Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Whitewashing the Past | Righting America

by William Trollinger

As we noted in our last post, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) expend a good deal of energy – in the Creation Museum and in their writings – making the case that racist hatred and intolerance is unbiblical. This would seem commendable, especially given that the Christian Right often seems (at best) unconcerned about racial inequality and oppression. But AiG’s unwillingness to say anything specific about racism in contemporary America reduces their admonitions to mere bromide.

But what about the past? What about slavery? What do the creationists have to say?

In an article, AiG’s Paul Taylor argued that William Wilberforce and other abolitionists opposed slavery because of their commitment to taking the Bible literally from the very first verse. When Taylor was challenged by a reader who argued that white Christians made great use of Scripture to support slavery, Ken Ham’s son-in-law, Bodie Hodge – the mechanical engineer who serves as AiG’s jack-of-all-disciplines – joined with Taylor to make the case that, while some Christians tried to use the Bible as a proslavery document, the fact is that it was Biblical Christians [who] led the fight against slavery.”

Would that this had been the case. But while there were biblical literalists in antebellum America who opposed slavery, it is – as we note in Righting America – “much more accurate to say that, prior to the Civil War, ‘Biblical Christians,’ those holding to plenary verbal inspiration and a commonsense reading of the Bible, led the fight for slavery.” These white Christians – from the North and the South –  not only used a literal reading of the Bible as the basis for their innumerable proslavery sermons, but they also aggressively attacked their opponents for undercutting the authority of God’s Word by making unbiblical arguments against slavery (186).

Fast forward to the twentieth century. When the civil rights movement challenged Southern white supremacy, biblical literalists rose up again to use the inerrant Word to make the case against desegregation. And when it eventually became clear that the federal government was actually going to enforce the integration of public schools, white fundamentalists established their own schools throughout the South to ensure that their children would not be in school with black children.

Most critics focus on how young earth creationists undercut mainstream and evidence-based biology, geology, and astronomy. But history is also a target, because human history – not just geological history – is very dangerous for the entire creationist apologetic. As we note in Righting America, if AiG took history seriously, they would have some very difficult questions to answer. Here are three:

1. If the Bible is clear and should be read in a commonsensical fashion . . . then how might we explain the millions of biblical literalists who were convinced that they were upholding biblical authority, and yet who turned out to be so wrong when it came to slavery and segregation?


2. More dangerous, if millions of biblical literalists in the not-so-distant past were so wrong about what the Bible had to say about slavery and segregation, is it not possible that in twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years we will have a great host of biblical literalists fervently arguing that egalitarian marriages and gay rights are the obviously biblical position?


3. Perhaps most threatening, if millions of biblical literalists were on the wrong side of history when it came to slavery and segregation, and if ‘less literalist’ Christians were on the right side of that same history, what happens to the absolute, good versus evil, God’s Word versus Human Reason binary that undergirds the Creation Museum, AiG, and young Earth creationism? (188)

One way to answer these questions is to go the route of evangelical pastor Doug Wilson, who, in his books Southern Slavery As It Was and Black and Tan, has argued that – biblically speaking – owning slaves is not a sin (and it is wicked to say it is), that the antebellum South was a time of racial harmony, and that slavery offered African-Americans real benefits (in fact, they were better off as slaves than they are now in America). Particularly telling, Wilson asserts in Black and Tan that “Christians who apologize for what the Bible teaches on slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage” (14).  

But Ken Ham, Bodie Hodge, and AiG do not want to go Wilson’s route. They desperately want to claim that it was Christians who took the Bible literally from the very first verse who were the Christians who led the fight against slavery.

So they have to invent a whitewashed history. As it is for science, so it is for history. Ideology trumps evidence.