Are We in Danger from the Bigots and Ignoramuses?

Are you afraid of creationists? If you’re a secular, progressive person like me, you might be. You might fret that our school boards and textbook publishers are being bullied by radical creationists who want to inject theocratic rules into our classrooms. If that’s you, I’ve got two bits of good news for you. First, you’re not alone. And second, you’ve got nothing (much) to worry about.

Don’t get me wrong: It makes sense for us to be nervous. These days, the top levels of political power are in the hands of creationists or their puppets. The Ed Secretary, the Vice President, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development…all are devoted radical creationists. So why not worry?

Darrow and Bryan at Scopes

“Are you now or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

After all, plenty of smart people have warned us about the looming creationist threat. Back in the first years of our current creation/evolution controversy, for example, Maynard Shipley warned that creationist “armies of ignorance” were forming, “literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.” As Shipley put it in 1927,

The Fundamentalists are well organized; they are in deadly earnest, believing as they do that their particular brand of religion cannot survive and flourish together with the teachings of religious liberalism and modern science.  For the first time in our history, organized knowledge has come into open conflict with organized ignorance.

Shipley wasn’t alone back then. Perhaps most famously, attorney Clarence Darrow literally made the case against creationism at the Scopes Trial. When creationist celebrity William Jennings Bryan said that Darrow wanted to poke fun at the Bible, Darrow disagreed. His goal, Darrow said, was

preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.

These days, science activists share Darrow’s and Shipley’s worry. The National Center for Science Education, for example, named its blog in honor of Maynard Shipley’s 1920s-era Science League of America. As the NCSE’s Josh Rosenau explained, Shipley’s fight against creationist “armies of ignorance” was “eerily similar” to the NCSE’s twenty-first century mission.

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with Rosenau and his 1920s forebears. We all need to be vigilant to maintain the true inclusivity of our public schools. No single religious (or anti-religious) group can be allowed to dictate class content. Given free rein, creationist activists would love to do just that—to purge mainstream evolutionary science from the classroom. For that matter, many creationist activists would likely want to doctor the reading lists in English class too and take history classes in theocratic directions. Just ask David Barton.

But as I finish up my book about American creationism, I’m more convinced than ever that we don’t need to freak out. Why not? Because radical creationists these days aren’t even allowing themselves to dream about organizing in their millions for a combined political assault on modern science. Rather, radical creationists are preoccupied with far more limited sorts of activism. These days, radical creationists aren’t storming scientific citadels. Instead, they are building Berlin Walls to keep their fellow creationists inside their threatened and shrinking areas of influence.

How do I know?

This week, I’m reading Ken Ham’s 2009 book Already Gone. Ham is the organizational wizard behind America’s leading radical creationist outfit, Answers In Genesis. In Already Gone, Ham reports the findings of an AIG survey by sympathetic market researcher Britt Beemer. Beemer surveyed roughly 1,000 twentysomethings who had been brought up in radical young-earth creationist homes and churches.


A leak in the ark.

What did Beemer find? Most creationist twentysomethings had stopped going to church. Many of them had ditched their young-earth beliefs. Even more alarming to Beemer, the percentages of young people who had moved from young-earth creationism to an acceptance of evolutionary theory was higher among people who had regularly attended creationist Sunday-school classes. That’s right—going to a young-earth Sunday school every week when they were kids tended to make creationists abandon radical young-earth creationism in their twenties.

In light of those scary (to them) findings, Ham and Beemer made some suggestions. Long term, yes, Ham wants to foment a true “revolution” in American society. He really does want to “change the culture.” In other words, Ham would love to organize his creationist armies in their millions for a combined assault on modern science. But “strategically,” Ham argues, radical young-earth creationists need to recognize that their armies are melting away. The goal of young-earth creationists, Ham insists, must be—for now—to turn inward, to focus on teaching their children how to remain radical in the face of overwhelming social pressure to renounce young-earth beliefs. (Quotes from page 165, sixth printing, 2009.)

So, if you’re a secular person, should you be nervous about the political influence of theocratically minded creationists? In one sense, you should. Activists like Ken Ham don’t pretend they don’t want to move America back toward an imagined golden age of fundamentalist dominance. But in a day-to-day sense, you don’t need to worry. Radical creationists these days are on the defensive. They might fuss and fume about changing laws and SCOTUS decisions, but in fact they are preoccupied with patching holes in their own sinking ship.


I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

You might have been out fishin’, but the interwebs kept foaming over. Here are some stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed:

From the University of Colorado, Boulder’s latest token conservative scholar reflects on his experience.

Trump, Bannon, Conway: Historian Andrew Wehrman says they would be right at home with America’s Founding Fathers.

Cut it out: Tom Englehardt argues in The Nation that progressives should stop insulting Trump.

Atheists strike back, ninety-two years later. Freedom from Religion Foundation sponsors a statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee.

We know Republicans don’t like colleges these days.

Who gets to define “hate?” American Conservative Rod Dreher tees off on the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bart reading bibleIf Americans really do oppose school segregation—as they tell pollsters they do—then why are schools getting more and more segregated? In The Nation, Perpetual Baffour makes the case that class prejudice has supplanted racial prejudice.

Harvard considers banning fraternities and sororities. It hopes to diminish exclusionary, inegalitarian arrangements.

  • At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf asks, “is there any American institution that trades on unapologetic exclusion and perpetuates inegalitarian arrangements that benefit an in-group more than Harvard?”

Why does the Trinity Lutheran decision matter? Not because of playgrounds, but because of vouchers.

Don’t do it: Medievalist argues against luring college students into medieval studies with Game of Thrones references.

Queen Betsy’s civil-rights deputy apologizes for saying that 90% of campus rape accusations were due to regret over drunken hook-ups.

The segregationist history of school vouchers.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the ignored dilemmas of rural schools.

Why bother killing the Department of Education? It has already been dying on its own for the past thirty years.

Affluenza and the Crisis of “Modern” Youth

How old was your grandmother in 1924?  If she was in her teens or early twenties, did she kill someone and get away with it?  Probably not.  But if you were reading headlines back then, you might reasonably conclude that young people in that decade had lost their moral bearings.  You might think that young people ran around doing crimes just for fun.  And if you’ve been reading headlines recently, you might think the same were true now.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard some outraged comments about a recent case from Texas.  In this “affluenza” case, sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch killed four people after drinking, drugging, and getting behind the wheel of his car.  Most shockingly, his defense lawyer argued that the teen should not serve jail time since he suffered from too much indulgence from his rich but negligent parents.  His affluent parents never taught him that there could be consequences for bad behavior.  Instead of a twenty-year sentence, the judge gave Couch ten years of probation.  He will spend some time drying out in a $450,000-per-year rehab facility in order to learn some morals, his lawyer promised.

The case stirs all sorts of passions.  Can a rich kid get away with murder?  Are youth today spinning out of control?  Have we raised a generation of moral monsters, looped on prescription drugs and void of any restraining conscience?

But the history nerds out there can’t help but notice the parallels to a similar case from the 1920s.  In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, aged 20 and 19 respectively, kidnapped and murdered fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks.   Why?  To see if they could get away with it.

Obviously, theirs was a very different case from Couch’s.  They did not accidentally kill anyone.  They planned it ruthlessly.  But the outrage at the judges’ decisions sounds the same.  In the case of Leopold and Loeb, superstar attorney Clarence Darrow managed to get life sentences for Leopold and Loeb, not executions.  The defense?  In a nutshell, Darrow claimed that these young men could not be held morally accountable for their crime, since they had never been taught proper morality.  Their affluent background had taught them that morality was fungible, that life was negotiable.

Just as in today’s reaction to the affluenza verdict, Americans in the 1920s were shocked and outraged by this defense.  The prosecutor denounced Darrow’s argument as “anarchistic.”  As one letter to the editor published in the New York Times declared, this verdict

demonstrates that nobody in this world is responsible for any of his actions.  Since I am the helpless victim of a mechanistic universe. . . . the blame falls not on me but on my ancestors and society.

The point here is not that these judges’ decisions are correct.  Nor that Couch, Leopold, and Loeb aren’t moral monsters.  Rather, the point is that every generation since at least the 1920s has seen dire warnings in high-profile cases of moral monstrosity among young people.  Every generation has lamented the possible meanings for this brand of modern youth.  Every generation has proclaimed the end of moral America.  Yet every generation—ours included—must remind itself that almost no one does these things.  Almost no one kills people while hopped up on fancy prescription drugs.  Almost no one kills a kid just to see if they can get away with it.

Most people are much more like my late Iowa grandmother, who would have been sixteen in 1924.  She did not do any of the things “modern” youth did, if we define that by the example of monsters like Leopold and Loeb.  Rather, though she’s no longer around to ask, it’s safe to guess she was outraged by them, just as she would be outraged by the recent affluenza case.

If the suburbs are eating our children, they are digesting them extremely slowly.  There may be plenty of crises for young people today: a sour economy, structural racism, cheap drugs, etc.  But here’s the important point to remember: these crises are not unique to today.  For almost a century, “modern” conditions have been blamed for a sickening youth culture.  It is not “modernity” that is to blame, whether that was the modernity of 1924 or of 2013.  Rather, every generation has seen morally monstrous young people benefit from outrageous legal defenses from overpaid celebrity defense attorneys.