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Pray to Play

Bush’s Faith-Based National Parks

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

The view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, smogged up as it is these days, still retains the power to prompt even the most secular of visitors into transcendentalist reveries as they cast theirs eyes toward Shiva’s Temple and Wotan’s Throne. Now tourists at the federal park in northern Arizona will be greeted with scriptural passages affixed to park signs to help interpret the religious experience of gazing into God’s mighty chasm.

This autumn Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, ordered three bronze plaques featuring quotes from Psalms 68:4, 66:4 and 104:24 placed on viewing platforms on the south rim of the Canyon. The plaques were made and donated by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix, who live in a convent called Cannan in the Desert. The convent was founded in 1963 by Mother Basilea, who visited the Sinai where said said she conversed with the Supreme Diety about the moral decline of the western world.

The nuns’ website warns that "avalanche of moral decay is upon us… our society is disintegrating." As evidence, the nuns point to the removal of Judge Roy Moore’s monument to the 10 Commandments in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court and to the appearance of the Dalai Lama at the National Cathedral-"another illustration of how God’s commandments are pushed aside, step by step. May Jesus help us and guard our hearts!"

At the urging of the sisters, Murphy overturned a decision to ban the plaques by the Park’s superintendent, who contended the religious messages violated the US Constitution.

That’s not all. Now, after soaking in the grandeur of the canyon, visitors can retire to the Park bookstore where they can broze through the diaries of John Wesley Powell, Edward Abbey’s Down the River, historian Stephen Pyne’s excellent How the Canyon Became Grand and numerous volumes on the geology of the canyon. After all, the Grand Canyon has long been viewed as a kind of living encyclopedia of geological forces, a layered history of the Earth that debunked fundamentalist dogma on the age of the earth. "Nowhere on the earth’s surface, so far as we know, are the secrets of its structure revealed as here," wrote the great American geologist John Strong Newberry.

But startng this summer the Park’s bookstore began offering a volume titled The Grand Canyon: a Different View. The view is indeed different. This book of lavish photographs and essays presents the creationist account of the origins of the great canyon of the Colorado River. The book is edited by Tom Vail, a river guide, who offers Christian float trips through the canyon. "For years, as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years," Vail writes in the introduction to the book. "Then I met the Lord. Now, I have "a different view" of the Canyon, which, according to a biblical time scale, can’t possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

One of the contributors is creation "scientist" Dr. Gary Parker who observes: "Where did the Grand Canyon itself come from? The Flood may have stacked the rock like a giant layer cake, but what cut the cake? One thing is sure: the Colorado River did not do it."

Earlier this year, the Bush administration prevented park rangers from publishing a rebuttal to the book for use by interpretive staff and seasonal employees who are often confronted during tours by creationist zealots.

In southern California, a similar battle is raging over a Latin cross erected on the Sunrise Rocks in the Mojave National Preserve. Apparently, the cross was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has since become a site for sunrise Easter services and a meeting ground for Wise-Use ranchers associated with the Christian Identity movement.

In December 2000, Park Service managers agreed to remove the cross based on advice from the Justice Department that the icon violated the Constitution and Park Service regulations. But the Park Service backed down after Congressman Jerry Lewis, the right wing firebrand from San Diego, intervened. The ACLU sued the Park Service in March of 2001 and won an injunction. The Bush Administration appealed and the case remains pending before the Ninth Circuit.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital the Park Service has bowed to pressure from the religious right to rewrite the history of protests on the national mall. Since 1995, the interpretive center at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington has shown an 8-minute long film depicting various demonstrations and gatherings at the monument, including anti-war protests, concerts and Martin Luther King’s most famous speech. Last month, the Park Service bowed to demands from Christian groups to edit out footage of anti-Vietnam War protests and images of gay rights and pro-choice demonstrations. In a letter to the Park Service, the Christian groups charged that the film implied that "Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion ‘rights’ as well as feminism."

The Park Service HQ responded that they would edit the film to present a "more balanced" version. The new film will included footage of rallies by anti-abortion and Christian groups, such as the Promisekeepers, and shots of a pro-Gulf War demonstration. Neither of these events took place at the Lincoln Memorial.

"The Park Service leadership now caters exclusively to conservative Christian fundamentalist groups," says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The Bush Administration appears to be sponsoring a program of Faith-Based Parks."

What’s next? Live reenactments of the witchtrials at Salem National Historical Park, presided over by John Ashcroft?