What I learned by interviewing creationists and evolutionists for five years

I completed a PhD in the history of science for the University of Florida in 2014. Gainesville was a striking place, in that Betty Smocovitis, historian of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, was one of my professors, but the evangelical churches in town took a strong anti-evolution stance.

I like to get at the heart of controversy, and discovered the story of Francis Schaeffer in the course of doing my dissertation research. Schaeffer is a striking figure because he articulated in the moment of the 1981 Arkansas creationism case why conservative Christians should stand with those in Arkansas who wanted an alternative to evolution taught in the public schools.

This case caused a huge uproar among evolutionists, including Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, who participated.

When I defended my dissertation for my committee including Smocovitis, I was able to explain the nature of the protest YEC defenders were making using a lecture by Schaeffer entitled “A Change in the Concept of Law” available at Soundword.com. It is from 1962 and details why Schaeffer argued that the Supreme Court’s power over the states should be limited. It deals with the desegregation of schools as well as school prayer, both being hot topics in 1962. For some reason, no one had ever published about this lecture of Schaeffer’s.

I was able to interview Udo Middelmann, Schaeffer’s son-in-law, as well as Tim LaHaye, before he passed away, about the 1970s. My dissertation is available on WorldCat under the title, “From Scopes to Reagan”, It also includes a interview with George Marsden, historian of evangelicalism and a participant in the Arkansas case.

I wanted finally to understand the Dover trial—Barbara Forrest told me ID has not affected how evolution is handled in the universities, but it has affected how evolution is taught in the public schools.

There is a book by Penn State professors that proves that ultimately 60% of teachers in America are basically avoiding the topic of evolution or watering it down so much that it is insignificant so as to avoid controversy.

Interviews with creationists have demonstrated they are primarily concerned with the moral direction of children since the 1960s. Scientists are contending for scientific literacy. That appears to be the tension.

I look forward to hearing responses to this research.


Is your dissertation available in open access anywhere?

Much of what you are saying in this post seems to be things with which I’m well acquainted. Francis Schaeffer is a central figure for his formative role in the Christian right. He felt the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy did not go far enough, and placed a very high importance on what he called the “propositional truths” of Scripture, which would include things (according to him) like the age of the earth and anti-evolutionism. He is also a key player in the churches rise to political power through his brand of “dominionism”.

Of note, most Christian thinkers in our generation have found that approach to cultural engagement impoverished. Some salient thoughts many of us have read is How to Change the World by Hunter: How Not to Change the World | Books and Culture

It would be helpful to know what your personal contribution to this story might be. Did you find anything of particular note in your studies here?

Perhaps @TedDavis can weigh in too.

And here is his dissertation, for the curious…


@jbabraham88 what would you say your key thesis is?

Congrats on the PhD!

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This shows a definite difference in perspective. Creationists tend to blame changes in society that they do not like to secularism and evolutionism. It is based on a particular theology and social view, not science.

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M Schaefer’s book “How Should We Then Live” had a positive effect on me, as it was the first time I really considered the broader context of Christian thought. Unfortunately, I think he lost his way in the social political power path.
Your observation that the creationists you interviewed are primarily concerned with moral direction, seems to have some validity. The YEC literature is replete with culture war imagery and rhetoric. In some respects, it is in contrast with with Jesus teaching, which is primarily interested in the direction of the heart, with moral conduct being the fruit of rebirth, rather than the goal. On the other hand there are many who hold to a young earth, who are very active in spreading the gospel in the ranks, so that cannot be a taken as a blanket indictment.
You state of scientists, that they are striving for scientific literacy. While that may well be true of secular scientists, I think you will find the evolutionary creationists of Biologos more interested in showing that both Christianity and science can be part of an integrated worldview without compromise of either.
It is difficult to tell from your post as to how you consider evolutionary creationists. I am interested on your thoughts there.

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We have talked a lot here about the problems when YECs set up the choice “either the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago, or the Bible is not trustworthy and you’ll have to dump the whole thing.” They believe that young adults will walk away from their faith completely unless they can successfully inoculate them against scientific realities, which they see as destroying the Bible’s authority. When youth let go of the Bible’s authority, many YECs assume the youth will start having illicit sex or become gay, divorce their spouses, get abortions, and maybe even start reading Huffington Post and voting Democrat. It’s all very scary.

This topic was discussed recently on this thread, which you might find interesting: Research On YEC vs Atheism? - #107 by beaglelady

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There are some things I have really liked about Schaeffer and some others (particularly what you mention here) that really bother me.

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I read somewhere that he expressed some regrets of the political path that he helped spawn, but I wouldn’t be able to find that…

I was also heavily influenced by Schaeffer when I read him as a teenager in the '70s. I agree he lost his way, but the social-political path was the direction he was headed from the start. He was influenced by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician. Kuyper’s thought laid the groundwork for the original “culture war” of fundamentalism vs. modernism in the 1920s. Being a good Calvinist, Kuyper took the idea of “total depravity” to its limit, as did his disciple Cornelius van Til, by arguing that just as there are two types of men – the regenerate and the unregenerate – there were two types of science. As David Naugle characterized Kuyper’s view of science in his book about worldview:

“There is not a neutral, scientific rationality leading to certain objective and shared conclusions. Instead, scientific theories are a function of the religious backgrounds and philosophical orientations of the scientists or theorists. For these reasons, disparate worldviews, Christian and otherwise, are at the heart of science broadly conceived.”

Kuyper’s influence on the current Culture War/Intelligent Design argument about the “atheistic presuppositions” of science shouldn’t be too hard to recognize. Schaeffer picked up these ideas from Kuyper and van Til and popularized them (again) in the '60s and '70s, and here we are.

The problem with both Kuyper and Schaeffer, in my opinion, is that their analyses of culture are superficial. “Culture” involves a lot more than just philosophy, which they failed to recognize.

Edit: I wanted to highlight the notion that “objective and shared conclusions” – otherwise known as “facts,” or the knowledge base that we must share – are negated in Kuyper’s system. This, again, is the root of what we are seeing right now in the arguments about “fake news” and “alternative facts.”


Compelling argument.

I’m kind of bummed that her posts seem to have been deleted. A little dissent keeps things lively around here! :slight_smile: But I admit, it does seem sort of like a waste of everyone’s resources to spend time in dialogue with someone as verbally abusive as that.

:smile: My intent was less dialogue than a subtle comment about the potential lack thereof…


Organizing my thesis was difficult because I had to track with the Presbyterians starting with Machen and getting to Schaeffer. The key discovery I made really was just one thing—the “Change in the Concept of Law” lecture, as well as the oral histories that other historians as much I know had not done. Oral history still gets a bad rap in many departments, perhaps. I think someone below has posted a link to the thesis. Basically what I learned from the interviews was that creationists are deeply worried about the direction of American society. Marsden and Mark Noll dialogued at length with Schaeffer about the American Revolution and they wrote a book about it called “The Search for Christian America.” It is not just about Enlightenment science—it is about the Enlightenment as a whole. Schaeffer may have been influenced by RJ Rushdoony in this regard. It is somewhat hard to pin down.


That the creationists, Presbyterians and Baptists, were simultaneously concerned about the impact of Enlightenment science re-entering high school textbooks after Sputnik in 1957 as well as the role of “big government” in the 1960s and the rise of the political left at the same time. They saw a French Revolution-type disaster coming to America after witnessing the sixties; they blamed Darwin, in part, as well as the Supreme Court; they mustered lawyers like Wendell Bird to be their champions in the 1980s.


I track the story of Schaeffer down to the present through the influence of his disciple, Charles Thaxton—stil alive in Atlanta I believe. Thaxton had a huge influence on Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute.


Barry Hankins of Baylor has written a biography of Schaeffer that does not reveal any regrets about the dive into politics. Frank Schaeffer (the son) has however expressed many regrets in a book called Crazy for God.


I began my life in a fundamentalist Christian school in WV that used A Beka science textbooks that defended YEC, I later met Phil Johnson through Yale Campus Crusade in 1991. I studied the scientific evidence at length in the 1990s, taught biology in NC, and then went to Regent College to get some historical context from Mark Noll. Somewhere around that time–also influenced by David Livingstone author of Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders—I interacted with the American Scientific Affiliation that I know today has a profound link to BioLogos. But I also met Stephen Meyer, the sons of Henry Morris, Charles Thaxton, Elmer Towns the friend of Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye…and on and on. I really felt like I went to the farthest extent one could go in interviewing these people. Personally I have accepted the idea of relatedness among species and role of natural selection. But I have had many friends who think evolution has created social disaster. Such is the Body of Christ today. I have slowly figured out how to navigate these waters, somewhat, with much help.


The cartoons used by Answers in Genesis and Tim LaHaye in my dissertation demonstrate the apocalypse that is imagined by creationists of the YEC type.

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Interesting. I wish I could remember where I read that. I’ve read a bit of Frank and I quite sympathetic with some of his views and feelings (not to say that I agree with them all). It’s an interesting path that he has taken; I believe he identifies as Orthodox now?