The Accidental Creationist Conspiracy

We didn’t mean to. But those of us who fight for more and better evolution education have occasionally unwittingly teamed up with radical creationists to promulgate a false myth about the nature of American creationism. We should stop.

Pew Creation eighty one

I’ll take those odds…

Here’s what we know: Most Americans know—or admit—that humans evolved. You may have heard the old Gallup poll results, the ones that keep finding almost half of Americans think God created humans in pretty much their present form at some time within the past ten thousand years.

More careful survey questions—it’s all about the questions—reveal much different numbers. The folks at Pew Research have found that about four in every five Americans accept human evolution. The numbers of die-hard evolution deniers is much smaller than you might have thought.

Why is that? Why do so many of us think that there are many more radical creationists out there than there really are?

For one thing, it might be because of the publicity. Whenever a high-profile radical creationist gets anywhere, it attracts a lot of attention. Consider the ill-starred campaign of Mary Lou Bruner in Texas. She didn’t win her race for state school board, but when she told her facebook friends that there had to have been dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and that Obama had put himself through law school as a prostitute, it attracted international attention to her campaign.

But there’s another reason, too. Radical creationists like Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis have an obvious interest in inflating the numbers of followers they have. When it comes to the attendance figures at AIG’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, for example, Ham seems fond of exaggerating the number of people who trickle through his gopher-wood gates.

There’s a less obvious angle, too. Not only do Ham and other radical creationists exaggerate their own influence, so do Ham’s fiercest opponents. For instance, Americans United campaigns vigorously for secular public schools. They fight against any whiff of religiously inspired creationist curriculum. In doing so, however, they unintentionally promote the myth of vast creationist armies massing outside the schoolhouse door.

Now, to be clear, I personally support their work, and that of other anti-creationist groups such as the National Center for Science Education. Nevertheless, when AU rightly condemns the creationist activities of lawmakers such as Indiana’s Dennis Kruse, AU tends to imply that Kruse is not part of a desperate, go-nowhere radical creationist rump, but rather part and parcel of what they call elsewhere a

a coordinated national effort to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. [Emphasis in original.]

A casual reader might be forgiving for thinking that a “coordinated national effort” is scarier than what we might more appropriately describe in other terms. Instead of inflating the influence of radical creationism, what if we called it by more appropriate labels? How about “desperate?” How about “disappearing?” How about “shrinking and increasingly isolated?”

As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, the vast majority of Americans don’t really disagree about evolution. Not in ways that really matter. Instead, most of us are friendly to the mainstream science of evolution. We’re also friendly to religious ideas about divine involvement in the origins of life. Few of us agree with the radical positions on either side of the creationism culture war.

shipley war on modern science

“Vast armies?” or sad little cliques?

Instead of harping on the threat of radical creationism, it will be better strategy to emphasize the out-of-step nature of radical creationism. Instead of warning incorrectly—as NCSE godfather Maynard Shipley did in the 1920s—that “the armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science,” we should be celebrating and publicizing the fact that only a small and shrinking band of out-of-touch radicals still deny the essentials of mainstream science.

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Think Creationists Are Dumb?

To be fair, SOME creationists might just be ignorant. As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, though, there is more than enough ignorance to go around when it comes to evolution and creationism.

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Why do creationists put Jesus on a dinosaur? Short answer: They don’t.

I recently made a short version of this case at UConn’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life blog. If we want to make any real progress in our continuing battle over creationism, we can at least start by acknowledging a few of these obvious truths.

Agree? Disagree? Click on over to H&CiPL to check it out.

Why We’re Doomed

We all knew it was going to be ugly and stupid. I’m still surprised, though, when people say these things with a straight face. Conservative pundits lump middle-of-the-roaders like me into a vast, scheming “secular Left . . . who cannot stand the presence of religion in everyday  life.” Lefties blast middle-of-the-roaders like Cory Booker into the conspiratorial Right. No wonder we can’t have a decent convo.

First, my alleged anti-religiosity. After my recent commentary about Karen Pence in the Washington Post, Ben Shapiro took to the tube-waves to rebut. At about 19:30 in this segment, he hoped to redefine Ms. Pence’s ordeal. Instead of an old-fashioned fight between religious groups, Shapiro insisted, what we’re facing now was an outright fight by powerful secular forces against traditional religion as a whole.

Shapiro argued that people like me assume that there is no legitimate traditional religion anymore. People like me, Shapiro said, see conservative religion as only

a basket of bigotries masquerading as religion.

I won’t rebut Shapiro’s rebuttal, though I will point out that SAGLRROILYBYGTH have offered much more powerful and insightful counterarguments to my Pence commentary in these pages.

The point this morning is bigger and it’s not only about my hurt feelings. It’s not even about conservatives alone. Pundits on the left tend to shoot their mouths off just as wildly. For example, though I’m not a fan of Senator Cory Booker’s (fading?) support for charter schools, I can acknowledge that he often endorses traditional progressive political positions.

Yet, as Molly Ball noted a few years back in The Atlantic,

Booker has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from sites like Daily Kos, where a contributor asserted last year that he “would actually be much more at home in the Republican Party.” Booker’s team has grown all too familiar with the rap that he is “some sort of Manchurian candidate for the right,” as his campaign spokesman, Kevin Griffis, put it to me with a sigh.

The problem is bigger than Cory Booker or Karen Pence. It’s even bigger than Ben Shapiro. In a sensible system, pundits on both sides would rush to include as many people as they can on their team. Ben Shapiro would notice that my argument wasn’t really against traditional religion at all. Cory Booker would be welcomed into a big-tent Left and encouraging to squeeze every possible progressive drop out of his role.

That’s not what happens. Instead, as pundits on both sides try to get clicks by excoriating their natural allies, the left-right divide only gapes ever wider.

Creationism and the Conservative Vision Board

It was the creationism part that first got my attention. Why would a smart, dynamic politician introduce such an old-fashioned creationism bill for public schools, a bill obviously doomed to failure? As I read the rest of the bill, the answer became obvious. And for anti-creationist campaigners, the lesson is clear.

 

 

Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse has a long record of introducing anti-evolution legislation. Twenty years ago, he began pushing bills that would allow for the teaching of creation science in Indiana’s public schools. When those flopped, he began fighting instead for “academic freedom” for Indiana’s teachers, to allow them to teach a “diverse curriculum.”

This month, however, for some reason Senator Kruse went back to an old-school school bill. Kruse is once again campaigning for schools that include “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.”

What gives? Why would a creationist go back to a failed strategy? After all, the inclusion of “creation science” in public schools has been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. Why would Kruse bother to ask for something (again) when he knows he won’t get it?

The rest of the bill makes the answer painfully obvious. Senator Kruse isn’t really crafting legislation here. He is creating a conservative vision board.

 

Kruse is asking for a range of educational policies that might or might not be possible. He wants all Indiana public and charters schools to post big “In God We Trust” signs, along with a US and Indiana flag. He wants religious electives, including Bible studies. He wants students to be able to earn public-school credit for religion classes. Creationism—even the outdated “creation science”—is only one of the public-school visions on this Indiana board.

Why does it matter? As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, we will never really understand creationism if we think of it only as a fight about science curriculum. In most cases, creationism is only one aspect of a wide-ranging conservative attitude about education.

Yet too often, science teachers and science advocacy groups are left all alone in their fight against creationism in public schools, when the fight is not really about science. It is a fight over the proper nature of public education. Should schools be aggressively pluralist, ditching their historical Protestant baggage? Or should they be staunchly traditionalist, teaching children to be patriotic and Christian?

Karen Pence Falls into the Scopes Trap

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have likely been following the story: Second Lady Karen Pence has taken some heat for going back to work at Immanuel Christian School, an evangelical school with explicitly anti-LGBTQ beliefs. As they rush to defend her, I’m arguing this morning, Pence’s conservative allies are actually stumbling into an old culture-war trap.

shapiro pence

…ouch.

Understandably, some of her conservative defenders are taking the path of least resistance. Opposing any sort of non-hetero, non-married sexual activity, they say, has ALWAYS been a standard Christian belief. As Ben Shapiro put it most bitingly, Pence’s critics seem to have “never heard of religious people before.”

Thanks to the Made By History series editors, this morning I’m arguing in The Washington Post that Pence’s defenders are making an old mistake in their hasty counter-attacks. I won’t give away the details–you’ll have to click over to read the whole thing–but I will say I work in some of the biggest names in twentieth-century creationist history: Henry Morris, Bernard Ramm, and William Jennings Bryan.

 

Should Christians Be Afraid?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have heard it all before. For the past century, conservative evangelicals have warned that their religious beliefs have made them the target of anti-Christian religious discrimination and persecution. Today we hear the same warning from radical young-earth creationist Ken Ham. So should Christians be afraid?

ken ham ny lawFirst, the history: In spite of today’s rosy nostalgia, evangelical Protestants have always felt themselves the targets of creeping secular attack. To pick just one example, when SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools in 1963, evangelicals responded with apocalyptic alarm.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.”  No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried.  Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America.  In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed.  The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

But! We might say that those conservatives were wrong, but today’s might be right. As Ken Ham warned his Twitter followers this morning, perhaps “It’s coming!” Maybe New York’s new gender law really will put conservative evangelical pastors in a legal bind.

After all, it is not only radical young-earthers who are concerned. Conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher have similarly warned of the creeping overreach of today’s secular gender ideology.

And in some ways, as higher-ed watchers like me have noticed, changes really are afoot. Institutions such as universities that rely on federal student-loan dollars to stay afloat might face intense pressure to comply with anti-discrimination guidelines.

But will a preacher ever be pulled out of his pulpit for “preach[ing] faithfully from God’s Word that there’s only two human genders God created”? No. That’s not how religious discrimination works in the USA. Just ask any historically persecuted minority.

For example, the federal government has long shelled out huge subsidies to farmers, including hog farmers. Does that mean that religious preachers who tell their audiences that eating pork is sinful are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Similarly, the federal government has funded school textbooks that teach basic chemistry. They teach that the core of a substance is determined by its molecular makeup. Does that mean that Roman Catholic priests who tell parishes that wine has been transubstantiated into blood are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Or, to take the most painful 20th-century example from the world of evangelical Protestantism, when the federal government passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, were white evangelical preachers ever stopped from including racist content in their Sunday sermons? No.

In spite of what alarmist preachers might say, the problem for conservatives won’t be about their pulpits. When they want to refuse service to same-sex couples or refuse admission to transgender students they might have to deal with a new legal reality.

But the idea that the amped-up gender police will storm into churches to arrest pastors is more Thief in the Night than Queer Nation.

Who’s Afraid of Teachers?

It’s not only in the pages of dusty history books nobody reads. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene wrote recently, the effort to stifle teachers’ political opinions is alive and well. But here’s the question every real teacher keeps wondering: Why are people so worried about teachers?

Here’s what we know: Greene describes a recent bill in Arizona to limit teachers’ ability to talk politics in the classroom. The bill would combat teachers’ alleged aggressive political posturing. What would it do?

Teachers may not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or elected or appointed official. Teachers may not bring up any “controversial issues” not related to the course. . . . Teachers may not advocate for one side of a controversial issue; they must always present both sides.

Greene argues that this bill is not just an Arizona quirk but rather part of a vision to restrain teachers from voicing progressive opinions.

And it won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that the fear of progressive teachers has a long history in the US of A.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Harold Rugg of Teachers College Columbia earned the ire of many conservative activists with his progressive textbooks. It wasn’t only Rugg that conservatives worried about. As I noted in my book about conservative educational activism, people like Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America and Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion warned one another that the problem was bigger than any single teacher or textbook. Rather, as Falk told Chaillaux privately in 1939, it was all part of a vast left-wing teacher conspiracy,

a deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.

In the 1960s, too, conservative activists assumed that teachers were part of a progressive plan to use their classroom authority to push left-wing ideas on unsuspecting youth. The Gablers asked their fellow conservatives some pointed questions about the proper role of teachers. As they put it,

Do educators have the right to use our children as guinea pigs in behavior modification experiments?  Should our children be under the direction of ideologues hostile to Judeo-Christian values and American constitutional liberty?

SH Gablers

Look out kids, it’s a…teacher!

For many conservatives, the notion that teachers are “ideologues” cramming Leninist doctrine down the throats of America’s schoolchildren is a hallowed truth. But why? Why do so many conservatives worry so unnecessarily about teachers’ political activism?

After all, ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: We worry about far more prosaic issues in our classrooms. We worry if students are learning the material, and if there’s a better way we could present it. We worry that students aren’t understanding things, and if there’s something we could be doing to help.

We worry mostly about our students as people, not as partisans.

Moreover, as every study has shown, teachers do not swoop in from outside to cram politics down students’ throats. For example, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, when it comes to teaching evolution and creationism, most teachers reflect the majority values of their communities, because most teachers are products of that same community.

So why the worry?

Evolution Proves Creationism

It’s difficult for people like me to understand. How is it possible in this day and age that so many of my fellow Americans deny a basic fact of modern science? How is it possible that a significant proportion of American adults—even college-educated adults—think that our species was created de novo about 6,000 years ago in an Iraqi garden? A recent review of the psychology of denialism offers one challenging suggestion: Human brains evolved to remain creationist.

Denialism better

I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death my ability not to hear it…

As I’m arguing in my new book, the usual explanations just don’t hold water. The Richard Dawkinses of the world tend to think of creationism—at least the radical young-earth kind—as a kind of simple deficit. As Dawkins famously opined in 1989, creationists would have to be

ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

For those of us who understand the history and nature of America’s radical young-earth creationists, Dawkins’ dismissal doesn’t fit the evidence. Even if we are staunchly anti-creationist, if we’re paying attention we can’t help but notice that plenty of creationists know a lot about evolutionary theory. They are clearly intelligent and in possession of their mental faculties. And they might be wicked, that doesn’t seem to be a primary factor in their creationism.

A recent review article in The Economist points in a more promising direction. Studies show that people will usually accept a financial penalty rather than listening to arguments from the other side. They often compare the experience of listening to opposing viewpoints to “having a tooth pulled.”

enigma of reason

The evolution of creationism…

Why? Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that human reason is not the engine of pure enlightenment it is often considered. Instead, reasoning evolved as a way to encourage group cooperation. In their words,

What reason does . . . is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others . . . and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

What does this have to do with the durability of radical young-earth creationism? In spite of the accusations of angry Oxonians like Richard Dawkins, creationists have not abandoned their ability to reason and weigh evidence. Rather, if these cognitive psychologists are correct, human reasoning ability will tend to lead to greater in-group cohesion.

The brains of radical creationists tend to favor evidence that supports the dominant views of their group. They tend to dismiss evidence and arguments that go against them. This isn’t something unique to creationists. All our brains work in similar fashion. We don’t weigh facts evenly or dispassionately. We don’t even hear them that way. Rather, our brains seem hard-wired to accept facts that help us fit in with our groups.

In short, why are so many Americans creationists? Because they evolved that way.

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

Sorry, I Didn’t Catch Your Name

What do we call them? When we want to talk about white, American, conservative evangelicals, is there a better, shorter, catchier term? Otherwise we either have to keep saying “evangelicals” when we don’t really mean ALL evangelicals, or keep repeating the whole too-long description.

hello-my-name-is.jpg

CAWEP? WACE? ???

I’ll plead guilty. In Fundamentalist U I often talked about “evangelicals,” when I really usually meant white, American, conservative evangelicals from the 20th-century interdenominational fundamentalist tradition. In a book, I feel like I can get away with using “evangelicals” as a short version of that long mouthful, because in context (I hope) it was clear what kind of evangelical I was talking about.

In other formats, though, I would like a better term. For example, in talking with journalist Trey Kay today of Us & Them fame, I kept wanting a better, clearer term. We kept talking about what “evangelicals” thought about the supposed War on Christmas. And I kept having to pause and specify that it wasn’t really evangelicals as a whole we were talking about. We were only talking about that specific subgroup: white American conservative evangelicals.

It is not a nitpick or a quibble. It is a vital and important distinction.

us and them war on christmas

Why are the evangelicals so mad? …they aren’t.

But to my knowledge, there is not a convenient, catchy, everyday term out there to capture what we mean. Is there one out there already? Or can we invent one?

Some of the options out there are no good. I’m not okay with “Christian Right” as a label. It can be useful in some cases, but if we’re talking specifically about conservative evangelicals, then it doesn’t fit. Sure, many evangelicals WANT to claim the right to speak for all Christians, but it doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of conservative Christianity.

Or, how about John Fea’s term “court evangelical?” Since 2016, it has been a great term to understand the kind of evangelical who has jumped on the Trump train. For these purposes, however, “court evangelical” is too specific to our current time and place.

We need a term that captures what we really want to talk about, without having to say “white American conservative evangelical” every time. And without having awkwardly to correct everyone who says “evangelical” when they really mean “white American conservative evangelical.”

It has to be pronounceable. And short enough to use regularly.

How about CAWE? Or WACE? CWAEP? (pronounced see-wape, with the “P” from Protestant) CAWEP? I don’t like any of those, but I prefer them to our current muddled practice. Any better ideas out there?