Racism and creationism (part two of a series).

Part one in this series can be read here.

Contemporary creationists would have you believe that they represent a line of thought that stretches back for millennia. In fact, creationism is a relatively modern development, having emerged at the end of the 19th century. This same period saw the rise of Christian fundamentalism, another unique development in the history of Christianity.

It is true that earlier Christians had regarded the Biblical account of creation as true. However, post-Reformation Christian theologians and philosophers had been surprisingly open-minded in their approach to scripture. When empirical evidence contradicted their understanding of the Bible, they regarded themselves as having failed to interpret it correctly. For them, it was not a choice between Biblical literalism and scientific evidence. They would exhibit a theological humility that fundamentalism and creationism would utterly reject.

Creationism is merely an aspect of fundamentalism, in which every word of the Bible (even the parts that contradict the other parts) is regarded as literally true. Fundamentalism arises when a culture undergoes a sudden and massive change that undermines its prior social position. Such change may come from internal or external forces, but it always involves a rejection of modernity and rationalism. Creationism represented just such a flight from reason. It would drive the development of fundamentalism, and would remain its most fervent ideal.

Creationism arose as a cultural force in the post-Civil War south. Prior to the Civil War, the southern economy had been based on the slavery of black Africans. To rationalize this form of slavery, southerners had internalized the belief that whites were inherently superior to blacks. The form of Christianity to which they subscribed had adapted to fit this social system – for instance, it had magnified the importance of two Old Testament concepts in particular to justify racial inequality: the “Mark of Cain” and the “Curse of Ham”.

The south’s defeat in the Civil War may have ended slavery as a legal institution in America, but it did not bring to an end a racism that had become so deeply ingrained in southern culture that it formed the foundation of white southern identity. Thus, following the withdrawal of federal troops from the south, white southerners would reinstitute slavery in the form of the convict lease (chain gang) system and racial segregation.

Their defeat in the Civil War, however, had shaken their confidence, and the growing popularity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was a threat to their very identity. If Darwin were correct, then whites and blacks were biologically equal; worse yet, they were related via a common ancestor, and shared the same developmental lineage. For a culture that regarded even a single drop of “black blood” to be an indicator of inferiority, this was an outrage.

Creationism developed in the racial miasma of the late 19th-century south, and emerged fully formed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Creationists manipulated the law in many states to prohibit the teaching of evolutionary theory, and were prepared when John Scopes went on trial for teaching evolution in 1925. In the decades since, creationism would serve as the spearhead of Christian fundamentalism.

The Civil Rights Movement would threaten southern identity once again in the decades following World War II. Newly divorced from the Democratic Party (which white southerners had embraced en masse following their defeat by Republicans during the Civil War), racist white southerners would be wooed by a very different incarnation of the Republican Party in the sixties. The Southern Strategy would result in an influx of racists into the Republican Party, who brought their fundamentalist beliefs with them, and gave them a national stage for their ideas.

The goal of the fundamentalist movement was nothing less than a return to an idealized past in which its ideals were supreme – a goal shared in common with all varieties of fundamentalism. As its most emotional issue, creationism was used in an attempt to attract followers outside the fundamentalist base. Until this point, creationists had primarily worked at the local and state levels; they would continue to do so, of course, but their new access to the Republican political apparatus allowed them to make creationism a national issue for the first time.

Open expressions of racism were no longer socially acceptable, and an open message would have worked against the fundamentalist agenda anyway. Creationism was overhauled so that its racist core was no longer obvious, but its origins in racial hatred remained lurking below the surface. The Ku Klux Klan had embraced creationism openly during its heyday, and modern white supremacists would do the same. Creationists willing to endorse continental drift in an effort to avoid an African origin do the same. Creationists continue to use the term “monkey” to refer disparagingly to human ancestors; this is a rather obvious “dog-whistle”, as is obvious from even a cursory perusal of racist propaganda from throughout the 20th century.

Of course, most people who endorse creationist beliefs do not do so out of racism. In a terrible irony, even a large segment of traditionalist black Christians endorse creationism. Although these individuals are not motivated by racism themselves, they have endorsed a belief that arose from hatred, and serve the interests of religious leaders who know full well the implications of their beliefs.

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