Muddy the waters: Ken Ham, Greg Gianforte, and the creationist assault on science in Montana 

On the first day, God made it rain, soaking the 35 of us who had hiked up to the M on Mt. Sentinel to see proof of His creation firsthand. Another 400 feet up the mountain, an etched rock indicates the high-water mark of Glacial Lake Missoula, but our guide, Bozeman "creation scientist" Michael Oard, doesn't take us that far. Our group of couples, parents and kids stands at the M's concrete base and watches as a winded Oard points out the traces the massive lake left on the side of Mount Jumbo. This valley provides proof, he'll soon explain, that the scientists who work at the bottom of the mountain can't be trusted.

Down there on campus, the Lake Missoula Creation Conference was just getting started. Over the next four days—April 6-9—more than a thousand believers (by the organizers' estimate) assembled to learn why scientists are wrong about evolution, why the world is only 6,000 years old and why dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark.

This wing of fundamentalist Christianity has long found a foothold in Montana, most visibly at the Glendive Fossil and Dinosaur Museum, which opened in 2009 with a $290,000 assist from current U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte. Still, young-Earth creationism is easy to ridicule, and ridiculed it usually is by scientists and mainstream Christians alike.

  • cover illustration by Kou Moua

But today, in 2017, a creation conference seems more oddly of the moment than ridiculous. Two weeks after the conference closes, hundreds of Missoulians would rally in Caras Park as part of the national March for Science, a response to the Trump administration's anti-science leanings, from the appointment of a climate change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency to proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health to Trump's flirtation with the anti-vaccine movement. If science is embattled in America, creationists have been on the front lines for years. What draws them into the ranks?

Not Oard. His lectures on the ice age and Lake Missoula were rambling and dull. As we walk back down from the M, he tells me he doesn't enjoy public speaking, that he prefers researching quietly at his home, near Bozeman. He's wearing a T-shirt that his daughter gave him. It has a drawing of a cell and the caption "Chance?"

No, what drew attendees to Missoula was Ken Ham. Ham, founder and president of the creation ministry Answers in Genesis, opened America's first creation museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky, in 2007. Ham debated Bill Nye at the museum in 2014. Ham commissioned a life-size replica of Noah's Ark, called Ark Encounter, in Williamstown, Kentucky, last year. Ham and his crew of AIG speakers were in Missoula at the invitation of local churchgoers to "equip" believers with the answers they need to "defend their faith" against American secularity.

But direct assaults on science—questioning the fossil record, carbon dating, flood geology, all of that—were more or less a sideshow at the conference. At first I thought maybe the science stuff was just too technical for a lay audience. Creation science isn't exactly elegant, and, without some spice, even true believers tend to nod off or head to the food court. Ham knows how to deliver spice, and it has very little to do with supporting theories with evidence.

Forty minutes into his opening lecture, Ham roused the crowd to applause with a message for the U.S. Supreme Court: "You didn't invent marriage," he said. "God did!" I started counting conference speakers' complaints about transgender rights, but stopped after the sixth. By that point, I was trying to find my bearings again. I had come for a conference about science. Junk science, sure, but science nonetheless. Instead, I was sitting in the red-hot center of America's latest culture war. One of Ham's sidekicks even said it outright: "We're in a war, folks."

By the time the conference was over, I realized something else: They're winning.

Sandwich boards with photos of Noah's Ark pointed the way upstairs. Organizers had rented the top floor of UM's University Center, including the ballrooms, theater and several meeting rooms, for three days, Thursday through Saturday. On Sunday, the speakers fanned out to deliver lectures at churches in Alberton, Victor and Missoula. The rest of the conference took place here, on the campus of a public research university—the heart, scientifically speaking—of enemy territory.

The schedule was packed. Friday featured seven lectures, beginning with "Dinosaurs, Genesis, and the Gospel for Kids" at 9 a.m. and ending at 9:30 p.m. with "Ape Men, Adam, and the Gospel." Lectures were presented in the ballrooms, where audiences of several hundred watched at any given time. Admission was free, no registration required, and the lectures were streamed live on Facebook.

Between the talks, there was nothing to do but stand in line for food alongside UM students or peruse the tables of books for sale. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the books! What Ham called the "cream of the crop of our apologetics materials" was stacked in rows in the foyer, everything from an A is for Adam flipbook to Ham's encyclopedic World Religions and Cults. Attendees bought them by the armful, taking advantage of the "instant library special" (any 30 books for $199) or a boxed set of selected Ken Ham titles at 35 for $249. On Friday, the sales staff rolled out two more tables of topical "pocket guides" for just $1 each—a price even I couldn't pass up. I bought a Pocket Guide to Global Warming so I could debunk the top five claims of climate change "alarmists."

I hadn't come to the conference completely unprepared. In college at Montana State University, I'd taken a virtual tour of Ham's Creation Museum as part of an "Origins" seminar that was co-taught by paleontologist Jack Horner. A few years ago, I visited the museum's Glendive counterpart, which isn't affiliated with Ham's, but is nearly as impressive. That summer I was volunteering in Ekalaka, where a paleontologist friend was working to revitalize the county dinosaur museum into a tourist draw for his tiny hometown. Eastern Montana, of course, is one of the country's premier locales for paleontology research, and has produced such specimens as the Wankel T. rex, one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found, now on loan in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum underscores that Montana is also fertile ground for evangelical Christians who reject paleontologists' work. Even public schools in Montana have taken classes to the Glendive museum, with educators reasoning that it has the best dinosaur exhibits outside of Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies. During our field trip to the M, one hiker had complained that the Bozeman museum is "really evolutionary" in its presentation of fossils. "It makes me sad," someone else said. "I want to take my grandchildren there, but—" Before she could finish, a third person encourages her to take her grandkids to the creation museum instead. "The one in Glendive is fabulous," Oard affirms.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan

Creationists have long been the vanguard of the parallel reality—encapsulated by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" neologism—that American politics has only recently embraced. To enter a creationism museum is to enter one of those brain-teasing games where you're asked to find the difference between two almost-identical images, only the images are dinosaur exhibits and the difference is that one has a human in the background. The creationist idea isn't that science is the devil's work, but that scientists interpret the physical world incorrectly because they're biased by their "secular worldview." Creationists aren't anti-science. They're just offering alternative science.

"This lake was here not that long ago," Oard said, looking across the Missoula Valley. And he's right, sort of. The valley was full of water at the end of the last ice age, around 15,000 years ago. It filled and emptied repeatedly, thanks to ice dams along the Clark Fork that were 2,000 feet tall. As the dams broke, cataclysmic floods ripped across the northwest, shaping the landscape we see today. For years, though, scientists were resistant to the idea that Lake Missoula produced massive floods. Oard points to the dispute as proof of scientific geology's bias against anything that sounds biblical.

Oard has a master's degree in atmospheric science and worked for the National Weather Service before shifting his attention to creation research full time. In 2007, he co-founded the Montana Origins Research Effort, or MORE, a group of creation scientists who study fields such as "flood geology" and publish their findings in creationist technical journals. MORE also hosts seminars in Bozeman every two years to educate Bible believers. "We're hammered by the culture, we're challenged by the museum, the university," Oard says. "There's a lot of emotion involved. They relate us to the Flat Earth Society." The group staged one conference on the MSU campus, but Oard says it "got kind of ugly" when a geology professor "riled up everybody" and disrupted the proceedings.

MORE's most recent seminar, in 2016, was held at Bozeman's Grace Bible Church, where the senior pastor, Bryan Hughes, preaches young-Earth creationism. Grace also happens to be the Gianforte family's home congregation. In fact, the Gianforte Family Foundation has donated $2 million to help expand the building, and another $1.3 million to Bozeman's Montana Bible College, where Hughes and MORE speaker Mark Amunrud are instructors, according to the federal nonprofit records. The Gianforte Family Foundation has also donated more than $11 million to the Petra Academy, a private Christian school in Bozeman, attended by Gianforte's children, that teaches Biblical creation alongside evolution.

Gianforte's ties to creationism were the subject of an attack ad featuring paleontologist Horner during the businessman-turned-politician's failed bid for governor last fall, but the topic has hardly been central to either of his campaigns. Despite the millions that Gianforte has donated to bolster organizations propounding young-Earth creationism, he has been circumspect about his personal views of late, insisting that they're separate from his politics. In 2002, he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that, as an engineer, he finds it hard to imagine that "man evolved from a blob in a pond." Asked last month by Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk if he believes in evolution, Gianforte demurred.

"I don't know how he did it exactly, but I look around me at the grandeur in the state and I believe that God created the Earth," he said. A campaign spokesperson told the AP last year in response to the attack ad that Gianforte does not have an opinion on the age of the Earth.

Gianforte's doubts about evolution place him in a significant minority. Gallup polling has consistently found that that between 40 and 47 percent of American adults believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. While that number is much lower among college graduates (27 percent in 2014), creationists can't be written off as uneducated. The Lake Missoula conference was emceed by Kevin Horton, a former veterinarian and pastor at Crossroads Christian Fellowship in Victor. Horton says his background allows him to have "eyes on both camps" when it comes to issues of the Bible and science, an intersection where many pastors struggle. Horton maintains a personal website where he uploads his sermons on creation science. In one, he begins by putting on a white doctor's coat.

click to enlarge The Lake Missoula Creation Conference cost about $26,000 to produce. Attendees could place offerings in trash cans adorned with toy dinosaurs. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • The Lake Missoula Creation Conference cost about $26,000 to produce. Attendees could place offerings in trash cans adorned with toy dinosaurs.

"Here's my bottom line," he tells me on Saturday morning, shortly after praying with the rest of the day's speakers in a UC conference room. "When I became a Christian, either the Bible was right on page one, or it was wrong."

This all-or-nothing proposition is central to creationism, and it was repeated over and over by speakers throughout the conference. Gianforte's pastor was particularly blunt on the matter during a 2012 sermon delivered in conjunction with a MORE conference. "Here's the point: Don't say you believe in Jesus, but you don't believe in the creation account here in the Book of Genesis," he said.

That's why Michelle Morimoto had taken a seat toward the back of the ballroom on Friday afternoon, waiting with a friend to watch her first presentation. Morimoto, of Missoula, said she recently came to a realization after a speaker in Lolo "challenged what she had been taught in school her whole life," leading her to conclude that her understanding of the origin of the universe is central to and inseparable from her faith.

"I need to understand more about it, because I'm not an idiot," she said. "I want to be able to articulate what my heart is telling me."

Ken Ham didn't try to dazzle the Missoula crowd with science, nor did his crew bring any fossils to touch. Each session was basically just a lecture with a PowerPoint presentation. Ham drives home his message with visual metaphors. My favorite was a graphic showing public schools as factories where Bible-believing children enter one door and come out the other side as devolved hominoids.

The caricature is meant to be funny, but it also captures the thrust of Ham's call to arms. He tells believers that disagreements between modern science and a literal interpretation of Genesis are at the root of a broader "clash of worldviews" that embroils all of society. The battlefield between (fundamentalist) Christians and non-Christians has no neutral ground, he argues.

"When you send your kids to a public education system, you have handed them over to a church of atheism, to be trained every day," he said during one lecture. "That's really what's happening."

Ham wasted no time launching into his case that the Christian church has lost the upper hand in its battle with the church of atheism. The evidence is everywhere: surveys showing that millennials aren't as evangelical as their parents, liberals criticizing Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to dine alone with women who aren't his wife, gay teens kissing in an animated Disney cartoon, Rachel Dolezal claiming she's "transblack"—a claim that's doubly offensive to creationists for its assertions that race exists as anything other than a social construct (the Bible says humans are of "one blood") and that people can be "trans" anything.

Mainstream Christians, Ham says, are losing the culture war because they focus on specific issues like abortion, gay marriage or bathroom access while compromising scriptural authority on foundational issues where the Bible collides with science. If the Bible's creation story is wrong, then on what grounds can Bible believers argue that transgender people shouldn't get to choose which bathroom to use? Only through creationism can Christian values prevail, as when Ham displays an image of a rainbow—a sign, in Genesis, of God's promise to never destroy the world by flood again—he sometimes projects onto the side of his ark replica in Kentucky. "We're taking the rainbow back," he says. It's an applause line.

Ham has been making this argument for more than 30 years, first in his native Australia and then in the United States through the organization that eventually became Answers in Genesis. He began staging creation conferences in the early 1990s, and says he made his only previous stop in Montana around that time. Answers in Genesis has grown immensely since then, bringing in $21 million in revenue in 2015, according to the nonprofit's tax filings. The Ark Encounter that opened last year in Kentucky is a start to what has been billed as a $102 million, Bible-themed park to accompany the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Ham told me that his empire now employs as many as 900 people during summer months, and 550 year-round.

click to enlarge Ken Ham, founder and president of creation ministry Answers in Genesis, says he headlines more than 20 creation conferences each year. He preaches that secularization is ruining America. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Ken Ham, founder and president of creation ministry Answers in Genesis, says he headlines more than 20 creation conferences each year. He preaches that secularization is ruining America.

Roadshows are still part of AIG's repertoire. Ham says he presents between 20 and 30 conferences annually, delivering some combination of the same presentations at each. A committee of congregants from more than a dozen local churches teamed up to bring Ham and company to Missoula at a cost of $26,000, including speaking fees and rental costs, according to Crossroads Christian Fellowship's Horton. Ham was joined in Missoula by AIG's director of research, Andrew Snelling; geologist-theologian Terry Mortenson; and songwriter Buddy Davis. Horton says his "dream" is that the Lake Missoula Creation Conference will eventually grow into a destination event that draws believers from around the region.

A sizeable portion of Ham's lectures, though, were spent encouraging attendees to make a pilgrimage to Kentucky. One hour-long session was essentially an infomercial for the Ark Encounter. (At one point, Ham actually played the park's television ads.) The Ark, technically a for-profit endeavor, has been a subject of considerable controversy, largely because it's participating in a state tax incentive program that could yield $18 million in sales tax rebates over a 10-year period. The theme park is Ham's bet that he can turn a creationist destination into an evangelical Disneyland. Some groups have questioned whether the visitors are materializing, to which Ham responded in Missoula by displaying an aerial photo of a full section of parking lot. Afterward, I asked Ham what he thinks of the creationist museum in Glendive. His reply was terse. "They've got some dinosaur bones," he said. "That's about all I know."

During his Ark infomercial, Ham digressed into a rant about the media's treatment of the Ark Encounter.

"You cannot even believe what you read out there on the internet or in the news. You have to go and check it out," he said. "Just assume whatever you see on newspapers and whatever you see on any secular sites—just assume it's wrong. I just assume it's wrong. It's just sad what's happening these days."

The comment was not a one-off. Ham and his fellow speakers are eager to take on a news media they regard as part of the secular regime that embraces evolution and rejects fundamentalist Christian values. Just as Snelling had discouraged attendees from reading "skeptic" science websites, Ham latched onto the Trump administration's "fake news" angle of attack to accuse secular media of lying "through their teeth." And Ham is glad to see that the rest of the country is finally catching onto the media's tricks.

"I just want you to know, the media is doing to politics right now what they've done to us for years," he said.

Still, Ham was happy to chat with me when I caught up with him. He told me that AIG has always had a welcoming attitude toward secular media, and that in interviews he does his best to simply "tell you the truth."

Not everyone who listens to Ham feels the same way. Between lectures I approached a man named John, whom I had seen during the earlier hike. Before I could ask him any questions, John asked me if I agree with Ham's positions. I told him I don't. As we continued chatting, I learned that he's trained as an engineer, but recently began homeschooling his five kids after one of their public school classmates came out as transgender. John declined to spell his last name for me when I asked. He's never read anything good in the Missoulian, he says.

The Missoulian didn't cover the conference, but two other reporters were there alongside me. Doug Miller and Jesse Wanskasmith were handing out copies of the first two issues of their new newspaper, the Mountain Christian Journal.

They too are concerned about fake news. The news page in the Journal's first issue, published in February, contains an article about the German government censoring "fake" news on Facebook and a column purporting to reveal how crowd size estimates at Trump's inauguration were manipulated by the media. The paper also contains a "'Fake' News" page that, in the first issue, featured an article asserting that before leaving office, Barack Obama created a "ministry of truth" to censor information the government doesn't like. In the most recent issue, the Journal published a graphic critiquing a recent edition of the Independent, calling one of my stories "a disgusting montage on bestiality" (see "How Chuck Tingle turned monster erotica into performance art," Feb. 9) and tagging part of another, also by me, as a blasphemous attack on Christianity (see "Lawsuit opens a window on faith-based addiction treatment," Feb. 9).

click to enlarge Lecturers ended their talks by clicking through slides showing the books they offered for sale in the lobby. In addition to hosting a radio show that’s broadcast on more than 900 stations and commissioning a 510-foot model of Noah’s Ark, Ken Ham is a prolific author. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Lecturers ended their talks by clicking through slides showing the books they offered for sale in the lobby. In addition to hosting a radio show that’s broadcast on more than 900 stations and commissioning a 510-foot model of Noah’s Ark, Ken Ham is a prolific author.

Miller, the publisher, wears a cowboy hat and a Bluetooth headset. In addition to starting the Mountain Christian Journal, Miller says he organized a creation conference at Missoula's former World Theater in 2014, partnering with the Glendive museum to do it. With dinosaur fossils on display, his conference was more focused on science than Ham's Answers in Genesis event, which he summarizes as "more about how societal change has tried to nullify the work of creation scientists." But he launched the Journal for the same reason that motivates Ham's evangelism: He thinks Christianity is under attack, and too many churches are softening their message to grow their ranks. Miller embraces the idea that there's a spiritual battle for control of the country.

"We actually believe the other gods out there, like Allah, are demon gods," he says.

The Journal is his attempt to fight back, both as a forum for evangelical Christians and a way to hold the apostate church and the mainstream media accountable.

As we shake hands, Miller and Wanskasmith ask me when my story is coming out. They want to know because they're planning to write a rebuttal.

After Bill "the Science Guy" Nye debated Ken Ham in 2014, Daily Beast columnist Michael Schulson called the spectacle a "nightmare for science," arguing that Ham won the debate the moment Nye decided to participate. ("When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there's no form of media attention you don't love," Schulson wrote.) Ham has since claimed that the attention the event drew fueled a surge in donations that allowed him to finally construct his Kentucky ark, and at the Lake Missoula conference he was selling DVDs and books about the debate.

Nye is back this spring with a new Netflix show in which he takes on climate change deniers, overpopulation, sexuality and other science topics that are entangled in the culture wars. He does so in a way that a National Review critic recently described as "bitter, angry, shouty, conspiratorial, vulgar, wheedling, given to absurd hyperbole, and blithely eager to wreak punishment on his enemies."

"The new show (supposedly aimed at adults, but still written at a grade-school level) uses occasional references to science to introduce simple political advocacy, broken up by bad jokes and interludes of actual screaming," columnist Kyle Smith wrote.

In Missoula, Brit Garner has been thinking a lot about how scientists can respond to assaults on their work delivered from the highest levels of government. Garner, a Ph.D student in wildlife biology at UM, co-hosts the Youtube series SciShow Psych with Hank Green, a spinoff of the popular science video series that explores the mysteries of the human mind in an accessible and engaging way.

In March, Garner helped form the Missoula Interdisciplinary Science League, a group designed to carry forward the ideas embodied in the national March for Science. MISL hopes to "celebrate critical thinking" through monthly events and other means that go beyond just protesting the current administration, like scheduling chats with scientists at breweries.

"Science and scientists are under direct attack right now," Garner says, but "to protest doesn't get the job done. Science is about discourse and discussion."

When Garner heard that a creation conference was coming to campus, she headed to the library. Down on the first floor of the UC, she and a couple friends set out a collection of children's books on science, as well as some coloring books, and invited passersby to explain why they enjoy science on a whiteboard—"to have this little piece of positivity that was tied to science," she says.

Garner didn't know it, but Ham would incorporate—and perhaps mischaracterize—their silent demonstration into his next lecture. He mocked the size of the "protest" and told the crowd that the protesters were coloring in coloring books "because they believe that was more intellectual than what we are doing here."

"I can't guarantee that people weren't doing what he says," Garner says, "but I can definitively say it wasn't us."

click to enlarge Montana creation scientist Michael Oard co-founded the Montana Origins Research Effort, a group that researches Noah’s flood and produces conferences in Montana. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Montana creation scientist Michael Oard co-founded the Montana Origins Research Effort, a group that researches Noah’s flood and produces conferences in Montana.

Garner's idea that science can win trust through discussion, not confrontation, reminded me of some old photos I had come across while helping out at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka. Life Magazine featured Ekalaka in a 1954 issue, noting that fossil excavation, "usually a specialty for experts," had become a "community hobby" in the dusty village of 900 people (today, the population is closer to 350). The story included photos of locals hauling femurs across the prairie and gathered around a hadrosaur skeleton the local high school teacher (and longtime museum curator) had assembled in the school basement.

A similar spirit has imbued recent efforts to improve the museum. For the last four summers, museum staff have hosted a "Dino Shindig" that draws hundreds to attend lectures by world-class scientists, watch demonstrations at the museum and, yes, search for fossils in the countryside. In March, the Shindig was named "event of the year" at the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation. It's also designed to be accessible to and affordable for locals, a chance for residents in one of the state's farthest-flung corners to participate in the scientific search for truth.

At the creation conference, the search for truth was simpler. Rather than concluding their presentations with time for questions, Ham and the other presenters just clicked through slides showing books for sale in the lobby. And on the conference's last day, I spotted the woman I had talked to earlier—Michelle, who had come wanting to learn more—chatting in the foyer. She had a shopping bag in her hand.

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