Eighty years ago last month, at the trial of John Scopes, the first shots of the culture war were fired. Scopes’s crime? Teaching his high-school biology class a lesson that was thought to deny the biblical account of human origins, in violation of Tennessee’s new Anti-Evolution Act.
To nobody’s surprise, Scopes was found guilty–he had clearly broken the law–but the verdict did little to resolve the difficulties over teaching evolution in public schools. This year alone, 13 states have introduced legislation that would require schoolteachers to take a more critical approach toward evolutionary theory.
If the issues at stake in the Scopes trial seem familiar, so too should the way they unfolded. As in any good culture-war campaign, much of the controversy was staged. The law that Scopes broke was a symbolic measure, signed by a governor who thought it would never be enforced. Indeed, its leading advocate thought it should have no penalty provision. Scopes himself was no martyr for the cause of science: Local businessmen had asked him to stand for a test case, hoping that the publicity might improve the declining fortunes of Dayton, Tenn. As for the trial, it proved principally a chance for fundamentalists and the American Civil Liberties Union to duke it out before a national audience.
But it would be a serious mistake to think that little has changed since 1925, that we are simply rehashing long-exhausted arguments. The major issues of the Scopes case–religious, scientific, legal and political–have all shifted dramatically.
To begin with, our understanding of how evolution works has vastly improved. At the time of the trial, biologists could not agree on a single definition of evolution. It took another generation of scientific labor to construct a neo-Darwinian synthesis, an achievement that stands at the center of modern biology.
As the scientific consensus has solidified, the theological response has deepened. The great majority of Americans, then as now, try to balance scientific discoveries with biblical faith. Yet it was mostly after the trial that more sophisticated explanations emerged for how to read the Genesis account, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “seriously but not literally.”
Likewise profoundly altered is the law. Scopes’s ACLU-led defense team based much of its case on free-speech grounds. Noteworthy by its absence, however, was any suggestion that the Tennessee statute violated the Constitution’s prohibition of an establishment of religion.
The situation today is reversed. Having found that disestablishment applies to all levels of government, the modern courts work hard at suppressing any non-materialistic account of human origins. For its part, the ACLU has abandoned its commitment to defending the free speech of those who teach alternative theories and now actively roots out any teacher who dissents from Darwinian orthodoxy.
Yet the most profound change of all has occurred in American political culture. At the time of the trial, the nascent progressive movement drew much of its strength from the perfectionist impulses of evangelical Protestantism. That alliance began to dissolve at the trial, when two lions of the American left turned on one another.
Leading Scopes’s defense was Clarence Darrow, a champion of progressive causes and an outspoken agnostic. Among the prosecutors was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and a stalwart defender of traditional Christianity. The two had long worked together for social reform, but in Dayton Darrow treated Bryan with contempt. In the trial’s climactic scene, Darrow called Bryan to the stand, where he sneered at the witness for “insult[ing] every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.”
And so the culture war came. For the first time, coastal elites descended on small-town America, calling its citizens stupid and their beliefs backward. And though fundamentalism may have looked worse at the time, the longer-term damage was to progressivism; it was at Dayton that the movement began to lose its popular appeal.
Bryan, after all, was to the left of most Democrats today, but his followers found that they could not keep company with those who so disdained their faith. Nowadays, when liberalism’s leading strategists wonder what’s the matter with Kansas, they could do worse than to look back to Tennessee–and to their own caustic dismissive of serious Christians.
Mr. Levenick is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.