The Scopes trial and Christian subculture

One last time about Summer for the Gods and the Scopes trial (parts 1 and 2 here and here). But first a quick recap: In 1925, spurred on by Christian fundamentalists, the state of Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution. The ACLU wanted to show the law was unconstitutional, so they worked with John Scopes in the small town of Dayton as a test case. He was brought to trial for teaching evolution, thus breaking the law. William Jennings Bryan, a former politician and a leader in the anti-evolution movement, joined the prosecution against Scopes. Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney and famous atheist, joined the defense team.

During the trial, antievolutionists felt that the media was biased against them, and they were right. Most newspapers in the country stated that they were for Darrow and the defense. And it wasn’t just the Scopes trial. There were creation-evolution debates back then just as now, and creationists such as George McCready Price (a precursor to Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, writers of The Genesis Flood) complained that the press didn’t acknowledge when they won a debate. Larson points out that media bias probably wasn’t malicious (aside from the obvious attackers like H.L. Mencken), but rather “due to its insensitivity to faith-based arguments” (125). This makes sense: most outsiders don’t understand the intricacies of another group’s thought system or values.

Though Scopes was the defendant, the defense team went on the offensive against a narrow reading of Genesis. Darrow asked that Bryan be put on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Against the advice of the rest of the prosecution, Bryan thought it would be a good idea to defend Biblical literalism in the public forum. Darrow took the opportunity to attack every aspect of the Bible, forcing Bryan to defend every miracle or hard question (i.e. Where did Cain’s wife come from? or How could Jonah survive three days inside a whale?). He eventually pushed Bryan so far that he had to repeatedly admit that he didn’t know or couldn’t explain how the event took place as described in the Bible. As for the Genesis account of creation he had to admit: “I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it” (189). Bryan had defended his faith, even if he couldn’t explain it on all points, but most media saw his reticence as a failure in the face of scientific explanations.

Because they didn’t think they were getting a fair shake with the media, “[a]ntievolutionists increasingly turned to interdenominational journals and publishers to communicate their side of the story” (127). In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes case, both sides declared victory. The antievolution prosecution could claim victory because the jury agreed with them and convicted Scopes. The defense claimed the moral victory that their ideas had triumphed when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand. Larson shows that it took quite some time for the latter narrative to take hold as the consensus view, aided especially by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, a highly fictionalized version of the trial that really was more about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s (much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) than the Scopes trial of 1925.

The Scopes trial highlighted the fissure between modernists and fundamentalists in many denominations and seminaries at the time. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from the broader culture and “set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational, and social institutions” (233). This is the subculture I grew up in, one that only accepted the Young Earth Creationist account. It was also a subculture that was separate and removed from the broader culture, which is how I could seriously never encounter anyone who entertained the notion of an old earth or evolution.

The Christian subculture I grew up in was all-encompassing. I attended private Christian school. On Sundays we attended morning and evening services at church. Wednesdays were prayer meeting. For a grade school boy like me, we had Christian Service Brigade, a more Christian version of Boy Scouts. Brigade had summer camp, which I attended four different times. When I was in junior and senior high we had Wednesday evening youth group. The youth group had socials, took missions trips, and attended the big youth conference for our denomination. For entertainment I read Christian fiction from the Christian bookstore. It wasn’t all that I read, but I did read a number of books by Frank Peretti and the like (my reading habits as a high schooler may be a topic I return to, and for those who don’t know, Peretti’s best known work This Present Darkness is a novel of spiritual warfare between angels and demons). I mostly listened to Christian music, and I wrestled with my conscience when I sometimes listened to secular music. In junior high, I had a dubbed copy of Amy Grant’s secular album Heart in Motion, but I taped over it when I became convicted that secular music was sinful. In high school I eased up on some of my conviction about secular music a little bit, but the majority of my music listening was Christian (or religiously friendly like U2).

Christian fundamentalists perceive that media is against them so they in return reject much media and have created and/or turned to their own alternate media. I was originally going to write on this interesting and worthy discussion, but my thoughts grew as I realized that Christian fundamentalists withdrew from more than just media but from the larger culture and set up their own subculture to replace it. Certainly there were elements of the subculture already in place before the Scopes trial, but the trial served as a wake-up call to fundamentalists that they had to train their believers in the true faith and that could only be done by withdrawing from the larger culture which was antagonistic to their faith.

Most important was setting up alternative education. Bryan College was founded in Dayton, Tennessee not long after the trial, and many other fundamentalist educational institutions sprang up with similar missions of upholding biblical inerrancy and a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis in the wake of the trial. The college I attended, formerly a high school, became a four-year Bible college in the 1930s, along with the wave of other institutions.

So this is the reason I find the Scopes trial so fascinating—the fact that it was a defining moment for American Christianity that led to the fundamentalist subculture that I grew up in. It was a defining battle in what later came to be defined as culture wars. Fundamentalists staked their position as being anti-evolution, and that stance led to a withdrawal in many other areas of life, from media and entertainment to education. They created an entire separate culture that paralleled the broader culture, but was antagonistic in many ways. It was and is an us vs. them mentality. These are all issues that I plan to return to in the future.


6 thoughts on “The Scopes trial and Christian subculture

  1. Patrick Nowak says:

    Interesting points you make about the Christian subculture and I actually don’t disagree. However, I don’t think that having a Christian subculture is a problem. What is a problem is when that subculture does not teach people, students and adults alike, to think critically. I would agree that the heritage you and I share did not actually force us to think critically or to prove to ourselves that what we believe (or believed) can hold up in the face of criticism and questioning from those who don’t share those beliefs. That is easily evidenced by the number of people who share our same background and have no attachment to those beliefs today. In your discussion of Mr. Bryan, you note the poor job he did of defending the Bible and its veracity with facts. That in and of itself is dissappointing but so too is the result which you described. I think it would have been better in the long term for Christians to have stayed engaged in the culture around them, not so that they would have come to a different understanding of evolution or other issues, but rather so that they would be forced to prove to themselves why they believe what they believe. If they were doing that, we would see Christians more solidly rooted in their beliefs and not so easily swayed by alternate ideas. As we have discussed in some of your other posts, I don’t suffer from flexible thinking in regard to my Christian faith or origns, but I do think your points about the Christian sub culture are very much on target and should trigger educators and leaders in the Christian community to really teach critical thinking skills. Everyone, regardless of belief, benefits from that.

    This is actually a nice lead in to my thoughts regarding majority influence on thinking, education and policy that you addressed in you previous Scopes related post. As you rightly noted, the majority can get it wrong. However, what is the basis for saying that something is “right” or “wrong”. One example you gave was that, for a time, slavery was considered acceptable by the majority and you concluded that this was wrong. What is the basis for that conclusion? On a similar note, slavery still occurs today around the world and most people agree, regardless of religious belief, that it is wrong. However, those people practicing it certainly do not. What then is the difference? What gives one group the authority to say that another group’s ideas are morally, ethically or scientifically wrong? There must be some standard independent of either group. You and I would most likely conclude that based on the teachings of Christ, slavery is morally wrong and we use Him as the authority on that because we believe He is God, who has authority over us. Those who do not believe in Christ’s divinity, cannot use Him as the authority. They must make other arguments such as slavery is not good for society (i.e. the majority). However, in some cultures, the majority benefits significantly from slavery, so that argument is worthless. What about the idea that the “human rights” of slaves are being violated? Again that argument assumes that humans have rights defined by some authority greater than slave and slave holder. Today that authority is commonly attributed either to the United Nations or to some individual country, both examples of a “majority”. The problem with having majority define what is “right” and “wrong” is that that is a flexible standard. It takes away the idea of there being any absolutely right and wrong. This idea is one which evolution has contributed to extensively. If you take the position that there is no God (which I know is not your position) then there is no absolute authority which transcends man. Therefore, no one can tell anyone else that what they are doing is “wrong” because there is no independent standard for that.

    When we get into the issue of evolution in particular, we find that there are many scientists with similar educational backgrounds who interpret scientific evidence in different ways and reach different conclusions on the age of the earth and the origin of species. On this topic, the majority clearly favors the position that evolution is a fact rather than a theory with plausible alternate theories available to explain origins. From a critical thinking standpoint, one should ask why there is such antagonism to considering young earth creationism as one of these theories? Does holding to such beliefs make a person any less useful to society? Do these beliefs impinge on our ability to think critically, to make well thought out financial, political and medical decisions? More personally, do my young earth creationist beliefs make me any less creative, resourceful or useful as an engineer? They do not. Yet, many evolutionists claim that very thing. I don’t know if you watched the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham earlier this year, but one of the main points Bill tried to make was that we should avoid teaching creation theory because it prevents people from properly using the scientific method. That is total hogwash! If I can effectively use the scientific method, think critically and creatively and successfully learn new things about the world around me and how to control them to my benefit (engineering is the practical application of science you know) then why should there be such antagonism to presenting alternate theories of origins to that of evolution? The simple answer is that evolution removes God as Creator and more specifically as the ultamate authority on right and wrong. If a Creator exists, then He has authority. Acknowledging a Creator does not automatically lead to a Christian world view but it does result in a shift in authority from the individual to the Creator. Evolution removes the Creator and brings the authority back to the individual, who, when it benefits him, will cede that authority to the majority.

    • Sam Ladwig says:

      I know this is an older post but I just read it along with Patrick’s comment and wanted to offer my two cents. I agree with Patrick it is unnecessary to adhere to evolutionary and old earth ideas to be quite effective in most scientific disciplines. In fact, I know of nothing that has been invented as a direct result of evidence for an old earth or common descent. (Perhaps the annual flu vaccine is a candidate however.) The main thing I wanted to address was Patrick’s (and many others) argument that a supreme lawgiver is necessary–else we are left with moral relativism. Stories and memes abound on the internet in Christian circles where a fresh-faced Christian student puts his dour atheist professor in his place by taking moral relativism to one of its possible logical conclusions, such as legal pedophilia, or on what authority can an atheist call Hitler evil, etc. My point is that these possible moral conundrums do not prove anything at all about the existence of God. Perhaps moral relativism is in fact all we do have and we must muddle through. The majority may not always get it right it is true, but maybe it’s the best compass we have. It’s tough for me to sit here and imagine a world where it’s normal to molest children or exterminate weaker humans. But this unpleasantness does not prove anything. Typically laws are written today to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, the weak from the strong, as well as common sense laws like speed limits, DUI laws, cell phone bans while driving, etc. None of the things I just mentioned require an appeal to higher authority for legitimacy. They are valid because our elected government says they are, they have been debated in congress and been found logical, and that is sufficient. Additionally our system is set up to remedy perceived unfairness wherever it may exist in our system of laws by way of the courts. It seems to me that there is only a narrow category of laws which traditionally benefit from an appeal to higher authority, and these laws all involve morality. Abortion, being gay, being a pedophile, being incestuous, and the right to die all fall in this category. All of these are covered by God’s laws regarding sexual purity and murder. So will people begin turning gay, molesting children, and committing suicide en masse if we take God out of it? Of course not. We’ve never needed a God to solve such issues. It turns out being gay is OK, assisted suicide laws (in Oregon) are limited to terminal patients, and pedophilia is undesirable because of the demonstrable psychological harm it causes to the child as well as the obvious power imbalance in such a relationship. These are things humans can divine for themselves. Science has proved molesting children harms them, but also that gays are born that way. So it becomes clear that God is correct with the former, but countless gays have unnecessarily suffered because of God’s laws regarding the latter…… Anyway, that’s my take on the issue of moral relativism.

  2. Patrick, thank you for continuing to read and for taking the time to respond.

    I think there’s some confusion on the term “theory” as it relates to science. In popular usage, a theory can be speculative or a conjecture or even a plausible explanation. But that’s not what it means in science. In science, a theory (such as the theory of relativity) is a well established and robust explanation (as opposed to merely plausible) that can be used to make further predictions. Wikipedia has a more thorough explanation of scientific theories that is worth reading (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory). So in the history of science, as evidence piles up for cells making up living things, or that the earth revolves around the sun, or that everything is made up of atoms, scientists proposed theories to explain the evidence that then predicted other aspects that were not yet known but that fit the theory. The same goes for the geology that led to the determination for an old earth. The evidence comes first, then the explanation for it. But that’s not how Young Earth Creationism works. It starts with the conclusion, and then looks for evidence to back it up. It’s based on an interpretation of the Bible, not on the evidence. It’s a matter of faith for its adherents and not falsifiable.

    I have no doubt that you are an excellent engineer. I remember you as studious and a hard worker, and I’m sure you still are. I did watch the Nye/Ham debate (actually I more listened to it while I did the dishes) and found it dismaying all the way around. I remember the part you’re referencing. We certainly learned the scientific method in our classes in high school, but as I mentioned above, when it comes to origins, there’s really nothing scientific about creationism. It’s faith. And that can be fine in one’s personal life. But on a social level I think the problem could lead to a distrust in science. If one believes that the fields of biology, geology, and astronomy are all mistaken, what reason does one have to trust scientists when they say that climate is changing or that vaccinations are important? In that sense I agree with Nye. Science can get things wrong, of course; it’s a human endeavor. But science as a process is self-correcting. Things get tested again and again until we get a fuller understanding of nature.

    I’m sure you’re right that some people use science and evolution as a way to disbelieve in God. But I think you’re also ignoring the many theists who accept evolution. The Catholic church and the mainline denominations (as far as I know) have no problem with evolution. There are also evangelicals who accept evolution. I mentioned Biologos in our earlier conversation. The book about theistic evolution I mentioned in one post (Battle of Beginnings by Del Ratzsch) is by a professor at Calvin College and printed by IVP. I realize it’s not a majority view in evangelicalism, but it’s not unknown. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think believing in evolution is necessarily a moral stance. It’s not always, or even mostly, about trying to escape God’s authority. But even when someone doesn’t accept God’s authority, there are plenty of ethical theories that could label slavery wrong. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to have moral standards. Besides, Christians themselves vary widely on what is and isn’t moral behavior. But that’s a whole other discussion (and one that I’m not all that qualified to address, as I’m not an ethicist, philosopher, or theologian—though I guess that hasn’t stopped me from saying this much).

  3. Former fundamentalist here as well. I find that people within the subculture are often ignorant about the historical, political and social forces that shaped modern the Evangelical and fundamentalist sphere, even when they have an exhaustive knowledge of church dogmatics and the history of the theology of the Christian church.

    • Speaking for myself, I know I was ignorant about a lot of history, though not willfully so. It’s definitely a motivating factor to me to learn about my roots. At some point, I’d like to read George Marsden (among others) on the history of evangelicalism and Christian fundamentalism. I’m still in the process of learning, and this blog will chronicle what I learn

  4. Pingback: Book Reviews, February 2015 | strangerextant

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