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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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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history

The Scopes trial and me, part 1

Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson is a history of the Scopes trial of 1925. This trial pitted populist former politician William Jennings Bryan against famed defense attorney and atheist Clarence Darrow in a battle over the teaching of evolution.  The Scopes trial was one of the early so-called “Trials of the Century” (there have been a lot of them besides O.J.).  The trial resulted because the state of Tennessee was the first to pass a law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools.  The ACLU wanted to challenge this law, so they found someone – Scopes—who had taught evolution (sort of, anyway – he was a substitute teacher, not a biology teacher) and was willing to go along with the suit. The drive for anti-evolution laws was led by William Jennings Bryan, who helped make it a crusade for the growing Christian Fundamentalist movement.

First, a word about fundamentalism.  It’s vital to understand fundamentalism to understand the creation-evolution debate and the Scopes trial in particular.  It’s also my background, so I want to understand where I come from.  In American Protestantism, it started as a reaction to modernism, especially as embodied in higher criticism.  In the early years of the 1900s a wide range of theologians wrote a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which is where the name came from.  These pamphlets stressed the vital points of Christian belief, acting as a conserving force opposed to the drifting away they saw in modernism.  They affirmed five “fundamental” beliefs:

  • inerrancy of the Bible (because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit)
  • Christ’s virgin birth
  • Christ’s death on the cross atoned for sin
  • Christ’s bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s miracles are historical fact

Incidentally, two of the contributors to the pamphlets, B.B. Warfield and James Orr, espoused or were open to evolutionary ideas in biology (Larson 20).

The higher criticism that the Fundamentalists opposed is a type of literary criticism consisting of source, form, and redaction criticism, among others.  It’s often referred to as the “historical-critical” method.  Criticism in this sense is not negative, but merely the application of critical analysis to the text, with the goal of understanding the meaning of the text in the original context.  This sounds good, but an example would be an analysis of vocabulary and style to determine if a text has been woven together from more than one source.  This is essentially the documentary hypothesis Wellhausen proposed for the Pentateuch, that the first five books of the Torah were not composed by a single author but stitched together from other sources.  Fundamentalists had a problem with this denial of Moses’ authorship naturally, and all that stemmed from it.  It tended to lead to the denial of the miraculous events recorded and to accepting errors in the text.  Practitioners of higher criticism tended to have naturalistic presuppositions (i.e. disbelieving the supernatural out of hand, opting for a rational explanation instead). The feud between Fundamentalists and modernists split more than one denomination apart in America.  In fact, the two categories of churches, mainline and evangelical, go back to these disagreements.

I grew up in an evangelical church but now I attend a mainline Episcopal church.  I’ve crossed over, though I can’t say that I’ve completely left everything fundamentalist behind.  Looking at the list of “fundamentals” above, I can still positively affirm the four about Christ.  In fact, I don’t know how I could give up those beliefs.  They feel intrinsic to the idea of who Christ is, and without Christ there is no Christianity.  The first fundamental, about Biblical inerrancy, I have questions about.  I’m not sure that “error” and “fact” are meaningful categories to apply to the Bible, given the genres of the original books and their context (for a fuller discussion on this, see these two posts by Josh Way). [I plan to talk more about how I’ve “strayed” from fundamentalism in future entries.]

It seems that in some ways the higher criticism has won out, even in academic fundamentalist circles.  When I was an undergraduate at  a fundamentalist Bible college, I was taught to practice a version of the historical-critical method, just with different presuppositions.  We were trying to understand the original meaning of the text to the original audience in historical context, but we believed that it was all true.  In fact, we believed that there was no error in the original text because it had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We added to the method by also trying to ascertain what the text means for us today.  Or, how can we apply the lessons of the Bible to our own lives and situations?  I still think this is the way to approach the Biblical text, and it is hard for me to change my presuppositions as well.  I still believe it is true.  But as I change some external beliefs, such as my stance on evolution, it changes how I interpret the truth of the Bible.  Where once I understood the words of Genesis as literal truth, now I read the first chapters and consider their genre and the poetic structure to understand the truth they are trying to convey.

These personal observations on my experience touch on some deep issues that I’ll be returning to, probably many times, in the future.  I’m still figuring myself out (and myself is still changing).  Any readers who want to share their experiences and observations are more than welcome to in the comments. I’d be interested in hearing about them. Now, back to the history lesson.

Fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan had many reasons, both moral and theological, to object to evolution.  Bryan focused on the moral objections.  It was what evolution implied that made it unacceptable, “a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that justified laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, and militarism” (Larson 27).  Bryan was a populist politician who fought against these excesses in his career.  He stood up for the weak against the strong (e.g. his famous “Cross of Gold” speech was a defense of Midwestern farmers and their economic situation).  Evolution was also used as support for eugenics, which was a popular idea in the 1920s, leading to sterilization laws in many states for the mentally challenged, epileptics, and habitual criminals.  These moral objections against social Darwinism are forceful, but to direct them at evolution is a mistake of categories.  Natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, is not moral or immoral.  It simply postulates that within the variety of a population, traits that enhance reproductive success in an environment will be passed on more often.  Its cousin, artificial selection, or selective breeding, is the bogeyman of these moral objections.  Most people do not object to breeding dogs for certain traits, but it becomes macabre when humans are the subject of breeding programs.

The theological objections to evolution relate to humanity’s relation to God.  In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are created separately from the rest of the animals “in the image of God.”  Whatever this “image” might mean, it appears to be something humanity has that the rest of the animals don’t.  So if the Bible has no errors, then humans cannot be related to other animals.  Some people then and now have a hard time accepting the idea that chimpanzees are their relatives.  Perhaps even more troublesome than the “image” problem is the doubt that evolution puts on a historical Adam and Eve.  Again, if the Bible is infallible, then Adam and Eve were real people created by God from dust and a rib, respectively.  They didn’t come from earlier hominids.

Okay, enough of the background for now.

Summer for the Gods is a fascinating book that tells the story of the trial from all sides.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998 and got positive reviews from Mark Noll (history professor, formerly at Wheaton, currently at Notre Dame) and Philip Johnson (lawyer and author of Darwin on Trial), among many others.  I highly recommend it if you’re interested in American history, religion, or science.

Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my personal intellectual journey with the idea of evolution…

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