The basic facts of the Scopes Trial of 1925 are not in dispute. Many Christians believed in the literal truth of the Bible and, consequently, they opposed the theory of evolution promoted by followers of Charles Darwin. In 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that made it unlawful to teach the theory of evolution in schools. In the small town of Dayton, John T. Scopes’s violation of this law set the stage for a court battle between three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, representing the Tennessee law, and famed criminal lawyer and atheist Clarence Darrow, defending Scopes. In the end, Darrow lost and the American Civil Liberties Union paid Scopes’s fine. But how come this defeat is usually portrayed as a victory for evolution?
A common strategy of those who are hostile to conservative Christianity is to paint Bible-believing Christians as an inferior-thinking people not appreciative of the illumination provided by modernists. For example, popular writer Karen Armstrong is one of many on the left convinced that conservative Christians have a paranoid fear of modernism. In The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (a New York Times best seller), Armstrong focuses on the “muddled-headed and simplistic nature of Bryan’s views” in her recounting of the Scopes Trial. In this alleged showdown between God and science, the outcome was a “rout.” Darrow emerged “as the hero of clear rational thought” whereas “Bryan was discredited as bumbling, incompetent, and obscurantist.” Although Scopes was found guilty and later the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the antievolution law on appeal, the true victors, Armstrong claims, were Darrow and modern science. In the years that followed, “fundamentalists closed their minds even more” as “an unswerving biblical literalism became central to the fundamentalist mindset.”
There are, however, problems with the confident accounts of the Scopes Trial by Armstrong and others. In fact, many interpretations are rife with exaggerations and misrepresentations that persist to this day. In “The Monkey Trial Myth: Popular Culture Representations of the Scope Trial,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32 (2002), scholar L. Maren Wood introduces interesting information hitherto missing in virtually all versions of the episode. Specifically, Wood reveals many facts rarely presented that question the mythmaking of a David (24 year-old Scopes) versus Goliath (the forces of unthinking fundamentalism) clash. The trial was not the battle of “light versus dark” that some suggest. Scopes was not even a biology teacher; the regular biology teacher had refused to challenge the law. Scopes was not a “shy incorruptible hero of American freethinkers” unfairly targeted by fundamentalist forces. He was a physics teacher who challenged the Tennessee law at the request of town boosters seeking to enhance Dayton’s economy through publicity. The New York Times’ claim that a virtuous Scopes had turned down offers to the sum of $150,000 was a fabrication. There were no such offers. In modern accounts, there is little treatment of the influence of commentary by socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: “[p]eople who have no conception of evolution have no future, no hope….what Bryan calls fundamentalism I call infantilism.” Numerous versions of the trial make no attempt to correct the claims that the trial had “killed” Bryan (one week after the trial) and discredited conservative Christianity in the public mind. For those interested in facts, many details of the trial undermine the myth of an evolutionist victory.
Wood’s own version adds much to the debate:
Scopes could be the flighty youth with no concept of the significance of the trial he entered (after he agrees to be the defendant he is off to play tennis!). He enters the trial to aid money-grubbing enterprising “boosters” willing to sacrifice their community’s reputation and the fate of a young man to make cash. Because he is such a naïve and pathetic pawn, he is easily brushed into the background when Darrow and Bryan enter the conflict. Darrow exploits Scopes and Dayton in a vindictive move to destroy his long-hated opponent, William Jennings Bryan. Darrow comes to Dayton to end democracy and force upon the people of Tennessee ideas that they consider foreign, dangerous, and subversive. Bryan might even be seen as the only one in the trial who virtuously stands for higher morals. He did not make money from the trial, nor did he come to destroy Darrow, he is there to defend American democracy. He dies at the end of the trial triumphant after aiding in the defence of the people who supported him throughout his career as the Great Commoner.
But such an interpretation does not fit the Whiggish myth of a noble, rational force defeating the tyranny of narrow-minded Americans. For those censorious of conservative Christianity, the importance of the Scopes Trial is the presentation of false but powerful images suggesting the appropriate demise of conservative Christian thinking in having any influence on government legislation.
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