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The truth is no coward: The Church, science, and the evolving debate on creation

Author’s note: The purpose of this article is not to argue the merits of creationism or evolution, but to profile an important moment in the American approach to that debate and to note the historical shifts that have taken place in the last century that frame the debate as it continues into the next.

In 1925, celebrity Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan took up the crusader’s banner and traveled to tiny Dayton, Tennessee, to save the Christian religion from godless science, academic biblical criticism, and Yankee elitists. The aim of his crusade was ostensibly a small-town public-school classroom, where teacher John Scopes had dared to teach the concept of evolution in class — but there was much more at stake for Bryan and his supporters than classroom instruction.

Evangelical Christianity had built a century-long legacy of social reform starting with the widespread revivals of the early 18th century collectively known to history as the Second Great Awakening. Thanks to these revivals, many Americans had experienced intense religious conversions that not only changed their thinking about God but also demanded a revolution in their personal ethics. Changed faith required a changed life. And if an ethical decision — for instance, giving up alcohol — was beneficial for one person, it was an easy leap to expect the same decision, writ large into public policy, to benefit all of society. The temperance movement, women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, widespread laws enforcing Sabbath discipline, and censorship of budding entertainment industries all grew from the social vision of the American evangelical movement. Several of these reforms became constitutional amendments, the highest level of political success that is possible in America’s government. Believing that this moral march would continue, the movement was proud to own the label progressive. By the turn of the 20th century, however, many devout people worried that their Christian society with all its progressive reforms would come tumbling down if its religious foundation were questioned. Bryan was among these: their mouthpiece, their champion. He said of Scopes’s lawyers, “They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it.”[1]

On the other side, celebrity defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, as much a household name as Johnnie Cochran was in the 1990s, defended Scopes; but there was more at stake for the defense than classroom instruction. Earlier that year Tennessee had passed a law banning from public schools “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.”[2] Scopes believed this act was a “violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution of personal and religious freedom.”[3] Darrow, an agnostic, relished the chance to embarrass Bryan and the “fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” In this task the defense was ably assisted by the 1920s version of shock-jock journalism: newspaperman H.L. Mencken [insert hyperlink] was the Rush Limbaugh of his day, and his entertaining but caustic depictions of rural Southern Christians galvanized broad social opinion against fundamentalist Christianity as a bigoted, close-minded sect, rooted in ignorance and poverty, opposed to science and intellectual discourse.

Social progress was on the line for the evolutionists, too: Darwin’s ideas had been applied broadly beyond the laboratory and had given birth to social Darwinism, an almost-gladiatorial concept of human relations and society in which only the best people — the fittest, strongest, and most intellectual — should survive and thrive. Big business took this to support its contention that markets should be competitive and free from government regulation, and to allow trusts and monopolies: obviously, the biggest business was the “fittest” and the most worthy of survival. Proponents of racial eugenics took social Darwinism as support for forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and socially undesirable populations.[4] Bryan drew a straight line at the time from Darwinism to Nietzsche’s ideas of the super-race, to German militarism in World War I.[5] But many other scientists and intellectuals, in a much less sinister vein, simply felt that science was humanity’s best hope for truth. “The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it,” inveighed Scopes’s lawyers.

The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it …. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America.

Judge Raulston, who was to oversee the trial, entered the courtroom with a Bible in his hand. The trial began with prayer.[6] The final day of the trial was held outside, where gigantic signs were visible, exhorting the crowd to “Read Your Bible.” The results of the trial were predictable: Tennessee’s anti-evolution law was upheld as constitutional. A jury composed of “six Baptists, four Methodists, one disciple of Christ, and a single non-churchgoer”[7] convicted Scopes after nine minutes’ deliberation. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the state’s anti-evolution law and ruled that a public employee’s right to free speech on the job is strictly limited, an interpretation that still governs speech for public employees.[8] In other words, Scopes and Darrow lost, and lost big. Yet history remembers them as heroes. The story that Mencken and other journalists told about the trial still dominates public opinion. The 1960 film Inherit the Wind paints the modernists as sympathetic figures, while the fundamentalists march in parade in lines that evoke images of fascism, singing “Gimme that Old Time Religion.”[9]

Almost a century later, evolution remains a culturally controversial issue in America because of its implications for religious belief, political freedom, scientific inquiry, social progress, and — of course — education. The Scopes trial still stands at the back of our cultural mind as we adjudicate between religious rights and scientific orthodoxy. But the religious, scientific, and political landscape of America has changed radically.

In 1925, political boundaries from Reconstruction were the norm: the Democratic Party represented rural Christian progressives in the South, while Republicans represented conservative Yankee industry and big business, which depended upon science to develop its technology. That pattern remained more or less intact through the Carter presidency.[10] But since 1980, religion has increasingly become an obstacle to Democratic policies and candidates,[11] while the Religious Right has staked out a strong position within the Republican Party.[12] Today these alliances are being challenged on one side by Christians who embrace the label “social liberal” and on the other by secular or atheist libertarians such as Penn Jillette.[13]

In 1925, fundamentalist Christianity defended orthodoxy and evolution was the novelty. Today, the situation has been reversed. Evolution is the settled scientific and educational orthodoxy, and scientists and educators fight in the courts to stop anyone from teaching anything different. In the 2008 Louisiana Academic Freedom Act, teachers are allowed to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”[14] Ostensibly, these are all methods that support free inquiry and the scientific method. But the passage of the act provoked hysteria and threats of litigation from the scientific community, concerned about “attempts to use this law to sneak religion into public schools through the back door.”[15] That “back door” is the same one evolutionists tried to use in 1925, but now they own the house and would prefer the door stay closed.

In 1925, most creationists knew very little of the idea of evolution other than “men came from monkeys.” Arguments against evolution consisted of guilt by association, possible social consequences, and appeals to religious loyalty: seldom did any creationists appeal to scientific evidence. Today, proponents of creationism have shifted strategies from defense to offense. The questions are often more sophisticated and specialized, addressing science in scientific terms, fluently discussing microbiology, the latest research into the origin of life, or string theory.[16] Other efforts focus on opening free inquiry about evolution: recent laws in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee have provoked criticism from science education experts for allowing, not requiring, ideas other than evolution to be taught in public schools. In 2017 laws have been passed in Indiana, Alabama, and (perhaps by publication time) Florida that allow teachers to question evolution in the name of academic freedom, without specifying where those questions need to lead. Opponents see this new freedom of inquiry as a conspiracy to introduce creationism, much as the creationists in 1925 accused Scopes of using constitutional freedoms as a tool for godless philosophy.

In 1925, fundamentalists were reacting to the “new” biblical criticism that had come from Germany, which studied the Bible not as divine revelation but as a human text, a cultural artifact, and one ancient text among many others that could be critiqued, checked against emerging archeological theories, and appreciated as literature apart from its role in any faith community. While Christians cannot share the anti-religious assumptions that have colored some Bible scholarship over the decades, the results of much of this scholarship have turned out to be valuable for Christian knowledge and devotion. Today even evangelical Christians tend to be less literal about Genesis and desire to hold creation and evolution together in synthesis.

Other cultural shifts have taken place; the relationship of the courts to religion has changed, as have interpretations of the First Amendment and philosophies of public education. The effects of two World Wars and the Cold War can be felt in these shifts, too. And there are important aspects of culture and Church that have not changed since 1925. But the value of history is to understand that things have not always been entirely as they are now; and if that is true, then change may also be possible today.

Neither Christianity nor scientific evolution can be eliminated from American society; nor should either be eliminated from inquiry about human origins. In light of the profound cultural shifts of the last century in America, it might be best for both camps to allow free inquiry over time, and to trust that the truth, after all, is no coward.


[1] From the transcript of the Scopes Trial.

[2] Text of the Butler Act and the bill that repealed it

[3] This was Scopes’s only statement in the record of the trial.

[4] The Los Angeles Times recently linked forced sterilization laws of California, driven by racist theories of eugenics, with the Holocaust.

[5] From Bryan’s closing statement, which he was unable to deliver. “Nietzsche gave Germany the doctrine of Darwin’s efficient animal in the voice of his superman, and … the military textbooks in due time gave Germany the doctrine of the superman translated into the national policy of the superstate aiming at world power.”

[6] From the transcript of the documentary film Monkey Trial, on the PBS series American Experience.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This is still the prevailing interpretation of the First Amendment. In 2006, the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos established that a public employee’s speech, when made in the course of employment duty, is not protected speech.

[9] The treatment of this hymn in film is a fascinating study in shifting American attitudes toward Christian fundamentalism and evolution. In Inherit the Wind, the hymn appears twice: once as the background music to the opening credits, where it is given a sinister cast; and second when the Bryan character (named Brady in the movie) enters town to near-fascist devotion from his adoring public. Contrast these treatments with the song’s use in the well-known conversion scene in Sergeant York, (1941). “Old time religion” was still honored in 1941. By 1960, it was feared.

[10] There are similarities between Carter and William Jennings Bryan: both were fundamentalist Christians, both were social progressives, and both handed the Democratic Party significant defeats.

[11] From ThinkProgress: The complicated solution to Democrats’ Religion Problem

[12] This shift is ably described by Amy Black on the website of the National Association of Evangelicals.

[13] http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/penn-jillette-is-libertarianism-compatible-with-atheism

[14] https://www.evolutionnews.org/2017/04/on-teaching-evolution-objectively-alabama-is-right-in-step-with-the-vast-majority-of-americans/

[15] https://ncse.com/library-resource/louisiana-enacts-new-creationist-law

[16] This is not to suggest that all opposition to evolution is so well scientifically grounded, but only that a much higher level of engagement with science can be found among creationists today than would have been thinkable from them in 1925.


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