Imagine taking your child to a place where they will watch graphic simulations of abortion, rape and suicide. Alternatively, imagine taking them to a place where they will see demonstrations of charity, forgiveness and faith. In terms of the child’s welfare, the choice seems obvious. In terms of the implications for government in America, however, the choice is more complicated.
‘Hell houses’, a predominantly American phenomenon, aim to educate an interactive generation of children in fundamentalist Christianity. It is no longer enough to simply tell a congregation that their sins will send them to hell – much better if they can view a re-enactment of the physical consequences of their misdemeanours. Interest in hell houses was revived when Pastor Keenan Roberts started selling ‘Hell House Kits’ from the New Destiny Christian Centre in Colorado. He claims to have sold thousands of these $299 kits, which supposedly have a 33% conversion rate, and contain the script, props and background audio for a complete hellish performance. Churches can buy it and stage the performance for their congregation. Rather as Virgil guided Dante, a demon guides the audience and explains how sins provide fellow inhabitants for him in Hell.
The descriptions of the various scenes would be absurd if they weren’t so disturbing. The ‘Gay Wedding Scene’ blurb denounces “the born-gay deception” and portrays the supposedly inevitable death of homosexual couples from AIDS as “demon imps swarm into the hospital room”. The ‘Abortion Scene’ calls for props including “pieces of meat placed in a glass bowl to look like pieces of a baby” and a vacuum to “remove the final pieces of her child”.
By comparison, the Holy Land Experience, an attraction that has had 1.5 million visitors since its foundation in 2008, seems to be relatively harmless. The Holy Land Experience promises its customers that “the history of the Bible will come alive”. Visitors can see replicas of the Garden of Eden, the tomb at Calvary and the hall of Pontius Pilate. Just as Disney characters become more real when you’re hoisted onto their shoulders to take a souvenir picture, Jesus becomes more real when you can follow him around the streets of an authentic Galilean village.
Controversially, the Holy Land Experiences is given tax breaks on the basis that it is a religious organisation and not a business. Visitors pay up to $35 to get in, but for one day a year they can enter for free. This entitles the Holy Land Experience to $874,532 in tax breaks, though it cannot have given away more than $560,000 worth of free tickets on that one day.
Answers in Genesis, an organisation that believes in the literal truth of the Bible, is proposing building a similar park in Kentucky. They want to promote creationism, and build a replica of Noah’s Ark, presenting the Flood and other Old Testaments stories as real historical events. This is a sister project to their Creation Museum in the same state, which denies evolution and the puts the earth’s age at 5,000 years. They are billing it as a long-term investment in the area, providing up to 900 jobs and attracting up to 1.6 million tourists. Based on these figures, they have been granted $37 million in tax exemptions, with a further $2 million put into road regeneration near the site.
For Americans United, who campaign for the separation of church and state in the USA, this is a clear misappropriation of government funds. Their representative Simon Brown points out simply that “the US Supreme Court has said that creationism is a form of advancing a religious agenda”, which means that under the First Amendment it cannot be propagated using public funds, he argues. However, arguing that they are investing in local infrastructure, corporations are defying this rule. How readily they can get round it depends on the state in which they are working. Kentucky is strongly Christian, with 48% of its population attending church weekly. Simon explains that “you have to either openly accept Christianity to get elected, or at the very least not comment” and if one were to renounce religion “it would make it very difficult to stay in office. That’s why Answers in Genesis are targeting Kentucky. Lobbying for tax credits is a big game that corporations play these days, and they basically play off states against each other to see who will give them the best deal. I’m sure that why the Ark Park is in Kentucky – because they gave them the best deal.”
These tax breaks are perhaps called further into question by the cuts in tax exemptions announced by State Governor Beshear in January. These amount to $286 million, and those who have had their guaranteed tax exempt status removed include schools, libraries and the police force. The Ark Park’s exemption remains untouched. Americans United believe this amounts to the state government promoting radical Christianity, through Answers in Genesis. Simon Brown points out that the Ark Park’s mission clearly conflicts with the separation of church and state – “Ultimately, their mission is to get kids hooked on Christianity. It’s a biblical version of Disney World.”
These tax breaks allow the fundamentalist Christian message to be communicated at other’s expense, and yet communicate this message in a relatively benign fashion. Hell houses, conversely, spread fundamentalist views in an entirely legal and yet deeply disturbing manner, as they quite literally ‘raise hell’ in the living rooms of America. In either case, the morality of the enterprise can be called into question.
Image credit: Pierpaolo de Angelis