From Puritans to Ken Ham: The long history of creationism in America

Modern-day creationist rhetoric has its roots in the Puritan desire to make America into a "City of God"

Published February 22, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

Ken Ham
Ken Ham

In the annals of great American nuttiness, the recent live-streamed creation vs. evolution debate between former kids' television host and all-around mega-egghead Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham will forever hold a distinguished place. Held on February 4 at the Petersburg, Ky., Creation Museum, which serves as the flagship enterprise for Ham's Christian fundamentalist Answers in Genesis ministry, the science vs. religion smackdown showcased two competing theories about the origin and nature of life that have come to shape much of the sociopolitical discourse in modern America.

It's unlikely that the debate ultimately changed any minds, but it did demonstrate a long-running historical theme that has made the U.S. fertile ground for the belief that God created humankind with a providential purpose. Since the days when the Puritans first arrived on its shores, Americans have believed that their nation was specially ordained by God to create a perfected society on earth untainted by the sins of the Old World. The origins of the simultaneously maligned and revered notion of "American Exceptionalism" can be found in the earliest Puritan attempts to forge a Godly society out of America's supposedly uncivilized landscape, and this early attempt at creating heaven on earth made the U.S. susceptible to creationism.

Although Ken Ham is a native Aussie, he comes from a country spawned, like the United States, from the once-powerful British Empire. Australia and the U.S. share many cultural similarities, including a penchant for fundamentalist Christianity, and Ham's twenty-plus years in America preaching the gospel of Young Earth creationism have made him every bit the pugnacious adopted Yankee. Ham's beliefs are, to put it scientifically, flat-out bonkers. He contends that God created humans exactly as depicted in the Book of Genesis; that the earth is only 6,000 years old; that humans once coexisted with dinosaurs and, most significantly, that the Bible is the literal, inerrant word of God. Yep, Ham is the most extreme type of biblical literalist, and has no compunctions about using the Bible as the complete guide to history, geography, paleontology and theology all in one neat package.

Ken Ham's beliefs don't even represent the majority of American Christians, whether they be Evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant or otherwise. Heck, Ham is even too out-there for televangelist Pat Robertson, who declared on his "700 Club" broadcast that "to say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense and I think it’s time we come off of that stuff and say this isn’t possible." But if Bill Nye the Science Guy seemed at times to be utterly flummoxed over the awe-inspiring logical fallacies that characterize Ham's beliefs, it's worth noting that this debate was less about evolution and more about competing ideas about the nature of human existence.

Over at the Unemployed Philosopher's Blog, philosopher Daniel Mullin writes that, "the contest between creationists and evolutionists is not really a debate about data. It’s a contest between philosophical worldviews, naturalism and supernaturalism respectively." Mullin notes that Ham's views make a weird sort of sense when you realize that creationists are primarily concerned with consistency. If God is consistently in control of the world, then God can do anything, including making it physically possible for every animal on earth, dinosaurs included, to fit onto a pious geriatric's oversize boat so as to survive a world flood. As Sean McElwee notes, Nye debated to defend evolution, but Ham was there to argue that evolution leads to moral degeneration, which he claims has driven the U.S. down a hellish path of same-sex marriage, abortion and other alleged spiritual abominations. Thus, while Nye aimed for the head, spouting the irrefutable evidence for natural selection, Ham aimed for the soul, arguing that accepting evolution means turning away from God. By turning away from God, he claims, the U.S. has renounced its once glorious status as the greatest nation on earth.

Ham and other like-minded creationists employ the historical tradition of the jeremiad -- a type of political sermon or manifesto that laments the state of society and warns of imminent doom unless society changes its ways -- in an attempt to expunge evolution from public discourse and return America to what they see as a Christian-centered society. The jeremiad has deep roots stretching back to America's Puritan beginnings, and those Puritan origins shaped the cultural environment that fosters Young Earth creationism today. Back in 1978, the great Canadian-American scholar Sacvan Bercovitch described the influence of the Puritan jeremiad on American culture in his now-classic book "The American Jeremiad."

Focusing on jeremiads from Puritan leaders like John Winthrop, whose 1630 sermon "Model of Christian Charity" influenced generations of American thinkers, Bercovitch argues that Puritan jeremiads "entailed a fusion of secular and sacred history," the purpose of which was "to direct an imperiled people of God toward the fulfillment of their destiny, to guide them individually towards salvation, and directly toward the American city of God." In this vein, Winthrop exhorted his followers to be as a "City upon a Hill" and work to construct the ultimate theocratic American society that would "shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants." Of course, were the Puritans to fail in this charge, they would reap God's wrath. Thus, Bercovitch explains that the call to make America into a "City of God" was a kind of "ideological consensus" about how American society should be organized "in moral, religious, economic, social, and intellectual matters" in a way that remains "unmatched in any other modern culture."

Modern creationists like Ken Ham are continuing Winthrop's work as they strive to recreate the fabled American society as a "city of God." Ham and his ilk, like the Puritans before them, make no distinction between the secular and the sacred; for them it's "One Nation under God" or else, and evolution has no place in their fundamentalist wonderland. American creationists and proponents of so-called "Intelligent Design -- a bogus pseudo-scientific theory that's really just creationism with better marketing -- want to recreate a pious Christian past that only ever existed in the minds of would-be theocrats. In this respect, they espouse what scholars of religion Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen call the "restoration ideal," a Puritan idea that envisioned an America "cut loose from the constraints of history and time" and standing "on the threshold of a radically new age." In this "new age," American society would ideally be restored by out-Christianizing the degraded society of Old Europe, from which the Puritans fled.

Yet even though Ken Ham can claim a long historical tradition of jeremiads in his attempts to restore America to a fundamentalist new age, his brand of Triceratops-saddled creationism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. As historian Ronald Numbers writes in his book "Darwinism Comes to America," 19th century America saw relatively little organized resistance to evolution beyond the occasional griping of conservative pastors. In fact, a good many liberal-minded Protestant and Catholic religious leaders became convinced of the validity of biological evolution and adapted their readings of scripture to accommodate a middle ground, in which God became the agent of evolutionary change.

Religious-minded opponents of evolution still existed, of course, and by the early 20th century they made headlines via the infamous 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial." But by the 1940s, scientists began to reach consensus over the central role of natural selection in the evolutionary process. Numbers writes that the centrality of natural selection "squeezed any talk of supernatural design out of biological discourse." Natural selection seemed to remove any and all hints of divine purpose from evolution, "thus making belief in Darwinism the functional equivalent of atheism." This is why Young Earth creationists like Ken Ham can thrive in American society in 2014: they are reactionaries who believe that evolution didn't make God its prime mover; rather, they believe that evolution killed God.

Ham's brand of mind-twisting fundamentalism, therefore, is a long-term, Puritan-style jeremiad that rails incessantly against evolution and promotes a theocratic society as the antidote to America's current ills. And lest you think that Ham is merely a lone wolf in advocating for Puritan-flavored American Exceptionalism, remember that he's in powerful, if less extreme, company. Ronald Reagan famously paraphrased John Winthrop to describe America as a "shining city upon a hill" in his 1989 presidential farewell address, and Barack Obama repeatedly invokes American Exceptionalism in both foreign and domestic speeches.

For those looking to create -- or restore -- a mythical Christian America, creationism has a natural appeal via its notion of a human world directly created by God and charged with the task of recreating his kingdom on earth. In their book "Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story," scholars Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa remind us of the human need for creation stories. "Cultures are defined, in part, by their common creation myths," they write, and these stories "answer important questions about how things came to be and how meaning is to be found within the existing order." For deluded Young Earth creationists, the prospect of an America without a clear-cut biblical version of creation that provides answers to life's hard questions is too much to bear.

Creationists are willing to fight for that elusive America-as-city-of-God, even if doing so means looking ridiculous in the process. Bill Nye may have "won" the most recent creation vs. evolution debate on factual grounds, but for people like Ken Ham, facts are inconvenient obstacles to what they see as greater, if utterly absurd, higher truths. So don't expect Ham and his Creation Museum to go away any time soon. History shows that their kind will continue to thrive on the margins of a society that welcomes those with big, if crazy, visions for America and the world. John Winthrop would no doubt be proud.

By Jarret Ruminski

Jarret Ruminski is a writer and historian who blogs at That Devil History, where he discusses the intersection of U.S. history, politics, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @TheDevilHistory.

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