Righting America at the Creation Museum

Susan L. Trollinger is an associate professor of English at the University of Dayton. She is the author of Selling the Amish: The Tourism of NostalgiaWilliam Vance Trollinger, Jr., is a professor of history at the University of Dayton. He is the author of God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Their latest book, Righting America at the Creation Museum is available now. You can read the Los Angeles Times review of their book here.

Why would anyone devote years of research and an entire book to the Creation Museum?

We know this is a reasonable question. In fact, it is a question that we have asked ourselves on a number of occasions, particularly while sitting in a Cincinnati restaurant at the end of a day immersed in a place that claims that the universe was created less than ten thousand years ago, that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together (perhaps as late as the nineteenth century), that a global flood less than five thousand years ago accounts for the geological strata and the fossil record, and that – after this flood – a pair of tortoises paddled more than 14, 000 miles from the Galapagos Islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Seychelles Islands off the eastern coast of Africa.

Why devote so much attention to a seemingly inexplicable and bizarre cultural site? The short answer is that many Americans do not find the museum to be bizarre at all.

Millions of Americans have visited the museum; millions more will most likely visit the museum’s companion site, the gigantic replica of Noah’s Ark set to open on July 7, 2016. While some of these visitors to the museum and (soon) to the Ark do so to gawk and mock, many or most find and will find what is being presented to be quite compelling.

As we argue in Righting America at the Creation Museum, to see the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and their sponsoring organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG) as “wacky but essentially irrelevant outpost[s] on the far outskirts of American life is a huge mistake” (2). Despite the fact that many folks wish it were otherwise, AiG and its tourist destinations lie squarely in the American cultural, religious, and political mainstream (albeit the right side of that mainstream).

Given this, our goal for Righting America was straightforward. We wanted to understand and explain the Creation Museum’s message, how the museum conveys this message, and – ultimately – what all this means for America.

At the most basic level this meant visiting the museum seven times between 2008 and 2015, in the process taking extensive notes and photographs. Thanks to this time-consuming close reading of the museum, we were able to filter out some of the museum’s overwhelming aural and visual clutter to see what is there “beneath” the constant voiceovers and the flood (a pun that is just too inviting!) of textual bits.

The results? To put it most succinctly, and contrary to what one might expect, there is not much science (even science as they define it) and not much Bible. Instead, there is a lot of Christian Right politics devoted to fighting the culture wars, a Christian Right politics bolstered by a persistent message of damnation for those who are not with them on the Right side of history. More than anything else, and as we observe in Righting America, the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter, and Answers in Genesis are in the business “of preparing and arming crusaders for the ongoing culture war that polarizes and poisons U.S. religion and politics” (15).