How Roy Moore Put Jesus on a Dinosaur

It’s ugly. And weird. The accusations against Roy Moore in the Washington Post are hard to read without shuddering. It got even uglier and weirder when some evangelical leaders actually supported Moore’s alleged actions. Yet those familiar with the history of American fundamentalist institutions see a familiar pattern in this depressing story. And maybe I’m too deep in my new book about American creationism to think clearly, but it seems to me these sorts of attitudes help explain radical young-earth creationism.

If you haven’t seen the story, it’s grim. The Washington Post shared allegations by women that Roy Moore had groped and kissed them back in the 1970s, when they were young teenagers and he was a thirty-something lawyer. To complicate things, Judge Moore has always been a controversial figure, insisting on keeping a 10-commandments monument in his courtroom even when ordered to remove it. Moreover, Moore just won a contentious GOP primary election in the US Senate race. He’s facing a tough battle with his Democratic opponent.

That history helps explain the continuing support for Moore among conservatives. Almost 40 percent of Alabama evangelicals say they are MORE likely to support Moore after these accusations. Only 28 percent say they’re less likely to do so.

We might be understandably tempted to see the whole thing as just another episode in today’s bare-knuckled political free-for-all. Judge Moore defended himself in those terms, after all. He claimed the whole story was just a cynical smear campaign against him. Real conservatives, he tweeted, needed to see through the fake news. In his words,

The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me. I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values!

From Liberty University, President Jerry Falwell Jr. took Moore at his word. The accuser, Falwell intoned, was not as “credible” as Moore. The same thing happened to President Trump, Falwell noted, yet Trump heroically triumphed.

The story, according to Moore and Falwell, is one of brave conservatives fighting false accusations. In today’s climate, it makes some sense to me that people on both sides would rally around someone who they thought was falsely accused by the “forces of evil.”

But nitty-gritty politics don’t really explain the way some evangelical leaders seem to actually condone Moore’s alleged actions. They don’t just deny the allegations. They deny that there’s anything wrong with them. Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler noted that Joseph and Mary had a similar age difference when they married.

Jesus on a dinosaur

If mainstream science says it couldn’t have happened, it must be true.

“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” Ziegler told the Washington Examiner. “They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

Other evangelical leaders rushed to disagree. At Christianity Today, for instance, Ed Stetzer emphasized that evangelicals are not okay with Moore’s alleged actions. As Stetzer put it,

Christians don’t believe the message that is coming from some of Moore’s supporters. Actually, most of us find it really creepy.

Those of us who live outside of the charmed circle of American evangelicalism might have a difficult time understanding why Stetzer even needs to make such a statement. Of course it’s creepy!

As I finish up my book manuscript about American creationism, I can’t help but see enormous parallels between Ziegler-style rationalizations and radical young-earth creationism. As I detail in the book, by the late 1950s America’s conservative evangelicals faced a difficult situation. Unlike their fundamentalist parents in the Scopes generation, by 1960 evangelicals had to cope with the fact that mainstream scientists had generally agreed on the outlines of modern evolutionary theory. They had a few options: Reject creationism altogether along with their evangelical beliefs; accept the scientific strength of mainstream evolutionary thinking but claim that it didn’t change their evangelical religion; or reject mainstream science utterly.

Following the lead of theologian John Whitcomb Jr. and engineering professor Henry Morris, thousands of earnest evangelicals chose the third option. They believed Whitcomb and Morris that mainstream scientists had followed Satan’s red herring and abandoned true science. As Whitcomb and Morris put it in their 1964 preface,

extrapolation of present processes into the prehistoric past or into the eschatological future is not really science.

In order to have true biblical faith, Whitcomb and Morris argued, Christians needed to reject radically the claims of mainstream science. There was a better science out there, a biblical science, that insisted on a young-earth and a literal interpretation of the “days” in the Bible’s six-day creation story.

genesis flood 1961 ed

Why would (false) scientists lie?

Before the 1960s, not many evangelical Christians believed those things. After that, however, young-earth creationism became a mainstream belief among conservative evangelicals.

What does any of this have to do with Alabama’s Senate race? Then and now, conservative evangelicals have nurtured a unique sense of persecution, of their role as a beleaguered minority, unfairly ejected from their rightful role as America’s conscience and moral guardians, usurped and despised. A mainstream society that can treat good Christians that way, the thinking goes, must be following a false trail. When challenged or threatened, then, it is not very difficult for some evangelicals to reject huge swathes of mainstream thinking. Such mainstream thought, after all, had been led astray by the “forces of evil.”

In Moore’s case, we see how quickly some supporters wrapped Moore’s alleged actions in a sheaf of pages from Scripture. And in the case of rejecting mainstream science, it was relatively easy for thousands of evangelicals to believe outrageously radical scientific ideas.

When you assume that mainstream thinking is from the devil, it becomes very easy to accept ideas that the rest of us find bizarre. It becomes easy to think that sexual predation has Gospel roots, or that Jesus could have cavorted happily with Brontosaurus.

HT: MM

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9 Comments

  1. And don’t forget that one’s stand on abortion trumps virtually any transgression,

    Reply
    • Right. But to me, those sorts of political calculations make perfect sense, even when I totally disagree with them. So, for example, if an evangelical voter said to me, “I don’t like Trump, but I really want conservative control of SCOTUS,” I would get that. What I DON’T get is when evangelicals seem to authentically support Trump and Moore and other alleged or confessed sexual predators.

      Reply
      • Are you shocked when the president of the Philippines (a very Catholic country in its mainstream culture) calls the pope a son of a whore, jokes about rape-murder, talks fondly about the first time he killed someone, and pals around with Trump? Are you just shocked that supposedly more westernized white Americans are aligned with that?

        If you had ever lived in a religious patriarchal culture it would make sense. When a crude mix of regressive bigotries are validated by Old Testament stories as a general theory of gender and sexuality, “Boys will be boys” routinely excuses abuse, violence and victim-blaming.

        If Trump and Moore were women, or if they had been exposed for having homosexual inclinations, they would be finished.

  2. Do you think there has been a sudden spike in the number of people who reject “mainstream thinking,” or has something happened to delegitimize and weaken its hegemony?

    Reply
    • Dan,
      My take is that the spike happened a century ago in the 1920s. The shock felt by the first generation of fundamentalist intellectuals was profound, when they realized that they no longer could simply assume they controlled institutions such universities and denominational boards.

      Reply
  3. I don’t think they ARE particularly successful now, from a century-long perspective. As you know, fundamentalists in the 1920s had great success in legally banning not only evolution, but also denigration of religion or patriotism from many of America’s public schools. These days, creationists hope only to wedge alternative scientific ideas into public schools alongside evolution. If you asked a fundamentalist leader in the 1920s if public schools should include devotional Bible reading or prayer, he would assume that they should and always would. In the 1920s, evangelical teetotalers changed the Constitution when they didn’t like it. These days, conservative evangelicals only hope to eke out a one-vote majority on the Supreme Court.
    Are conservatives powerful and successful these days? Yes, of course, but only due to radically reduced expectations.

    Reply
    • Reduced electoral expectations, yes — which is why they resort to non-electoral strategies.

      Trump has appointed more (and younger) judges to the circuit courts than any prior president. The far right will have a stranglehold on what goes to the supreme court for a very long time now.

      Out of their reduced expectations for political success, the entire reactionary right that subscribes to one kind of reality denial or another may succeed at remaking the “mainstream” in its own image — not creationist or evangelical per se but something that soothes their replacement anxiety, like presidents and foreign policy that no longer preaches human rights or aspires to restrain sufficiently Christian or anti-Muslim despots.

      Reply
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