Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Scopes Trial: Ninety Years Ago Today

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

When I look at your heavens, 
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:3-5

On July 21, 1925, ninety years ago today, John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to a high school biology class in Dayton, Tennessee and fined $100 (about $1300 in 2015).

The trial was something of a circus, and it was a circus, at least in part, because the participants wanted it that way. It was not clear that Scopes, who was a substitute teacher, had actually violated the Butler Act, the state law which made it illegal to teach human evolution in a state funded school. But the trial was seen as a way to bring publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, and both sides were quite willing to participate in the spectacle.

The prosecution recruited three time Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, and the defense lined up Clarence Darrow, who was famous for defending Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and sparing them the death penalty.

Although Bryan was a devout Christian and Darrow was an agnostic, the trial was not about religion versus secularism as much as it was about two competing Christian theologies. It pitted the Fundamentalism enshrined in the Butler Act against Modernism. The Fundamentalists believed that every word in the Bible was literally true and that only by interpreting the Bible literally could Christians be faithful. The Modernists believed that in order to understand the meaning of the Bible, modern Christians needed to use all the gifts that God had given them, including science, reason, and historical criticism. The Fundamentalists believed that evolution was incompatible with Christianity. The Modernists believed that understanding how life evolved was not a threat to the meaning of life which they saw in God’s creative spirit.

The trial was not about theology versus science. It was about one brand of theology against another. Although Fundamentalism won in the courtroom, it suffered severely in the court of public opinion. In recent years it has become fashionable to ask candidates for President of the United States to renounce the theory of evolution in order to prove that they were “real” Christians and truly believed in the creative power of God. But in the many decades after the Scopes ruling, that question would not have been asked because most Christians outside of a small circle of Fundamentalists thought there was any inherent conflict between science and religion.

The verdict was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which called the case bizarre and encouraged the Attorney General to avoid pursuing similar cases in the future. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Grafton Green made an interesting observation about the relationship of evolutionary science and religious belief:

“We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution.

“Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things.”

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