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Key Religious Issues Behind Scopes Trial Ring True Today

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion

By Edward J. Larson

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Basic Books

318 pp., $25

For many Americans, the Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925 evokes memories of "Inherit the Wind," and particularly Spencer Tracy's verbal flailing of Fredric March in the movie version of that courtroom drama. But the play, as Edward Larson's "Summer for the Gods" makes clear, was a narrowly drawn, politically motivated effort to indict the rampant intolerance of 1950s McCarthyism. It only faintly reflected the reality of Scopes.

Larson's work is a thoroughly researched, thoroughly readable retelling of the tale. It leaves no subplot or character untouched. And when one considers how powerful the tensions underlying events 72 years ago remain today, Larson deserves hearty thanks. He's reintroducing us to vital history that too quickly transformed into fiction and myth.

The fictionalizing sprang from the desire of many Americans - most notably advocates of intellectual freedom and civil liberties - to see the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., as a conclusive victory for enlightened reasoning over fundamentalist blindness. Larson's strength is his ability to sympathetically view the arguments - and the arguers - on both sides of the evolution controversy.

There are no shining heroes of democratic freedom here, nor any pathetic, Bible-thumping villains. Clarence Darrow's mean side is seen, as is William Jennings Bryan's basic decency.

But what's particularly evident is the remarkable complex of motivations that ultimately spun together the best claimant to "trial of the century." Those motivations range from the desires of Dayton town boosters to host some big doings, to the more global philosophical and political aims of the American Civil Liberties Union and the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA).

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The former published a newspaper ad urging teachers to come forward and challenge Tennessee's newly passed law forbidding public school instruction that contradicted the biblical account of creation.

Dayton science teacher John Scopes was recruited by boosters to answer the ad. Darrow, known for his espousal of unpopular causes and his outspoken agnosticism, emerged later as the head of the ACLU's defense team - much to that organization's discomfort.

The civil libertarians at headquarters in New York wanted a defense based on questions of intellectual freedom. Darrow wanted to skewer Bryan's brand of religion.

The WCFA had been actively campaigning for laws such as Tennessee's. And its purposes were fully represented by Bryan, a preeminent public figure whose career began as a Nebraska populist reformer, went on to multiple runs for president, and persisted for decades as lecturer and champion of conservative Christianity.

Larson takes readers beyond the two familiar principals to the intriguing supporting cast for both defense and prosecution. At the time, more than a few commentators dismissed the trial in tiny Dayton as a legal contrivance, a courtroom circus.

The carnival atmosphere was there. But also there were questions of importance to American governance and culture - such as the right of a state, representing a majority of its citizens, to set school curriculum, versus the constitutional ban on state action that "establishes" religion or limits individuals' rights of conscience or expression.

In another context, would a majority more secular than that of 1920s Tennessee have a right to impose the teaching of evolution on children of fundamentalist families? The issues of tolerance raised by Scopes cut all ways, and they are as cogent as ever in late 20th-century America.

Today's activists on the Christian right aren't pushing for laws banning Darwin's theory from schools, but they're very interested in laws requiring equal time for creationist theories. And their opponents in the ACLU and elsewhere are just as determined now as decades ago to fight that on constitutional grounds.

The Scopes trial is still with us. Larson has elevated its presence from simplified myth to illuminating fact.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

Religious Fundamentalists withdrew From Mainstream

Indeed, fundamentalism became a byword in American culture as a result of the Scopes trial, and fundamentalists responded by withdrawing. They did not abandon their faith, however, but set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational, and social institutions. The historian Joel A. Carpenter traced these activities in the development of fundamentalist colleges and schools, conferences and camps, radio ministries, and missionary societies during the 1930s. The founding of Bryan College in Dayton [Tenn.] fit the pattern perfectly. As membership in mainline Protestant associations shrank during the Great Depression, it surged ahead in most fundamentalist denominations - a phenomenon that Carpenter attributed to the role these churches played in providing "ordinary people with a compelling critique of modern society." Antievolutionism continued to feature prominently in this critique and remained a virtual tenet of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States.

- From 'Summer for the Gods'

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