I’ve just finished rereading Ed Larson’s book Summer for the Gods. I first read this book in graduate school, before I had developed any serious interest in evolutionary biology.
The book is about the Scopes’ trial and its aftermath. As an account of the trial itself, it pales in comparison to L. Sprague de Camp’s much better book, The Great Monkey Trial. But Larson does provide more historical context than Sprague de Camp.
It is striking how many of the themes of the Scopes trial still have resonance today. Local control of school curricula vs. the establishment clause of the first amendment. Confidence about the fact of common descent vs. disputes over the relative importance of different mechanisms of evolution. A modernist view of science and progress vs. antiquated fundamentalist religious views. Issues for the ages.
The part that really struck me, however, was this:
From the moment that he objected to courtroom prayer, a noisy segment of those opposed to antievolutionism blamed Darrow for the failure of the Scopes defense to stem the tide of fundamentalism – criticism that only increased after Bryan’s death. Their reasoning reflected their own religious viewpoint. Some secular critics of the Tennessee law defended Darrow, but the Chicago agnostic was as much a pariah to religious modernists and mainline Christians as he was to fundamentalists. “Now that the chuckling and gigling over the heckling of Bryan by Darrow has subsided it is drawing upon the friends of evolution that sceince was rendered a wretched service by that exhibition,” Walter Lippmann wrote for The New York World. “The truth is that when Mr. Darrow in his anxiety to humiliate and ridicule Mr. Bryan resorted to sneering and scoffing at the Bible he convinced millions who act on superficial impressions that Bryan is right in his assertion that the contest at Dayton was for and against the Christian religion.” Speaking from the region most directly affected, the New Orleans Times-Picayune commented, “Mr Darrow, with his sneering `I object to prayer!’ and with his ill-natured and arrogant cross-examination of Bryan on the witness stand, has done more to stimulate `anti-evolution’ legislation in the United States than Mr. Bryan and his fellow literalists, left alone, could have hoped for.”
Darrow, of course, did not object to prayer. He objected to the Court opening with a prayer led by a fundamentalist minister, especially in a case so suffused with religious concerns. He also did not mock the Bible. He merely mocked Bryan’s amazingly simplistic views on Biblical interpretation. He did this to show the absurdity of taking every verse of the Bible literally, and to show that even Bryan had to allow for possibilities like the days of Genesis referring to arbitrarily long periods of time. This was significant in the context of the trial. It pointed to a vagueness in the wording of the law under which Scopes was being prosecuted. The law referred to the Biblical story of creation, but it was not at all clear precisely what that story was.
Darrow, in other words, was not being hostile to religion or prayer in general. He objected merely to the insertion of a sort of prayer that was likely to prejudice the jury, and he objected to the idea that a literlist reading of the Bible was the only acceptable one. These are ideas with which modernists and mainline Christians are supposed to be comfortable. Yet if Larson is correct here, they were not able to make the relevant distinctions when it really counted.
And so it is today. We atheists are constantly lectured about how mainline Christian denominations have no problem with evolution, how they are embarrassed by fundamentalists, and how they too favor a strong separation of church and state. But does anyone have any doubt that if the events of the Scopes trial were replayed today, the reaction from theological moderates would be exactly the same as what is described above? Many theological moderates suddenly become not so moderate when it actually matters.