LAWRENCE — The 1925 Scopes Trial remains the most high-profile case to pit religion against science. Nearly a century later, that battle continues.
“Anti-evolution didn’t die the way some people thought it would in 1925. It just slowed down for a little while,” said Jeffrey Moran, professor of history at the University of Kansas.
Moran has updated his signature book about the event to reflect the current state of this culture war. “The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, Second Edition” (Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2021) presents a collection of courtroom transcripts and primary sources that immerses readers into the actual days of the trial. This edition features a new introduction examining the race and gender issues that infiltrated the debate. It also includes scholarship updates and a section analyzing the relationship between teaching evolution, creationism and intelligent design in the decades since.
Also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, the landmark incident centered on John Scopes, who was accused of teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school. William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were the prominent opposing attorneys who each viewed this as a showcase to argue the constitutionality of a recent bill called the Butler Act that had made teaching Darwin’s theory illegal.
“People get a misunderstanding of the Scopes Trial from the play ‘Inherit the Wind’ that it was simply a matter of bad religious people trying to destroy good teachers,” Moran said. “And that’s not entirely wrong. But what they don’t understand is the trial was really a test case to get this question of religion and science in the schools up to the Supreme Court.”
He said the proceedings highlighted the existence of a “popular disdain for expertise and scientific ‘elites’ that is still with us — often to our detriment, as when we ignore expert advice on fighting against the coronavirus pandemic.”
Bryan and the prosecution at the trial fought hard to deny the admission of expert testimony, largely because they couldn’t find any reputable ones of their own to go up against the defense team’s list of accomplished geologists, biologists and theologians. But the more committed fundamentalists, like Bryan, also felt the literal words of the Bible revealed truths that any reader could comprehend — so a Christian’s plain reading of Genesis was just as valid as a Harvard biologist’s interpretation of the fossil record.
“It has given to the culture this idea that there is always a conflict between science and religion,” Moran said.
“For most religious Americans, they accept the Bible didn’t have to be taken exactly as it’s written. Most Christians are not fundamentalists — at least not in the way William Jennings Bryan was in 1925. But there was this sense during the 20th century that Christians were anti-science and scientists were anti-Christian. That is true in only a tiny number of cases.”
While the science vs. religion angle persists whenever the trial is referenced, Moran believes few other researchers have covered the racial aspects of it.
“African American newspapers and journalists of the time all commented on the Scopes Trial because they wanted to align themselves with scientists, and they saw the future as being a scientific discussion of race. Of course, they saw anti-evolutionism as being counterparts of the South, which was not as friendly to racial liberalism,” he said.
He notes how the same state-approved textbooks of the era that were opposed to advancing evolution were comfortable comparing the relative intelligence of races. These books placed white Europeans at the top, Black populations way down the list and indigenous peoples from the South Pacific at the bottom.
“Although African Americans weren’t at the very bottom of this hierarchy, they saw that science wasn’t always on their side. Nevertheless, they identified with Scopes, who had been persecuted and prosecuted by the powers that be,” he said.
For Moran, the most challenging part of writing about this ordeal was in seeing both sides of the argument, especially when filtered through a modern viewpoint nearly 100 years after the fact.
“It was tough to not identify with the defense or to understand and have some sympathy for the prosecution and the Tennessee legislature that had passed the Butler Act,” he said. “It’s not easy when you’re a liberal, 21st century person.”
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Moran has taught at KU for 23 years. He specializes in 20th century America and is the world’s second-leading scholar on the Scopes Trial.
“I have to step aside and give the number one position to my friend Edward Larson, who wrote ‘Summer for the Gods,’ which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “How are you going to beat that?”
The Scopes Trial took eight days to litigate but only nine minutes for the jury to decide. The defendant was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. This was eventually dismissed on a technicality.
“I recall my grandmother, who was born in 1912, talking about her memories of the trial,” Moran said.
“She remembered her father beside himself with what was going down in Tennessee in 1925. He was a Wisconsin farmer, and he thought the prosecution was just a bunch of idiots. Hearing that from my grandma was a most interesting thing, but it emphasized how big the trial was at the time – even in the backwoods of Wisconsin.”
Top photo: Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan have a conversation during a break from the trial. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.