Christ Church as it is: Creationist Credentials

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho’s friendly neighborhood theocracy-in-embryo, which weds garden-variety Christian Right hypocrisy with creepy, racist Neo-Confederate overtones. Today, I’m going to have a look at the Christ Church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College.

NSA cultivates a reputation as the ivory tower’s ivory tower – the curriculum includes lots of Classical studies, including Greek and Latin; the school’s vision statement puts much emphasis on the supremacy of Western Culture (or “Traditio occidentalis“). Zombie C.S. Lewis could totally be a member of the faculty, if he were into theocratic fundamentalism. Said faculty are all wearing Scholarly Robes in the group photo.

The original ivory tower is at the
University of Pittsburgh

Photo by Jeremy B. Yoder.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on classical studies. NSA’s air of musty erudition has attracted a mostly positive profile by the New York Times Magazine and a favorable rating from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, was also recognized by ISI.)

But, basically by their own admission, Christ Church’s theology is strongly right-wing. Is NSA’s ivory tower secure against the ideology of the church that founded it? The evidence is, not so much. NSA’s Code of Conduct sounds all sorts of alarm bells:

“The College seeks to recover true academic freedom, that is, submission to God’s Word in all our actions and attitudes in and out of the classroom.

As does the NSA Students’ Pledge:

I pledge to maintain sound Christian doctrine, to regularly attend an orthodox church, and to maintain a teachable spirit. I pledge to abstain from actively promoting doctrines contrary to the mission and goals of the College.

Who decides what is “God’s Word” and “sound Christian doctrine?” Conveniently, Doug Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church, is both a Board of Trustees member and a “Senior Fellow” at NSA. In fact, of seventeen faculty members, three are Wilsons. That’s DW, his son (if I’m not mistaken) Nathan, and brother Gordon.

Gordon L. Wilson, the “Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy,” is actually my closest contact to NSA. Last fall I attended a debate on the topic of intelligent design between GLW and Washington State University biologist Mike Webster. It wasn’t pretty. GLW, who is basically miles to the right of Michael Behe, didn’t make a very good impression on behalf of NSA’s high-minded curriculum in rhetoric and philosophy – he dodged questions, failed to support his assertions, and generally displayed an inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend the logical underpinnings of the Scientific Method. In a particularly telling moment, he asserted that the reason ID/Creationists haven’t developed any testable hypotheses is because biased funding agencies won’t give them money.

That, of course, is laughable to anyone who does science for a living (i.e., a sizable chunk of GLW’s audience), because no one gets grant funding to develop hypotheses. Funding requests are descriptions of how you will test a hypothesis through a specific program of experiments or data collection. In other words, scientists receive funding after they develop hypotheses and convince funding agencies that they have a good way to test them.

The Eastern Box Turtle,
Terrapene carolina

Photo by West Virgina Blue.

It’s entirely possible that Gordon Wilson doesn’t actually know how scientific funding works. Which is consistent with the hypothesis that he’s more interested in adhering to his concept of “sound Christian doctrine” than doing science. The only published peer-reviewed research NSA’s Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy has produced is a 2005 paper on the breeding ecology of box turtles [$-a]. (GLW’s NSA profile also mentions published “research, field notes, and abstracts,” but this is the only paper that comes up in a Google Scholar search.) It’s basically a census, although there are some t-tests. And it was funded not by an outside grant, but by what seems to be a donation from the biology department where GLW was an instructor when he did the study. Here’s the only mention of funding in the Acknowledgments section:

We would like to thank Paul Sattler (Chair) for allocating Liberty University Biology funds for the purchase of much of the field equipment necessary for this study.

To put this in perspective: I’m now a fourth-year doctoral student, and I’m not nearly to the point of having enough published work on my CV to say I’ve earned my doctorate yet, much less apply for a faculty position at a good university. I’ve personally written (as near as I can recall) four major grant requests, and contributed to a fifth; I’m a coauthor on a review article, one published original research article [$-a], and a third in press; I’m a coauthor on two more articles that are submitted for review, and I’m waiting for my first first-authored paper to go out to reviewers. And (what the heck) I’ve been published in the letters column of Science. Let me repeat: my pubs list is piddly. But it’s bigger than Gordon Wilson’s, and he’s somehow on the faculty at NSA. With the word “senior” in his title.

NSA might have a bang-up program as far as Latin studies go, but its resident “biologist” is clearly more interested in ideology than biology. I can’t say that bodes well for the “intellectual rigor” of the rest of the curriculum.

Edit, 7 Sept. 2008:
Added a couple of links to the NSA faculty pages in references to Doug Wilson’s positions at NSA and the number of Wilsons on the faculty.

Correction, 9 Sept. 2008:
Corrected the relationships between the Wilsons on the NSA faculty.


W. Godsoe, J.B. Yoder, C.I. Smith, O. Pellmyr (2008). Coevolution and Divergence in the Joshua Tree/Yucca Moth Mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-23 DOI: 10.1086/587757

R. Gomulkiewicz, D.M. Drown, M.F. Dybdahl, W. Godsoe, S.L. Nuismer, K.M. Pepin, B.J. Ridenhour, C.I. Smith, J.B. Yoder (2007). Dos and don’ts of testing the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution Heredity, 98 (5), 249-58 DOI: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6800949

G.L. Wilson, C.H. Ernst (2005). Reproductive Ecology of the Terrapene carolina carolina (Eastern Box Turtle) in Central Virginia Southeastern Naturalist, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1656/1528-7092(2005)004[0689:REOTTC]2.0.CO;2

J.B. Yoder, B. Shneiderman (2008). Science 2.0: Not So New? Science, 320 (5881), 1290-1 DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5881.1290

Christ Church as it is: Church and state

Here in Moscow, Idaho, it’s hard to avoid hearing about Christ Church, a local conservative mega-church with ministries encompassing a publishing house, a Bible college with dodgy accreditation, a private k-12 school, a ministerial training program, and its own denomination of conservative neo-Calvinists. All of which are headquartered in Moscow, ID, population circa 23,000.

Figure 1: State, and Church
Photo by eqqman.

Non-Christ Churcher Moscovites mostly know the group for its ties to Christian Reconstructionism, a movement that aims to return U.S. society resurrect the Confederate States of America as a “Christian” nation. Including, yes, slavery. Douglas Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church and éminence grise behind most of its ministries, earned the attention of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center when he published a (substantially plagiarized) book explaining that slavery wasn’t so bad after all. Christ Church has since tried to downplay this fundamentally racist history, and succeeded in snowing a New York Times reporter who profiled the affiliated New Saint Andrew’s College.

Actually, reading that Times piece, you can sense that the reporter may have under-represented CC/NSA/Doug Wilson’s racist undercurrents not so much because Christ Churchers hide them very well (Doug Wilson on mainstream conservatives: “They voted for Bush; I’d vote for Jefferson Davis.”) but because locals who are creeped out by Christ Church can sound a bit, well, shrill. Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post: I’ve started looking into what Christ Church has to say about itself. It’s one thing for a bunch of Moscovite hippies (yours truly included) to be worried about a conservative megachurch in our midst; it’s another if that church actually, by its own admission, takes extreme and worrying positions.

Today’s topic: the relationship between church and state. This is a good starting point because one of the major accusations against Christ Church is that its aims are basically theocratic – that, politically, Christ Church (or Wilson, who might as well be synonymous with the church’s policy positions, as we’ll see below) wants to enforce Old Testament law on the entire population of the United States. Now, there are actually three theological components to that position, if Christ Church does indeed hold it:

  • Whether, for Christians, the Old Testament text is a standard for normative ethical behavior (as opposed to viewing the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospel, as we Mennonites do);
  • Whether Christians should ask non-Christians to accept Christian ethical views (whatever those are); and
  • How Christians should go about doing that.

You might take all sorts of positions on these three questions and still fall somewhere on the spectrum of theology Christians have built up over the last two thousand years. The question is, where does Christ Church fall on that spectrum? Well, fortunately for the curious among us, Christ Church’s newsletter, “Credenda/Agenda”, has just run a cover story on religion and politics. Let’s see what it (and, by it, I mean Doug Wilson, who is the editor of “Credenda/Agenda”, natch) has to say.

(First, a complaint/warning to those clicking through to the source text: it’s long and kinda rambling, much like this post. This is probably because Wilson’s primary employment is writing sermons, which are not usually structured as five-paragraph essays. That’s fine for speaking aloud, but less so in written form.)

Anyway. Wilson starts out by strongly affirming the political relevance of the Gospel:

Jesus was crucified in a public way, and His death necessarily has public ramifications. There is no way to be fully faithful to the message of His death and resurrection in private.

I could actually fully agree with Wilson on this point; my thinking about the relationship of the Gospel to politics is basically lifted wholesale from the writings of John Howard Yoder (no relation), who wrote things that sound a lot like the above quote. For example, in his masterwork The Politics of Jesus:

The kingdom of God is a social order and not a hidden one. … it is that concrete jubilary obedience, in pardon and repentance, the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which men have only to accept.

But it’s also possible that Wilson means something completely different from Yoder when he says the Gospel is politically relevant. Yoder held that Christian ethics are political because they necessarily challenge the authority of the state, but he didn’t mean that Christians should take over the state – he meant that Christianity challenges the entire concept of human government:

Preaching and incorporating a vision of an order of social human relations more universal than the Pax Romana … [Jesus] permitted the Romans to deny their vaunted respect for law as they proceeded illegally against him. This they did in order to avoid the threat to their dominion represented by the very fact that he existed in their midst so morally independent of their pretensions.

Figure 2: Jesus conquers
Photo by RATAEDL.

(That’s more from The Politics of Jesus.) Yoder was unsure whether Christians should vote, much less run the country. What political meaning does Wilson see in the Gospel, then? Explicating a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Wilson writes,

… Christ and Him crucified is theonomic postmodernism — when the nations are discipled in accordance with His Word and are taught to obey all that He required, this means the necessary exclusion of secular democracy (which is the political expression of modernity). … Christ is the Lord of the new polis that has been planted right in the middle of the old polis. God did this so that the new way of being human in Christ would … gradually transform all the nations of men. [Italics all Wilson’s]

That sounds to me like Wilson wants the Church (presumably, his) to be more than present in the world – he wants it to rule the world. A quick dig in Wikipedia for the definition of “theonomy” suggests this is the case: the term literally translates as “God-law,” and in modern times, it’s apparently associated with Christian Reconstructionist (theocratic) thinkers.

In theological response, I’d point to the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus isn’t just rejecting the current model of government under which he and his disciples live (i.e., Roman dictatorship), but the entire concept of government, of one human being exercising power over another. Note also the reference to the Crucifixion – Jesus is setting up his basically passive submission to Roman authority as a model for his disciples. It’s hard to govern in any meaningful sense of the word if you’re submitting yourself to death on the cross.

And but so Wilson thinks that the Church should rule the world. Eventually, anyway – he’s vague on the topic of how it gets to rule. That seems to answer both the second and third question above – what about the first? Where is Wilson getting the ethical standards by which his Church will rule? Here there is much verbiage about “cruciform politics” and “sacrificially” testifying to the lordship of Christ, but not a lot of actual policy positions, or the specific sources from which they spring. Except for this one:

The idols of the age are always decked out in respectable clothing, and people who attack them are always dismissed (initially) as crazed nutjobs and disturbers of the peace. In our day, one of the central idols is the the swollen state. In other words, the political aparatus [sic] over which Jesus will be Lord needs to be about 100 times smaller than it currently is. [Italics Wilson’s]

And this one:

Issues like abortion and homosexual marriage are far more important than are issues like minimum wage laws. But the lordship of Christ does apply to minimum wage laws. It is just that we might not want to start there—especially if we think they are a good idea.

So, according to Wilson, Jesus is for limited government, outlawing abortion, and preventing legalized gay marriage. He’s interested in minimum wage improvements, but they’re not a top-tier priority precisely because they sound like a good idea. Apart from this last weird, counter-intuitive assertion, this is a pretty tired outline of Christian Right talking points. And it’s maddening, and sad, and completely disconnected from the Gospel text.

Jesus never said a word about the “size” of government (whatever that means), abortion, or homosexuality. Never. Nothing. If you dig around in the Old Testament and the Epistles, you’ll find a handful of statements against homosexuality (depending on how you define the term), and also against women leaving their heads bare in church, men shaving their sideburns, and anybody eating owls. Meanwhile, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about being generous to the poor. So does the Old Testament. Which suggests to me, just looking at, you know, the Bible, that God might actually care about minimum wage laws. Quite a lot. And way more than he (or she) cares about the latest skirmish in the U.S. culture wars. In other words, Doug Wilson and Christ Church might be interested in setting up a theocracy, but it sure won’t be a Christian one.