Creationists against Racism

Do they really mean it?

These days, leading creationists claim to be anti-racist. But fundamentalist Protestantism has a sour history of racism. Do today’s creationists have a fair claim to be authentically anti-racist? Short answer: Yes. Though it might muddy our progressive assumptions, we need to recognize that dissent from mainstream science has also often included dissent from mainstream racism.

Today’s conservative pundits usually don’t like to talk about it. But historically, as I argue in my new book, in the United States conservatism has been tied pretty closely to racism. And as we’ve seen in these pages, white racism has enjoyed strong support within fundamentalist circles.

Let me be clear: Unlike some progressive pundits, I’m not insisting that white conservatives these days are *really* all a bunch of racists. And unlike some progressive historians, I don’t believe that the *real* explanation for the politicization of conservative evangelicals in the 1970s was white racism. But the historical record is pretty clear: Throughout most of the twentieth century, white conservatism was bound up with traditional notions of white dominance.

There is, however, one glaring and important exception to this rule. Among white conservative creationists, there has been a long record of anti-racism. This has usually not been motivated by a civil-rights style of social activism, but rather from creationism itself. If Adam and Eve were the literal historic parents of all humanity, then there can’t be real differences between the races.

Today’s leading young-earth creationist ministry, Answers In Genesis, has long trumpeted its anti-racist creationism. As AIG likes to explain, racism can’t survive if we really believe in Adam, Eve, and Noah’s Ark.

AIG’s position is nothing new among dedicated creationists. As Bradley Gundlach argues in his terrific new(ish) book, Process & Providence, at the dawn of our modern evolution/creation battles, creationists defined themselves as opposed to racist mainstream science. In 1859, Professor Gundlach writes, the main evolutionary question at conservative Princeton Seminary was not Darwin’s new book. Rather, the creationists at Princeton in 1859 were outraged by the new scientific fad of “polygenism.” Leading contemporary scientists embraced the notion that human races were actually different species. Creationists at Princeton said no.

As the creation/evolution battles heated up in the 1920s, too, the anti-evolution crusade had the better claim to anti-racism. White mainstream science at the time often proved friendly to notions of “scientific racism.” As I describe in my new book (page 49 for those of you following along at home), leading evolutionary pundit Henry Fairfield Osborn supported both evolutionary theory and the racism that he thought went along with it.

Of course, simply because dedicated and consistent creationists have often been anti-racist, we can’t conclude that all creationists are anti-racist. Perhaps most famously, Bob Jones University in South Carolina has been fervently creationist AND fervently racist throughout most of its history.

The point here, rather, is that mainstream science has not always been right. Creationists these days can legitimately claim a more consistent history of anti-racism than can mainstream scientists. The same theological impulse that leads young-earth creationists to insist on a young earth also leads them to insist that all of humanity has the same roots.

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9 Comments

  1. That’s… good, I guess? It’s a bit like not being anti-Semitic because an invisible cat told you it would upset Mr Jiffy, but whatever.

    Reply
    • Adam, Thanks for the comment. I think the idea of anti-racist creationism is important for different reasons. Personally, I do not believe that the entire human race came from Adam & Eve. Nor do I think the entire human race was saved aboard Noah’s ark. For me, those are silly reasons to be anti-racist, akin to your cat/Jiffy example. But by asserting their legacy of anti-racism, creationists are able to point out the historic fallibility of mainstream science. Most of us these days–religious and secular, creationist and non-creationist–oppose racism. Creationists can build on that shared belief to point out that their commitment to doctrine has often saved them from agreement with the heinous racism of previous generations of mainstream scientists. For those of us who are skeptical of creationism’s claims to scientific legitimacy, creationist anti-racism can remind us that mainstream science also has a sketchy history.

      Reply
  2. “If Adam and Eve were the literal historic parents of all humanity, then there can’t be real differences between the races.” — But what about the Curse of Ham?

    Reply
    • Good point. Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify: I do not mean to suggest that creationist theology somehow ALWAYS or NATURALLY leads creationists to oppose racism. As Dr. Branch points out, for generations American (and European) creationists used their theology to bolster their virulent racism. To make matters even more unsettling for conservative American Christians, leading religious historian Mark Noll has argued that pro-slavery theologians often made the better Biblical case in the years preceding the Civil War. What’s the point? Conservative Christianity and creationism are not at all inherently anti-racist. My point above is simply that creationists can make a good argument that anti-racism has been one part of their intellectual legacy.

      Reply
      • M

         /  May 13, 2015

        Perhaps most conservative theologians were pro-slavery prior to the Civil War, but I don’t agree that “pro-slavery theologians made a BETTER Biblical case in the years preceding the Civil War.” I don’t think they were all pro-slavery since some churches didn’t allow people to become members if they owned slaves.

        I do not doubt the sour history of racism among conservative Christians / creationists.

      • Why do you think it’s not the “better biblical” case? It seems fairly obvious, as Noll points out, that the Bible implicitly endorses slavery throughout as a cultural practice and institution. Pro-slavery advocates made this point and accused abolitionists of not taking the Bible seriously, i.e. taking it at its word and seeing its “word” as binding. This position is rooted in a kind of anti-modernism that opposes. It refuses the possibility of deriving only principles or values from the biblical text as its trans-historical, revelatory truth content, especially when those values are used to overturn teachings and practices that are quite literally supported throughout the Bible. Few people taking this “fundamentalist” position would argue against the fact that there is change in, say, sexual/marital values and models from the old to new testaments — but this does not find an analog in other areas like slavery or gay marriage, which is the contemporary flashpoint for this kind of debate among Christians, Jews, Mormons, etc. The same divisions come up constantly in American debates over constitutional law, “postmodernism,” etc. At bottom the division is probably irreconcilable because its based, on the one hand, in a premodern, metaphysical notion of knowledge and existence where truth is given by and based on a divine intention encoded into “the order of being — and on the other side is the modern, post-metaphysical, existentialist view with science derived from the old order, developing toward the second, and still straddling both.

      • Edit: “This position is rooted in a kind of anti-modernism that opposes [the abolitionist alternative absolutely.]”

      • M / May 14, 2015 / Edit

        I think the answer you are looking for is longer than a comment, and you would benefit more by googling the Bible and slavery and looking at different sources to get a different point of view than Dr. Noll. I don’t agree with him, but that’s just me.
        [Editor’s Note: Moved from above. –AL]

  3. Since you admit “the historical record is pretty clear: Throughout most of the twentieth century, white conservatism was bound up with traditional notions of white dominance” at what point did this just disappear? Where did it go and why?

    This post is only dealing with racism in the strict sense of a belief in some kind of intrinsic, biological or ontological difference between “races.” The ground has shifted significantly for this type of racism. Rebranded as “Neo-racialism,” the hard and social sciences are deployed to demonstrate major differences between ethnic groups — a much more imposing and troubling empirical approach that reaches conclusions with problematic social implications within egalitarian societies. This type of thinking is inherently appealing to all forms of conservatism because they all share a core resistance to the extension of equal freedoms to all classes of people. That is why even the “mainstream conservative” or “moderate” is more likely to be anti-anti-racist than openly anti-racist. There are also numerous ways that racism as simple prejudice continues to operate at a deniable and unconscious level in the mainstream in “dog-whistle politics” and such.

    Reply

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