Put It Up!

I admit, at first I pooh-poohed the story as just another example of wacky boorish Trumpism. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m hoping the Smithsonian will relent.

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“Unashamed,” indeed.

Thanks to the ever-watchful John Fea, I’ve been following the story of artist Julian Raven and his Trump fan art. Raven has sued the Smithsonian to force the museum to display his portrait of Trump, “Unafraid & Unashamed.” So far, no dice. The gallery told Raven the painting was too big (it weighs 300 pounds), too political, and too terrible.

But the people love it. Attendees at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference lined up to have their pictures taken in front of the monstrous painting.

As Raven told the Daily Beast, the inspiration for this work came to him in a flash when he saw Trump speak back in 2015:

I just had the words go through my mind: ‘unafraid and unashamed’. . . . The image in my mind was this soaring flagpole, a U.S. flag pole falling to the ground. Right before it falls to the ground, an eagle swoops in and snatches it.

So far, the artist has had no luck in court. One judge informed him that the National Portrait Gallery does not have a Constitutional duty to display his painting. Yet Raven perseveres, complaining that the Smithsonian has trampled his First Amendment right to free speech, and now his Fifth Amendment right to due process. (He says his sales have been hurt by the negative publicity.)

What should the Smithsonian do? Put it up!

Here’s why: Nothing could capture the Trump era better than this gauche, over-sized, childish portrait, composed in a flurry on a sudden impulse and surprisingly beloved by conservatives. Even better, the artist is complaining—unburdened by any knowledge of the actual Constitution—that he has a First Amendment right to cram his painting into the Smithsonian. Furthermore, Raven insists that a left-wing conspiracy is the only thing keeping his portrait out of the National Gallery.

When future generations want to understand Trumpism, what could be better than this yuge painting, accompanied by a placard (or better yet, video interview) explaining the artist’s schlock-vs.-Goliath story?

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The Right Recipe for Science Missionaries

Thoughtful exposition? Or bacon ‘n’ eggs? Rick Potts is trying to spread the word about evolutionary science to America’s creationists. Is he taking the best approach?

As described in the Smithsonian Magazine, Potts hopes his traveling exhibition can reach those “rural, religious, remote” places that the Smithsonian “deemed ‘challenging’—places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject.”

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Too much for some…

To this observer, Potts seems to be on the right track. I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism that the problem is not knowledge but something else. No amount of yelling or state standards will puncture resistance to mainstream evolutionary science. Rick Potts seems to agree. As the Smithsonian article describes,

Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

Could it work? One disgusted local from Ephrata, Pennsylvania felt offended from the get-go. She was freaked out by a statue of a naked early-human mother and baby at the entrance to the library hosting the exhibit. As she put it,

Library abortions would probably be more offensive . . . but that would probably be it.

If even this most diplomatic attempt at spreading the word about evolution is too much for some creationists, then are all attempts to converse with creationists doomed to failure? Are some people and some communities so firmly set against mainstream science that even a friendly, caring outreach project like this is too much?

Writing for BioLogos, Brad Kramer points out the obvious problem and suggests a difficult solution. As he explains, no matter how big the smiles were, the science missionaries were still obviously missionaries. And nothing is easier to resist for religious people than sermons from another religion.

So is there no hope? The problem is bigger than science, bigger than religion. The root of the difficulty is TRUST. What can be done? As Kramer argues, the answer isn’t very attractive for those of us who want quick solutions. Kramer suggests bacon and eggs:

If all Rick Potts had done in Ephrata was spend a month eating breakfast with people at local diners, introducing himself as an evolutionary scientist, and explaining that he doesn’t hate Christians, an enormous amount of good would have been accomplished.

Human Origins at the Smithsonian

What should we do to teach evolution better?  ILYBYGTH contributor David Long addressed that topic a little while back at the Smithsonian Institution.

The panel discussion was part of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s Broader Social Impacts Committee.  Long, a science education specialist and anthropologist at George Mason University, discussed some of the implication of his work, including his must-read book Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography.

David spoke for about thirty minutes.  Then the assembled panel offered reflections.

Panelist Connie Bertka of the Smithsonian committee asked the smart question: “What can the scientific community do?”

Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association offered a striking example of the deep misunderstandings of creationism among outsiders.  Edwords made the point that a good education requires that students emerge different from when they go in.  Naturally.  But Edwords did not seem to recognize that the nature of this educational transformation is precisely the question at issue.  How should education transform young people?  Should education affirm or challenge existing religious or ideological commitments among the young?  Edwords seemed to assume that any good education would lead to a transformation in favor of evolution, in favor of challenging religious traditions.

Nancy Howell, who teaches about religion and science at a Methodist seminary, made the important point that denominational background can’t really be used to predict affinity for creationism or evolution.  That is, people of different sectarian backgrounds often embrace or reject creationism.  At times, people go against the teachings of their own denominations, without even knowing it.  Due to this splintering effect, assumptions about the numbers of creationists based on denominational affiliations must be viewed very skeptically.

At one point, an audience member suggested that creationism can be eliminated by the teaching of “critical thinking.”  Dr. Long replied diplomatically but correctly that we can’t assume too much about the meanings of teaching “critical thinking.”  After all, ardent creationists have long insisted that their programs are the only ones teaching critical thinking.  Young-earth Guru Ken Ham, for example, insists that creationists are the only ones resisting the intellectual bullying of evolution.  Only young-earth creationists,  Ham argues, don’t merely parrot the shibboleths of intellectually empty evolutionism.  Only young-earth creationists, Ham says, are doing any critical thinking when it comes to evolution.

So, in the end, what should we do to teach evolution better?

At the very least, we can take an hour or so to watch this presentation and discussion.