Scopes trial narrative would be same today

Actor John de Lancie gave these remarks at FFRF’s pre-dedication dinner in Chattanooga, Tenn., on July 13, the night before the unveiling ceremony for the statue of Clarence Darrow outside the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn., site of the 1925 Scopes trial.

By John de Lancie

About 10 years ago, I had the unusual experience of touring our country with a show about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Ed Asner played William Jennings Bryan and I played Clarence Darrow. This was not “Inherit the Wind” — it was from the actual trial transcripts. It was one of the most interesting theatrical experiences of my life. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

During rehearsals, we concentrated on the legal details — the maneuverings of the lawyers and the judge. Our job was to give the audience the “experience” of the trial, while at the same time arriving at the same conclusions we held — that this was all an intellectual exercise: a historical/pastoral curiosity which took place long ago and far away. That is, until our first performance, when a man abruptly stood up and screamed at the top of his lungs that we were damned and going to hell. We froze. The show came to a screeching stop as we stared into the audience, wide-eyed and dumbstruck. Suddenly, we weren’t in Kansas anymore — although, actually, we were!

That performance was my first, full-throated encounter with the realization that some people take this stuff seriously. And so, as we moved from town to town, and each performance brought out new and more vocal outbursts, I began to listen more closely to what was being said. Not what I was saying — I was in complete agreement with Darrow’s words — but to what Bryan was saying. And after a time, I began to “hear” his argument and to understand in a more visceral way that both of these men were talking across a great gulf.

Darrow’s reasoned, rational approach was having no effect whatsoever on Bryan. Nor would it ever. I’m going to read a few paragraphs of Darrow’s text and then I’m going to read Bryan’s rebuttal. Listen to the ideas and the buzz words that are still in play today.

Darrow’s words

Darrow said: “I am going to argue this law as if it were serious and as if it were a death struggle between two civilizations. What we find here today is as brazen and bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages. The only difference is we have not provided that Mr. Scopes shall be burned at the stake.

“The people of Tennessee adopted a piece of legislation that says you shan’t teach any theory on the origin of man, except the divine account contained in the bible.

“Now I ask you; what is the bible? It is a book primarily of religion and morals. It is not a book of science — never was and never was meant to be. There is nothing prescribed that would tell you how to build a railroad, or a steamboat, or how to make anything that would advance civilization.

“It is not a book on biology — they knew nothing about it. They thought the Earth was created 4,004 years before the Christian era. We know better. They want the bible to be the yardstick to measure every man’s intellect; to measure every man’s intelligence; and to measure every man’s learning.

“Every bit of knowledge that the mind has must be submitted to a religious test, and that is a travesty of justice and of the Constitution. If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools and then at the hustings or in church.

“At the next session, you may ban books and newspapers. If you can do one, you can do the other, and after a while it is the setting of man against man, and creed against creed, until with flying banners and beating drums, we are marching backwards to the 16th century when bigots burned the men who dared to bring any intelligence, enlightenment, and culture to the human mind.”

Bryan’s response fascinated me. It drew a clear, concise line in the sand. And as I sat there, night after night, I began to realize that no level of “exquisite detailing” about fossils or, in later years, DNA or carbon dating was or would have convinced Bryan to change his narrative — his fantasy.

While Darrow argued law, intelligence and enlightenment, Bryan talked magic.

And when your audience is primed for a magic show (as invariably a religious audience is), you’re not going to get very far with lessons on biology.

Bryan’s rebuttal

Here is Bryan’s rebuttal: “Mr. Scopes tells the children to copy this diagram on evolution, which effectively detaches the children from the throne of God and links their ancestors with the jungle.

“And then if these children believe it, they go back home to scoff at the religion of their parents! But these parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by them shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their houses skeptical infidels, agnostics, or atheists!

“Atheists think life is a mystery that nobody can explain. Not one word about God. They want to come in with their little padded up evolution that commences with nothing and ends nowhere.

“They do not explain the great riddle of the universe; they do not deal with the problems of life; they do not teach how to live. There is no place for miracles.

“They eliminate everything supernatural from the Old Testament and the New.

“They don’t tell us where man became endowed with the hope of immortality. They believe that man has been rising all the time; that he never fell from grace and that when the savior came, there was no reason for his coming, and that he was born of Joseph and that he lives in his grave.

“Evolution is a doctrine that not only destroys their belief in God, but takes from them every moral standard that the bible gives us.

“This issue, between believer and unbeliever, is bigger than any court and we are not going to settle that issue here.

“The bible is the word of God. The bible is the only expression of man’s hope. The bible is not going to be driven out of this court by ‘experts’ who have come hundreds of miles to testify that they can reconcile evolution and its ancestor in the jungle, with a man made by God in his image and put here for the purpose of a divine plan.”

There you have it — Bryan’s argument: “Stay away from our beliefs . . . stay away from our children . . . your ‘education’ turns them against us . . . our beliefs are non-negotiable . . . our sacred text is literal . . . and we have the answers to all the questions you will ever need to ask.”

Sound familiar? The chasm between us is as stark today as it was then — maybe more so. Red/blue; urban/rural; guns/no guns, life/choice; a closed vs. open world are all embodied in the subtext of that speech.

Add the “fear of God” into this fundamentalist mindset and you’ve got a system that will never change.

‘Death of wisdom’

As Darrow said, “The fear of God is the death of wisdom.” Educated arguments supported with facts are now suspect, if not dismissed out of hand. And so today we are forced to live in a world of “alternate facts,” a world of conspiracies and nonsense.

A world were critical thinking and healthy skepticism are vehemently attacked. Where the notion that kidnapped children living on Mars is no longer the silly scribbling of some comic book writer but finds traction in a voting population that brought us our latest occupant of the White House.

And let’s not forget the self-righteous VP, that bible-thumping sidekick who gives hypocritical lip service to, as Bryan said, the “bible’s moral standards” while stripping the poor of their dignity and health care. These two posers are more aligned with the vengeful persona of the Old Testament than with the enlightened founders of our nation, or the men and women who got us to the moon, or who deciphered the human genome.
We are in for a bumpy ride, but we will figure it out. We are up to the challenge. Don’t forget, over the long run we’ve been winning all along. After the Dark Ages came the Enlightenment. Through the Civil War came emancipation and then suffrage and civil rights. After Dayton came Dover.

Some people are afraid of knowledge. But Darrow believed in the amazing, astounding and extraordinary power of the human mind.

And so do I, Clarence. So do I.

Freedom From Religion Foundation