Creationism Returns to Tennessee – Part 1

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fought the first legal battle over creationism in Tennessee. Ready for Round Two?

By a vote of 70-28, the Tennessee House of Representatives has just approved a bill to protect teachers who choose to teach creationism, rather than evolution, in their public school classrooms. The State of Tennessee, which pays their salaries, would no longer be able to enforce standards for the teaching of evolution, as it currently does. Instead, science curriculum would become a free-for-all. Studies already show that 13% of high school biology teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms, and that a large majority avoid talking about evolution altogether, because it would get them in hot water with the local God experts. If this bill takes hold – it’s already been introduced in seven states – expect those numbers to skyrocket.

Proponents of the Tennessee bill disingenuously say they are simply trying to promote academic freedom. Evolution is just an unproven “theory,” they say, and other “theories” like that contained in the book of Genesis should be taught as well. In fact, evolution is a “theory” in the same sense that gravity is a “theory”: a coherent group of principles used to explain a class of phenomena. Like evolution, gravity hasn’t been conclusively proven in every case, and Isaac Newton was roundly condemned by the God experts of his day. I can only suggest that those who prefer divine revelation to observable fact should try stepping off a rooftop sometime.

In Tennessee, the main champion of the bill now has the insolence to claim that John Scopes, protagonist of Tennessee’s famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925, would support the current bill because of his own willingness to buck conventional wisdom. In fact, Mr. Scopes believed in teaching observable truth, and had no patience for those who preferred teaching divine revelation instead. It’s well worth remembering how the first Tennessee creationism law came into being, and the titanic struggle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan that it touched off.

Denis Diderot, persecuted for teaching evolution a century before Darwin

The idea of evolution through natural selection has a long history; Voltaire’s collaborator Denis Diderot was imprisoned for writing about it in the middle of the 18th century. It was left to Charles Darwin to flesh out the idea and assemble the evidence for it in a systematic way, which he did in his Origin of Species in 1859.

Darwin’s work shook religion to its core. It flatly contradicted the creation stories in Genesis, thereby undermining the credibility of the Bible itself. But it also undermined the “intelligent design” argument, that there must be a God because the complexity of earthly life could not have happened just by chance. Darwin demonstrated that given a long enough period of time, today’s life could indeed have happened by chance, one little change at a time, with the positive changes enduring and the negative changes disappearing – and had very probably done so. That didn’t necessarily rule out a God, but it did tend in that direction. Darwin himself began adult life as a passionate Christian, and ended it as an atheist-leaning agnostic.

Many God experts resisted Darwin furiously from the outset. The American Episcopal Church said: “If this hypothesis be true, then is the Bible an unbearable fiction … then have Christians for nearly two thousand years been duped by a monstrous lie…. Darwin requires us to disbelieve the authoritative word of the Creator.” Billy Sunday, America’s leading early 20th century evangelist, snarled that “I do not believe that my great-great-grandfather was a monkey with a tail wrapped around a tree. If you believe your great, great grand-daddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him.” Others, though, appreciated the force of the evidence, and began to seek ways to reconcile Christianity with Darwinism. God could have just set in motion the whole evolutionary process, knowing where it would lead. That was unsatisfactory to some, because natural selection is an enormously wasteful and cruel process, utterly antithetical to notions like “Blessed are the meek.” Still, it was better than giving up altogether, especially if one avoided thinking about it too hard. By the turn of the 20th century, religious opposition to Darwin had largely petered out in Europe, and was headed in that direction in America.

Except for one man: William Jennings Bryan, who grew increasingly agitated as he toured the country on his campaigns and on the lecture circuit over the decline of religious faith. After failing three times to be elected President, Bryan turned more seriously to religion, and began making lots of money publishing and delivering sermons. “My power in politics is not what it used to be,” he wrote to a friend, “and, therefore, my responsibility is not so great. While my power in politics has waned, I think it has increased in religious matters.” He even became one of the world’s first radio evangelists, with sardonic columnist H. L. Mencken nicknaming him “the Fundamentalist Pope.”

Bryan called evolution “at present the only serious attack upon the fundamental fact of God and upon the great and controlling influences that rest upon belief in God.” Revealingly, he wrote that “The objection to evolution, however … is not, primarily that it is not true. . . . The principal objection to evolution is that it is highly harmful to those who accept it.” “The hypothesis to which the name of Darwin has been given – the hypothesis that links man to the lower forms of life and makes him a lineal descendant of the brute – is obscuring God and weakening all the virtues that rest upon the religious tie between God and man.”

The people who irritated Bryan the most were not his outright opponents, but the backsliders among the religious majority who sought to reconcile evolution with the Bible. “Theistic evolution may be described as an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed, or it may be likened to a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land.” He shared this aversion with subtle Billy Sunday, who said that any minister who believes and teaches evolution is a “stinking skunk, a fraud, a hypocrite and a liar.” In 1923 Bryan sought to reverse the trend within his own Presbyterian denomination, by running for the position of “moderator” of the national Presbyterian Assembly. He was defeated by the pro-evolution president of Wooster College by a handful a votes – with the margin of defeat provided by black delegates. He then lost again, on a resolution he advanced condemning the teaching of evolution at church-sponsored colleges. But as Clarence Darrow once put it, “No matter how often he was beaten, he had the same confidence that the Lord was on his side.”

Bryan’s strategy copied that which had been successfully used a few years earlier when the God experts gave us Prohibition. First, with the help of the Ku Klux Klan, he would get states to pass laws against the teaching of evolution, just as many individual states had gone dry before the 18th Amendment. Then, he would push for a Prohibition-style anti-evolution amendment to the federal Constitution. Oklahoma was the first success; the governor told Bryan that “But for the influence of the KKK, I doubt if it could have carried in either House.” Bryan then personally appeared before the legislature in Kentucky, where the bill was defeated by a single vote. In March, 1925, Tennessee became the first state to enact a criminal penalty for teaching evolution, by an overwhelming majority in both houses of its legislature.

The American Civil Liberties Union, then only five years old, sought a test case to challenge these laws in court. It fell to the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee, to produce a young biology teacher – John Scopes – willing to flout the new law and endure the trauma of a trial. Local politicians were anxious to put their town on the map as well; Judge John Raulston even violated court procedure by convening a special grand jury to indict Scopes before another town could beat Dayton to the punch, despite the fact that a regular grand jury was scheduled to be called a short time later.

Next week: The Scopes trial – who won?

2 Responses to “Creationism Returns to Tennessee – Part 1”

  1. Marty says:

    the original scopes trial was embarrassing enough- now, here we go again! I didn’t realize how instrumental the klan was to Bryan’s attack on evolution… THANKS.

  2. C. Jones says:

    Worse than a perennial weed. This reminds me of an interview I saw some time ago with Frank Schaeffer (author of Crazy For God). Though his father, Francis, was a leading fundamentalist, Christian apologist, Frank has rejected the religious right. His suggesion to the interviewer was that the religious right are little more than “villiage idiots” and if we would just stop catering to them, they would go away.

    My, how naive. The religious right has now penetrated nearly all levels of government. I can only hope that they will overreach and the whiplash that follows will break a few God Expert necks.

    Only reason can lessen the credulous tendencies in mankind. Let’s each do our part to make it so.

Leave a Reply