Faith

02.09.14

Ken Ham: The Making of An American Religious Huckster

Creationist Ken Ham is a modestly-educated Australian schoolteacher. But America's long tradition of anti-intellectualism helped him become a star religious entrepreneur.

Ken Ham’s widely watched debate with Bill Nye has brought America’s most significant fundamentalist onto the radar screen of millions of Americans for the first time. Many are shocked to discover that such views still exist and, as polls remind us, are held by more than a hundred million Americans. 

The Ken Ham phenomenon is uniquely American. Creationism exists largely as an American export in other countries, and I am bombarded with inquiries when I speak on this topic in Europe. European scholars find American creationism incomprehensible. How in the world can an Australian schoolteacher with a modest education create an organization like Answers in Genesis, with a $20 million annual budget? And raise $27 million to build a creation museum? And become one of the most influential educators in the country?

The answer lies in the unique and remarkable influences of two of the major shapers of American culture: Martin Luther and King George III. 

Luther, of course, is the rabble-rouser who broke away from Roman Catholicism and started the Protestant religious tradition. He had various theological objections to Catholicism, but the perhaps most significant thing he did was simply to split off from an established religion and start a “New Christianity.” In so doing he rejected the traditional wisdom of what had been his faith community. His rallying cry was sola scriptura—“nothing but the Bible”—and he rejected the notion that ordinary people needed theologically educated leaders to tell them what the Bible said. Ordinary people were invited to read the Bible for themselves, free of the insights of scholars, a Protestant emphasis that continues to this day.

The Bible, as we now know, is a notoriously complicated collection of 66 books (for Protestants) written in several languages over the course of several centuries by people with very different cultural backgrounds and agendas. The complexity is so great that disagreements on important issues of biblical interpretation constantly arise with no higher authority to adjudicate them. So what do you do when you become convinced that you have a better understanding of the Bible than everyone else? Well, following Luther, you simply split off and start yet another “New Christianity,” with the hope that many of your fellow Christians will follow you into your new and improved version. 

The theological “speciation” that results from such splitting bears a remarkable resemblance to the evolutionary “tree of life,” with its many new species branching off from a common ancestor. The “common ancestor” of the hundreds of different and typically fundamentalist Baptist denominations, as well as the liberal Episcopalians and the moderate Methodists, was the Anglican Church from which they originally split. The common ancestor of all the protestant denominations is the Roman Catholic Church. Now there are over 40,000 Protestant denominations, all of which have branched off from a parent tradition. Most Protestants have no problem leaving one faith community for another, and charismatic entrepreneurial Protestants are often able to create “New Christianities” that capture something highly attractive in the zeitgeist. The quintessentially Protestant—and anti-Catholic—Ken Ham is a religious entrepreneur who sells a version of Christianity based on an unprecedented emphasis on Biblical literalism, especially in the interpretation of Genesis, and a rejection of modern science.

King George III is the other half of the puzzle. America was born in a revolution that rejected, among other things, the European tradition of celebrating intellectuals and deferring to their expertise. Where British society had an “intellectual class” and a “working class” and schools routed students onto tracks based on skills measured at an early age, America was egalitarian. America’s public schools were supposed to be no respecter of persons. American children grow up with the myth that “you can be anything you want,” and we point to Abe Lincoln’s birth in a log cabin, or Steve Jobs dropping out of college, as proof. 

America’s heroes have never been intellectuals. We celebrate the 19th-century adventurers who built the railroads, but have no idea who discovered the laws of thermodynamics that made the essential steam engines possible. The traditional American hero is played by Clint Eastwood, Kiefer Sutherland, or Bruce Willis, who create compelling characters that succeed because they reject the rules and take matters into their own hands. Martin Luther was a theological Jack Bauer, certain that he knew more than all the eggheads in the Vatican combined. The wisdom of an ordinary person is revered in America. It is the deep faith on which democracy is based and the reason why Sean Hannity’s audience cheers when he ridicules the Harvard economist that comes on his show.

While admirable in intent, America’s celebration of ordinary common sense has nurtured a profound anti-intellectualism that often translates into a cavalier dismissal of expertise. Never mind that the New England Journal of Medicine says we should vaccinate our kids; millions of people would rather listen to Jenny McCarthy. Rush Limbaugh is America’s expert on climate change. 

Ken Ham, as historian Randall Stephens and I argue in our book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, has tapped into these two powerful undercurrents in American culture: anti-intellectualism and religious entrepreneurialism. When he moved to the United States in 1987, Ham worked at the Institute for Creation Research, which had an ambitious but ill-fated vision to develop a scientific foundation for young-earth creationism. He left a few years later to start Answers in Genesis, which abandoned scientific research to focus on convincing laypeople that evolution was an evil, morally corrupting, anti-Biblical worldview that Christians must reject. 

Convincing people to reject evolution—and the Big Bang, the age of the earth, and many other mainstream scientific ideas—was accomplished in part by portraying the scientific community as a cabal of elitist, politically motivated secularists conspiring with the assistance of Satan to undermine the traditional values of American Christians. This view of the scientific community resonated with conservative Protestants, bewildered by a world that they once controlled but that now seemed to be leaving them and their values behind. Such a view provides a reason to reject so-called “expertise” in favor of homey assurances that everything they needed to know about origins is in the Bible.

Just as it has always been.