Is Creationism Hate Speech?

It wasn’t about evolution or creationism. When a student group at the University of Central Oklahoma rescinded a speaking invitation for radical-creationist impresario Ken Ham, it wasn’t the biology or geology departments that had protested. Rather, it was women’s groups and LGBTQ+ organizations that objected to Ham. The controversy in Oklahoma points to a central problem for religious conservatives, one that all the bluster about “free speech” only obscures.

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Ken Ham’s organization makes no secret of its anti-homosexuality opinions.

I’m no conservative, but if I were I would not care as much about college speaking invitations as I would about the much-more-important real reason why Ham’s talk was canceled.

Before we get into that, though, let’s clear out a few of the distracting issues. Ham has protested that he had a contract in place and that the university “reneged.” The university says no contract was in place, only an invitation. We can remain agnostic on that question—the central issue here isn’t one of legal contracts, but of moral and social commitments.

Let’s also remember that this case doesn’t involve creationism as a whole, but only one form of creationism. Ham’s organization promotes a specific young-earth version that I’ve been calling “radical” creationism. As I argue in my current book, too often pundits equate radical creationism with creationism as a whole. It’s always important to remember what creationism really is and what it isn’t. As a whole, creationism certainly can’t be equated with Ken Ham’s ideas. For now, though, let’s move on to the central issues in this particular case.

Ham insists that his free speech rights were denied. But were they? Ham still plans to give a speech in the same town, at a nearby church. No one took away Ham’s right to speak, only an invitation to appear at a university-sponsored event. To use an intentionally inflammatory analogy, pornography is not allowed in public-school libraries, but that does not mean pornographers have lost their rights to free speech.

Today, though, such questions of contracts and free speech rights are not what we’re going to focus on. Instead, let’s look at a tougher question. Let’s examine the confusing language at the center of this case. Ham has protested with justification that his banishment violates the university’s stated goal of “inclusivity.”

The local creationist pastor who had invited Ham to Oklahoma quoted angrily from the university’s policies:

UCO claims that it “is committed to an inclusive educational” environment, and in its “Campus Expression Policy,” the university declares that it “is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The University is a diverse community based on free exchange of ideas.”

If the tax-funded university is committed to diversity and inclusion, the pastor asked, why did it exclude the different ideas of Ken Ham?

For its part, the university and affiliated student groups would likely explain (and for the record I’d agree) that “inclusivity” on a pluralist public campus must always exclude certain notions. Those who do not agree to the fundamental ideas of social equality can’t be included. If someone at an open public meeting refuses to let other people speak or to acknowledge other people’s rights as citizens, that person will be ejected. His or her rights to be included have always been premised on the condition that he/she recognize the same rights for all other members of the community. Whether you agree with it or not (I do), that exclusionary rule has always been central to the idea of “inclusivity.”

In the end, it was not creationist science that moved Ken Ham beyond the pale of civil speech, but rather his ideas about sexuality. As I was reminded recently on my trip to the Ark Encounter, a primary commitment of Ham’s creationist ministry is an insistence on the illegitimacy of homosexuality. In the eyes of Oklahoma protesters, Ham’s stance against same-sex marriage removes Ham from the circle of legitimate civic participants. By hoping to take away other people’s rights to participate equally in society, the argument goes, Ham has torn up the social contract and pushed himself out of the circle of civic rights, including the right to have his speech welcomed at a pluralist public institution.

If I were a radical creationist—and I’m not—I wouldn’t join Ken Ham and his allies in protesting about free speech rights. There is a larger issue that conservative Christians are losing—the right to have their ideas about sexual morality included in the list of legitimate opinions for public forums and institutions.

The free-speech issue, IMHO, is only a symptom of a much more profound loss by religious conservatives. In this case, Ken Ham didn’t have his rights to speak freely taken away. He still plans to speak in the same town. He is free to invite whomever he likes. He is free to say whatever he likes.

The big question, I think, is not whether or not radical creationists are allowed to speak freely. The big question, rather, is whether or not conservative Christian ideas about sexuality are still included in the list of legitimate political opinions. In this case, at least, they are not…not even in Oklahoma.

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15 Comments

  1. It makes sense that people would confuse the word inclusivity with something like all inclusive.

    Reply
    • Yes, I agree. I think the truly alarming problem, from the creationist perspective, is that organizations like Answers In Genesis have been booted from the list of organizations that deserve to be “included” in a public college campus. As you know, I’m no creationist, but if I were I’d be talking about that alarming fact rather than the distracting symptoms of free speech restriction or contact abrogation.

      Reply
      • I understand your point. I think both “sides” are operating with a different dictionary in general, and that is one reason why people frequently talk past each other. I already knew the definition of inclusivity, so when I read the AIG post days ago, I wasn’t surprised. If people do not know or understand the operating definition of inclusivity as defined by secular universities, I think people would easily be more distracted by a free speech issue and contract abrogation. I think it takes understanding the definition of the word in context for more of the alarm to set in.

  2. Adam: Is there any room in your world for religious convictions?

    Reply
    • Dr. McLeroy, Short answer: Yes, of course.
      Longer answer: The important point here is not “my world,” but the world of public institutions and the support of those public institutions for certain ideas. For example, some ideas are perfectly fine for a private individual to hold, but shouldn’t be publicly supported. Many of those ideas are religious in nature. To pick one obvious relevant example, of course in these United States it is absolutely unobjectionable for a private individual to believe for religious reasons that our species was created only 6,000 years ago (or so) in an Iraqi garden. But public institutions such as public schools or town meetings ought not endorse such ideas as representing the ideas of the public as a whole.
      Speaking more generally, if an individual holds ideas–for religious reasons or any other reason–that contradict our society’s central assumption of equality before the law, that individual is free to do so, but public institutions should not support those ideas as such. Public institutions can certainly support that individual as a person, but not the anti-equality ideas. For example, a white supremacist has every right to attend a public school or receive public financial assistance or use public roads, etc. But a white supremacist does not have a right to assume that his or her anti-egalitarian ideas must be represented in a public institution such as a school. For example, a white supremacist can attend a public school, but he can’t demand that non-white people be barred from that public school.
      It’s too late to be brief now, I know, 🙂 but to try to put it briefly: Religious convictions are private issues. The exception is when a group or individual holds convictions that deprive other people of equal rights. In those cases, public institutions can’t endorse or encourage the anti-egalitarian convictions. Smarter people than me have made this case. I’m not a conservative religious person, but Rod Dreher is. He has argued a similar position, from the conservative viewpoint.

      Reply
  3. To me, the arguments in the post and in your reply do not make sense.

    Here is my view about the importance of religious convictions.

    https://donmcleroy.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/address-to-the-constitutional-coalitions-26th-educational-policy-conference/

    Reply
  4. Is Ken Ham talking about gender? Or, is the fact that he holds religious convictions about gender you do not approve of that disqualifies him from speaking at a university about other topics?

    Also, how is his speaking at the university, even about gender, imply that the university “endorses,” or “encourages,” his view?

    It seems you are disqualifying anyone who disagrees with what you consider “the fundamental ideas of social equality” from speaking at a university. Is this what you want?

    Reply
    • It looks like you want to put me in a pre-fab box, but it’s not really a good fit. Let me try to share my thinking on this issue, though it looks as if we’ll end up disagreeing. At least we might have a better sense what we’re disagreeing about.
      First of all, in cases like this, speakers are sponsored by student organizations. They are paid by student funds and they use university resources. So while the university or the student organizations don’t necessarily need to agree with the speaker’s ideas, speakers are sponsored by universities. If the speakers disagree with the core values of the university, or, to be more specific, if they advocate ideas that directly contravene those core values, it makes sense to me that the university would not sponsor those speakers.
      Does that mean students or speakers have had their rights taken away? Not really—it means that certain speakers or activities are not recognized as contributing to the university’s mission. As with this specific case, Ken Ham will still give a talk in the same town. He is free to say whatever he wants. He can invite students if he wants.

      Some commentators object that universities must remain open forums for all speakers. This argument has never held water. Free speech does not and has never included all forms of speech. There are strict laws against some forms of speech: libel, slander, and most relevant here, threats. One of the most difficult elements of our current campus free-speech controversies is that some student activists have adopted a wider-ranging idea of “threat” than most of the rest of us. The disagreement, though, is not whether or not all forms of speech should be invited onto university campuses. The disagreement is whether or not certain forms of speech really constitute a threat. Advocating restrictions of marriage rights is taken, by some, as a threat against some people.

      Reply
  5. I am truly amazed that you think any speakers who “disagree with the core values of the university” should not be alowed to speak. Even President Obama claimed in the 2008 election to oppose same sex marriage for religious reasons. Would he not have been allowed to speak?

    Reply
  6. Agellius

     /  February 14, 2018

    You write, “The big question, rather, is whether or not conservative Christian ideas about sexuality are still included in the list of legitimate political opinions.”

    I happened to come across the following quote, which reminded me of this post:

    “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” -Robert H. Jackson, US Supreme Court justice (13 Feb 1892-1954)

    You write, “By hoping to take away other people’s rights to participate equally in society, the argument goes, Ham has torn up the social contract and pushed himself out of the circle of civic rights, including the right to have his speech welcomed at a pluralist public institution.”

    Granting this point for the sake of argument, I might agree with you if the exclusion of homosexuality were to be the topic of his speech. But he was going to talk about creationism. Are people to be barred from talking about any subject because of their opinions on one subject? In that case any Christian (or Muslim, or Jew) who holds to traditional standards of morality must be barred from speaking at any public institution. Are Christians (et al.) supposed to take that lying down?

    Reply
    • Just as a point of information, at one point in the negotiations, as I understand it, the students asked Ken Ham to agree not to talk about same-sex marriage, and Ham refused. To my mind, that’s entirely understandable on Ham’s part. But from the university’s point of view, it means that the topic would have likely been discussed.

      Reply
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