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.

Dragging Creationism into the Twenty-First Century

At first, it might seem confusing. Why is radical-creationist pundit Ken Ham so upset about men in heels? It might seem like “Sparkle Leigh” has nothing to do with evolution or creationism or any of that. If we want to understand young-earth creationism, however, we need to understand that these sorts of culture-war standoffs are absolutely central to radical creationism itself.Ken Ham drag school

Here’s the latest: Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis has been warning about the looming threat of men in drag reading books to schoolkids. As Ham warned last year,

If you think our Western culture can’t get any more perverse than it already is, think again! In a new trend, public libraries in America are hosting “Drag Queen Story Hours,” where drag queens (generally, men who wear feminine clothing or makeup to entertain people) come and read books, sing songs, and do crafts with children in the library.

What does that have to do with the idea of a young earth, a literal world-wide flood, and the rejection of modern evolutionary science? Well, nothing, from one perspective. Accepting the power of evolutionary theory does not somehow force people to endorse drag culture. Accepting a non-literal reading of the Book of Genesis doesn’t either.

On the other hand, if we hope to understand radical creationism, we have to understand the fact that things like drag culture, changing gender norms, and even pedophilia are absolutely central. Radical young-earth creationism has always been about building walls to fend off looming cultural changes, not building labs to produce new scientific ideas.

As I’m arguing in my new book (exciting news on that front coming soon), radical creationism is not really a protest against the science of evolutionary theory as such. Rather, radical creationism is all about holding the line against changing cultural norms. Back in the 1950s, when conservative-evangelical Bernard Ramm promised his evangelical friends that science should not scare them, fundamentalists disagreed.

The radical-creationist movement was born out of a deep-seated feeling that traditional American culture was threatened. Evolutionary theory became the canary in the devil’s coalmine, but the real threats came from elsewhere. Changing sexual norms, changing gender relations, and changing attitudes about everything from proper dress to proper politics fueled the movement.

evil tree new

Why attack evolutionary theory? Let me count the ways…

At its heart, however, radical creationism has never actually been about evolution itself. Rather, as cartoons and pamphlets have shouted for decades now, evolution is only the convenient place to draw the line, the convenient place to defend against everything from feminism to abortion to communism.

So why is Ken Ham so upset about men with sparkles and heels? It’s not really about evolutionary theory, but it is absolutely central to radical creationism.