Strange Bedfellows: Creationists and the “Cults”

Here’s a stumper: Why do proudly orthodox Protestant young-earth creationists embrace non-orthodox writers?

If anyone were to be touchy about the theological bona fides of their friends, it would seem to be the YECs, the defiantly literalist readers of Genesis.

But for generations, creationists have enthusiastically promoted the work of anti-evolution writers from outside the world of conservative Protestantism.

These days, the best example is the work of Jonathan Wells.  Wells’ 2000 Icons of Evolution received an enthusiastic reception even among the fiercest and most combative young-earth creationists.

Wells has credentials to back up his frontal assault on the scientific establishment.  In addition to his PhD in theology from Yale, Wells earned a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from Berkeley.  He currently holds a fellowship at the intelligent-design mothership Discovery Institute.

It’s not surprising that the big-tent anti-evolutionists of the Discovery Institute would welcome Wells.  But it may come as a shock to see him embraced by the fiercer separatists at the young-earth Answers in Genesis.  Yet, in its review of Wells’ Icons, AiG only describes Wells as follows:

“Wells is a man with indisputable intellectual gifts who does not bow to intimidation. Having been opposed to serving with the American armed forces in Vietnam, he chose jail rather than compromise his convictions. He then went on to earn a Doctorate in Theology (Yale) and a second Doctorate in Molecular and Cell biology (Berkeley).”

Fair enough.  But conspicuously unmentioned is Wells’ leadership role in Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, the once-booming religion often called “the Moonies” by outsiders.

Wells himself makes no secret of his Unification belief.

At best, most conservative evangelical Protestants would likely agree that the Unification Church lies somewhere outside the borders of true Christianity.  One evangelical theologian defined the Unification Church as “a pseudo-Christian cult.”  Less prominent evangelical bloggers have called the Unification Church “the anti-Christ,” and a dangerous, greedy, opportunistic organization peddling “wacky theology.”

Most intriguing, this orthodox embrace of the non-orthodox is nothing new.

As I argued in my 1920s book, the first generation of Protestant fundamentalists eagerly snapped up the anti-evolution writings of authors from far outside the pale of acceptable theology.  Most prominently, early American fundamentalists read the work of Catholic authors such as Alfred McCann.  McCann’s God or Gorilla earned him an invitation from William Jennings Bryan to come to the 1925 Scopes Trial as an anti-evolution expert.

Though Bryan himself had a tetchy relationship with fundamentalism, Bryan saw no reason not to publicly embrace the Catholic McCann.  McCann, however, did not want to play along.  He told Bryan privately in June, 1925 that a big public trial would not solve the problem.  Likely, McCann did not feel comfortable on the side of the prosecution.  In that era, Protestant fundamentalists regularly denounced the Pope as the anti-Christ, and Catholicism as a deadly soul-crushing abomination.

For those like me outside the intellectual world of conservative religion, it might make perfect sense for anti-evolutionists to ally with anyone who fights evolutionary theory.  After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But when we get inside theological logic, such pragmatism is often denounced as moral compromise and sinful truckling.  Consider, for instance, Answers in Genesis’ recent denunciation of conservative Protestant leader Pat Robertson.  Over the course of his career, Robertson has proven himself to be a staunchly conservative, thoroughly dedicated evangelical Protestant.  Yet when he repudiated the notion of a young earth, the young-earth creationists pounced on him.  In the words of AiG pundit Tommy Mitchell, “It is compromisers like Robertson who actually lead our children astray.”  If creationists accept an ancient earth due to the mainstream scientific evidence, Mitchell asked,

“Why not adopt the views of the secular world about abortion, about marriage, about homosexual behavior, about premarital sex, about child-rearing, and about morality? After all, if the secular world is wise enough to tell us how to interpret our Bibles, it must be wise enough to guide us in other areas, too.”

To my mind, this is the puzzle: Among some young-earth creationists, a thoroughly heterodox Jonathan Wells can be lauded as an exemplar of correct thought.  But a deeply conservative Protestant leader like Robertson can be denounced as leading children into abortion and homosexuality by insisting that Biblical belief does not mandate belief in a young earth.

How are we outsiders to make sense of this?

The first obvious answer is not satisfying.  We might say that young-earth creationists care only about protecting their “brand,” the notion of a young earth.  Any evidence from any source that confirms this will be lauded; any argument from any source that denies it will be attacked.  To believe this, however, we would have to deny that young-earth creationists have a theological reason for insisting on a young earth.  We’d have to think that YECs don’t really care about the wider theological implications of an ancient earth.  That doesn’t fit the evidence.  Leading YECs often argue that only a young-earth allows for true orthodox belief.  Only a literal reading of Genesis, they insist, solves the problem of death before the introduction of sin into the world.  Only a literal reading of Genesis solves the problem of Jesus’ vouching for the veracity of the Genesis account.  The arguments for a young earth consistently point toward the promotion of orthodox Christian belief.  If we think that YECs don’t care about such broader issues of Biblical orthodoxy, we don’t really understand YEC belief.

The second obvious answer also does not work.  Some outsiders might glibly conclude that YECs don’t know about the non-orthodox nature of Jonathan Wells’ Unification Church.  Maybe some don’t, but leading YEC intellectuals are trained to sniff out heresy.  The notion that someone with a proud public history of leading the Unification Church might sneak past YEC heterodoxy detectors doesn’t make sense.

So what is it?  I don’t believe for a minute that many Protestant YECs accept the theological legitimacy of the Unification Church.  Nor do I find the notion of a conspiratorial political pragmatism among YEC leaders plausible.

So why is it okay to follow the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, but not the Reverend Pat Robertson?