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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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

School reform and the kingdom of God…it’s been a lively week here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few of the stories that might have slipped by us:

Don’t forget the public schools—Erika Christakis looks at the weird history of school-hating in The Atlantic.

Will it work? A student is suing Michigan State for refusing to let white-nationalist pundit Richard Spencer speak on campus, from The Hill.

Trump and his court evangelicals. Is he really the most faith-friendly president we’ve had?Bart reading bible

Teachers think it’s true, but it isn’t. Dan Willingham explores the durable mythology of learning styles.

American Apocalypse and 1920s creationism: Glenn Branch finds some goofs in Matthew Sutton’s history of American evangelicalism.

How resegregation works. A look at Jefferson County, Alabama, from the New York Times.

Why don’t state governments want teachers to get more money for books and supplies? Peter Greene offers an answer.

Why do people hate evolutionary theory? A new survey suggests it’s not necessarily because they hate evolutionary theory.

Think Confederate monuments should come down? I do. Turns out I’m an odd duck. You might be as surprised by the poll numbers as I was.

Time for another name change? Thomas Kidd asks if “evangelical” is still a meaningful label.

A defense of the offended: Penn’s Jonathan Klick explains why he signed the anti-Wax letter. He’s says it wasn’t about political correctness, but to a different sort of correctness.

Theocracy or social uplift? Ed Stetzer makes his case for dogma in the public square at Christianity Today.

Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.