Echoes of the Scopes Trial, 1925-2000 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 2)

[Note:  In another “interdisciplinary project,” the school’s drama group presented Lawrence and Lee’s “Inherit The Wind.”  We were fortunate to be able to snag as our keynote speaker Dr. Edward J. Larson of the University of Georgia, who had recently published a fine, modern account of the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods.  Several members of our faculty contributed talks on various facets of the play and its context.  What follows is mine.]

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Like everyone else who agreed to take part in this year’s “Interdisciplinary Project,” I have inherited a big topic, which I must somehow fit into a brief period of time.  So, I’m going to concentrate on two themes:  1) how the version of the Scopes Trial that has entered our culture came to be; and, 2) the continuing battle in the courts and state legislatures over what to teach in–or to keep out of–science classes in America’s public schools, from the Scopes Trial to the present.

A couple of months ago, our keynote speaker, Dr. Ed Larson, told you about the differences between the “real” Scopes Trial and the thinly-disguised version of it that appears in Lawrence and Lee’s play, “Inherit the Wind.”  (See Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods:  The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion [New York, 1997])  The playwrights didn’t just make up the idea that the Scopes Trial posed a threat to freedom of speech; that was the generally accepted view of the trial after World War II, the one found in history texts.  But how did that version get into those texts?

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Most Americans learn their history from textbooks; most textbook writers create their volumes by drawing together information found in more specialized history books.  For generations of textbook writers, and the students who read their books, the “reality” of the Scopes Trial was a combination of the views of two historians.

The first of these historians was Frederick Lewis Allen, whose book on the 1920s, Only Yesterday, was published in 1931.  At that time, the nation was reeling from the shock of the Great Depression.  Its history-minded citizens, searching for a ray of sunshine amid the gloom, made Allen’s book a surprise best-seller.  In Only Yesterday, Allen portrayed the decade in a rather light-hearted way, as the “Roaring ’20s,” an era of wonderful nonsense.  One of the characteristics of the 1920s, according to Allen, was “ballyhoo”–what today we would call “hype”–the blanket coverage given “a series of tremendous trifles” by the increasingly centralized mass media of magazines, newspapers, movie newsreels, and the radio.  (Allen, p.155)  The media concentrated on one issue at a time, squeezed all of the public interest from it, and then moved on to another.  The most “ballyhooed” event of 1925 was the Scopes Trial.

Allen’s picture of the trial was starkly black and white:  it was Fundamentalism v. Modernism; Bryan v. Darrow; rural v. urban; South v. North.  This interpretation, simple as it was, became the “true” one and found its way into history texts.  Allen’s conclusion, that, despite the fact the trial ended in a “victory” for the Fundamentalists, “really Fundamentalism had lost,” became the accepted verdict.  For the next generation or two, most textbook writers, and, one suspects, their readers as well, agreed with Allen that “civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalism certainly continued.”  (Allen, p.171)

This textbook picture was misleading, to say the least.  In fact, conservative Christianity continued to grow and thrive in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial, especially in the South and West, where states and localities still imposed restrictions on the teaching of evolution.  Yet, this vitality was made possible only because the movement began to look inward, toward their own members, rather than outward, toward the general public.  Conservative Christians created a separate subculture of religious, educational, and social institutions, including societies for  spreading the theories of “creation science,” which mainstream scientific and religious organizations refused to accept as “scientific.”  The American public, or at least that portion of it familiar with the writings of a Northern-based intellectual elite, no longer took Fundamentalists and their ideas seriously, if they ever had.  And conservative Christians increasingly talked only to each other, avoiding the broader public arena where “creation science” would have to contend with science generally accepted by mainstream religious groups.

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The second historian whose views of the Scopes Trial became “gospel” in American History texts was Richard Hofstadter of Columbia University.  Hofstadter’s interpretation of the trial found its way into most major texts used in high school and college American History courses; moreover, two of his own works, The American Political Tradition (1948) and The Age of Reform (1955), were widely used as supplementary texts in college courses (and in some high schools, such as this one).  While, to some extent, Hofstadter merely elaborated on Frederick Lewis Allen’s idea that religious Fundamentalism was a prime example of the intolerance of the 1920s, he also reinterpreted the Scopes Trial for Americans living in the Cold War years.

By the time Hofstadter wrote, America’s fear of Communist subversion had touched off an anti-Communist crusade, usually called “McCarthyism,” after Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, that was wildly popular with conservative Americans.  Implicit in Hofstadter’s first two books was the notion that there were parallels between religious Fundamentalism and the anti-Communist excesses of the early Cold War years: both were threats to freedom of expression.  Hofstadter went on to make this view explicit in another book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963.  It was this Allen-Hofstadter view of the Scopes Trial as a media-driven carnival of anti-intellectualism and enforced conformity that Lawrence and Lee incorporated into their play, which made its debut on Broadway in 1955.

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In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, and sent the United States into a panic.  The Cold War was raging, and our nation’s leaders interpreted Sputnik as proof that the Soviets were ahead of us in a crucial defense area.  As a result, the national government poured lots of money (e.g., National Defense Education Act, 1958) into an effort to regain leadership in science and technology.  One project backed by government funds led to the publication in 1963, by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), of a series of texts that soon exposed nearly half the nation’s science students to a detailed study of evolution.  The Fundamentalist Creation Research Society responded in 1970 with a text of its own, Biology:  A Search for Order in Complexity. 

In recent years, creationists have worked very hard to get their own views into, rather than keep evolution out of, the public school science curriculum.  They were forced to adopt this approach, for by the 1960s federal courts had begun to direct their attention to anti-evolution laws that remained on the books in several states.  What turned out to be the crucial case arose in Arkansas, where Susan Epperson, a science teacher using the new BSCS curriculum, sued to have that state’s anti-evolution law invalidated.  (John T. Scopes emerged from obscurity to support Epperson and other teachers who were trying to overturn the anti-evolution laws.)

In 1968, in this case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the 1928 Arkansas anti-evolution law as unconstitutional, arguing that the offending statute “selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group.”  The Court added that “it was not prohibiting the study of religions or the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as a part of a secular program of education. . . .” (Quoted in Indiana Department of Education Legal Section:  Quarterly Report, 1966, p.1–

Although the media interpreted this decision as vindication for Scopes and modern science, some conservative Christians thought that the wording of Epperson left room for them to include “creation science” in public education.  Three southern states (Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana) promptly passed laws to require “equal time” for evolution and creationism in schools, only to have the Supreme Court put a stop to that strategy as well.  The problem was, at least in the eyes of conservative Christians, that the courts refused to accept what they called “creation science” as “scientific.”  For example, a federal appeals court said of the Louisiana law that its “intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief”; this made the law one “respecting a particular religious belief  . . . and thus unconstitutional.”  (Larson, p.259)

Naturally, the decisions in this and later cases have frustrated and angered conservative Christians.  We still see evidence of this, in events like the recent decision by the Kansas State School Board, and the announcement by creationists last month of a new theory that attempts to refute the “Big Bang.”  (New York Times, Oct. 10, 1999)  This controversy will continue as long as religious Fundamentalists regard the teaching of evolution as an attack on their belief in God and their understanding of the Bible.  In other words, these issues endure because “they embody the characteristically American struggle between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy, and cast it in the timeless debate over science and religion.”  (Larson, p.265)

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in "Inherit the Wind", American History, Cold War, History, Interdisciplinary Work, Research, Richard Hofstadter, Scopes Trial, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Echoes of the Scopes Trial, 1925-2000 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 2)

  1. admiral17 says:

    Praise the Lord, I see the light.

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