WAYNE, N.J. — Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.
"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"
The children roared their assent.
"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.
"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.
"God!" the boys and girls shouted.
"Who's the only one who knows everything?"
"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"
The children answered with a thundering: "God!"
A former high-school biology teacher, Ham travels the nation training children as young as 5 to challenge science orthodoxy. He doesn't engage in the political and legal fights that have erupted over the teaching of evolution. His strategy is more subtle: He aims to give people who trust the biblical account of creation the confidence to defend their views -- aggressively.
He urges students to offer creationist critiques of their textbooks, parents to take on science museum docents, professionals to raise the subject with colleagues. If Ham has done his job well, his acolytes will ask enough pointed questions -- and set forth enough persuasive arguments -- to shake the doctrine of Darwin.
"We're going to arm you with Christian Patriot missiles," Ham, 54, recently told the 1,200 adults gathered at Calvary Temple here in northern New Jersey. It was a Friday night, the kickoff of a heavily advertised weekend conference sponsored by Ham's ministry, Answers in Genesis.
To a burst of applause, Ham exhorted: "Get out and change the world!"
Over the last two decades, this type of "creation evangelism" has become a booming industry. Several hundred independent speakers promote biblical creation at churches, colleges, private schools, Rotary clubs. They lead tours to the Grand Canyon or the local museum to study the world through a creationist lens.
They churn out stacks of home-schooling material. A geology text devotes a chapter to Noah's flood; an astronomy book quotes Genesis on the origins of the universe; a science unit for second-graders features daily "evolution stumpers" that teach children to argue against the theory that is a cornerstone of modern science.
Answers in Genesis is the biggest of these ministries. Ham co-founded the nonprofit in his native Australia in 1979. The U.S. branch, funded mostly by donations, has an annual budget of $15 million and 160 employees who produce books and DVDs, maintain a comprehensive website, and arrange more than 500 speeches a year for Ham and four other full-time evangelists.
With pulpit-thumping passion, Ham insists the Bible be taken literally: God created the universe and all its creatures in six 24-hour days, roughly 6,000 years ago.
Hundreds of pastors will preach a different message Sunday, in honor of Charles Darwin's 197th birthday. In a national campaign, they will tell congregations that it's possible to be a Christian and accept evolution.
Ham considers that treason. When pastors dismiss the creation account as a fable, he says, they give their flock license to disregard the Bible's moral teachings as well. He shows his audiences a graphic that places the theory of evolution at the root of all social ills: abortion, divorce, racism, gay marriage, store clerks who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
The science Ham finds so dangerous holds that the first primitive scraps of genetic material appeared on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago. From these humble beginnings, a huge diversity of species evolved over the eons, through lucky mutations and natural selection.
The vast majority of scientists find no credible evidence to dispute this account and a tremendous amount to support it. They've identified thousands of transitional fossils, such as a whale that lumbered on land; a bird with reptilian features; and "Lucy," a remote cousin of modern man who walked on two legs but swung from trees like a chimp.
Still, millions of Americans find evolution preposterous. Polls consistently show that roughly half of Americans believe the biblical account instead.
In the 1970s, Ham taught evolution and creationism side by side in Australian public schools. Raised in a Christian family, Ham trusted God's account over Darwin's; the more he studied Genesis, the more he felt moved to defend it. He quit teaching after five years to take up evangelism full time.