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.
- 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.