OPINION: Scopes “Monkey” Trial offers surprising lessons for Christians seeking social justice

Christians progressives need to rediscover their roots.

Who better of a role model to look to than a 19th century agrarian populist who led a crusade against the teaching of evolution in the public school system? It may sound strange, but bear with me.

The year was 1925. Forty miles northeast of Chattanooga, the sweltering July heat had forced the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, to move proceedings outside. William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor for the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, had just taken the stand as a “biblical expert” at the behest of defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

The case centered around John T. Scopes, a substitute teacher whom the American Civil Liberties Union used to form a test case against the Butler Act,which forbade public school teachers in the state from explicitly rejecting the account of creation in Genesis or teaching that man evolved from lower life forms.

Bryan became famous years before by giving stump speeches around the country supporting populist policies as a three-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president. Darrow became famous for defending labor leaders, and more recently for keeping his privileged young clients Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from capital punishment after they murdered the latter’s 14-year-old cousin.

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Both Darrow and Bryan were born in the small-town Midwest. Darrow moved his family to the city of Chicago in 1887, while Bryan moved his family to the much smaller Lincoln, Nebraska, that same year. They supported many similar, progressive causes, but the men could not be more different. Darrow, for one, was a committed materialist and a vicious mocker of Christianity (and Bryan, for that matter).

For much of his career, Bryan found himself allied with men who promptly discarded his legacy as a great social reformer and derided him as just another fundamentalist nut.

Rabid individualists like H.L. Mencken, who was influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, also despised progressives or populists of Bryan’s brand, calling him a “tinpot pope” and “an old buzzard,” but that was to be expected.

Bryan’s faith questioned

Darrow proceeded in the court case to push Bryan on how much he really believed was true about the Genesis creation account.

“You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion,” said Darrow to Bryan while he was on the stand.

“The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court,” retorted Bryan. “It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.”

Bryan appeared to have the words of 1 Peter 3:15 on his mind, which says “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”

Later on, the judge pressed Darrow on the purpose of the questioning, since the trial was about whether Scopes had violated the Butler Act, not whether the Butler Act was constitutional, or whether the Bible was true.

Bryan couldn’t stand it any longer. “[The purpose is] to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible,” he interjected, incensed.

“We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States,” Darrow responded.

The reason for Bryan’s faith

Bryan’s beliefs, and the Butler Act, however, were more complicated than Darrow made them out to be.

“Our Constitution very properly prohibits the teaching of religion at public expense,” Bryan affirmed. “The Christian church is divided into many sects, Protestant and Catholic, and it is contrary to the spirit of our institutions, as well as to the written law, to use money raised by taxation for the propagation of sects.”

In part, he referred to the idea of theistic evolution, which suggested God guided the process of man’s evolution from lower life forms. It was unconscionable for the public schools to teach that God did not exist at all at the time, so most people tried to justify evolutionary theories by saying they did not contradict the Bible or deny the existence of God explicitly.

“There is no reason why Christians should tax themselves to pay teachers to exploit guesses and hypotheses as if they were true,” he continued. “The real issue is whether atheists, agnostics, Darwinists and evolutionists shall enjoy special privileges in this country, and have rights higher than the rights of Christians.”

Many of the same beliefs that prompted Bryan to support the common people and progressive causes also incensed him against the materialism of Darwin, which he saw used to justify various atrocities including eugenics, German militarism, and in general the domination of the weak by the strong, which he saw as pervasive in the industrial age.

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“When the Christians of the nation understand the demoralizing influence of this godless doctrine, they will refuse to allow it to be taught at public expense,” he said.

He firmly believed in the dignity of the common man, granted to him as one created in the image of God, and saw that belief to its natural conclusion, which is the whole life ethic, the hallmarks of which are opposition to the death penalty, war, abortion, and eugenics, all while supporting the cause of the common person. Unlike Darrow, his progressivism had roots in strong, orthodox religious faith, which kept him from being, as the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:14, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”

That seems like a perfect description of the modern “progressive” movement, which has replaced care for the poor and vulnerable with hatred of tradition and the “privileged.” The movement that once vigorously opposed monopoly power and big business now appears to be their greatest advocate.

So what can the modern Christian with progressive inclinations do to turn the tide?

Perhaps the clearest thing to do would be to shed partisan ideology and start anew with a new foundation – the Gospel.

The source of a Christian’s political thought should not be the foremost Republican or Democrat politician of the age. There is a long tradition of Christian social teaching from which we can draw, rooted in Biblical doctrine and the whole life ethic, much like William Jennings Bryan did.

The two-party system has made it hard to do so, but if Christians want reform, they cannot be complacent within a system that forces people to choose the lesser of two evils. Like Bryan, they may be dismissed as fundamentalist fools and face defeat after defeat, but long term, they will have a much greater impact by subjugating their progressivism to the Gospel.

One thought on “OPINION: Scopes “Monkey” Trial offers surprising lessons for Christians seeking social justice

  1. I used to think like most people that William Jennings Bryan was just a religious fundamentalist trying to enforce his narrow interpretations of scripture into the public school system, but this is a great article that showed the intelligence, nuance and classical liberal philosophy of Bryan’s case. He didn’t want the gospel to be taught as if it were a scientific law, he just wanted to make sure scientific theories weren’t taught like unquestionable gospel.

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