vacation Bible School workers, and various forms of religious literature, and as Riley routinely made the circuit to check on his preachers and their churches. Strongest in Minnesota, in 1936 (with Riley pulling the strings) Northwestern graduates grabbed control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention; one decade later he led the state convention right on out of the Northern Baptist Convention. 

In short, Riley created the prototypical personality-driven fundamentalist empire. And of course, there are great advantages to such organizations, including the fact that – as with all autocratic structures – they can be extremely efficient. So, for example, when a local church needed to fill a pastoral vacancy, all it had to do was contact Riley, and the position would be immediately filled with a “Riley’s boy.”  

But as is the case in these organizations, as is the case at Liberty today, there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical. 

Worse, there was no one to put the brakes on Riley’s anti-Semitism. As I detail in God’s Empire (chapter 3, “The Conspiracy”), throughout the 1930s Riley wrote and preached about the international Jewish-Communist conspiracy that sought to enslave Gentiles and establish complete control over the world’s finances and governments. In fact, according to Riley, Jews had successfully taken over most of American corporations, arts, and colleges – and, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, they had placed in the presidency a puppet they could easily control. In contrast with his attacks on Roosevelt, Riley was effusive in his praise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, seeing them as divinely-ordained instruments to save Germany from the Jews who had corrupted the German “race.” Riley’s anti-Semitism became increasingly vicious as the decade progressed – not surprisingly, his First Baptist Church was frequented by members of the Silver Shirts, perhaps the most virulently anti-Semitic organization in the U.S. in the 1930s – and it was not until America’s 1941 entry into World War II that Riley ceased his praise of Hitler. 

In my work on Riley I was struck by the apparent failure of folks within his church and school and regional empire to speak up against his vicious anti-Semitism. Surely there was some opposition from within, but it is easy to imagine that – as at Liberty – the fear of provoking the wrath of the Great Fundamentalist Leader made it very difficult to suggest that Riley had gone too far. In the epilogue to God’s Empire I suggested that 

It is quite possible that Riley’s position as czar of midwestern fundamentalism contributed to the vicious anti-Semitism of his later years. Alone at the top of his personal religious empire, the unquestioned hero for truth with an army of devoted followers, Riley was without peer or restraint. Perhaps the decades of unchecked power and the unrestrained adulation of his followers corrupted his thinking, thus contributing to the elderly Riley’s tendency to view farfetched and horrible ideas as reasonable. But whether or not Riley’s role as fundamentalist autocrat contributed to the vicious anti-Semitism of his later years, the fact that he perpetrated and promoted such notions is prime evidence that Riley . . . should not have been trusted with an inordinate amount of religious authority (157).

It’s not only Riley who should not have been trusted with inordinate authority. Today, the same point applies to Jerry Falwell, Jr., James Dobson, Ken Ham, and hundreds of other fundamentalist autocrats running big or small institutions. 

But as Falwell is now learning, once in a while there are people within a fundamentalist organization who finally have had enough, who finally screw up their courage and tell the truth about the Great Leader. Of course, that is the day the dictator fears. Uneasy is the head who wears the crown.

Jews and the Perils of Christian Zionism

by William Trollinger

 Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely,  Rabbi Dr. Shlomo RiskinDavid Nekrutman and Rabbi Dr. Kenneth BranderPastor John Hagee and Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 11, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation 

In his recent Tikkun article, “Today’s Christian-Jewish Zionist Alliance Imperils American Jewry,” Jim Sleeper (author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York) makes the fascinating argument that America at its best bears the marks of something like a “Judeo-Puritan” consensus. As Sleeper sees it, 

[while] early Protestant Christianity in America gave to conscientious dissent a legitimacy and strength that Hebraism had not, . . . Hebraism offset Christian tendencies toward monkish or airy otherworldliness with a moral order grounded concretely in law.

For Sleeper, this “civic-republican balance of public obligation and inner integrity” was perhaps best seen in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Sleeper argues that these movements cannot “be understood without reference to the Puritan and Hebraic wellsprings from which King [who quite explicitly drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures] and others drew the strength to face dogs, fire hoses, and even murder.”

The contemporary Christian-Jewish Zionist alliance is a far, far cry from the civil rights and antiwar movements. Much more important, it is an alliance of convenience that places American Jews in great peril. Sleeper – who “is deeply supportive . . . of Israel’s flourishing” – points out that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has eagerly embraced folks like Steve Bannon – who has tight connections with white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups – as well as right-wing fundamentalist firebrands such as John Hagee. All of this is quite problematic:

ZOA members who indulge an [extremely apocalyptic] Christian Zionist theology . . . are hollowing out American Jewry’s and the American republic’s fragile foundations. They’re enlarging the frightening civic vacuum into which have swept Glenn Beck, the torch-bearing, anti-Semitic Charlottesville rioters, and the perpetrator [of the] Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

Many American evangelicals are Christian Zionists; that is to say, they are big supporters of the state of Israel. Much of this has to do with their belief in some version of dispensational premillennialism, the apocalyptic system developed by John Nelson Darby in the middle of the nineteenth century. According to this system, reading the Bible (in particular, the books of Daniel and Revelation) provides a sure guide to the past, present, and future of history. As regards the present, we are living in a time of increasing apostasy and decadence. But near the end of our current historical moment the Jews will return to Palestine, which will be followed soon by Christ’s return in the air to retrieve the faithful. After this “rapture” there will be seven years of “tribulation,” followed by the return of Jesus and his army of saints to annihilate the enemy and establish God’s millennial kingdom. 

All this to say that, in the contemporary version of dispensational premillennialism, the State of Israel is a biblically foretold sign of the second coming of Jesus. Hence the Zionism of the Christian Right. And organizations such as the ZOA are quite willing to work with the Christian Right, as they are all in for Israel. 

But it is very important to note that according to dispensational premillennialism, in the end Jews must either accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or they will be consigned to hell. And while Jewish Zionists can shrug this off as nonsense, it should give them pause that, for folks in the Christian Right, Jews as Jews don’t matter. As Robert Smith cogently observes in his excellent book, More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, “Darby [the architect of dispensational premillennialism] viewed Jews not as real persons, but as literary tropes in his world of prophecy interpretation” (158). Thus, and as I note in my review of Smith’s book (which Sleeper quotes), it “might make sense in the political short-term” for Jewish Zionists to welcome support from the Christian Right, but “enabling such typecasting carries with it significant dangers, given that the prophetic script can change (particularly if Jews do not play their Christian-assigned roles).” 

Jews are but bit players in the evangelical apocalyptic drama. Not a reassuring word for Jews, notwithstanding Christian Right support for Israel. 

Child Soldiers in the Creation/Evolution War

by Adam Laats

Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His books include: Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015); with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016); and, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford UP, 2018). Coming up next is Jesus and the Dinosaurs, to be published by Oxford. Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.

E.J. Pace, “Another Pied Piper,” Christian Cartoons, 1922. Image in public domain.

There’s a lot to be horrified about. Ken Ham recently offered schoolchildren a jumble of noxious advice, mixing equal parts plagiarism and high anxiety. Yet buried in Ham’s unfortunate essay is a nugget of hope: even Ham now agrees on the fundamental principle that will allow us to end our long struggle over the teaching of evolutionary theory in our public schools.

As Ham explains, he hopes to give young Earth creationist children in public schools a guide to handling tests and essays in their hostile secular environment. Instead of encouraging children to look hopefully to their teachers for a positive relationship, Ham warns them that their teachers will be relentlessly out to get them. In the dangerous confines of your local public school, Ham explains, the best you can hope for is an escape from teachers’ implacable and misdirected persecution. 

That sort of high-anxiety preaching about public schools has long been the heart of Ham’s message. Back in 2015, for example, his Answers In Genesis organization published a cartoon of the terrible fate of kids who got on the public-school bus. Yes, children would learn the dangerous ideas of “Darwin,” but they would also be indoctrinated with other doctrines that Ken Ham considers pernicious: secular environmentalism, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and hatred of prayer and the Bible. 

For children heeding Ham’s advice, the result is predictable. Instead of entering school hoping to build friendships and prepare for life, anxious creationist kids will be waiting to be attacked and belittled. Even worse, if they follow Ham’s next bit of coaching, they certainly will be. In his advice about writing school reports about evolutionary theory, Ham suggests that students should plagiarize their way out of the evolutionary lion’s den. 

As Ham preaches,

…if you say, “There are no beneficial mutations,” your teacher may suggest, however inappropriately, sickle-cell anemia or wingless beetles as examples of mutations that can be beneficial to the organism. It would be better if you say, “Mutations have been observed to destroy, delete or corrupt genetic information or to be neutral, but have not been observed to add information. This is true even of so-called-beneficial mutations like shriveled-eyed cave fish or flightless beetles on windswept islands, where the changes still involve loss of sight or flight. However, particles-to-people evolution requires so many information-increasing mutations that it should be easy to find such mutations happening today, but we have yet to observe even one.” 

It doesn’t take years of experience as a classroom teacher to guess what will happen next. Looking for help, any creationist kid could follow Ham’s advice and copy Ham’s science-y sounding answer. 

No teacher, no matter what, would be able to be able to accept that kind of plagiarized essay. Instead of only warning students about teacher hostility and anger, Ham’s ready-made essay advice actually makes it more likely that creationist kids will be punished for copying and pasting their answers. 

Nevertheless, buried in Ham’s mistaken advice to his young followers is a kernel of good news for us all. How does Ham think creationist children should answer their public-school test questions? Not by insisting on radical creation science, but rather by explaining evolutionary science. As Ham advises,

Please be aware that these [tests] are not appropriate times to “preach.” For example, if you are asked “how old is the Earth?” then the (correct!) answer of ~6000 years will almost certainly be marked wrong because the course most likely would have stated ~4.5 billion years. To avoid lying, we recommend prefixing your answer by saying, “Most scientists believe that. . . ” or “The general consensus among geochronologists is. . . ” Remember, an exam is not a test of your personal beliefs. Instead, it is a test of how well you have learned and understood the material of the course as taught.

And here we have our ray of hope. Nobody—not Ken Ham, not even Richard Dawkins—wants public schools to “cure” children of their religious beliefs. As I am arguing in my upcoming book about creationism, public schools need to take a strict line against any kind of missionary work. Not just the misguided traditional religious type, but also the misguided secular atheist type. Public schools should never preach a religion to their students, but they should also avoid belittling or mocking their students’ religious ideas.

That doesn’t mean public schools can politely ignore the subject of evolutionary theory. Indeed, public schools have more than a right to teach evolutionary science to students, they have a firm duty to do so. As our present best understanding of the ways different species came about, evolutionary theory is something that every student has a right to know about. 

But that’s a different story from insisting that every student accept or endorse any particular religious idea about evolutionary theory. If a creationist student wants to believe that our species came about in one divine moment about 6,000 years ago, that is absolutely her right. But she has no right to expect her religious idea to be taught as our best scientific idea, because it’s not. And she has no right to expect to be able to skip parts of the curriculum that she finds religiously problematic, because those ideas are part and parcel of what every American has a right to know about.

Instead, to give credit where it is due, Ken Ham has stumbled across the key to solving our long dispute over teaching evolution in public schools. The only thing public schools can insist upon is exactly what Ham suggests. Public schools have a right and duty to help students understand the best modern science. If religious dissenters choose not to believe those ideas, fine. At the very least, however, students need to be able to explain, as Ham suggests, what those ideas mean. 

The answer is just what Ham says: Students can preface their explanations by saying things such as “Most scientists believe that…” or “The general consensus among geochronologists is…”

You might cringe when you hear Ham preaching anxiety and plagiarism among his flock. But we can all clutch at a straw of hope when we hear him tell children that they can know and understand evolution without ever being asked to change their religious beliefs. That is exactly the correct advice, and a solution we can all agree upon.

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