Thursday, June 16, 2011

What William Jennings Bryan understood

In early July, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, the trial of John Scopes began. He was charged with violating a Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution in the public schools. He was guilty — he had intentionally violated the law. In this essay, "Revisiting The Scopes Trial," Peter Berger contends that one consequence of the trial "was to fortify a secularist worldview in the American intelligentsia, with a concomitant perception of Evangelicals as backwoods illiterates. The intellectual decline of Evangelicals has stopped. The secularist bias of intellectuals has not. It may be a good time to revisit the event."
The Scopes Trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was tried for having violated the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution. It was a staged event, with Scopes volunteering to test the constitutionality of the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (then as now an ardent defender of free speech and of the separation of church and state) played an important role in the staging. It organized his defense. It recruited the star defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), who stole the show. To counteract Darrow, the prosecution recruited William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)—a leading Evangelical with an impressive political profile, and a liberal who had three times been a Democratic candidate for the presidency, as well as having served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Darrow was widely known as a brilliant lawyer, an outspoken agnostic, and a strong opponent of capital punishment.

Not surprisingly, the trial attracted wide attention. It became a regular media circus. .... An army of journalists descended on the obscure provincial town, including some from Europe. H.L. Mencken reported on the trial for the Baltimore Sun (which, by the way, paid Scopes’ bail). Mencken’s account has become iconic, although (perhaps because) it was very prejudiced. He described the denizens of the town as “yokels” and “morons” (initiating what has been an elite view of Southern Evangelicals ever since). He called Bryan “a buffoon”, spouting “theologic bilge”. By contrast, he was full of admiration for the eloquence and wit of Darrow. Mencken and Darrow not only shared a contempt for the unwashed masses. They also had similar views of religion. Darrow once remarked that he did not believe in God for the same reason he did not believe in Mother Goose. Mencken wrote that the world was a gigantic ferris wheel, man a flea sitting on the wheel, religion as the flea’s belief that the wheel was constructed for the purpose of transporting it. Mencken’s account of the Scopes Trial formed the basis of a successful Broadway play, “Inherit the Wind” (1955), and of an even more successful film of the same name (1960 – there have been at least two later films).

Darrow was the clear winner in his duel with Bryan. History is written by the victors. Mencken’s narrative, enormously enhanced on stage and screen, has become dominant—a dramatic victory of reason over superstitious ignorance. There is another way of looking at this. ....

A year before, in 1924, Darrow headed the defense of the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago. That trial too has become well known. It concerned the murder of a fourteen-year old boy by two affluent young men who fancied themselves “supermen” as (they thought) glorified by Nietzsche. (Curiously, this was also a philosopher greatly admired by Mencken.) They wanted the thrill of committing the perfect crime. In this, they failed—they were promptly caught. Darrow realized that he had a “hanging jury” to contend with. .... Darrow’s main argument for the defense, an eloquent plea for mercy, has been deemed one of the great speeches in American legal history. He succeeded in avoiding a death sentence....

I find it very interesting that Bryan actually referred to Darrow’s role in the Leopold-Loeb case during the Scopes Trial. He quoted a rather revealing sentence from Darrow’s argument in the earlier trial: “This terrible crime was inherent in his [that is, one defendant’s] organism, and it came from some ancestor”. Bryan rightly saw this as a reference to evolution. Bryan then proposed that such crimes are the logical result of teaching children that humans are just one species of mammals, descended (he added sarcastically) “not even from American mammals, but from old world monkeys”. Let me paraphrase Bryan’s understanding of Darrow’s argument: We are all animals. Therefore, we should be merciful, and we should not impose the death penalty. ....

There are a number of reasons for revisiting the Scopes Trial. There is a sociological reason—looking at the origins of a conflict between the elite and the religious populace, which a half century or so later erupted into a “culture war” that is still with us. There is a powerful example of the absurdities to which a literal understanding of the Bible leads (and not only regarding the Book of Genesis)—Darrow was quite right about this—and these and similar examples still exist today among surprising numbers of Americans. But Bryan was right for a very profound reason. Religious faith is not the necessary foundation for the quality of mercy. Darrow’s agnosticism did not prevent his passionate conviction about the inhumanity of capital punishment. But this conviction cannot be derived from science. It is derived from a distinctive perception of the human condition that can neither be validated nor falsified by science. Faith is not the only source of this perception. But it is an important one (historically a very important one). The Biblical view of the human condition, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, teaches the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image. Bryan, with all his untenable fundamentalist views, understood this. Darrow (and Mencken) did not. [more]
An excellent history of the trial is Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

Revisiting The Scopes Trial | Religion and Other Curiosities