Today we welcome a guest post from Angie Maxwell, author of The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness. By the 1920s, the sectional reconciliation that had seemed achievable after Reconstruction was foundering, and the South was increasingly perceived and portrayed as impoverished, uneducated, and backward. In this interdisciplinary study, Maxwell examines and connects three key twentieth-century moments in which the South was exposed to intense public criticism, identifying in white southerners’ responses a pattern of defensiveness that shaped the region’s political and cultural conservatism.
In today’ s post, Maxwell discusses the origins of the evolution and creationism debate in the 1925 Scopes Trial, and how that argument is still being processed today.
On the second floor of the library at what was originally named William Jennings Bryan College (shortened to Bryan College in 1993), there is a locked door, behind which rests the ghosts of Dayton, Tennessee’s infamous past.
On one side of the room, custom-built bookcases overflow, predictably, with memorabilia and writings of and by the college namesake, the “Great Commoner,” Secretary of State, and three-time presidential hopeful. According to Professor Emeritus and Scopes Archivist Richard Cornelius, who granted me access—not only to this private collection, but also to unarchived documents detailing the founding of the college—the materials were donated from alumni and friends in the wake of a fire that damaged the old library. Campaign buttons, speeches, and weathered copies of Bryan’s polemics comprise an impressive monument on a campus that was built in the wake of Bryan’s untimely death by dime-a-day subscriptions under the Memorial Association’s slogan, “Fifty-Thousand Fundamentalists for the Faith of our Fathers.”
As an archive junkie, I was consumed by the relics until my left peripheral vision landed on a familiar and distinct shade of what Charles Fecher once called “arsenic green” floating on the other side of the room. There stood countless stacks, perhaps a near complete holding, of the American Mercury, as well as countless first editions of editor and journalist’s H. L. Mencken’s biting and brilliant work. “We like to represent both sides,” whispered Professor Cornelius.
Therein lies the problem.
When Bryan agreed to assist the prosecution in the 1925 Scopes trial that would test the Butler Act’s ban of the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, he was anything but new to the debate. Despite his progressive political record on issues such as women’s suffrage, Bryan’s swan song as an anti-evolution crusader was zealous and emphatic. He argued, wrote, and perhaps believed, that this single issue would erode American faith. For Bryan there was no middle, and his readers need only choose sides. His widespread essay on the subject was titled “The Bible and its Enemies,” and he considered the cause the greatest reform of his life. Science and even the experts who defense attorney Clarence Darrow had attempted to call at the trial were adversaries in a zero-sum game that the world was watching.
Covered on the front pages of The London Times and The New York Times, the 11-day monkey trial was characterized by The New Republic as “Tennessee vs. Civilization.” H. L. Mencken traveled on the newly laid railroad tracks to Rhea County, and penned his description of the “Baptist and Methodist barbarism, . . . that had created a cultural vacuum and a fear of ideas.” Perhaps more damning than Mencken’s brief coverage (he actually left before Darrow’s historic cross-examination of Bryan revealed the Great Commoner’s inability to explain creation literally), was Mencken’s obituary for Bryan, who died only one week after the trial ended, unable to give the speech he thought would restore his reputation. Mencken ridiculed Bryan and all Bryanites, as they were called:
There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that his [Bryan’s] last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, and that death found him there. The man felt at home in such simple and Christian scenes. He liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet. Making his progress up and down the Main street of little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates from the upland valleys of the Cumberland Range, his coat laid aside, his bare arms and hairy chest shining damply, his bald head sprinkled with dust—so accoutered and on display he was obviously happy.
Mencken understood in the moment the significance of what took place that July. He knew that the magnitude of Bryan and Darrow’s characters had inevitably divided not only the courthouse, but also the country. In one corner stood those who believed in the fundamental truths of God’s creation as described in Genesis. And in the other corner, were the liberal, elite, modern, heretics who believed in scientific inquiry and evidence.
Religion and science did not have to be enemies, but they were and still are.
In spring 2013, the PEW Research Center released new polling numbers that indicated a growing number of Americans believed that “humans and other living things existed in present form since the beginning of time.” Broken down by party identification, the greatest increase since 2009 (a 9-point jump) came from Republican respondents, with nearly half (48%) supporting this fundamentalist position, as compared to 27% and 28% of self-identified Democrats and Independents respectively.
Media made a great deal of these numbers. And perhaps it is surprising that nearly 90 years after Bryan and Darrow drew swords, the American electorate remains divided (actually, many international papers found it shocking in 1925 that this debate had not been settled). But in effect, these numbers have very little to do with any real understanding of evolution. They reflect the American penchant for partisanship and polarization, our need to pick a side, to define ourselves by what we are not, and to simplify the most complex questions of our human existence to choice A versus choice B. Such may be the long-term consequences of a two-party system. But whatever the case, the inability of faith and science to co-exist in the public arena has in recent years contributed to the destruction of our environment, the revision of our textbooks, the creation of pseudo-scientific myths regarding women’s health, and a growing suspicion of government in general.
Though the evolution-creationism-intelligent design controversy is not limited to regional borders, the southern accent, so to speak, of the Scopes Trial “stamped the entire movement with an indelible image.” In fact, many of the American journalists covering the trial were quick to point out this locale in order to distance the rest of the country from what The New York Times called the “cranks and freaks.” Based on Pew’s trends, it is no surprise that the Red South would comprise the majority of Americans who deny evolution. The Blair Center-Clinton School Poll conducted in November 2012 reveals that among Republicans who believe that humans and other living things were “created by a supreme being in their present form since the beginning of time,” 57% live in the geographic South.
The us vs. them dynamic initiated by the anti-evolution movement, encouraged by Darrow and made famous by Mencken’s pen, was familiar and easy, particularly in the white South, a culture ever sensitive to criticism that remains easily, readily, and—often at a great cost—activated on guns, reproductive rights, immigration, and even health care.
The fundamentalist movement licked its wounds in the wake of Bryan’s meltdown on the witness stand, and directed its energy underground, so to speak, away from the brutal media glare, establishing religious institutions, such as William Jennings Bryan College, where young people could avoid what Bryan once called “The Menace of Darwinism.” Still today Bryan College is home to the Core Academy of Science (a newly established non-profit organization that “partners” with the college). The organization updates a comprehensive bibliography of creationist publications. The previous incarnation of this research center, called the Center for Origins Research, which was in operation as late as 2013, housed key creationist databases including Hybriddatabase (HBD), which contains all references to interspecific hybrid animals and BDISTMDS, which contains all research on the theory of Baraminology, which classifies species based on “kinds” as dictated in the book of Genesis. As part of the methodology of Baraminology, taxidermied animals are observed for like traits. Charred in the same campus fire, as of 2006, these animals have also found a new home just steps away from the library.
And there too, at least on my last visit, the remnants of Bryan and Mencken rest. A room divided that, at some point, cannot stand.
Angie Maxwell is Diane D. Blair Assistant Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas. Her book The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness, is available now.
- Ray Ginger, Six Days or Forever?: Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (Boston: Beacon, 1959), p. 33.↩
- H. L. Mencken, quoted in William J. Cooper Jr. and Thomas E. Terrill, The American South: A History, Volume II, 4th ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2009), p. 664.↩
- H. L. Mencken, “In Memoriam: W. J. B.” in William Jennings Bryan and the Campaign of 1896, Problems in American Civilization, ed. George F. Whicher (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1953), p. 83.↩
- “Public’s View on Human Evolution,” 30 December 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/↩
- Steve Benen, “GOP Support for Modern Biology Drops.” 31 December 2013. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/gop-support-modern-biology-drops↩
- George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 184-185.↩
- “Cranks and Freaks Flock to Dayton,” New York Times, 11 July 1925, p. 1.↩
- “Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice,” http://www.bryan.edu/bi↩