Essay: Summer for the Gods the Scopes Trial

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¶ … Trial

One of the most famous public permutations surrounding the issues of Darwinism, religion in the classroom, and the separation of Church and State was the 1925 Scopes Trial, also known as the Monkey Trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial was important for setting precedents that had far reaching implications even to the present day, but it was the national cultural attention that likely propelled the disparity between the Creationists and Darwinists throughout the next several decades.

The situation surrounding the events also bled into popular culture with several movie and book adaptations, as well as a number of non-fiction and scholarly materials analyzing the issues leading up and following the Trial. The most famous was the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March; a passionate retelling of the story from the perspective of the polarization of a small town, and the consequences when one has the courage to upset the apple cart. The Scopes Trial remains important because of the continued efforts from the religious right to challenge the Darwinian view of evolution and natural selection. In fact, this strong and vocal movement against the teaching of evolution continues to reinvent itself; from creationism to creation science and now to intelligent design. Understanding the precursor and antecedents to Scopes helps educators better prepare when challenged regarding teaching sensitive topics.

Background- The World's Christian Fundamentals Association lobbied state legislatures to pass anti-evolution laws, finally succeeding in Tennessee with the signing of the Butler Act into law on March 21, 1925 (Larson, 54). In response to this legislation, the American Civil Liberties union decided it was appropriate to test the Court's opinion. The elicited the help of John Scopes, a sympathetic high school teacher who intentionally violated the Act and openly taught Darwin's theory of evolution. Due to the intentional use of Darwin's Origins of Species as a way to understand the development of biological life on earth. The trial involved two of the most famous legal minds of the time: politician and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and legal scholar Clarence Darrow for the defense. The trial was eagerly followed over the radio by a hungry public with the theatrical debates forming commentaries in most of the nation's newspapers as Americans struggled to understand the issues. Scopes was found guilty and fined a token $100, but on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside the guild verdict to a legal technicality (Larson, summation).

The Stakeholders -- Motivation, Political Acumen, and Publicity -- Obviously there were differing views, motivations, and strategies from all the stakeholders surrounding the case. Certainly, the ACLU wished to find a way to test the Tennessee Law, and wanted the most explosive publicity possible. However, it is interesting to examine the three most visible players to the radio public: Judge John T. Raulston, Clarence Darrow, and William Jennings Bryan. John Scopes, for whom the trial is named, may have been a willing patsy who ended up a geologist with the United Gas Company until he retired in 1963.

The Judge, the Prosecutor, and the Defense Attorney were all intelligent men. For Judge Raulston, the publicity was a godsend. It is not clear whether he allowed his personal support for the prosecution to affect his rulings during the trial, but it is clear that he made it public with whom he sided. He and his family attended sermons prior to the hearing in order to witness first-hand the speeches of William Jennings Bryan. Ralston was also deeply religious, beginning each trial day with a prayer, and often quoted scripture when lecturing the participants. One of the more interesting rulings from Raulston was his refusal to allow scientists to testify on the truth of evolution. Darrow, not to be outdone, called the Prosecutor to the stand as the expert witness. Raulston made an unsuccessful bid for a political career, and instead had various judicial positions until he died, age 87, in July, 1956. It was likely that his grandstanding approach to the trial was partially his innate conservativism and partly his way of preparing for a career in politics (Larson, 108-11).

William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 1986, 1900, and 1908, as well as the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. His populist beliefs made him popular with the public during the first part of the 20th century, and he was also a peace advocate, prohibitionist, and vocal opponent of Darwinism. It was not the Scopes Trial that brought out Bryan's rhetoric, but his belief that the Bible was the source of all knowledge, and Darwinism undermined its premise. In addition, Bryan saw the increase in the ideology called Social Darwinism dangerous and evil, and actually anti-peace. In fact, Bryan launched an anti-evolution campaign in 1921, fearing that the theory was gaining ground in the schools and universities. However, contemporary scholars no think he was somewhat misunderstood; he allowed for the possibility of organic evolution, but only as long as it did not impinge on the divine origins of Genesi. Bryan, of course, loved publicity, loved oration, and loved grandstanding -- but, the cause was not one taken lightly. Instead, because he was unsuccessful in banning the teaching of evolution in the university system, he viewed Scopes as a perfect opportunity to take his case to the masses. After Scopes, Bryan continued to advocate for his views., and died July 26, 1925 (Larson, 6, 104, 237).

Clarence Darrow was one of the leading members of the American Civil Liberties Union during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His legacy is one more of legal wit and civil libertarianism; not only did he represent John Scopes in 1925; he also defended the teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb. His issues in the Scopes Trial were not only procedural, but an amalgamation of legal wit. The Judge refused to allow him to call appropriate expert witnesses, so he called his learned colleague, Bryan, to the stand:

Darrow: "You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"

Bryan: "Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."

Darrow: "Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"

Bryan: "I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."

After a few hours of this questioning, Judge Raulston cut the questioning short, and the next day ordered the session expunged citing that it had no bearing on the writ of the case. However, Darrow had made his point, and most agree that he used this hypocrisy to make his point. His motivation also seemed pure -- he was convinced that students should have a fair and equal education, and that censoring Darwinism out of the classroom would lead only to a society in which thoughts and content are controlled by the Church. Darrow continued to advocate for the underdog and took a few interesting cases. He died in 1938 (Linder, 100-4).

After the infamous "Scopes" trial, most states left the laws on the books, but did not aggressively enforce them. However, after the 1959 Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, in which evolution was predominately featured, some conservatives began to liken the teaching of evolution with communism. In 1968, Arkansas biology teacher Susanne Epperson filed a suit to challenge the Arkansas monkey law. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld that law, but Epperson appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that all state "monkey laws" were unconstitutional. This was based on the premise that these laws established a state-supported religious code that worked in contrary to the Constitutional mandate of separation of Church and State (Larson 250-7). Southern states reacted negatively, of course, but the creationist movement decided to downplay religion and posit that creationism could actually be supported through scientific, and verifiable, means. This was the birth of creation science, a tactical ploy by the fundamentalist cadre to integrate religious views inside the classroom while giving the appearance of scientific validation (Larson 245-58).

The creationists struck again in Louisiana, where the State Legislature had passed a "balanced Treatment" bill madating equal classroom time for creation and evolution. The bill, however, received no support from the Court and found that any balanced treatment legislation would "promote the belief of some theistic sects to the detriment of others" (Larson, 271-2).

Following the defeat of "balanced treatment" legislation, creationists again switched tactics, now moving to the local level and attempting to exert influence at the School Board and textbook level to integrate creation science into the classroom. Thus, now the Courts had decided that not only was creation science not science,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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