This week’s story of an evangelical Christian group claiming to have found Noah’s Ark triggered memories of a bizarre, never before published, moment in the White House of George Herbert Walker Bush.
It was 1989. The Cold War was still on. I was serving as special assistant to the president, with a focus on “coalitions.” And that included religious groups as well as law enforcement, veterans and on and on. One of my self-appointed tasks was to make sure we honored the voter blocs that had supported us in the general election. Including groups that were usually taken for granted and never asked for anything. Members of the LDS come to mind but mostly evangelical groups who represent huge numbers but aren’t organized and whose leaders prefer to personally cash in all of their members’ IOU’s for themselves. Catholic Cardinals knew how the game was played, they would visit with the president in the Oval Office for a few minutes but the real work was the “to do” lists of big projects they would pass onto me. Evangelical leaders just wanted a hook to use in their next fund raising letter or an illustration for a sermon that would top a rival.
One such neglected group was the Seventh Day Adventists. They always voted Republican and they never got a thing for it. Never an appointment, nor a grant, not a thing. So when the spokesman and television voice of the denomination, George Vandeman, asked to see me, I was ready to respond to any reasonable request. At the time, he was the host of It is Written, one of the top ten most watched religious television programs in the country. (At the White House we watched those Neilson ratings carefully.)
Vandeman brought a guest. He said he was a former CIA pilot and he had a very private and personal request. “I am only asking for one thing,” Vandeman intoned solemnly, “that you hand my friend’s letter to the President. And that you do so personally and privately.”
I promised to do so. But, of course, after they left I took a look. I was not about to put the president in a compromising position. And here is what I found.
This former pilot flew sorties with the famous U2 spy planes over the Soviet Union. In his letter he offered the president all kinds of various codes and numbers identifying his missions. He said when he and his fellow pilots took off from our bases in Turkey they would bank out over Mt. Ararat and turn north to enter the dangerous airspace of the Soviet Union. (On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down one such flight. It turned into the infamous Moscow show trial of Francis Gary Powers.) According to Vandeman’s pilot friend, they all used a unique stone formation as a landmark to make their turn. And now as he was a convert to the Seventh Day Adventist faith and had read their literature, he suspected that this petrified, giant box, visible from the sky, might be Noah’s Ark. At least, he wanted to know if some of the pictures taken could be de-classified so he could help identify the spot for a pilgrimage. He offered some complicated co-ordinates to help determine the likely date and specific roll of archived film.
Sounded like a reasonable request to me. Perestroika was on. The Berlin Wall would come down that October. The Seventh Day Adventists never asked for a thing. Of what value were some old pictures of a mountain in Turkey?
But George Vandeman, like most public figures whose votes can be counted in advance, was not to get his wish. A few months later I was asked to go on a walk in a park with an agency spook who assured me that at the president’s requested pictures of Mt. Ararat would be released to the preacher. But when the moment came they were not the right photos. They were old pictures of the mountain, taken from the air in the 1950’s and not of the right spot. The agency analyst insisted that these were useful pictures and helpfully tried to point out the gigantic rock formation that was the likely landmark the pilot convert had in mind. But Vandeman and his friend were deeply disappointed.
This recent “Noah’s Ark” discovery by Evangelical archeologists brought back all of the emotions of that private White House event. There is a natural conflict between science and religion and politics. Science uses politics, as in the “extra” evidence of global warming. And politics uses religion, as in George W. Bush who after leaving the White House admitted to Terry Moran on ABC’s Nightline that the Bible probably wasn’t true. But religion sometimes uses science too, or tries to do so, to validate itself, as in this recent discovery.
The fact is that all three have needed each other over the years. Nurtured in monasteries in the Dark Ages, it was the church that birthed modern science. And politicians at a whim have alternatively squelched or tolerated faith, Elizabeth, for example, deciding whether a nation would be Catholic or Protestant. And our Founding Fathers deciding it should be freely exercised.
As to this recent sliver of Noah’s ark? “I’m waiting for the evidence to convince me,” Professor Eric Cline told Good Morning America. Don’t hold your breath. The fact is that non believers will scoff no matter what the evidence says. Jesus made that point. In hell they will continue to publish their papers (on non-flammable slate) explaining why they cannot be where they think they are if God is at once good and all powerful. And believers shouldn’t demand splinters from a boat to convince them of anything.
Tribute to George Vandeman and Paul Harvey.