Earlier this week, Ken Ham launched an attack on one of my recent columns. He turned loose his fifteen-year-old granddaughter and his “legion” of adoring fans to attack where I teach, where I pastor, where I have pastored in the past, where I attended graduate school, and Word&Way for publishing my thoughts.
A rhetorician likes nothing better than an attack on his home court. I smiled at Ham’s accusation that I use ad hominem arguments since Ham and his “Hamites” are master users of vacuous personal attacks. When I attempted to engage Ham’s followers in dialogue by commenting on Ham’s Facebook page, his Facebook administrator cut me off and deleted all my comments.
Perhaps the most helpful response is to explore Ham’s rhetorical strategies and how much they reveal about both him and the universe of far-right Christians.
The world of Ham and his followers is an example of a fantastical world. From the time of the Scopes Monkey Trial to the present, evangelicals have been bombarded with what they consider the lies of science and history. The response by evangelicals has been the metaphorical creation of a fantastic world – a world God creates in a mere six days, Eve cavorts with dinosaurs, and God destroys billions of people in a flood.
These stories, repeated and expanded over the last almost one hundred years by a plethora of fundamentalist and evangelical preachers, have coalesced in the physical representation of fantasy known as the Creation Museum, a place created by the designer of one of America’s ultimate fantastic worlds, Universal Studios.
Ham is a sublime fantasist in an age particularly susceptible to the fantastic. In the process of creating this fantastic world, a certain ethos was created by evangelicals. Ham has managed to convince his followers that evolutionary science is false and is the direct result of human sinfulness. Evangelicals created the tension necessary to the fantastic, the infection of disbelief by conviction, the reversal of the ground rules, first of science, then history, then everyday life – all couched in the use of apocalyptic rhetoric.
This is one of the ways that Ham mimics the antics of the infamous communist hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy. He seems obsessed with ferreting out every critic of his fantastical “creationism.” His attack on my article indicates that he is always on full alert as if his calling is to sniff out and condemn every single instance of criticism.
The fantastic, fictional world of Ken Ham orbits a primary “devil” term: evolution. In the only actual attempt to respond to my argument, Ham denies that he ever claimed evolution has been the root cause of nearly every disaster in the world since Darwin. Instead, he told me the root cause is sin. And yet in the eighth chapter of his book, The Lie: Evolution, Ham has an opening illustration of a drawing of bricks labeled Abortion, Pornography, Homosexuals, and Lawlessness, all resting on a foundation labeled Evolution. The foundation doesn’t say “Sin,” but Evolution.
Ham’s rhetorical style shows him to be what rhetorical scholar Jennifer Mercieca labels a “dangerous demagogue.” As I read the responses of Ham’s supporters, I realized they were a chorus of voices alternating between attacking me and praising Ham. What this demonstrates is what one rhetorical scholar calls the “hedonicity of hate.” They are being deliberately cruel and enjoying it immensely.
Dangerous demagogues like Ham refuse to be held accountable for their rhetoric and actions. Patricia Roberts-Miller has helped us to see that demagogues emerge from “demagogic cultures,” which are rife with bad argumentation and polarizing propaganda. This is the evangelical alternate universe nursing a century of revenge, resentment, and ressentiment toward science and evolution.
Ham lives in this alternate universe of evangelicalism and has tremendous power in this in-group. Mercieca argues that unaccountability is the essential feature of the dangerous demagogue. They use ad baculum threats, ad populum appeals, ad hominem attacks, reification, and appeals to national or group exceptionalism to polarize citizens and threaten their opposition. By attempting to control the message and distort reality, meaning, and public sentiment, dangerous demagogues reject the democratic rules of the game of public deliberation, using these tactics to prevent a critical interrogation of their words and actions.
If it seems unfair to accuse Ham of engaging in such obvious political demagoguery, keep in mind that the Creation Museum represents “the righting of America” – as in right-wing evangelicals and the Republican Party. As William V. Trollinger, Jr. and Susan L. Trollinger argue, “the Creation Museum seeks to shape, prepare, and arm millions of American Christians as uncompromising and fearless warriors for what it understands to be the ongoing cultural war in America.”
The best response to a dangerous demagogue is critical thinking that holds the speaker accountable for his words. Because Ham’s audience has made a covenant with him, they accept him as what rhetorical scholars call the charismatic leader. As the person with charismatic authority, Ham’s decisions can’t be questioned and dissent is silenced.
Ham’s followers accept without question that the past is as Ham portrays it (a literal six-day creation scheme), the present is as he depicts it (a battle of the holy ones against the demonic liberals), and the future will be as he predicts it. But at the end of the day, the rest of us can see that Ham’s arguments and his creationism are unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous.
And that’s my response to a thin, misleading, and vacuous rhetorical attack.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).