Cover Story: Attack of the Missionary Lizards

Dinosaurs invade Boone County as the latest tool in Answers in Genesis' campaign against evolution

 
Ken Ham (left) and Mike Zovath, leaders of the effort to build Answers in Genesis' creation museum and education center in Boone County, pose with their newly acquired dinosaur models.



Life in Burlington, Ky., couldn't be simpler. A rural town 20 miles south of Cincinnati, it has a certain rhythm, an uncomplicated grace.

Don't drive too fast along Burlington Pike or you'll miss it altogether. If you pass Earl's Barbershop and the Tow-Truck Company offering 23 1/2-hour service, you've already gone too far.

The county seat of Boone County, Burlington was founded in 1799 and hasn't changed much recently. The Farm Bureau, the faded awning of the hardware store and the white spire of the Baptist church have a rustic charm all their own. Thick oak trees stand guard over ramshackle barns while dogs sleep in the shade of well-kept yards. American flags flap lazily in the breeze of a summer day. Red brick buildings, whitewashed outhouses and blue, blue sky.

The antique stores have closed early for the day, blinds drawn on the drowsy mid-afternoon sun.

Just read the dates on some of the houses: 1822, 1857, 1899. There is a rich history here.

It's hard to believe that places like Burlington will ever change.

But a change is coming.

Biblical Scientists
Once in an all-too-infrequent while, someone comes along who makes you re-evaluate your religious and scientific ideologies and question your fundamental beliefs. Folks like Copernicus, Albert Einstein and Ken Ham are good examples. They're all owed a debt that will probably never be collected.

Wait a second. Who's Ken Ham?

First off, he's an enigma. He's a former Australian biology teacher, a Christian speaker and an accomplished author and radio talk-show host. He's also a Creationist, believing God created the universe in six days only 6,000 years ago, a claim he says he can support with verifiable scientific evidence.

In 1994, Ham moved from San Diego to Cincinnati and founded Answers in Genesis, a religious organization whose members believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

According to Ham, the Bible is a record of actual events, from Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to Noah's Flood and the burning bush. That's not all. The group disputes evolution, instead believing God created all animals, including dinosaurs, on the sixth day.

Ham calls dinosaurs "missionary lizards." He believes they were on Noah's Ark alongside other animals and were probably around at the same time as Jesus. And he wants to use them to spread God's word.

No, really. He's serious.

Answers in Genesis recently overcame four years of legal disputes to secure the purchase of 47 acres alongside Interstate 275, where they plan to build a creation museum and education center. The project will house the largest collection of life-size dinosaur models, or missionary lizards, in the United States.

And it's going to be built in rural Burlington.

In a musty warehouse not far from here stand ranks of dinosaurs, patiently waiting the signal to attack. A velociraptor stands alongside a pleisiosaur and a triceratops. Missionary lizards. A stuffed gorilla stares blankly across the warehouse floor, and pterodactyl wings lay on a shelf above scattered replica mastodon bones. These and many other models will be housed in the museum and education center when it opens in late summer 2002.

"I call myself a revelationist," Ham says resolutely. "A Biblical revelationist. I believe that God has revealed himself to me through his word and given us a revelation of history."

And he wants to share his revelation of history. He says he chose to locate in Burlington because it's within a one-day drive for 165 million people.

"Not even one instance of evolution has ever been confirmed," Ham says. "The thrust of our organization is really that we do believe the Bible is true. We do believe it is the word of God."

Ham is optimistic the education center will explain, from a biblical perspective, such complex scientific concepts as DNA, natural selection, continental drift and the fossil record.

"I would say we're biblical scientists," he says. "We're really focused on the accurate, authoritative history that Genesis presents."

Some folks might think this sounds a little strange — dinosaurs and Bibles — but not Ham.

"The Bible is not an exhaustive truth on anything," he says. "It doesn't tell you how to build a motor car, it doesn't tell you how to build a computer."

But the Bible touches on biology, geology and astronomy, he says, not only on morality and salvation.

"In other words, if you can't trust the Bible on biology, geology and astronomy, how can you trust it on morality and salvation?" Ham says. "We're saying you can trust the Bible where it talks on biology, geology and astronomy, so you can trust it where it talks about morality and salvation."

The museum will be a 95,000-square-foot complex and, in addition to lots of dinosaur models, will present a walk-through history of the Bible, starting with Genesis 1:1 and ending with Revelation. If Ham's plans are realized, the center will be divided into the seven C's of Biblical history: Creation, the events of Genesis; Corruption, sin in the garden of Eden; Catastrophe, Noah's Flood and the repopulation of the world; Confusion, the Tower of Babel; Christ, the life of Jesus; Cross, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; and Consummation, the story's conclusion.

But it's the dinosaurs, at least 70 of them, that will make the creation museum a unique experience for many visitors.

"Dinosaurs are probably used more than any other thing to teach kids about evolution," says Mike Zovath, general manager of Answers in Genesis. "We want to show people that dinosaurs fit in with what the Bible has to say."

The group believes dinosaur fossils found today are a result of the many deaths that occurred during a catastrophic flood depicted in the Bible and that many others were saved by Noah and carried to dry land in the ark.

Many of the museum's other exhibits were obtained at auction last year when a Baltimore museum went out of business. Items purchased include a 54-foot-long hollow model of a sea bass that visitors will be able to walk through, a 14-by-26-foot model of a human cell and a DNA and chromosome exhibit.

The project is expected to cost about $10 million, generated by private donations. Support won't be a problem for the Answers in Genesis, which has a mailing list of 65,000 members and additional offices in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom. According to recent press reports, the ministry has already received more than $1 million in donations and will begin a capital-funding campaign when it's raised $3 million to $4 million.

"I think it'll be a major center," Ham says. "It's going to provoke a lot of interest."

He's hoping the museum will attract each year as many as 100,000 visitors eager to learn about all aspects of science from a biblical perspective.

"I've been concerned with this development. A lot of us have been," says Dave Meyer, professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati. "They're just saying absurd things. You just can't change the way these guys think, but they're trying to make it look like they have real geological evidence of a catastrophic flood and a young Earth history. It's a small splinter of Christians. They're a small minority of what you'd call fundamentalists."

Meyer believes the age of the universe is probably closer to 4.6 billion years.

"There's many ways to converge on the great antiquity of the Earth. It just totally overwhelms any of the issues," he says.

Meyer says the accuracy of dating techniques is very reliable.

"These aren't theories," he says. "These are established facts, tested by nuclear physics. We know that these things are valid clocks that can be read from the rocks."

Meyer believes creation scientists associated with Answers in Genesis accept any data that seem to support their theories but discard anything that conflicts with them. Many people are fooled, he says, by the ministry's use of scientific terminology.

"You can credit the creationists for doing their homework and being knowledgeable," Meyer says. "But there's a lot of crackpots. I just think they're looking for publicity."

The Great Divide
Evolution is the root of atheism, of communism, Nazism, behaviorism, racism, economic imperialism, militarism, libertinism, anarchism, and all manner of anti-Christian systems of belief and practice. ­ Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research and co-author of The Genesis Flood

When Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, it met widespread criticism. To accept evolutionary theory was to acknowledge that humans had evolved from less complex animals over millions of years, a process for which God wasn't needed. This was big news.

Pretty soon Darwin's principles were being blamed for the decline of traditional moral values and increased crime rates. By the early 1920s, conservative Christian evangelism had given rise to fundamentalism, a movement characterized by its literal interpretation of the Bible. It signified the beginnings of a moral crusade in the United States that was equal parts fire and brimstone.

In 1925, physics teacher John Scopes was charged with violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. The landmark Scopes Monkey Trial made headlines all over the world, with the state of Tennessee prosecuting Scopes and the American Civil Liberties Union defending him. The resulting conviction and $100 fine, although later overturned, confirmed the influence of the fundamentalist Christians, forcing 20 other states to debate the teaching of evolution in their schools.

(By the way, Inherit the Wind, a play based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, currently is running at Playhouse in the Park. See a review on page 58.)

It wasn't until 1961, however, with the publication of The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, that the term "scientific creationism" was first introduced. The book claimed to have found empirical scientific data that supported creation as described in the Bible.

The Genesis Flood proved very popular but was criticized by scientists who claimed that accepting Genesis as fact and then searching for the facts to support it, as its authors had done, wasn't science at all. It wasn't until 1987 that the Supreme Court finally agreed, overturning a 1982 law that required evolution and creation to be afforded equal time in Louisiana schools and ruling that creation science was a religious belief not to be taught as science. Since that decision, a number of other states have tried to remove evolution from the teaching curriculum or lessen its emphasis.

Last year, the Kansas Board of Education made headlines worldwide by passing laws to reduce the emphasis placed on evolution, no longer evaluating evolution or cosmology in statewide proficiency tests. As a result, teachers are expected to not even bother teaching evolution. Many believe that, while not outlawing the teaching of these subjects, the new laws will affect recruitment of teachers to Kansas and harm the prospects of students entering into higher education.

Yet another hoopla is currently brewing in Kansas, with state school board candidates raising almost 10 times more in campaign funds than only four years ago. The primaries were hard-fought and brought re-election failure for two of the three school-board members who implemented the anti-evolution laws last year.

Ham says he supports attempts by other states to remove evolution from the state science standards and will help if he's able.

"If we can influence public-school teachers and we can influence students, we will, by dissemination of information," he says.

George Bishop, a University of Cincinnati professor of political science, believes the Answers in Genesis ministry has proven successful for a number of reasons.

"You have an awful lot of Americans who, first of all, tend to endorse fundamentalist beliefs," Bishop says.

According to a 1997 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization, 47 percent of Americans believe in a literal reading of Genesis. Almost 40 percent of Americans believe in theistic evolution, with God guiding the evolutionary process over millions of years, and a further 10 percent believe in evolution as described by Darwin.

In a 1998 report, Bishop wrote, "Those most likely to believe in the creationist worldview [are] older Americans, less educated, Southerners, political conservatives, and Protestants, particularly those in fundamentalist denominations such as Baptist."

These are good reasons to choose an area like Burlington for the museum, Bishop says.

"Certainly, I would say the ground here is more fertile," he says.

Bishop doesn't think Answers in Genesis represents an immediate danger to democracy, but he believes fundamentalist groups pose a threat if they have political aspirations. They can have an impact through electoral power, as they did in Kansas last year, and by using the mechanism of the Supreme Court, he says.

"They'll have limited success at the local level, but having success at the local level can add up," Bishop says.

The Answers in Genesis organization has no interest in politics, according to Ham.

"Our aim is not to change the culture," he says. "It's to change people, because people change cultures anyway. Our main reason for doing things is because we want to see people saved. We want to see people go to Heaven."

Another reason scientific creationism has gained popularity in recent years is because it reconciles science with religion — two ideologies that have been in conflict for centuries. According to a May 24, 2000, Fox News/Opinions Dynamics poll, Americans consider scientists the most trusted of professionals, followed by teachers and then ministers. Many critics of scientific creationism believe creationists, and particularly Answers in Genesis, are taking advantage of this trust by claiming to prove their theories by using scientific techniques and misinterpreted scientific terminology.

Ultimately, to many, science and religion represent two very different realms that should remain separate. In a recent book, Rocks of Ages, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould writes, "Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world and develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve."

"They're missionaries," Bishop says of the ministry. "This is what they believe to be the truth. They're free to advance their values like any other group in this country. I kind of like the idea: expose it, make it visible. It's out in the open then."

One Part Religion, Two Parts Politics
Some local residents oppose the Creation museum project, believing it will ruin the rural countryside surrounding Burlington.

"It's all about making money," says Jennifer Warner, who owns a bed-and-breakfast guesthouse two miles from the proposed site. "They're masquerading behind this creation museum because they can make more money when they claim religious discrimination. They've worked all the Baptist churches."

According to the Boone County Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map, the site chosen for the Creation museum was to remain a rural estate until sometime after 2025. In June 1998, Answers in Genesis applied to have the site rezoned from rural to industrial land, an application turned down by Boone County Fiscal Court. In February 1999, the ministry applied to rezone the land to a public facility site, and the Planning Commission again recommended it be denied.

According to the Planning Commission report, the land is unsuitable for a large-scale public facility because it lacks either a public water supply or a sewer treatment system.

"Access to a public water supply is critical to assure appropriate water capacity for fire protection purposes and water quality for drinking purposes," the report says. "The applicant is not willing to pursue and commit to extending public water to serve this site. ... The proposed use could be located on property in another area of Boone County with existing support infrastructure."

But in May 1999, the Boone County Fiscal Court met and voted to overturn the Planning Commission's recommendations by a vote of 3-1 in favor of the amendment. Local opponents claim three members of the Fiscal Court — Judge-Executive Gary Moore and County Commissioners Robert Hay and Rob Arnold — had ties to the Answers in Genesis organization and were biased when casting their votes.

Following the decision, a group of residents, including Warner, filed a lawsuit against Answers in Genesis and the Boone County Fiscal Court, claiming injury and aggrievement at the zoning decision and asking that Hay recuse himself from the vote because of his links with the organization.

During court proceedings, Hay acknowledged he'd attended Answers in Genesis meetings and says his children had volunteered for the ministry. He and his family even appeared on Answers in Genesis promotional leaflets.

The lawsuit was dismissed in February, a Kenton County judge ruling Hay, an elected official, need not be disinterested when voting.

"There's much about the ministry that I agree with," Hay says. "My ties with Ken (Ham) are on the record. I've been to his home once, and he's been to my home once."

Hay believes the museum is in the best interests of the community and says the rezoning probably has protected the site from unwanted suburban development.

"The essence of my job as a county commissioner is going to be controversial every time I make a planning and zoning decision," Hay says.

Cathy Flaig was the only county commissioner to vote against rezoning the land. She believes the lack of existing infrastructure should have been reason enough to deny the amendment.

"You are absolutely in the rural part of the county," she says. "It has no amenities. I mean, it has nothing. There's no water, no sewer line. It's nothing to do with it being Answers in Genesis. It just wasn't the right time."

Flaig says the members of the Fiscal Court were newly elected, and if they had to vote on the issue again the results might be different.

"Those people down there didn't want this," she says. "I was surprised that my court went the way it did."

Arnold had ties with Answers in Genesis, she says, and everyone knew Hay was supportive of the ministry because he admitted as much.

Flaig says Answers in Genesis members verbally abused her as she left the courthouse in May 1999, when the Fiscal Court met to vote on the amendment.

"They're just a zealous bunch of people that believe man walked with dinosaurs," she says.

Pastor Will Stevens lives and works at Bullittsburg Baptist Church, adjacent to the proposed site of the creation museum. He has friends who work for the Answers in Genesis ministry.

"I support the theology behind the museum. I would agree with that 100 percent," Stevens says. "The only part that I struggle with is that kind of development in Boone County, because the county's comprehensive plan does limit that kind of growth out here right now. I think there were some people in fiscal court that probably should have dismissed themselves from the issues."

In response to the lawsuit, Answers in Genesis filed a counterclaim against the residents. The counterclaim accuses Warner of making defamatory statements and false and dishonest allegations against the ministry, comparing Ken Ham to Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones. Warner admits to making the statements but says they were responses to e-mail messages from Answers in Genesis employees who repeatedly contacted her using false names to find out why she was opposing the project.

In one letter, an Answers in Genesis employee writes, "These Answers in Genesis folk will only paint such opposition as being some kind of religious persecution, anyway, and they'll get more support and sympathy. Why not let them build their so-called museum?"

In another, the employee writes, "Either your legal counsel was ill-advised or you did not listen to them! I suspect the latter, you did not heed your legal counsel. Right? No one with any land-use legal sense would have advised such a losing and wasteful lawsuit."

"Their quasi-lawsuit against me was based on e-mails to Answers in Genesis employees who would not admit to being Answers in Genesis employees," Warner says. "If they practiced Christianity, they wouldn't be doing these things. But the Ten Commandments have no role. They (Answers in Genesis) have cost me so much in legal fees. And that's their goal."

Zovath says he was aware of the correspondence between Warner and ministry employees.

"I don't know that they lied to her and said they weren't from Answers in Genesis," Zovath says. "I know for a fact that a lot of people use e-mail names that aren't their names."

The judge advised the residents not to appeal the Fiscal Court's decision, allowing the museum project to proceed and, in exchange, Zovath says, advised the ministry to drop its counterclaim.

In the months since Answers in Genesis dropped the counterclaim, the museum project has continued unencumbered and the dinosaur models have continued to increase in number. The ministry has hired engineers and the architectural firm A.M. Kinney Associates, and the museum is slowly beginning to take shape alongside I-275. Ham says the necessary plumbing and sewage treatment infrastructure will be in place by the time the museum opens.

"That whole argument is a moot point, because you've got to have the infrastructure or you can't open it," Ham says. "It's as simple as that."

It's as simple as that. Residents will just have to wait to see whether their town, with its population of 6,000, will be affected by the museum when it opens.

Until then, Ken Ham will continue to ask some important questions. Why are we here? What do you believe? What do you want schools to teach your children? Important questions.

But for now, at least, life in Burlington can continue as it has for so long. Its quiet streets and uneven sidewalks, its rows of Federal-style buildings and its bright fields. The store lights blink off one by one, each celebrated more loudly by the crickets, as night gathers in Burlington and the missionary lizards start to prowl. ©

*Creationism vs. Evolution Debated at Playhouse

The debate between creationism and evolution comes to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park Sunday, when local experts speak preceding that evening's performance of Inherit the Wind. David N. Menton, repesenting Answers in Genesis, and Linda Przybyszewski, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of history, will discuss the role of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in reshaping American legal, cultural and religious history. There will be an opportunity for audience questions and answers.

The debate is part of the Playhouse Perspectives lecture series, which features distinguished scholars and theater artists examining issues related to Playhouse shows.



PLAYHOUSE PERSPECTIVES begins at 6 p.m. Sunday in the Playhouse's Marx Rehearsal Hall prior to the 7 p.m. performance of Inherit the Wind. A ticket to the show isn't required to attend. For information, call 345-2242.

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