- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

The first shots of the culture war were fired 75 years ago today in a sweltering courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. In what was considered the greatest trial "since that before Pilate," defendant John Thomas Scopes, a high school science instructor, was charged with the crime of teaching evolution in the public schools. The opposing forces that gathered in Dayton to witness the courtroom battle dubbed by H.L. Mencken as the "Monkey Trial" have been at odds ever since.

Defending the "infidel" Scopes was Clarence Darrow, an urbane, liberal-leaning man who had a passion for social reform. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential nominee and fevered crusader for fundamentalism and prohibition, was hired to prosecute Scopes and the theories of evolution he taught.

Central casting could not have provided better actors for their respective roles in this drama. Over 200 journalists from around the world came to watch the court proceeding, with many forced to stand on tables in the back of the courtroom for lack of seats.

According to Mencken, who was dispatched to Dayton by the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper, it would be "no more possible in this Christian valley to get a jury unprejudiced against Scopes than would be possible in Wall Street to get a jury unprejudiced against a Bolshevik." The good folks of Tennessee, he continued, saw Darwin as "the devil with seven tails and nine horns" and Scopes, "though he is disguised by flannel pants and a Beta Theta Pi haircut, is the harlot of Babylon."

In the end, Mencken got it right: Scopes was found guilty and was forced to pay a small fine that was eventually picked up by the Evening Sun. The American reading public, however, came to see the defenders of creationism as "yokels" who were "deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things."

What a charge.

But, in many ways, the charge lives even today. Modern "progressives" and "fundamentalists" still exchange blows over evolution, but the war has expanded to include school prayer, abortion, racial preferences and gun control, to name just the most prominent issues. Bryan has been replaced in our current siege by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition; Darrow has been replaced by Nadine Strossen of the ACLU and Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP.

At bottom, according to Emory Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the culture war today embodies a bitter struggle over the "first principles of how we will order our lives together."

Contemporary debate over abortion, for example, like the debate over creationism in 1925, is essentially about the conflict of moral and religious values. Nothing new here: slavery, desegregation, women's suffrage, to cite only a few of many, have all separated the American people along moral battle lines. As Ms. Fox-Genovese states, "The culture war challenges Americans to find a way to talk seriously about serious issues, for neither facile slogans nor imposed solutions will suffice. Nor should we vainly hope for compromise: our disagreement permits no middle ground, although with heroic effort we may yet clear a terrain for difficult, mutually respectful discussion about difficult issues, which offer little prospect of compromise."

She is right about that; but, the rules of engagement of this war, like so much else in modern life, have become coarsened by intolerance and spite, especially from the progressive left. The left demands a religious vacuum in our nation's life and laws not a mere separation of church and state but a complete purge of anything that connotes religious faith. They defend their position with ridicule and bullying.

Today's ultimate question is the same one as in 1925: Have human beings been touched by a divine God who endowed them with ethical and moral judgment, or, in the alternative, are we merely sophisticated mammals, responding to environmental stimuli?

A recent court decision, which made little news given a higher profile case involving school prayer at a Texas high school football game, is a timely and ironic postscript to the Scopes trial. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling in Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education vs. Freiler, which barred a Louisiana school board from requiring that the Darwinian theory of evolution only be taught with a biblical disclaimer. A federal judge had blocked the enforcement of the disclaimer on grounds it had a religious purpose.

One can practically hear Mencken from the grave: "The yokels are at it again."

John Scopes, like the progressive-liberal movement he came to symbolize, moved on to bigger and better things: first a stint in graduate school and then a fruitful life working as a geologist. He died in 1970, two years after the Supreme Court finally overturned a similar Arkansas law.

William Jennings Bryan remained in Dayton for five days after the verdict. He traveled throughout the area giving speeches and planning to publish parts of his courtroom orations. On the following Sunday, it was reported that Bryan went to church, ate a huge meal, and then went to his room for a nap. He died quietly in his sleep.

Just when it appears the debate over Darwin and evolution has passed from the American public school scene, now comes legislation introduced in the Ohio legislature that would require public school teachers to teach the pros and cons of evolution.

According to a 1999 Gallup Poll, 47 percent of Americans believe God created human beings, while 49 percent accept evolution. Harvard science professor Stephen Jay Gould blames himself and other science teachers for failing to convince the 47 percent who believe God created mankind that they are wrong.

Not much has been resolved since 1925.

Edward Blum is chairman of a legal defense foundation based in Houston.

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