Dancing with dinosaurs
The Christian right is on the rise in America – thanks to the disastrous effects of globalisation, writes Chris Hedges
“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency, more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
In the middle of the lobby of the 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, tumbles a 20-foot waterfall. Two life-size figures of children with long black hair and in buckskin clothes play in the stream a few feet from two towering Tyrannosaurus Rex models that can move and roar.
The museum, which cost $25 million to build and has a sea of black asphalt parking lots for school buses, has a scale model of Noah’s Ark, which shows how Noah solved the problem of fitting dinosaurs into the three levels of the vessel – he only loaded baby dinosaurs. And on the wooden model, little baby dinosaurs cavort with horses, giraffes, hippopotami, penguins and bears. There is an elaborate display of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve, naked but strategically positioned not to display their nudity, swim in a river as giant dinosaurs and lizards roam the banks.
Before Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, museum visitors are told, all of the dinosaurs were peaceable plant eaters. The evidence is found in Genesis 1:30, where God gives “green herb” to every creature to eat. Adam and Eve, as well as all animals before the fall, were plant eaters. There were no predators. T-Rex has such big teeth, it is explained, so he could open coconuts. Only after Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of paradise did the dinosaurs start to eat flesh. And Adam’s sin is a key component of the belief system, for in the eyes of many Creationists, in order for Jesus’ death to be meaningful it had to atone for Adam’s first sin.
The museum has a theatre equipped with seats that shake and gadgets that spray mists at the audience as the story of God’s six-day creation of the word unfolds on the screen and the sound system rocks the auditorium. There are thirty-foot-high walls that represent the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, floors that resemble rocks embedded with fossils, and rooms where a “Christian” palaeontologist counters the claims of an “evolutionist” palaeontologist. It has the appearance of a real science museum, complete with a planetarium, a gift shop and plaques on the wall with quotes from Creationist “scientists” who have the title “Doctor” conspicuously before their names. It has charts, timelines and graphs with facts and figures. It is meant to be interactive, to create, like Universal Studios, a contrived reality with an array of costly animatronic men and women, as well as looming dinosaurs. But however amusing the displays may be to those who believe in truth, facts, science and rigorous intellectual inquiry, the museum is part of a serious assault by the Christian Right on a reality-based world, an assault that sees 54 per cent of Americans now saying they do not believe in evolution.
The wealthiest and most powerful imperium on the planet is being turned over to moral and intellectual pygmies, who peddle to the American public a world of miracles and magic, a world where God has a divine plan for them, where Jesus intervenes on a daily basis in their lives and where angels are real beings who swoop down out of the sky to protect and save believers.
The 80 to 100 million American evangelicals argue through the propagation of Creationism that everyone has a right to an opinion, or, in short, a right to believe anything. But gradually this is giving way to the iron control of an empowered and intolerant totalitarian movement. There is a bill, for example, in the Texas legislature to strip all mention of evolution in Texas school textbooks and institute mandatory Bible classes for all students. Facts, in public schools in states like Kansas and Texas, are becoming worthless. They are discarded according to an ideological litmus test. Lies are becoming true.
Creationism is not about offering an alternative. Its goal is the destruction of the core values of the open society – the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate change and to accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable.
This pseudoscience is part of a larger assault on all scientific studies that challenge this world view. There are now Christian scientists who challenge research in the areas of global warming, AIDS and pregnancy prevention. Christian Right organizations, such as the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), whose founder once called for AIDS leper colonies, are lobbying to end all programs by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that deal with research into HIV infection. The Christian Right, positioned inside government agencies, has worked to discredit, or silence, research by public health officials and censored data that conflict with its vision, especially in areas of birth control, where they have made war against all forms of contraception and sought to promote abstinence as the sole method of preventing pregnancy. And the Bush administration has handed these groups hundreds of millions of tax-payer’s dollars.
But why is the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet embracing this fantastic belief system? Why is the United States the only industrialised nation in the world debating the validity of evolution? What does it mean that America could soon be defined as “a Christian nation”?
The answer lies not in the Bible but the disastrous effects of globalisation. The assault on the American working class, with less than 10 per cent of all jobs now in the manufacturing sector, has plunged the American working class into deep personal and economic despair, into a world where they must live on salaries that are half or two-thirds lower than what they received in the manufacturing sector. They no longer receive basic benefits, such as health care or pension plans, and the federal government has ruthlessly cut assistance programs – the latest being one that brought a bag of groceries each week to poor, home-bound elderly.
There are tens of millions of Americans who have lost hope. They believe they and their children no longer have a future. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to these people. And as whole sections of the United States, especially in former manufacturing centres, begin to look like the developing world, as this despair brings with it broken homes, domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addition, the world of miracles and magic begins to look very attractive. These American have found in this fantastic belief system a comforting reassurance to their despair.
They have found a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the promise that, despite what they see around them, they are protected, loved and worthwhile.
They cling to this fantastic belief system because it is all they have left. They fear being plunged back into the reality-based world where these magical props no longer exist, where they will once again be adrift, abandoned and alone. Creationism becomes not an alternative but part of the vital props that allow believers to remain encased in this mythical world.
This movement is a radical departure from traditional evangelicalism. It seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls, for the first time, on the radical church to take political power. This movement, properly called Dominionism or Christian Reconstructionism, has politicised the faith. It teaches that American Christians have been mandated by God to make America a Christian state. While traditional evangelicalism and fundamentalism shares many of the darker traits of the new movement, including a blind obedience to a male hierarchy that often claims to speak for God, intolerance towards non-believers and a disdain for rational, intellectual inquiry, it never attempted in the past to impose its belief system on the rest of the nation or transform government, as well as all other secular institutions, into an extension of the church.
This is a huge and disastrous mutation. It has helped morph these radical evangelicals and their wealthy right-wing sponsors, who see in this ideology a wonderful vehicle to foist the corporate state on the American public – who needs health insurance if Jesus performs miracles? – into a mass movement. This movement shares many traits with classical fascist movements.
There are some 70 million Evangelicals in the United States – about 25 percent of the population – attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches. Most of those churches are led by pastors who embrace an apocalyptic vision. They preach out of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Book of Revelation. They preach that at the end of history Christians will dominate the earth and all non-believers, including those who are not sufficiently Christian, will be cast into torment and outer darkness.
Apocalyptic visions have throughout history inspired genocidal killers, those who glorify violence as the mechanism that will lead to the end of history. These visions allow believers to feel that nothing in the world is worth saving. They look forward to and rejoice in cataclysmic destruction. They welcome the frightening advance of global warming, the spiralling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes. They see these ills as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close at hand. Believers, of course, clinging to this magical belief, which is a bizarre form of spiritual Darwinism, will be raptured upwards while the rest of us will be tormented with horrors by a warrior Christ and finally extinguished.
This obsession with apocalyptic violence is an obsession with revenge. It is what the world, and we who still believe it is worth saving, deserve. Those who lead the movement also give their followers a moral license to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all those who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals to “secular humanists” to “nominal Christians” to intellectuals to gays and lesbians to Muslims.
All radical movements need a crisis or a prolonged period of instability to achieve power. And we are not in a period of crisis now. But another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, a series of huge environmental disasters or an economic meltdown will hand to these radicals the opening they seek.
Manipulating our fear and anxiety, promising to make us safe and secure, giving us the assurance that they can vanquish the forces that mean to do us harm, these radicals, many of whom have achieved powerful positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as the military, will ask us only to surrender our rights, to pass them the unlimited power they need to battle the forces of darkness.
They will have behind them tens of millions of angry, disenfranchised Americans longing for revenge and yearning for a mythical utopia, Americans who embraced a theology of despair because we, as a nation, offered them nothing else. ■
Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and former Pulitzer-Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.