“The human heart is a factory for all kinds of evil—including the evil of racism.”
So begins a recent article on the Answers in Genesis website. The sentiment is dead on. And the idea that we are created in the divine image clearly implies that there is no such thing as an “inferior” race, regardless of what Christians in the past may have thought, and therefore Ken Ham and his colleagues are to be commended for their efforts across the years to drive home the message that racism in all its forms is a sin. I remember a time (not so very long ago) when some evangelicals would have been inclined to debate the point.
Charles Darwin, before he became an icon
Nevertheless, I am sometimes tempted to think that AiG’s egalitarianism serves an ulterior purpose, because whenever the issue of racism comes up the name of Charles Darwin is never far behind. Why is this? Is the linkage between racism and Darwinism really that obvious? The author of the article referred to above seems to think so. He is at least careful to point out that Darwin did not invent racism (I suppose Lucifer gets the credit for that one), but then he proceeds to assert with complete confidence that the British scientist’s ideas fueled that most notorious of all modern incarnations of racial bigotry: the murderous ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. I have heard this charge all my life, and perhaps there is some truth in it (although I am not convinced). Of course, I have also heard that Hitler drew inspiration from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (whose books I happen to enjoy), yet every Nietzsche scholar that I have read says that Hitler completely misunderstood the German philosopher, who in fact detested anti-Semitism. It probably would be fairly easy to show that Hitler did not know any more about Darwin than he did about Nietzsche.
But there are other ways of looking at this—ways that are more nuanced, and perhaps even more honest. In the first place, we should keep in mind that by contemporary standards almost everyone in the nineteenth century entertained views that most of us would consider racist. Even people like Abraham Lincoln, who clearly belong in the “good guys” column, would require at least a little sensitivity training before they could be allowed in public today. And if we can celebrate the achievements of such people without excusing their faults or overlooking the fact that even the best of them daily fell short of the ideal in thought, word, and deed (just as we do), then we can surely cut Darwin a little slack. At the very least, if someone wishes to justify the charge of racism against a thinker of Darwin’s stature, then they need to do more than just comb through his writings looking for dirty words and other stray signs that he shared the prejudices of his day.
Furthermore, people who are eager to link Darwinism with racism tend to ignore the rather inconvenient fact that Darwin himself was a convinced abolitionist who viewed slavery as an unmitigated evil. The same is true of Darwin’s friend Asa Gray (1810-1888), the Harvard botanist and devout Christian who did more than anyone else to introduce Darwin’s ideas to an American audience. Gray went even farther and claimed that the evolutionary concept of common descent reinforces the biblical teaching that all human beings are of one blood (Acts 17:26). If this sounds strange today, we need to remember that in the 1860s the leading scientific opponent of Darwin and Gray in America was the Swiss émigré Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), who didn’t care much for Africans and whose theological heterodoxy made it easy for him to hypothesize that whites and blacks were separately created. Needless to say, nineteenth century American apologists for slavery and racism were only too eager to avail themselves of the scientific credibility that men like Agassiz appeared to provide. Such apologists were legion; and if after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 a few of them (such as the Southern Methodist geologist Alexander Winchell) did in fact deploy Darwinian ideas in support of their racist theories, they were vastly outnumbered by a small army of southern pastors and theologians who rejected evolutionary ideas on Scriptural grounds but who were just as convinced that the Good Book justifies the inferior social position of blacks. Some of these men were, in other ways, quite respectable. My favorite example is Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898), who was already a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia when he came to serve on Stonewall Jackson’s staff during the Civil War. Dabney published A Defense of Virginia in 1867 (well after the South had lost the war) as an apology for the Confederacy and its institutions. In this book, he appeals to the notorious curse of Ham passage (Genesis 9:25) in defense of what he delicately referred to as “domestic slavery,” which he claimed “was appointed by God as a punishment of, and remedy for…the peculiar moral degradation” of Africans.1 But in his Lectures in Systematic Theology Dabney makes short work of Darwinism and insists that the earth was created just a few thousand years ago.2 It should go without saying that my intention here is not to slander Dabney, whom I regard as a great American theologian. My point is that when men like Winchell and Dabney are compared it should become obvious that their racial bigotry was not rooted in Darwinism (which one accepted and the other rejected), but in an unquestioning allegiance to the mores of the antebellum South. Likewise, the abolitionism of Darwin and Asa Gray had less to do with their acceptance of evolutionary ideas (with apologies to Adrian Desmond and James Moore, to whom I will return in a moment) than with their instinctive moral sense that slavery is an inhuman and unjust institution.
This tiresome debate is starkly summed up in two recent books. Darwin’s Plantation, published in 2007 by Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, both of Answers in Genesis, appears to be little more than an updated edition of Ham’s earlier book, One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism.3 Needless to say, both books place the blame for most of the evils of the modern world squarely on Darwin’s shoulders. But as rhetorically brilliant as the title of Darwin’s Plantation is, I can’t help but wonder if the editor forgot that by the time the Origin of Species reached America the country was on the verge of civil war and the southern plantation system was on its deathbed. As a librarian at a Christian college I dutifully pull our well worn copy of Ham’s earlier book, One Blood, from the library shelves every year and place it on reserve for two professors who are commendably determined to help their students face up to and reject the evils of racism. I only wish they were equally concerned about the historical accuracy of the book’s arguments. The thesis of Desmond and Moore’s vastly different book is admirably summed up in its title: Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.4 They argue that Darwin’s belief in common descent is largely rooted in his abhorrence for the polygenist views on human origins that were being popularized in the nineteenth century by people like Agassiz. I think it’s fairly clear that both Darwin’s Plantation and Darwin’s Sacred Cause dramatically overstate their case, but if the books are placed side by side and compared one does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out which one is backed up by solid research. Darwin’s Plantation is a modest book of 196 pages that is written (as most AiG materials are) at a high school level with lots of bold print and cool pictures. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, on the other hand, was authored by a pair of world class historians and reaches a whopping 484 pages, replete with a jungle of footnotes. (For what it’s worth, I personally bought Darwin’s Sacred Cause as soon as it came off the press in 2009 and donated it to the library as an alternative resource; sadly, it has yet to be checked out by a single individual.)
A few years ago, Randal Rauser of Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, made a statement that has stuck with me, and that seems particularly apropos to this subject. He noted that we evangelicals have a branding problem, because in spite of all our rhetoric about absolute truth and morality “the wider culture does not believe evangelicals are especially interested in the truth.” Coming a little closer to home, Rauser quotes Joel Kilpatrick’s rather provocative assessment of evangelical schools and colleges:
The purpose of evangelical education, like the purpose of Fox News, is to dispense with contradictory ideas with as little thought as possible, resulting in eighteen-year-old biblically literate virgins who vote Republican.4
Obviously, this statement is a little harsh (after all, I have three teenaged daughters and I want them all to be biblically literate and to remain virgins until they are married), but I must admit that after spending 30 years immersed in an evangelical subculture, and the last seven years employed at a conservative evangelical institution of higher learning, I have so far seen very little (in spite of a few shining exceptions) to make me question the basic thrust of Rauser’s and Kilpatrick’s rather brutal assessments. And that is inexpressibly sad, because three decades ago when I became a Christian I was under the impression that evangelicals are more concerned about the truth than any other group of people. What I could not see at the time is that the nascent fundamentalist resurgence would eventually lead us to the point where truth is arbitrarily defined in terms of a particularly rigid interpretation of the Bible, and where the imperative to follow the evidence wherever it leads is viewed as philosophically naïve (“So you don’t think Darwin is responsible for the Holocaust? Well, your presuppositions must be flawed!”).
The human heart is indeed a factory for all kinds of evil—including the evil of massaging the facts in order to score brownie points with the choir, or to shore up our illusions and avoid facing up to the difficult questions that threaten them. Perhaps what all of us in the evangelical world need more than anything else is a renewed commitment to the ninth commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” does not leave much wiggle room, even if our neighbor happens to be dead and is perceived by some to be an enemy of the faith. And surely the imperative of being truthful and honest in all our dealings implies the need to expose ourselves to all kinds of evidence (even those that appear to undermine our most cherished convictions), and to seek the truth for the truth’s sake alone. To do otherwise is simply not Christian.
1. Robert Lewis Dabney, A Defence of Virginia (New York: E. J. Hale, 1867), 103, http://books.google.com/books?id=PwVnt4hozogC&printsec=frontcover.
2. Ibid, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972).
3. Ken Ham, Carl Wieland, and Don Batten, One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999); Ken Ham and Charles Ware, Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2007).
4. Adrian Desmond and James R. Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
5. Randal Rauser, “Learning in a Time of (Culture) War: Indoctrination in Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project,” Christian Scholar’s Review 39 (Fall 2009), 75, http://randalrauser.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Learning-in-Wartime.pdf; quotation from Joel Kilpatrick, A Field Guide to Evangelicals and their Habitat (New York: Harper, 2006), 131.