Bush’s Faith-Based Parks




A

lthough
President Bush’s faith-based initiative—one of the centerpieces
of his domestic agenda—has yet to win congressional approval,
ramifications of the proposal have been felt in a number of government
agencies. The latest agency to take up the president’s faith-based
call is the National Park Service. Recently, the NPS brought Christian
displays to national parks and creationist books to the souvenir
shops. It has also been reported that the NPS was considering removing
historical information it found “conservatively incorrect”
from historical documents and video presentations. 


According
to a late-December press release issued by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the National Park Service “approved
the display of religious symbols and Bible verses, as well as the
sale of creationist books giving a non-evolutionary explanation
for the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders within national parks.” 


In
addition, the press release claimed that pressure from conservative
groups was causing the Park Service to consider editing a videotape,
shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995, which contains images
of demonstrations—including gay rights and abortion rights
rallies—that occurred at the memorial. 


According
to PEER, the National Park Service also agreed to review footage
of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Conservatives argued the protests
implied “Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion
‘rights’ as well as feminism.” According to PEER,
the Park Service “promised to develop a ‘more balanced’
version that included rallies of the Christian group Promise Keepers
and pro- Gulf War demonstrators though these events did not take
place at the Memorial.” 


A
day after the PEER press release, Planet Out, an online magazine
reported that the “story had changed” dramatically.  NPS
Chief of Public Affairs, David Barna, assured Winne Stachelberg,
the political director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national
gay rights group, that footage of gay rights demonstrations would
not be removed from presentations at the Lincoln Memorial. “It
sounds as if the park service is getting pressure from right-wing
extremists groups to drop images of the gay community and add other
images,” Stachelberg told Planet Out. 


The
genesis of the current NPS controversy lies with a letter written
last February by Kansas Republican Congressperson Todd Tiahrt. In
the letter addressed to the NPS, Tiahrt “objected to the portions
of the video that depict gays and a National Abortion Rights League
rally,” Bill Line, a spokesperson for the National Park Service
told Planet Out. Currently, Tiahrt is “in discussion”
with the park service about adding scenes with the Promise Keepers
march. 


The
alleged directive was the latest in a series of moves by the NPS
to cater to the demands of the president’s conservative Christian
constituency. In July, PEER reports, NPS Deputy Director Murphy
“ordered the Grand Canyon National Park to return three bronze
plaques bearing biblical verses to public viewing areas on the Canyon’s
South Rim.” The plaques were made and donated by the Evangelical
Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix, who live in a convent called Cannan
in the Desert. 


According
to PEER, “Murphy overruled the park superintendent who had
directed the plaques’ removal based on legal advice from the
Interior Department that the religious displays violated the First
Amendment. In a letter to the Evangelical Sisterhood, Murphy apologized
for ‘any intrusion resulting from’ the temporary removal
of the plaques quoting Psalms 68:4, 66:4, and 104:24 and pledged
‘further legal analysis and policy review’ before any
new action is taken.” 


Early
this fall, the Park Service also approved a creationist text,

Grand
Canyon: A Different View,

for sale in park bookstores and museums.
The book’s editor, Tom Vail, writes: “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. Then I met
the Lord. Now, I have a different view of the Canyon, which, according
to the Biblical time scale, can’t possibly be more than about
a few thousand years old.” The 104-page book contains essays
and observations from 23 “creation scientists and theologians.”
PEER points out, “Park Service leadership has blocked publication
of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that
labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis.” 


In
a related legal battle, the Park Service is fighting “to continue
displaying an 8-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock
outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California,”
PEER reports. A suit to force the removal of the cross, is now pending
before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 


“The
Park Service leadership now caters exclusively to conservative Christian
fundamentalist groups,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
“The Bush administration appears to be sponsoring a program
of faith-based parks.” 


“In
1983, Wallace Stenger wrote, ‘National parks are the best idea
we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect
us at our best rather than our worst.’ Twenty years later,
National Parks have lost most of what once made them special. They
are quickly coming to reflect the corporate, commercial, and pro-special
interest values of the Bush administration at its absolute worst,”
said Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness.







 





Bill Berkowitz
is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.