Hitting Radical Creationists Where It Hurts

Fighting about science doesn’t help. Radical creationists have an answer for their radically different views about DNA, population genetics, radiometric dating, etc. Where they don’t have an answer is elsewhere.Burge v ham tweet

As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, the thing that distinguishes radical creationists from the rest of us isn’t really science or religion. Instead, it is good old-fashioned culture-war anger. Radical creationists like Ken Ham (what do I mean by “radical creationist?” Check out my explanation here) share a lot of theology with non-radical creationists. Where they differ—or, to be more precise, where they differ most markedly—is in their political and cultural attitudes.

Trying to puncture the scientific vision of radical creationism is not a losing battle—it is pretty easy to do. But it IS a meaningless battle. Radical creationists are very well prepared to have their dissenting science mocked and even overturned. Nothing Bill Nye can say, in other words, can ruffle their creationist feathers.

But the culture-war claims of radical creationists are different. Like radicals’ scientific claims, they can be fairly easily debunked. Unlike radicals’ scientific claims, however, debunking creationists’ culture-war claims threatens to upend the entire project of radical creationism.

Exhibit A: Ryan Burge and the true numbers on Southern Baptists. A significant element of radical creationists’ culture-war appeal rests on an assumption that Christians are not Christian enough any more. Arch-radical Ken Ham often warns his followers that Christians have slipped away from the true faith. In fact, however, as Ryan Burge recently demonstrated, Ham’s claims of conservative declension are wildly overstated.

Exhibit B: Dan Williams and abortion history. Ken Ham often warns that opposition to abortion is a primary element of real Christianity. Historically, however, there have been plenty of conservative evangelicals who had disagreed. As Prof. Williams demonstrated in Defenders of the Unborn, the evangelical fervor against abortion rights is a fairly recent development.

Exhibit C: Karen Pence and “unchanging orthodoxy.” Sometimes, conservatives will claim that they are only defending ancient truths delivered once for all to the saints. But as I’ve argued in places like the Washington Post, many central ideas of radical creationism are not really ancient truths at all.

The common thread: Radical creationism is built on a foundation of shaky claims and assumptions about history and society. Leaders like Ken Ham build their following by warning that America is under constant threat from secularism and sex. Evolutionary theory is only the most obvious efflorescence of the Satanic temptations. If people want to debunk creationists, it is pretty easy to point out that their historical assumptions do not match reality. It has only recently been considered of vital Christian importance to oppose abortion rights, for example. And young-earth creationism—the way it is embraced these days—is a novel idea, not an ancient Christian truth.

To make their cases, radical creationists use far more than just their radical science. Ken Ham, for example, teamed up with a creationist pollster to tally up the dangers lurking to creationist youth. The need for a radical science like the one offered by Answers in Genesis only makes sense as a desperate last-ditch move. It only seems necessary or sensible if mainstream culture has gone to the dogs. To make that case, radical creationists like Ken Ham often rely on spotty statistics and shoddy history. For example, as Ham warned in his 2009 book Already Gone,

we are one generation away from the evaporation of church as we know it. . . . unless we come to better understand what is happening and implement a clear, biblical plan to circumvent it.

Desperate times, Ham warns, call for desperate measures.

But, as Ryan Burge points out, what if the times aren’t really so desperate for conservatives? What if America isn’t really going to hell in a handbasket? Those claims have nothing to do with the science of creationism, but they have everything to do with maintaining Christians’ willingness to accept radical ideas like young-earth creationism.

When historians and social scientists puncture those intellectual supports, it becomes harder and harder for young-earth creationism to convince Christians that radical options are required.

Why Would Conservatives Want to Turn This Into a Religious Thing?

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I’m truly perplexed. During the long long hours I spent yesterday watching Endgame, I couldn’t stop thinking about our recent discussion. David French and other intelligent conservatives want to insist that America’s culture wars are primarily “a religious dispute.” I disagree, but the real question is this: Why do conservatives want to say that they are? The answer seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something.

 

Here’s a little background: In his argument for free campus speech, French made the following assertion:

It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.

As strategy, I get it. If conservative ideas are a religious imperative, they will get more respect. If culture wars are religious disputes, then both sides should get equal status, at least from the perspective of the government. But as an intellectually coherent way to understand America’s culture wars, I don’t get it. Lots of people share religious ideas yet find themselves on opposite sides of culture-war issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.

One sharp reader offered a better defense than French did. As PH put it,

we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

The way I see it, though, people who share the same religion still disagree about key culture-war issues. For proof, we don’t need to look any further than the Veep’s office. Does Mike Pence represent conservative evangelical Protestantism? The community of Taylor University says both yes and no. And, as I argued recently in WaPo about Karen Pence’s lame defense of her anti-LGBTQ school, there is not a single, undisputed “orthodox” rule about proper social policy for LGBTQ people. Plenty of conservative evangelical Protestants are plenty “orthodox,” yet they disagree with the Pences on these issues.

So to me, it seems achingly obvious why some conservatives might want to redefine political disagreements as religious ones: For at least half a century now, politically conservative people have tried to insist that only their politically conservative version of religion is the true version of religion. They have argued that people who disagree with them cannot possibly be true Christians or Muslims or whatever.

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

If real, “orthodox” Christianity insists on racial segregation, for example, as Bob Jones Sr. famously argued in 1960, then the US government has no right to demur. If real, “orthodox” Christianity requires belief in a literal six-day flood and a recent creation of humanity, for example, as Ken Ham famously argues today, then evangelicals have no business questioning it.

Just like questions of LGBTQ rights, however, neither of those ideas are really as simple as conservatives like to think. Debates about them divide people who share the same religious backgrounds. The cultural battles over racism, creationism, and sexuality are not battles between people who have different religions. They are fiercest between people who SHARE religious ideas but have different ideas about public policy.

So are America’s culture wars “a religious dispute?” Only if we use a tortuous definition of the phrase. To say that conservative positions on sexuality, race, or gender are just being “orthodox” only makes sense as a political strategy. As an actual description of the divides we face on such issues, it doesn’t help at all.

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.

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.