Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Creation Myth of 20th Century Fundamentalism

The other day I met the head of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told me about a talk they'd hosted, a biologist skewering creationism in comic fashion. I admire AU, but I told her I don't find the secular response to creationism very interesting. It misses what's usually at stake -- class -- and ignores the real history of the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." What did I think that history was, she asked. As it happened, I'd written about it briefly for my 2008 book The Family, but I ended up cutting it. I always meant to come back to it.

The oft-told tale of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial, the creation myth of 20th century fundamentalism, is usually taken as the last stand of a know-nothing faith from a vanished America. It’s true that a few old Bible thumpers retreated to their prayer closets never to re-emerge, that the death knell of prohibition was rung eight years before the fact when the judge in Dayton, Tennessee banged his gavel on the close of this case of antique epistemology, that the charms of mass media would thereafter seduce nearly every American, fundamentalists included. But these were not fatal wounds for fundamentalism. The faith healed quickly and grew stronger after Scopes, remaking itself not along the old lines of moral propriety but those of a social movement, a cultural wave, the third Great Awakening of America—a revival so vast and enduring that we are living in it still. That secular America did not see it at the time—that secularism cannot see it now—has much to with the post-Scopes split of American fundamentalism into two, parallel movements, one quiet and elite, the other popular and steadily increasing in volume with the decades.
            In 1925, the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union, seeking a test case with which to overthrow Tennessee’s anti-evolution law before it spread to other states, persuaded a small town school teacher named John Scopes—a robust “parlor socialist” who took the cause on for a lark as much as for politics—to break the law by teaching evolution. The stage was set, and on it strutted two of the greatest public speakers of the times. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, a bow-tied balloon of a man with the lungs of a whale and a monkish fringe of grey hair on his giant black-browed dome. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, a stony-faced courtroom killer with a wit so quick he had talked his way into the national life of the country with the kind of radical views that got less-glib men sent to jail for “subversion.”
            The tiny courthouse of Dayton, Tennessee could hardly hold all the locals who crowded in for the fight, much less the massive clot of reporters eager to file dispatches from the battle between “science” and “religion.” So the court borrowed a get-up used by traveling revivalists and convened on the most crowded days out on the front lawn, beneath a blister-hot Tennessee sun that set the big man Bryan to sweating as lean Clarence Darrow danced around him.
            But neither Darrow nor Bryan was as nimble as the famously acid H.L. Mencken, writing for The Baltimore Evening Sun. Mencken, who called Tennesseans “yokels” and much of the rest of the American public “boobs,” and who had five years previous defined Puritanism—by which he meant Christianity in general—as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” hardly represented conventional wisdom. But his commentaries on backwoods behavior were so funny and ferocious that they tended to set the tone for reporters of lesser abilities. “Poor half wits,” he called Dayton’s local Christians. That was Mencken being sweet. Of a holiness camp meeting, he wrote that it achieved

such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real…. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun…. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled.[i]

            A “squawk”—that was the sound of fundamentalism to secular America, and Mencken’s rendition of it, slightly diluted, was the only story that came out of Dayton, the last gurgle-gurgle of a religion no longer relevant to a nation enraptured by the “New Nakedness,” the Jazz Age fashions of that year. Summoned to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible, Bryan, decades past the heyday of his oratorical powers, could give no better account of his faith than could Mencken’s preacher speaking in tongues. It was Darrow who shot words like bullets. Instead of asking Bryan about evolution, he demanded that the old man explain the literal truth of the Book of Joshua, in which God is reported to have made the sun stand still. 
            Bryan had no good answers, and the questions kept coming. Darrow was killing the old man. Bryan’s ideas were old, his mind was slow, his words lacked strength. By the end of Darrow’s attack even Bryan’s supporters guffawed at him. Five days later, Bryan died in his sleep. “Well,” Mencken remarked on hearing the news, “we killed the old son-of-a-bitch.”
            The Scopes Trial was the moment at which reason put old-timey religion in its grave—or so goes the official story. That myth has been burnished for decades, in the press of 1925 and in movies and plays and novels and even now, in the pages of thoughtful magazines that reprise the wholly fictional 1955 drama Inherit the Wind as if it was history.  A myth’s power lies not in its details but in its meaning, and the essence of this story was so immediately plain that even fundamentalists conceded its central claim: Something had indeed been lost in Dayton, even as their champion, Bryan won the trial (a detail often forgotten).
            Maybe it was Bryan himself who had been lost. Victorious judgment in hand, he stood alone in the minutes after the gavel sounded, as the crowd—his crowd, rural folk, believers—flocked around Darrow. Bryan had won the trial but Darrow had won the war, tricked Bryan into stumbling over his own doctrine, into revealing his faith for what it was: the confused ranting of an old fool, his once-beautiful trombone of a voice honking and sputtering, unable to answer simple questions.
            Then he died. Silly supernaturalism breathing its last, announced the press, pleased with the tidy ending. But Bryan’s death didn’t mean the end of fundamentalism. It was Bryan’s faith that expired. “The Great Commoner,” the man who as the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 ran the most radical major party campaign in history, declaring miners and farmers and factory workers the real “business men” of America and decrying capitalism’s “cross of gold” on which, he roared, honest laborers were crucified: Bryan was the last champion of fundamentalism’s now-forgotten justice tradition. He hated evolution not because he feared science but because he feared its applications; particularly its political ones. The high school textbook that provoked the trial, George William Hunter’s Civic Biology, taught eugenics as evolution’s logical extension and offered a cure for criminality, mental retardation, and even epilepsy: “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”[ii] Bryan saw in such prescriptions not a foreshadowing of Hitler—who could have known?—but a cheapening of life. In our times fundamentalists restrict the term  “life” to fetal concerns, but to Bryan life meant the right to earn a living, and “a living” was not simply a wage and a store to spend it in but an equal standing before God and mammon for both the weak and the strong.
            The second half of that ambition faded from fundamentalism after 1925. The movement split in two, one visible and seemingly weak, the other invisible and strong. One fundamentalism—the movement of the masses, the revivalists, the “yokels”—retreated, backed up into the hills, and in the safety of its own enclaves began rebuilding. The other fundamentalism—the key men, the educated men, the rich men—stepped over Bryan’s body and moved on, quietly, free of his concerns. The Monkey Trial was like a rock in the river, the point at which the movement divided. The elite tradition and the populist tradition went off on different courses. Both flowed rightwards.

[i] H.L. Mencken, “Mencken Likens Trial a Religious Orgy, With Defendant a Beelzebub,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 11, 1925.
[ii] Quoted in Larson, Edward L. Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 27. Larson’s book is the most accessible and thorough account of the trial. A more nuanced and provocative reading of Scopes, however, is found in anthropologist Susan Friend Harding’s examination of the narrative strategies at work around the trial in The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2001), a brilliant and lively study of how fundamentalism constructs meaning. Extensive selections from the trial transcripts and the press coverage of the period are also available online, allowing almost anyone to interpret the case to their own satisfaction – an outcome of which I imagine Bryan would approve.