In its issue of June 2011, Christianity Today, the banner publication of conservative Protestantism, carried a cover story about the latest wrinkle in the Evangelical struggle with the ghost of Darwin. The old fight over evolution is still continuing robustly, with fervent believers in a “young earth” (a lovely phrase—meaning an earth some six-thousand years old since creation) still denying the very reality of evolution. An ongoing battle site is the conservative Texas State Textbook Commission, whose power to determine the content of textbooks in the state’s huge public school system intimidates publishers throughout the country to downplay the treatment of evolution (it is just too expensive to publish separate textbooks for Texas). I must confess to a certain affection for the “young earth” crowd, as I have for any group that has the courage of its convictions, however absurd, in the face of the official definitions of reality (“flat earth” theorists come to mind). “Creation science”, which denies evolution straight out or tries to squeeze it into the alleged Biblical time frame, has become less plausible to anyone with at least some high school education in biology. Then came “intelligent design”, which accepts the evidence for evolution, but proposes that there must be a great intelligence behind the design of the universe—something that any religious believer would also say, but in an act of faith rather than as an outcome of scientific inquiry.
The new wrinkle is a dispute over whether humans descend from one couple, named Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis—never mind how long ago they lived. Some Evangelical theologians have argued that this Biblical account is essential to Christian faith, especially as formulated in the teaching about original sin by the Apostle Paul: all humans sinned in Adam, all are redeemed in Christ. The trouble with this is recent genetic science, which asserts that the human genome indicates an original population of around ten-thousand. Some dispute this (I have no competence to judge, though I tend to trust geneticists over fundamentalist theologians). Others argue that, as the Bible often does, one name may stand for a whole collectivity (five-thousand Adams, five-thousand Eves). The CT editorial advises patience: “We don’t need another fundamentalist reaction against science”. Good advice. But it appears that the passions swirling around the famous Scopes Trial are by no means spent—at least in America.
Some historians have maintained that this legal event, which humiliated those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, greatly contributed to the anti-intellectualism which Mark Noll called the “closing of the Evangelical mind”. Maybe so. But what, I think, the event also did was to fortify a secularist worldview in the American intelligentsia, with a concomitant perception of Evangelicals as backwoods illiterates. The intellectual decline of Evangelicals has stopped. The secularist bias of intellectuals has not. It may be a good time to revisit the event.
The Scopes Trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was tried for having violated the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution. It was a staged event, with Scopes volunteering to test the constitutionality of the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (then as now an ardent defender of free speech and of the separation of church and state) played an important role in the staging. It organized his defense. It recruited the star defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), who stole the show. To counteract Darrow, the prosecution recruited William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)—a leading Evangelical with an impressive political profile, and a liberal who had three times been a Democratic candidate for the presidency, as well as having served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Darrow was widely known as a brilliant lawyer, an outspoken agnostic, and a strong opponent of capital punishment.
Not surprisingly, the trial attracted wide attention. It became a regular media circus. This was a Southern summer, before the age of air conditioning. Perhaps to distract people from the unbearable heat, and to justify the popular name “monkey trial”, two chimpanzees performed tricks in front of the courthouse. An army of journalists descended on the obscure provincial town, including some from Europe. H.L. Mencken reported on the trial for the Baltimore Sun (which, by the way, paid Scopes’ bail). Mencken’s account has become iconic, although (perhaps because) it was very prejudiced. He described the denizens of the town as “yokels” and “morons” (initiating what has been an elite view of Southern Evangelicals ever since). He called Bryan “a buffoon”, spouting “theologic bilge”. By contrast, he was full of admiration for the eloquence and wit of Darrow. Mencken and Darrow not only shared a contempt for the unwashed masses. They also had similar views of religion. Darrow once remarked that he did not believe in God for the same reason he did not believe in Mother Goose. Mencken wrote that the world was a gigantic ferris wheel, man a flea sitting on the wheel, religion as the flea’s belief that the wheel was constructed for the purpose of transporting it. Mencken’s account of the Scopes Trial formed the basis of a successful Broadway play, “Inherit the Wind” (1955), and of an even more successful film of the same name (1960 – there have been at least two later films).
Darrow was the clear winner in his duel with Bryan. History is written by the victors. Mencken’s narrative, enormously enhanced on stage and screen, has become dominant—a dramatic victory of reason over superstitious ignorance. There is another way of looking at this.
The basic events of the trial are well known. The defense tried to bring in a number of witnesses to testify against the fundamentalist attack on science. The judge, quite properly, ruled that all of this was irrelevant to the charge against Scopes. Darrow, in a surprise move, called on Bryan as a “Bible expert”. The judge, unwisely, agreed. Darrow made Bryan look ridiculous. He asked whether Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where Cain got his wife from, and similar unanswerable questions. As Bryan became increasingly helpless and angry, Darrow plunged in a rhetorical knife: “You insult every man of science and learning because he does not believe in your fool religion”. This exchange went on for two hours, after which the judge belatedly ruled it as irrelevant as the earlier witnesses the defense had wanted to bring in. Darrow again pulled a surprise by saying that, given the allegedly biased rulings by the judge, he has advised his client to plead guilty. He told the jury that, obviously, they must now rule against the defendant, leaving the final decision to the appeals court. The jury convicted Scopes after nine minutes of deliberation. He was fined $ 100. The appeals court overruled the conviction on a technicality. Of course everyone understood that the whole event was really not about a minor infraction of Tennessee law. It was about the authority of science, about free speech and academic freedom, and about the separation of church and state. But it was also about the place of faith in the public life of a democracy. In that sense, both Bryan and Darrow were right about what was at stake.
A year before, in 1924, Darrow headed the defense of the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago. That trial too has become well known. It concerned the murder of a fourteen-year old boy by two affluent young men who fancied themselves “supermen” as (they thought) glorified by Nietzsche. (Curiously, this was also a philosopher greatly admired by Mencken.) They wanted the thrill of committing the perfect crime. In this, they failed—they were promptly caught. Darrow realized that he had a “hanging jury” to contend with. Here too he had his clients plead guilty, removing the case from the jury, and moving it to a sentencing hearing before a judge. The hearing went on for twelve hours. Darrow’s main argument for the defense, an eloquent plea for mercy, has been deemed one of the great speeches in American legal history. He succeeded in avoiding a death sentence, but it is unclear whether the judge was swayed by Darrow’s eloquence. He sentenced each defendant to life plus ninety-nine years, on the ground that they were minors under Illinois law.
I find it very interesting that Bryan actually referred to Darrow’s role in the Leopold-Loeb case during the Scopes Trial. He quoted a rather revealing sentence from Darrow’s argument in the earlier trial: “This terrible crime was inherent in his [that is, one defendant’s] organism, and it came from some ancestor”. Bryan rightly saw this as a reference to evolution. Bryan then proposed that such crimes are the logical result of teaching children that humans are just one species of mammals, descended (he added sarcastically) “not even from American mammals, but from old world monkeys”. Let me paraphrase Bryan’s understanding of Darrow’s argument: We are all animals. Therefore, we should be merciful, and we should not impose the death penalty.
If there ever is a non sequitur, this is it. There are a number of reasons for revisiting the Scopes Trial. There is a sociological reason—looking at the origins of a conflict between the elite and the religious populace, which a half century or so later erupted into a “culture war” that is still with us. There is a powerful example of the absurdities to which a literal understanding of the Bible leads (and not only regarding the Book of Genesis)—Darrow was quite right about this—and these and similar examples still exist today among surprising numbers of Americans. But Bryan was right for a very profound reason. Religious faith is not the necessary foundation for the quality of mercy. Darrow’s agnosticism did not prevent his passionate conviction about the inhumanity of capital punishment. But this conviction cannot be derived from science. It is derived from a distinctive perception of the human condition that can neither be validated nor falsified by science. Faith is not the only source of this perception. But it is an important one (historically a very important one). The Biblical view of the human condition, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, teaches the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image. Bryan, with all his untenable fundamentalist views, understood this. Darrow (and Mencken) did not.