The average American might not realize that the prejudices and superstitions that underlie the push to teach creationism in public schools, also undergird anti-LGBTQ bigotry. But the Arkansas legislature has worked hard recently to showcase this link.
Earlier this month, the Arkansas legislature overrode the governor’s veto on HB1570, which takes away the right and ability of transgender youth to self-determine their medical care and sexual identity in consultation with medical professionals. This is part of a wave of anti-trans bills sweeping the country, an effort to unite the conservatives and Christian nationalists by otherizing and demonizing a minority.
The same day the legislature overrode the veto to insert itself between trans patients and their doctors, a House committee passed a bill to allow public schools to “teach creationism.” The full House passed the creationism bill the next day. Dehumanizing trans-people and indoctrinating schoolchildren, all in 24 hours. Is this just a sign of a retrograde legislature or is something more going on here?
Passing these two bills might be simply coincidence, but the genesis of the creationism bill is telling. Rep. Mary Bentley preached a creationist sermon on the House floor (see below) urging her colleagues to pass the anti-trans youth bill on March 10. The very next day, March 11, she sponsored and proposed her new bill to put creationism in public schools. The former seems to have sparked the latter. A day later, March 12, Bentley recounted and posted her anti-trans creationism speech in a Facebook post.
Bentley’s rhetoric presents an even clearer picture than the timeline. While sporting a massive bedazzled cross necklace, Bentley invoked creationism in a context where most people wouldn’t recognize it, but the anti-trans creationism Bentley preached on March 10 overlaps perfectly with the creationism she and her ilk want preached in public school classrooms (her remarks start at 2:16:19.)
Bentley began, “I’m going to share with you the Father’s heart because Father God, our Creator, has some very important things he would like to say about this.” After claiming to speak for the creator —an arrogant presumption no doubt claimed under the guise of humility—Bentley regurgitated a fake quote beloved by Christian Nationalists: “George Washington once said, ‘It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.’ And I couldn’t agree with our first president more; we need to hear the heart of God on issues we are facing today to govern correctly.”
Of course, George Washington was famously reticent about religion, refused to take communion the few times he went to church, spurned religious consolation at his deathbed, and absolutely did not say this. Bentley can’t even properly speak for our first president but presumes to speak for a god.
Bentley continued as if in Sunday school and not the state legislature. She declared that the Bible is “the state’s book,” and then quoted it five times and expounded on each passage. Her first Bible quote was Psalm 139:13 “Yahweh formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. . . . You even formed every bone in my body!”
Bentley explained, “we see here that God has created each of us uniquely . . . we need to help you be the you that God created. . .” (Bentley inadvertently showcased one of the major problems with teaching biblical concepts as truth in public schools: whose “biblical truth” is true? Here she quoted the Passion Translation, which is less a translation and more an interpretation or, as the authors claim, a “heart-level translation that expresses God’s fiery heart.” Whatever that means, the book inserts so many new words, clauses, and ideas, that it’s about 50% longer than other translations.).
Next, she read the creationist classic Genesis 1:27 and then Deuteronomy 22:5, which says that women wearing men’s clothes or vice versa is “an abomination to the Lord.” Bentley tediously opined, “Father God is proud of who he created each of us to be and to deny who you are is to deny that he created you.” The notes for her speech posted on Facebook ended this line a bit differently, “. . . to deny who you are and were created to be is to deny Him.” Bentley is legislating her holy book and denying citizens their rights because she sees the very existence of LGBTQ people as a denial of her god, a hateful religious belief she wants preached to captive audiences of schoolchildren across the state.
Bentley then stretched to make Jesus relevant, contending that he hugged children “because each one is special, each one is unique, and we need to do everything we can to help these children be just who they were created to be.” At this point and after prompting, the chairman chastised Bentley and asked her to speak on the bill itself. “I believe I’m speaking on the bill exactly,” she responded. This is the undeniable link between her bigotry and creationism. For Bentley, creationism dictates her anti-trans views. For Bentley, the Bible demands her bigotry. And it’s not enough that she believes it, she wants the machinery of the state to push this creationism in public school classrooms. That is, of course, unconstitutional.
The law is clear on this point. In 1928, a few years after the successful criminal prosecution of John Scopes in Tennessee, Arkansas made it a crime “to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” Susan Epperson, a 10th grade biology teacher, challenged the law and the Supreme Court struck it down 40 years later. But Arkansas wasn’t done. In 1981, 13 years after losing at the Supreme Court, it passed a new law telling schools to teach a scientific “controversy” that does not exist. A federal court struck down that law the next year. The Supreme Court did the same for the Louisiana version of this law in 1987.
Bentley’s push embodies the popular definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” But she also convinced her colleagues in the House to vote overwhelmingly, 72–21, for the bill. So the question is, why? Why the collective insanity after so many embarrassing judicial losses? One reason is now obvious: This creationism bill descends from biblically justified bigotry that demonizes and otherizes a stigmatized minority for political gain.
But there’s a second reason, which Bentley stated clearly. She first proposed a bill to have public schools “teach creationism and intelligent design” in March 2017, about two weeks before Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings began in the US Senate. It died quietly in committee without a hearing. At the time, the court was politically and ideologically more conservative than previous Supreme Courts, but not enough to countenance creationism in the public schools. Four years and three justices later, Bentley feels sufficiently confident to propose a clearly unconstitutional bill because the court has already been packed with Christian nationalist ideologues. “I believe that we have a different Supreme Court and . . . I think we have different members of the Supreme Court,” she said. Her words serve as an indictment of this Supreme Court and show the desperate need for court correction, reform, and expansion.
H.L. Mencken minced no words about the judge in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial and how he played to the local crowd: “almost every word he uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions.” Though written nearly a century ago, the Arkansas Legislature is making the same appeal today, and, in the process, proving that biblical creationism is a blueprint for anti-LGBTQ bigotry that doesn’t belong in our classrooms. It’s time for Arkansas to evolve.