Political Education

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Critical Race Theory has become such a cultural flashpoint in the United States. Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” 1,300 times in less than four months. The states of Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee all have legislation banning CRT moving through their state legislatures. The political right has also been banning books from schools.

The states of Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, have banned books such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” which was dropped from the Duluth Minnesota public school curriculum in 2018.

Political interference in education is not new. In 1925 a Dayton, Tennessee high school science teacher, John Thomas Scopes, was charged with teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. The Tennessee law stated that it was illegal to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” as such teaching was an attack on Christian fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists were outraged at the thought that man had evolved from monkeys. John Scopes trial became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. William Jennings Bryan, who had been a Democratic presidential candidate three times and was a Christian fundamentalist, would assist in the prosecution of Scopes.

“Our first indictment against evolution is that it disputes the truth of the Bible account of man’s creation and shakes faith in the Bible as the word of God. This indictment we prove by comparing the processes described. as evolutionary with the text of Genesis. It not only contradicts the Mosaic record as to the beginning of human life, but it disputes the Bible doctrine of reproduction according to kind – the greatest scientific principle known.”

William Jennings Bryan’s closing argument

“Our second indictment is that the evolutionary hypothesis, carried to its logical conclusion, disputes every vital truth of the Bible. Its tendency, natural, if not inevitable, is to lead those who really accept it, first to agnosticism and then to atheism. Evolutionists attack the truth of the Bible, not openly at first, but by using weasel-words like “poetical,” “symbolical” and “allegorical” to suck the meaning out of the inspired record of man’s creation.”

William Jennings Bryan’s closing argument

The American Civil Liberties Union brought in Clarence Darrow for Scopes’s defense. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against Scopes and Darrow. Judge Raulston opened each day’s proceeding with a prayer.

The judge ruled against Darrow’s attempt to prove that the state law was unconstitutional, saying that it was Scopes’s actions that were on trial, not the state legislature. Raulston further ruled that the expert scientific testimony on evolution that Darrow had brought was inadmissible. Darrow then had to change tactics. He called, as his only witness, Bryan, and attacked Bryan’s literal interpretation of the Bible.

Bryan: “One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.”
Darrow: “Just as hard?”
Bryan: “It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform. When you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.”

In closing, Darrow requested that the jury find Scopes guilty so that his case could be appealed. The jury did find Scopes guilty. In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ verdict.

Later, Darrow said,

“I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft, because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this modern world, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum.”

Looking back, Scopes said,

“I believe that the Dayton trial marked the beginning of the decline of fundamentalism. … I feel that restrictive legislation on academic freedom is forever a thing of the past, that religion and science may now address one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and of a common quest for truth. I like to think that the Dayton trial had some part in bringing to birth this new era.”

Sadly, the ongoing political assaults on education prove that Scopes’ hope for a “new era” was premature.













Thanks and a tip of the hat to Wikimedia Commons for the images of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

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