history, politics

The Scopes trial and democracy

Back to Summer for the Gods – Edward Larson’s book on the Scopes trial.  A quick recap for those just joining us (Part 1 here): The state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution.  John Scopes agreed to be a test case for the ACLU, who hoped to show that the law was unconstitutional.  He taught evolution in his biology class and was prosecuted for breaking the law.  William Jennings Bryan, himself a leading proponent of anti-evolutionism, offered his services to the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, attached himself to the defense team for Scopes.

One of the key disagreements at work in the Scopes case was not science versus religion, but rather differing political philosophies.  The prosecution argued that the law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the people; Scopes broke the law when he taught evolution.  Open and shut case.  Book ‘im.  The defense countered that sometimes the will of the majority tramples on the rights of the individual.  In this case, Scopes was denied the academic freedom to teach the generally accepted view of science.  In other words, let the experts teach their subject.

William Jennings Bryan embodied the majoritarian argument of the prosecution.  Majoritarianism had been his political philosophy his entire life.  He was a populist and reformer.  According to Larson, “Reform took two forms for Bryan: personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action” (37).  It was an interesting paradox—he combined “left wing politics with right wing religion” (97).  It’s hard to imagine such a politician today.  He rose to fame at the 1896 Democratic convention, when, as a congressmen, he bucked the party establishment and the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by trying to win the nomination.  Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech, a populist plea to ease the debt and credit burden on the farmers by switching from the gold standard to a currency backed by silver.  The speech won over the audience, and he secured the nomination.

Though Bryan did become the party’s nominee for president, he lost the election.  He ended up becoming the Democratic nominee twice more, but he never became president (again, impossible to imagine either modern political party nominating the same candidate three times for President).  After losing the nomination to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, he served as Secretary of State in Wilson’s cabinet, but resigned in protest when Wilson wanted to enter World War I.  Though out of office, he continued working towards reform.  He gave hundreds of speeches and argued for the passage of several constitutional amendments:

  • direct election of senators—previously, senators were chosen by the state legislature; by electing senators directly, voters had more say in who represented them, making this a majoritarian reform.
  • Prohibition—this amendment made the possession and sale of alcohol illegal in an attempt to reform social ills.
  • women’s vote—thus giving the right to vote to half of the population of voting age; clearly the most majoritarian reform possible at the time.

The Scopes case combined his views of majoritarianism with his personal faith.  The vast majority of Tennessee voters didn’t believe in evolution, so a law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the majority.  It was his argument that the people who paid for the education of children should decide what they are taught.

Majoritarianism sounds like democracy in pure form, but it runs into an obvious problem when the will of the majority is immoral (slavery comes to mind as an easy example).  I think another obvious problem is if the majority of people are ignorant.  It’s vitally important to have an informed electorate.  It’s no surprise that there are fights about curriculum: whoever controls public education wields great power.  In my own life, I feel that my history education, much like my science education, was woefully inadequate in high school.  I want to be an informed voter.  It’s one of the reasons I have been reading a lot more American history lately.

The United States is not majoritarian (at least in most aspects, referenda and other state and local issues are sometimes put directly to the voter); rather, America is a representative democracy—we elect others to be our proxy, hoping they are experts in areas we don’t have the time or inclination to know enough about.  When we do have strong opinions, we let our representative know how we feel, either beforehand by calling or writing our members of Congress (or state legislators, or city councilors), or afterwards at the ballot box.

I’m rather torn about majoritarianism.  On the one hand, I want to affirm democracy.  I want everybody to have a voice in how they are governed.  But as oft-quoted Winston Churchill affirmed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The majority can get it wrong.  And that’s not to mention all the ways that democracy can be abused (stolen elections, suppressed votes, beholden politicians to money, etc.).   In this specific case of anti-evolution laws, I would side with the scientists (who I would consider the experts) over the will of the majority.  Does this make me anti-democratic?  Perhaps.  But this is why education is so important.  If one disagrees with the majority, it’s then up to the minority to educate and persuade in order to change the will of the majority.

As a side note on education, high school curriculums can have a profound effect on later views of biology.  A recent study shows that college students are more likely to accept creationism if it was taught in high school (even if it was presented along with evolution).  Another study shows that high school biology teachers are often reluctant to teach evolution.  It’s no wonder that a third of U.S. adults do not accept evolution.  But acceptance of evolution is also a matter of who we consider the experts on the matter and how we decide who the experts are.  When I was a young earth creationist, I had a group of experts I trusted, including teachers and creationist authors.  But now that I accept evolution, my group of trusted experts has shifted accordingly. /end side note

I’d love to hear what others think about majoritarianism as a political philosophy.  Feel free to bring up other issues besides the teaching of evolution that involve majoritarianism.

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2 thoughts on “The Scopes trial and democracy

  1. Pingback: The Scopes trial and Christian subculture | strangerextant

  2. Pingback: Book Reviews, February 2015 | strangerextant

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