Is Dayton, Tennessee Now Everywhere, USA? Annie Laurie Gaylor

By Annie Laurie Gaylor


Scene from the new Broadway version

As Ed Larson’s bestselling book, Summer for the Gods, has reminded the world, the 1955 play, “Inherit the Wind,” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (revived this spring on Broadway), is fiction loosely based on the Scopes trial. The playwrights themselves note as much in the prologue, writing that “The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely of its own.”

Most notably, the play added some melodramatic elements to move the plot, such as the town’s dominating preacher, the preacher’s daughter–who has a handy love-torn romance with the schoolteacher (who languishes in jail, unlike Scopes)–and a mob of fanatical townspeople.

The reality is that John Scopes was recruited by a Rhea County businessman and evolutionist, George Rappleyea, to challenge the Butler Act, the Tennessee law passed by a vote of 71 to 5 to ban the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. The businessman didn’t like the law, but he also saw economic opportunities for depressed Dayton if a trial were held there. Other community leaders agreed, and arranged to find a teacher to challenge the law and put Dayton on the map.

The trial became a magnet for visiting fundamentalists who rallied for their cause. The big banner, “READ THE BIBLE,” hanging over the stage in one scene of the current Broadway version of “Inherit the Wind,” is historically accurate. The play correctly captures the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the “trial of the century,” where Clarence Darrow went head to head with the famed William Jennings Bryan, and iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken covered the spectacle.

The irony is that Dayton, in many respects, has become the town that the playwrights conjured up as the mythical “Hillsboro.” A National Geographic piece about Dayton several years back revealed how religion permeates the town; there’s even a “Gospel Night” at the local McDonald’s! A few years back, the Rhea County Commissioners passed a “ban” on homosexuality. The proposal was hastily repealed after an international outcry.

The fundamentalist hold on Dayton and Rhea County is an unfortunate legacy of the Scopes Trial. After Bryan died in Dayton a few days after the trial ended, it was decided by Dayton-area admirers and others around the nation to memorialize him by building William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton. Since 1930, the college has been churning out generations of bible students who believe the bible to be literally true and inerrant.

Almost since the school’s inception, its bible students had been illegally invited into Rhea County schools during the school day to indoctrinate small children in lessons tantamount to fundamentalist Sunday school. The Freedom From Religion Foundation took a legal challenge of this practice, which we dubbed “Scopes II,” to federal court, ending this egregious violation.

The young family we represented in federal court at their request were justly terrified of financial reprisal, the potential for violence, and the certainty of community ostracism of themselves and their elementary-school-aged children. We requested and received a protective order keeping their names confidential. But they and we lived for years with the threat of their exposure. Had their names gone public, they would have been forced to leave town, and our lawsuit would have been moot. Our able attorney, Alvin Harris, had to go to court to stop one malicious town official from outing them, as she had publicly announced plans to do. The local newspaper egged on locals, vowing to figure out who our plaintiffs were so they could be named and vilified.

The case was a legal no-brainer, given the precedent of McCollum v. Board of Education forbidding religious instruction in public schools. But the townsfolk, acting just like the mobs portrayed in the play, refused to back down when the Foundation and its plaintiffs won at the district level. Indignant townsfolk crowded the school board meeting, urging the board to appeal our victory so their children could continue to be indoctrinated by bible students during the school day.

The case was finally, soundly, won at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004. It should not have been necessary to fight this battle at all. We have no real confidence that similar violations are not taking place in backwaters around the rest of Tennessee–or the rest of the United States, for that matter.

About half of the U.S. population refuses to accept the fact of evolution. No wonder this nation is in such trouble–that’s a lot of willfully ignorant Americans. The United States is at the bottom of a list of developed nations–next to Turkey–when it comes to acceptance of evolution. The joke is that creationists may not believe in evolution, but they sure keep evolving. Each new permutation, such as “intelligent design,” ends up being fought over by school boards and in courtrooms. The upshot is that schools and teachers tread lightly in teaching children about human origins, and the cycle of ignorance continues.

It is a measure of how low our country’s intellectual convictions have sunk that Starbucks uses at least one creationist quote on its coffee cups in its “The Way I See It” campaign. A quote by Jonathan Wells offensively ties Darwin’s theory of evolution with eugenics, abortion and racism. Customer outrage is apparently responsible for the adoption of a pro-evolution quote to “balance” it. But evolution is not something you have an “opinion” about, like some social controversies or even religious claims. It is a scientific fact without which biology and the other sciences cannot truly be understood. Starbucks is unforgivably legitimizing the Discovery Institute (coincidentally also based in Seattle).

The words of H.L. Mencken were never more profound:

“No one in this world, so far as I know . . . has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

As I leaned forward to enjoy the latest Broadway version of “Inherit the Wind,” I couldn’t help thinking that our entire country is on the verge of becoming one great big “Hillsboro.”

In their foreword, the playwrights of “Inherit the Wind” presciently observed:

“The stage directions set the time as ‘Not too long ago.’ It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation