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

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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."

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