history

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.

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