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American creationism isn’t going anywhere – a life-size Noah’s Ark proves it

In the early 1980s, the US’s religious right seemed an unstoppable behemoth in terms of political clout. The Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and other groups came to dominate public policy discussions by mobilising large groups of conservative Christians into a formidable force. Over time, however, fundamentalist voting blocs simply lost ground to larger, more diverse coalitions, and the heft of big evangelical organisations has slowly waned, making room for other voices in public policy.

So at a glance, it might appear that politically influential conservative Christians have had their day. But look more closely, and the movement looks to be in rude health.

This summer, Answers in Genesis (AiG), an American “Young Earth” creationist organisation, is opening a new $172m attraction named Ark Encounter, a Kentucky theme park dominated by a life-size (based on measurements in the Bible) model of Noah’s Ark – it’s 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high. Those who hope America’s evangelical Young Earth creationists have had their day would do well to take another look at that price tag. And the history of the group behind the ark speaks volumes, too.

Founded in 1994 by Australian high school teacher Ken Ham, AiG is the only major evangelical creationist organisation set up since the Supreme Court decided in 1987 that mandates requiring equal time be given to creation science in public schools were unconstitutional. Unlike many of its competitors, AiG’s main aims have been to educate evangelicals themselves in the particular theology of Young Earth creationism – that is, a literal interpretation of Genesis, in which the Earth was created thousands, not billions, of years ago.

AiG has invested millions of dollars in public outreach projects, most famously with its Creation Museum, which depicts scenes of animatronic dinosaurs living peacefully alongside humans. And while the museum is facing declining attendance rates, the opening of Ark Encounter shows that plenty of Americans still subscribe to the Young Earth worldview.

Founder Ham has built the AiG empire not on a general emphasis on the importance of creationism, but on the premise that creationism answers most of the hard theological questions most evangelicals have. With a sense of urgency, Ham presents Young Earth creationism as the first, last, and only line of defence against mainstream science – a phrase he admittedly doesn’t like, as it implies that creationism is not real science.

But AiG’s success is not solely its own. It stands on the shoulders of organisations that have been at it for much longer – and it was founded with the express intention of avoiding their mistakes.

Divided they fall

The three largest evangelical creationist organisations of the decades-long fight for public-school inclusion were the Creation Research Society (CRS), the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and the Creation Science Research Center (CSRC). To outsiders, these were disciplined pressure groups hellbent on keeping Young Earth creationism alive in the public discourse – but in reality, they were hobbled by rifts over mission and method.

They expended a lot of public effort on differentiating themselves from one another, and struggled to prioritise between affecting legislation, training young evangelicals in how to teach creationism, and defining the theological boundaries of Young Earth creationism within evangelicalism. And after the 1987 Supreme Court decision, fighting for equality in the classroom was suddenly a non-starter.

By investing so much in the curriculum crusade, the older groups had run the risk of becoming irrelevant. And sure enough, by the time of the 1987 Supreme Court decision, many fundamentalist parents had already withdrawn their children from the American public school system, since most states had very little control over non-public curricula.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. EPA/Mark Lyons

The now-defunct CSRC limped on, attempting to push back against the teaching of evolution to Christian public-school students as an attack on their religious practices, but by 2003 existed solely as a single website. The CRS and ICR survived, but both have moved from their founding homes in California to more politically hospitable states.

CRS now performs research in the Arizona desert, while ICR has set up a creation museum in Texas. Both have websites which sell CDs and DVDs, and rely almost exclusively on donations to survive. A quick glance at their financial statements shows that their assets ($778,000 and $12.4m respectively) fall well short of AiG’s ($32.4m).

From down under to down south

When AiG started its US headquarters in Kentucky, it became the fourth major creationist organisation (of five in the whole country) to set up shop below the Mason-Dixon Line. In addition to ICR and CRS, the Young Earth-minded Seventh-Day Adventist creationists at the Geoscience Research Institute have made their home in southern California since 1980.

Creation Moments (formerly the Bible Science Association) is the only major creationist organisation in Yankee territory, having put down roots in the chilly climes of Oak Park, Minnesota. Perhaps it’s just the extra heat or the superior barbecue, but fundamentalists’ preference for the South is telling.

The regional differences in theology that helped spark the Civil War have never quite gone away, and the Southern strains of evangelicalism still offer creationist organisations a friendlier home than their northern counterparts.

So if history is any indication, while secularisation may finally be taking a toll on the US, one should not expect the Southern fundamentalist to go the way of the dodo anytime soon. After all, for the introductory ticket price of $40 each, there’s always room for two more on the Ark in Kentucky.

This article originally stated that the Geoscience Research Institute moved to southern California in 1958, not 1980. The institute is also a Seventh-Day Adventist “Young Earth” creationist organisation rather than an “Old Earth” one. The error has been corrected.

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