[Tennessee's]1925 Anti-Evolution Act made it unlawful for a public school teacher “to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law in Scopes v. State, 289 S.W. 363 (1927), against the charge that it violated the state’s constitutional prohibition against giving preference to any religious establishment:That a man had been a major-party candidate for President seemed to make it highly unlikely that he could be a bigoted ignoramus. The evidence doesn't work so well now.
[The Act] requires the teaching of nothing. It only forbids the teaching of the evolution of man from a lower order of animals…. As the law thus stands, while the theory of evolution of man may not be taught in the schools of the state, nothing contrary to that theory is required to be taught….Much has been said in argument about the motives of the Legislature in passing this act. But the validity of a statute must be determined by its natural and legal effect, rather than proclaimed motives.
Though Scopes was convicted in court of teaching evolution, he got a more approving judgment from the press. Popular accounts of the trial, especially those of H.L. Mencken, made Clarence Darrow (Scopes’s lawyer) the winner and William Jennings Bryan (appearing as a special prosecutor) the loser. Inherit the Wind, a popular movie from 1960, takes the same point of view.
In fact, however, the characters and the sequel were more complicated. Bryan was not the bigoted ignoramus the movie portrayed. He had run three times as the Democratic candidate for president on a progressive platform; he had served as Wilson’s Secretary of State, resigning in protest over Wilson’s drift toward war. The same year he began his campaign against evolution, he proposed creating a federal Department of Education. Bryan certainly believed that Darwinism was wrong for theological reasons, but he was just as concerned about its social implications: A belief in the survival of the fittest, he feared, could cause exploitation of labor, military aggression, and racial injustice (he pointed out the “scientific racism” in many pro-evolution texts). See Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006).
November 22, 2016
A passage in my casebook that I've read many times struck me as funny this year — after the presidential election.
I'm preparing my class using my all-time favorite casebook — "Religion and the Constitution" — and I got to this passage in the section about teaching evolution. I'll boldface the thing that hit me in a new way: