What Are Radical Creationists Afraid Of?

What are radical young-earth creationists afraid of? One pastor’s tale about coming out to his flock as a creationist who accepts evolution gives us a few clues. As always, it’s not actually evolutionary theory people loathe, but something else.

The Rev. Matt Herndon shared his experience recently at BioLogos. Like a lot of creationists who accept mainstream evolutionary science, Herndon began his adult life as a radical young-earth creationist. As he put it,

I had grown up a young-earth creationist, even defending the position in college and my early days as a church planter. Slowly, though, I grew dissatisfied with the scientific credibility of young-earth explanations. Also, it gradually became less and less obvious to me that Genesis was intended to be read as a scientific description of events in natural history. And the scientific evidence for evolution and an old earth grew steadily more compelling.

None of this really challenged my faith, which is not rooted in a certain interpretation of Genesis, but (among other things) in the historical resurrection of Jesus and my personal encounter with divine grace. In fact, opening myself up to the scientific consensus gave me a new pair of glasses through which to see the beauty and truth of Christian doctrine.

Before he came out as an “evolutionary creationist,” his church had been split, he explained, between young-earth creationists, evolutionary creationists like himself, and undecided creationists. He thought that meant he could safely reveal—as a staunch Christian and creationist—his new acceptance of evolutionary theory.

AIG foundations

For radicals, evolutionary theory itself isn’t the problem. It’s what they think evolution supports that troubles them…

He was wrong.

When he recommended a book supporting evolutionary creationism on Facebook, his church splintered. There was gossip, anger, hard feelings, and eventually a sizeable faction of young-earthers left the church. Why?

In Rev. Herndon’s opinion, the young-earthers left because they were afraid of what their church would become. They were afraid of what would happen to any church without a firm young-earth pastor. As Herndon explained,

To them, evolution isn’t one issue among many that Christians should deal with. It is THE issue that Christians must NOT “compromise” on. For a pastor to “compromise” on a literal reading of Genesis is, in their minds, not a disagreement. It’s a heresy.

In the end, it was not the science or theology that the young-earth radicals were afraid of. After all, they had long been members of a church that was divided between different types of creationism. But when the pastor came down on the moderate side, the radicals left. They didn’t stay to debate the science of radical creationism or mainstream evolutionary theory. They didn’t try to help Herndon see the theological problems inherent in his new ideas about evolution.

To radical young-earth creationism, mainstream evolutionary theory is mainly a problem for what it implies, not what it says. For generations now, radicals have told one another that mainstream evolutionary theory is a gateway drug, a slippery stepping stone to a devil’s brew of pernicious ideas and trends.

Back in the 1970s, for example, in the Kanawha County (WV) school controversy I’ve written about in my book about educational conservatism, one of the creationist protest leaders explained what he disliked about a new set of textbooks. The Rev. Avis Hill explained to an interviewer that there was not just one thing wrong with the books.

Yes, the books were bad, Hill explained. They were full of “that garbage, that trash, that four-letter words.” They encouraged students to “act out a street riot.” They encouraged the sorts of delinquency Hill deplored,

students drinking and . . . smoking their dope. . . . leaning against the wall with their feet on the wall dirtying and defacing the school with initials and names all over it.

Some of the people who liked the new books, Hill admitted, were Christians, but they were the sorts of Christians who were friendly to “gays and homosexuals . . . and being proabortion.”

When pressed, the Rev. Hill had a quick shorthand that he thought captured all these dire cultural trends. In the end, Hill explained, the problem with the new textbooks was that they were contaminated by “attitudes of evolution and all that.”

Avis Hill was far from the only radical creationist to bundle together a host of cultural issues under the vague but all-encompassing label of “evolution and all that.” National young-earth leaders such as Henry Morris and Ken Ham do the same.

In a recent edition of his book The Long War Against God, for instance, Henry Morris argued that evolutionary thinking was bad science, but more important, it had

Practically eliminated the semblance of Bible-based behavior from American life.

Evolutionary thinking, Morris insisted, could be blamed for increased rates of

premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and homosexuality. . . .Unrestrained pornography. . . . Prostitution, both male and female, is at an all-time high, as is its attendant criminal activity. . . . [and] this rapid change in abortionism from criminality to respectability. . . . [plus] the modern drug crisis (rock music, peer pressure, organized crime, etc.)

Morris is not the only radical creationist leader to make these connections. As Ken Ham is fond of arguing, evolutionary theory is the foundation on which all other social ills are built. Unless creationists take a radical, fundamentalist stance against moderate forms of creationism, Ham insists, their churches will be lost.

Taking a firm line against Rev. Herndon’s evolutionary creationism, then, was likely about cultural issues rather than about actual evolutionary science. The radicals who left were likely asking themselves the questions they had been asked since the 1960s: Do you oppose homosexuality? Do you oppose abortion? Are you against crime? Drugs? Rock music? If the answer is yes, radicals have heard for decades, you can’t remain in a church under moderate creationist leadership.

Of course, none of those questions is really about evolutionary science itself, but together they give radicals a clear line of defense. Remaining in a church under moderate creationist leadership, radicals often believe, means supporting abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and even organized crime. The only option is to get out before the inevitable moral decline.

What are radicals afraid of? Not evolutionary science itself. They are afraid of slipping into a temptingly reasonable cultural position. They are afraid of being too soft on abortion rights, homosexuality, rock music, and drug use. The radicals who left Herndon’s church did not mind praying with non-radical creationists. But when their pastor came down against radical creationism, they felt they had to get out fast. Accepting mainstream evolutionary science, for many radicals, is not really about evolution, but about opening the door to a slew of cultural trends they find abhorrent.

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