Fundamentalism and Evolution at the Scopes Trial Essay

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The Scopes "Monkey Trial" was less about a teacher's violation of an arcane Southern law regarding the teaching of evolution in the classroom and more about the place of Christian culture, doctrine and ethics in the modern world. The trial came down to William Jennings Bryan (who had run for president a quarter century earlier) on the side of Christian culture and the atheist Clarence Darrow as Bryan's political, social and cultural antagonist. While ostensibly there to prosecute and defend John Scopes respectively, the spectacle that the trial quickly became revealed the underlying purpose of the courtroom scene: like the trials at Nuremberg that would come a quarter century later, Scopes was a "show trial," the real meaning of which was a "showdown" between the Old World ideology and the New -- or, in other words, the extent to which the Christian religion had a place in modern America.

As Thomas Dixon points out, "Bryan was a defender of the newly formed movement for Christian 'fundamentalism'" (86). Bryan set himself up as the spokesman for the Old World ideology -- the fundamental tenets of Christian culture and beliefs, based on the teachings of the Bible. The Scopes Trial was of interest to Bryan because, being a famous public speaker (mostly remembered today for his "Cross of Gold" speech in the 1896 presidential race), he saw the opportunity to pit Fundamentalism against Atheism -- which in his view (and the view of his followers) was the most pressing threat to American health, wealth and well-being. Bryan decried anything that attempted to reduce humanity to the level of the ape and cited the textbook used by Scopes at the school where taught evolution, describing it as a tool to "shut up" mankind "in the little circle entitled 'Mammals', with thirty-four hundred and ninety-nine other species" (Dixon 86). Bryan's rhetoric was inflammatory and provocative -- designed to attack the opposition by painting it as the enemy of mankind -- an alien to the human race seeking to destroy it through immoral application of the intellect.

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For Bryan, life without Faith was untenable -- and teaching such a life to school children was an act of corruption that should never be allowed. The question of the origin of the human existence was a stage -- a platform -- from which Bryan could pronounce the merits of Fundamentalist Christianity: it was his pulpit, and like any good preacher he seized the opportunity to preach to the masses, in the spotlight, debating the eternal opponents of God (represented in the Trial by Darrow). It was a stage that transcended the mere local matter of Scopes teaching evolution (against the law in Tennessee): the debate between evolution and Creationism was symbolic of the larger struggle between the forces of Good (Christian Fundamentalism) and the forces of evil (atheism).

This is not to say that proponents of Creationism or of evolution are good or evil in and of themselves -- and that was not really the question at the Trial. It was, in effect, a trial of ideas -- not of people. Certainly, John Scopes was on trial and was found guilty of teaching evolution -- but he himself was ultimately incidental to the much grander vision unfolding in the courtroom. It was a contest between two visions of the world, of life, of the meaning and purpose of life. And while Bryan could characterize atheism as an evil in and of itself because it lacked awareness of God, or could characterize evolution as anti-Christian and therefore evil in and of itself, the men who supported these positions were not ones who could, according to the very same Christian ethic espoused by Bryan, be judged. After all, according to the tenets of Christianity, men are not meant to judge others, for judgment is reserved for God alone: He is the only one with the capacity to see into the minds and hearts of men and judge….....

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Works Cited

Dixon, Thomas. Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction. UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

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