On the red-carpeted dais of a church the size of a department store, a man with a Lincolnesque beard is addressing a sanctuary full of evangelical Christians. It’s 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, and 500 people have gathered at Rocky Mount’s Englewood Baptist Church. Some belong to this congregation; others have traveled from Raleigh, Roanoke Rapids and even Virginia. They’re wearing jeans and casual shirts, very few neckties and one golden sari. Many are clutching well-worn Bibles. They’re listening as Ken Ham explains what he considers the root of racism: modern science.
“Darwinian evolution is inherently a racist philosophy,” says Ham, cofounder of Answers in Genesis, an international creationist organization that has brought its act to North Carolina for a three-day conference. “Thousands of aboriginal graves were desecrated in the name of evolution. Darwinian evolution was used to justify slavery.” Not only that, he claims: The Nazis used evolution to defend the extermination of Jews and gypsies for the sake of a purified Aryan race. And Ota Benga, a Pygmy from the Belgian Congo, suffered a short and humiliating life after Samuel Phillips Verner, an explorer and Christian missionary, brought him to the United States in 1904. “Because the explorer believed in evolution, he and the director of the Bronx Zoo put Ota Benga in a cage with an orangutan,” says Ham. (Indeed, the 4-foot-11 African man was promoted in the zoo exhibit as a missing link.) “He committed suicide. It’s very sad. All of that was done in the name of evolution.”
The men, women and teenagers in the audience listen attentively. They know that 54-year-old Ham, with his lilting Australian accent, is one of the world’s best known “creation evangelists.” The author of One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism, Ham travels around the United States, often with astronomer Jason Lisle and artist-musician Buddy Davis, speaking at churches and convention centers from Merrimack, N.H., to Modesto, Calif. Part of his strategy involves painting Biblical creationism as the path to racial unity.
“We all have the same color,” Ham tells the Rocky Mount audience. “There’s one main pigment. It’s a brown pigment. There are no white people. There are no black people.” He explains that Adam and Eve were themselves “medium brown,” giving them the potential to produce both light and dark offspring. “According to the Bible, we are all descendants of one woman and one man,” he says, his voice occasionally taking on a machine-gun cadence. “Yet there are [now] distinct groups: American Indians and Hawaiians and Eskimos. Can you think of anything in history that separates out the gene pool?” Before anyone can respond, Ham provides the answer: “The Tower of Babel.” Once God punished humanity for trying to build a tower to heaven, giving them different languages and scattering them throughout the globe, natural selection kicked in, he explains: Lighter skinned people survived better in cold climates, while darker ones adapted better to the tropics. “It’s all easy to understand,” he says.
This is not your grandfather’s creationism. Many evangelicals in North Carolina grew up learning there were separate races created after Noah’s son, Ham, was punished for “uncovering the nakedness” of his drunken father. According to this older theology, Ham was banished to Africa and his descendants cursed with darker skin. Though the “Curse of Ham” story has generally fallen out of favor, it has nonetheless been used in the United States to justify racial segregation and even slavery. This gets Ken Ham mad. “Here is the greatest Christian nation on the earth, and I can’t believe the racism in the church,” he says. “The curse had nothing to do with skin color. Let’s get rid of this nonsense right now.”
Ham pushes his audience (culturally conservative and about 90 percent white) one step further. “If you disagree with what I’m going to say, please do not give me your opinion, because I’m not interested,” he begins. “I want to know what the Bible says.” He implores his fellow Christians to let go of their objections to interracial marriage–because, according to the Scriptures, “there’s no such thing as biological interracial marriage.” As long as both parties are Christian and agree that “the husband is to be the spiritual head of the home,” it doesn’t matter how much pigmentation each one has. There’s a quiet sprinkling of applause and amens before Ham continues: “The next time someone comes into your church and they have a different skin shade from you, look past the external minor differences and see the person. ‘How can I help you? Do you need my love?’”
For many secular Americans, the current battle over the teaching of evolution in the public schools can be utterly mystifying. Compared to abortion, gay marriage, poverty or war, this issue seems, on the surface, so theoretical. Yet for some evangelicals, God’s creation of the universe is the very foundation on which every other moral stand is built. “The fundamental clash we see in our society at present is the clash between the religion of Christianity with its creation basis and therefore absolutes, and the religion of Humanism with its evolution basis and its relative morality that says, ‘anything goes,’” Ham wrote in 1983, when he was still living in Australia and had just helped launch Answers in Genesis. It’s taken more than two decades for Ham’s philosophy to reach a critical mass in the United States. But with last year’s lawsuit over the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pa.–along with battles over public-school curricula in Ohio, Kansas, South Carolina, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania–evolution and creation have taken an increasingly prominent role in the U.S. culture wars. Recent polls show that about half of all Americans reject evolutionary theory.
While other creationist groups focus on political and legal strategies, Answers in Genesis works on changing public attitudes. A $15-million-a-year organization with 160 employees, it promotes the idea that God created the world 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour days. To spread the word, the organization is building a $25 million Creation Museum, scheduled to open next year on 50 rural acres in northern Kentucky. Ham keeps a brutal travel schedule, making hundreds of speeches a year. (The evangelist doesn’t seem particularly partial to Rocky Mount. “There’s no Starbucks in this town,” he says.) What’s more, Answers in Genesis cranks out educational titles by the score, among them Refuting the Big Bang, Did Adam Have a Bellybutton?, Dinosaurs of Eden, and Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study.
Ham makes an aggressive sales pitch for some of these books at the end of his morning lecture. As the audience files out of the sanctuary, they spill into a lobby that’s been turned into a veritable Borders for Believers. There are coloring books and curricula, technical journals and DVDs. For $30, one can pick up a 339-page bound transcript of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, which affirmed a Tennessee law banning the teaching of human evolution. One can also learn how the dinosaurs disappeared–once they disembarked from Noah’s Ark. “It is very possible some dinosaurs were killed by hunters,” says one book. But not to worry: “There are some scientists who think there may be a real live dinosaur living in a dark jungle in Africa.”
At the children’s table, the book A Is For Adam depicts dinosaurs cohabiting Eden with the medium-brown Adam and Eve. Two women, perhaps in their 30s, eye the literary offerings with a palpable sense of relief. “These kids are so blessed,” one says: Her own child has a shelf full of secular dinosaur books, “and we always have to skip the pages Mommy doesn’t believe in.”
For the adults, there are tracts both scientific and moral. Ken Ham’s book Why Won’t They Listen? portrays “evolutionary termites” eating away at God’s word, leaving behind a trail of pornography, homosexual behavior and lawlessness. “I’m not saying that evolution is the cause of abortion or school violence,” he writes. “What I’m saying is that the more a culture abandons God’s word as the absolute authority, and the more a culture accepts an evolutionary philosophy, then the way people think, and their attitudes, will also change.” Another book blithely dismisses genetic mutations as the basis for natural selection. “Mutations destroy; they do not create,” it says. A back issue of the journal Creation Ex Nihilo, also for sale, further explores the connections between evolution and Nazi race policy.
As the adults peruse the books and DVDs, the children under 11 sit at long tables in the church gymnasium. There, Buddy Davis, who describes himself as a “paleo-artist” and claims to have found unfossilized dinosaur bones in the Alaskan tundra 12 years ago, leads the kids through a cartooning exercise. His laptop computer, projected onto a screen, guides them through the process of drawing a winged pterodactyl with Bambi eyes. “Pterodactyls were created on what day?” he asks.
“Day 6!” cry out several little voices.
“No, not Day 6,” Davis corrects them. “Day 5. Pterodactyls are flying creatures. Land creatures were created on Day 6.”
Mid-morning, Jason Lisle takes the podium in the sanctuary. An astrophysicist with a doctoral degree from the University of Colorado–he wrote his dissertation on “Probing the Dynamics of Solar Supergranulation and its Interaction with Magnetism”–Lisle is the scientific face of Answers in Genesis, the man charged with offering technical reasons why mainstream theories of the universe’s origins cannot be true. He is young and bookish looking, his long face clean-shaven and his slender frame clad in khakis and a blue Oxford.
Today, Lisle plans to refute the Big Bang theory. It’s a tall order: Starting from Edwin Hubble’s 1929 observation that stars and galaxies are retreating in every direction from the Earth, astronomers have come to conclude that the universe was once contained in a tiny hot mass that exploded more than 13 billion years ago. Since then, they have performed some highly technical experiments that give credence to the theory. Among the accumulated evidence are the results of a 1989 NASA satellite probe that detected microwave background radiation consistent with the Big Bang model.
Lisle doesn’t share his colleague’s conclusions. “The Big Bang is not science in an observational sense,” he tells the Rocky Mount audience. “It’s an atheistic story of how life came to be. I’m surprised at the number of Christians that have bought into the Big Bang. It’s shocking.” Then he starts to enumerate the theory’s shortcomings. For one, the Big Bang model would predict a universe with hot and cold spots, but in fact the temperature is surprisingly uniform throughout. The model would also predict an equal amount of matter and anti-matter, but in reality the universe has far more matter. Mainstream astronomers have long been aware of these flaws, and have refined their theories to account for them while still insisting the weight of evidence favors the Big Bang. Lisle says the refinements are “just a story.”
Besides, Lisle says, there was only one witness present at creation, and His account contradicts the Big Bang. “God knows who created the universe,” he says, sounding not so much like a Ph.D. scientist anymore. “Are we going to trust God, who was actually there, never makes mistakes, never lies, and was actually responsible for creation? Or are you going to trust man, who wasn’t there, makes mistakes, has limited knowledge, can often misinterpret the evidence, is sometimes dishonest, and had nothing to do with creation? It’s very arrogant for us to tell God, ‘Sorry, you didn’t get the details right.’”
Narrowing the lens to his own planet, Lisle says scientists have gotten other details of creation wrong. They say Earth began as molten rock. Wrong: It was created as paradise. The stars preceded the Earth? Wrong: Earth came first. Billions of years? No: 144 hours from “Let there be light” to the first human beings. Dinosaurs before birds? Actually, Genesis is clear it was the other way around. “A lot of Christians think, ‘Well, maybe I can make the days really long,” he says. “But that doesn’t work, because the order is different. The Bible is very clear that God created [the universe in] six ordinary days.”
Judging by their comments afterward, many of the evangelicals present are less interested in the Big Bang–and more concerned about whether humans “came from monkeys.” Here, Answers in Genesis’ scientists are equally disdainful of their secular colleagues. “The fossil evidence does not compel belief in the existence of apemen, nor that man is the product of evolution,” wrote chemist Russell Grigg in the organization’s Creation magazine. “Fossils of so-called ‘hominids’ are often only fragments of bones which, when combined with a huge dose of imagination, are transformed into apemen.”
Among mainstream scientists, though, there’s virtually no dispute that Charles Darwin had the right idea when he wrote On the Origin of the Species in 1859. Though it has been fine-tuned over the years, Darwin’s theory remains the basis of evolutionary thought: In every generation, animals and plants produce offspring with naturally occurring genetic variations called mutations. (A butterfly might develop a new wing pattern, for example, or a horse might grow larger than its ancestors.) Sometimes a variation helps an animal or plant survive: The orange-and-black viceroy butterfly that mutates to look like an unappetizing monarch is less likely to become bird food. The hardiest survivors then reproduce, passing their mutated genes to the next generation. This leads to changes within species. When a population becomes geographically isolated, natural section can lead to the development of a new species that can no longer interbreed with the old one.
Usually, these transformations happen over eons. Under special circumstances, though, they can also happen much quicker. In 1977, a drought killed off much of the vegetation on Daphne Major, an island in the Galápagos, forcing the local finches to consume the larger, tougher seeds they usually ignore. Princeton biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant discovered that while much of the finch population perished, the individuals with deeper, stronger beaks were able to crack the seeds–and therefore survived to populate the next generation. The Grants have estimated that frequent droughts could force the development of a new finch species in just 200 years.
Evolutionary biologists are quick to note that people didn’t actually descend from monkeys. “Humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists,” explains the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit research society that advises the federal government. “Because we share a recent common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas, we have many anatomical, genetic, biochemical and even behavioral similarities with these African great apes. We are less similar to the Asian apes–orangutans and gibbons–and even less similar to monkeys, because we share common ancestors with these groups in the more distant past.”
Over the past century-and-a-half, the evidence supporting evolution has grown overwhelming. Scientists have used the fossil record to observe the sequence of life, and to discover transitional creatures such as the archaeocetes, a primitive whale that had teeth like land mammals. They also have found common structures in radically different creatures (such as the similar skeletons in humans and bats), a phenomenon best explained by evolution. Researchers have studied cellular and molecular evidence; used radioactive carbon and volcanic material to date rock layers; and mapped the geographic distribution of animals and plants throughout the world. They’ve conducted experiments in the laboratory and observed how “artificial selection” has produced poodles from wolves and broccoli from wild mustard.
“The theory of evolution has become the central unifying concept of biology and is a critical component of many related scientific disciplines,” says the National Academy of Sciences. “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.”
The creationist response has been to build its own scientific counterculture, complete with research institutions and professional conferences. The Creation Research Society, founded in 1963, runs an Arizona research center to “challengethe theory of evolution at the technical level” and publishes a quarterly journal of scholarly articles like “Dinosaur Nests Reinterpreted” and “Why Mammal Body Hair Is an Evolutionary Enigma.”The society also runs a speakers bureau that includes a Ph.D. microbiologist and two Ph.D. physicists. Other organizations sponsor creationist rafting trips designed to point out evidence that the Grand Canyon was created suddenly and recently. According to Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “a huge percentage of their research has been poking holes in evolution. There is no evidence of creation.”
After lunch at the church’s Lighthouse Cafe (“Thee best chicken salad”) comes the day’s climactic hour. Ken Ham is back at the pulpit, this time with advice about “how to evangelize in an increasingly secular world.”
Ham harkens back to 1959, when Billy Graham came to his native country and held crusades in both Sydney and Melbourne. “The whole of Australia shook,” he recalls. “The nation was buzzing. People were saved.” Why did Australia, a country with few born-again Christians, react so strongly to the American minister? “In 1959, you had prayer at the beginning of school. There were mandatory Bible readings. People were familiar with Christian terminology.” Although his country was not very observant, Ham says, it had a shared religious culture that Graham used as a foundation for his evangelism. This, Ham says, is a sharp contrast to the United States in 2006, “where the school system is anti-God and evolution is taught as fact.”
Ham asks the audience to compare two stories in the New Testament Book of Acts: While the Apostle Peter manages to baptize 3,000 Jews in a single day in Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, wins just a handful of converts. Ham explains the difference this way: Traditional Jews had much in common with the early followers of Jesus, including a shared monotheism, so it was relatively easy for Peter to win them over. But Paul had a bigger challenge with the Greeks: He had to introduce them to God for the very first time. “The Greeks’ whole foundation of history was wrong,” Ham says, in an increasingly preacherly voice. “He had to change their whole way of thinking from the foundation up.”
“Would you say America is more like the Jews or more like the Greeks?” Ham asks. The audience responds as one: “Greeks!”
“Most of our evangelistic materials, by and large–would you say they’re geared toward Greeks or geared toward Jews?”
“We’ve got a bigger problem than that,” Ham continues. “Most of the kids in our mainline conservative churches in America–do you think they’re Jews or Greeks? I’ll tell you: They’re Greeks. We’re sending generations into a [school] system that’s turning them into Greeks. They’re evolutionized. And our Sunday school literature–we’re teaching them as if they’re Jews. We’re not connecting these Bible stories to reality. We’re teaching them as stories.”
Ham’s not done. “There’s a bigger problem: The majority of parents sitting in the pews of our churches are Greeks. Most of you are Greeks. … Most of the elders in our churches are Greeks. Most of the professors in our Bible colleges are ardent Greeks.”
To reach this increasingly secular world, Ham explains, evangelicals must preach the same way Paul reached out to the actual Greeks two millennia ago. They must begin not with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, but instead with the very notion of God as an omnipotent being who created the world in six days. They must be prepared to explain to their children and neighbors how old the Earth really is, what the fossil record really shows, why carbon dating is wrong, why the Big Bang is claptrap, how we know Noah’s Ark really existed, and why human beings couldn’t have possibly evolved from “apemen.” This will take time, he says. “Friends, we live in a culture where we want everything quickly. If you don’t get your hamburger in 45 seconds, you complain. You’ve got to understand something: From the 1800s to now, you’ve got 200 years of turning Jews to Greeks. You can’t change it overnight.”
The buzz is palpable. It’s as if the full importance of creationism has suddenly become clear. It’s not just that Biblical creation–the notion that God has created us in His own image–is the foundation of Christian morality. It’s that Biblical creation is the one true path to saving Christianity, to winning back America’s children and young adults, to bringing this country from the brink of rampant paganism. When the sermon comes to an end, there’s a buying frenzy in the lobby: not individual books this time, but rather $195 library packs and cardboard boxes labeled “Answers Academy,” complete with a 13-DVD curriculum–everything you need to know about geology, astronomy and the stories of Genesis.
Walking out of the sanctuary, a gray-haired woman dressed entirely in black says that Ken Ham has sold her on creation-based evangelism–and on the idea that Genesis must be interpreted literally. “I was brought up believing a day can be a year or 1,000 years,” she says. (Indeed, when the Apostle Peter discusses the Second Coming, he says, “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”) And now? “I believe it was a day.”
The afternoon ends with a trip through the universe. Astronomer Jason Lisle is back, his laptop loaded with the space-simulation software Celestia. Lisle points and clicks, and on three enormous screens behind him, the solar system starts careering by. Lisle begins at the sun, which “God made especially stable,” he says, in order to support life on this planet. “It has very little flares, and the earth’s magnetic field deflects what’s left over.” The sanctuary turns into a miniature planetarium as the audience travels past Mercury, Venus and magnificent Earth, the only planet with liquid water. “Earth is designed for life,” Lisle says. “These other worlds God created to declare His glory.” Navigating past ruddy Mars, Lisle stops to explore Jupiter’s moons, some of them tiny and looking gnarly like potatoes. He rotates Saturn to view its rings from various perspectives, until from a certain angle they complete disappear.
Lisle zooms toward the edge of the solar system. “Uranus has a strong magnetic field,” he says, “that would have decayed if it was 4.5 billion years old, but is consistent with Biblical creationism.” Past Neptune and Pluto, he steers further still, through the bright Milky Way and toward distant galaxies that speckle the sky. There is one far-away star with an identified planet, but mostly it is just infinite space, luminous, breathtaking.
“This was all made on the same day, of course,” the astronomer says. “Day 4.”