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Tourists on the Road to Salvation

Behold the millions who flock to religious theme parks. What do they seek? From ‘Reservations,’ the forthcoming book by Steve Burgess.

Steve Burgess 19 Mar 2024The Tyee

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles.

[Editor’s note: This is excerpted from ‘Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel’ by Steve Burgess, contributing editor of The Tyee. Slated for April 27 release by Douglas & McIntyre, the book mixes memoir with deep dives into ethical aspects of modern travel to deliver what Andrew Coyne calls ‘a sparkling, provocative inquiry.’ You can pre-order.]

Back in the 1970s, the highway served the function now provided by the internet — a place for teenagers to meet strangers. One summer my friend Bob and I hitchhiked from Brandon out to Vancouver and then down the coast to San Francisco. Coming back up the California coast, we got a ride in a Volkswagen Beetle with two young women named Ann and Dorothy. They were born-again Christians on their way to visit a commune near Eureka, California, called Lighthouse Ranch.

They took pains not to proselytize to us. In fact, the great revelation they introduced us to, sheltered prairie lads that we were, was the joy of bagels and cream cheese. They promised to take us farther north after their visit if we would join them in a visit to the commune. We agreed.

Lighthouse Ranch was quite a place. Perched on a bluff overlooking a wide stretch of Pacific beach, it was largely populated by people who were then known as Jesus freaks, a mix of one-time hippies, seekers and reformed speed addicts, repositioning and reprogramming themselves as devout believers. Many seemed eager for that moment when the corrupt world would slide away and leave them triumphant, rewarded for backing the right horse.

They were not a particularly fun group. There was a game of Frisbee where my comment about a gust of wind drew the response, “That’s just the Lord throwing your pride back down at you.”

One camper waylaid Bob and me as we attempted to sneak down the bluff to the beach.

“What good is that gathering,” the camper asked, pointing down at a family barbecue, “when they have lust in their hearts?”

One young man was on the lam from the law and argued with his fellow campers. “God wants you to turn yourself in,” someone insisted.

“God wants me to go to Mexico,” he replied.

When at last the four of us headed north into Oregon, our benefactors were sorely disappointed. Pure of heart and sincere of belief, Ann and Dorothy had hoped to find like-minded souls to celebrate a new life in Christ. Instead they had found Jesus variously running the Anti-Barbecue League, smuggling fugitives to Tijuana and revelling in that old-time told-you-so religion that would be revealed in the fullness of time when the righteous were high-fiving above a roiling stew of human agony.

Lighthouse Ranch was not exactly a tourist destination. But it exerted a pull for Ann and Dorothy, who sought Christian soulmates.

Decades later a similar pull is drawing crowds to Petersburg, Kentucky. An unincorporated community with an official population of about 620, it sits by Interstate 275, the ring road that allows motorists to bypass Cincinnati, Ohio. The little town is home to the Creation Museum. An hour away in Williamstown is its companion attraction, the Ark Encounter.

The Creation Museum is a $27-million, 75,000-square-foot facility that purports to offer evidence supporting YEC (young-Earth creationism). The museum grounds are about 75 kilometres northwest of Williamstown and the Ark Encounter, a reconstruction (let’s not quibble) of Noah’s ark from the Book of Genesis.

If nothing else, Selling the Amish author Susan Trollinger says, the big boat is an impressive sight. “The Ark is stunning, physically, just walking up to the thing,” she says. “And the biggest argument the Ark makes is just by its size, that it makes sense to say that this story actually happened, that you could actually get that many animals on this thing and float around for a year.”

Trollinger and her husband, William Vance Trollinger Jr., wrote the book Righting America at the Creation Museum. Operated by a company called Answers in Genesis, the museum posits an intriguing theory known as “flood geology,” drawing heavily on The Genesis Flood by Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb. “The book argues that Noah’s flood created all the geological formations that we see that make the world look old,” Trollinger says, “and did it all in a year. The Grand Canyon, produced in a year, don’t worry about it.”

“If you’re going to read Genesis literally,” she says, “go through the genealogies. You’ve got Adam and Eve, historical figures, who have descendants, and you add up all those years, and the universe can’t be more than 10,000 years old. So you have to explain that. And flood geology was this scientific intervention that explained it.”

Count Trollinger and her husband among the unconvinced. “We walked through the Creation Museum for the first time,” she says, “and we passed through the flood geology room. There’s very little science. We analyzed every placard and video. Only two per cent of the placards would count as science, even by their own definitions.”

Not that there are no worthwhile exhibits. “They have an incredible skeleton of a dinosaur, really impressive,” Trollinger says. “So OK, how does this dinosaur skeleton prove a young Earth, or flood geology? They argue that because this dinosaur was found on the side of a hill, obviously the dinosaur was running up the hill to escape the rising flood waters. But then the poor dinosaur drowned and that’s why the skeleton was found on the side of a hill.”

A somewhat creepy-feeling exhibit of a young girl near a velociraptor. They are surrounded by plastic ferns and other foliage.
At the Creation Museum in Kentucky, exhibits satisfy biblical timelines, if not science, by portraying an era when dinosaurs supposedly mixed with humans. The theme park has drawn over 10 million visitors. Photo by David Berkowitz, Creative Commons licensed.

The Creation Museum opened in 2007 and exceeded its annual attendance projections in only five months. It has since expanded twice, added the Williamstown ark attraction and welcomed over 10 million visitors.

Why has the Creation Museum been a hit? You might call it validation tourism.

“Evangelicals and fundamentalists have felt very much on the margins of U.S. society since the Scopes trial,” says Trollinger, referring to the 1925 prosecution of a Tennessee high school teacher who taught the theory of evolution. “They won the case but they lost in public opinion. They were constructed, by journalists especially, as backwater idiots. They don’t know anything, they don’t do science, they’re stupid. And what the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter offer evangelicals and fundamentalists is this ‘science,’ flood geology, that justifies an ultra-literal reading of Genesis. And it says, ‘Look at you! You’re legit! You’ve got yourself a big-ass Ark and a Creation Museum with animatronic dinosaurs. So cutting edge!’”

In 2014 the Creation Museum invited TV personality Bill Nye, a.k.a. Bill Nye the Science Guy, to debate Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham on the topic of young-Earth creationism. It was popular — tickets sold out almost instantly, it was livestreamed, and later broadcast on C‑SPAN.

“When Ken Ham did his debate with Bill Nye,” Trollinger says, “he mentioned science multiple times more often than Nye did.” Still, Ham declared in his opening statement that science “has been taken over by secularists.” The debate, moderated by CNN’s Tom Foreman, probably changed few minds. But it did have an effect. Ham credited publicity from the debate for generating some of the funds to help build the $73-million Ark Encounter, which opened in 2016.

The event also provided a preview of another debate that would soon take centre stage in American politics, courtesy of Donald Trump: whether or not engaging in public arguments over unsupported claims simply helps to boost the credibility and dissemination of those baseless claims.

Many a joke has been made about what sort of reading material would be contained in a Donald Trump presidential library — perhaps stolen documents, Big Mac wrappers and shelves of clearance-priced copies of Trump: The Art of the Deal. But whatever else it may mean, the success of the Creation Museum suggests that a Trump library would probably be a big draw. In a politically and culturally polarized country, there is considerable appeal in an attraction that simply lets you gather with fellow believers.

Then again, as has become a mantra, “everything Trump touches dies.” Religious-themed sites can self-destruct. In 1978 evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, televangelists and founders of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, opened Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina. It covered 2,300 acres and eventually drew an average of six million visitors per year, surpassed only by Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, making it America’s No. 1 non-rodent-related theme park. Alas, a veritable rat’s nest of charges would surface in 1987 as former employee Jessica Hahn alleged she had been drugged and raped by Bakker and another preacher.

Heritage USA then transitioned from Bible verses to Chapter 11. In a final display of divine displeasure, Hurricane Hugo slammed into the theme park in 1989. It closed shortly after, a victim in part of the particular PR vulnerability that comes with religious marketing.

This is one of several occasional excerpts The Tyee is sharing with permission from ‘Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel’ by Steve Burgess, to be published by Douglas & McIntyre on April 27, 2024. You can pre-order.  [Tyee]

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