What the Scopes Monkey Trial Has to Teach Today's Church

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In 1925 John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee was accused of teaching evolution to his class in violation of state law. America at the time was just beginning to feel the rub between her religious underpinnings and modern science, so the Scopes Monkey Trial—as it was quickly called—became a matter of national interest.


The trial gathered steam when the well-known attorney Clarence Darrow took on the case for the defense and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan agreed to speak for the state. That Darrow was as famous an agnostic as Bryan was a conservative Christian brought things to a level of notoriety and celebrity rarely seen before or since. There was so much interest that newspapers across the country sent reporters to file daily reports. Scopes’ legal troubles became symbolical for America’s struggle to reconcile biblical convictions with secular science.


The famous cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow on the trial’s seventh day brought this larger issue into sharp focus. Bryan was unable to rebut many of Darrow’s questions regarding a literal interpretation of the Bible; and at least in the public eye, the authority of science over the Bible was settled once and for all.


While John Scopes was actually found guilty, the verdict was later reversed on a technicality. For the American public, though, the trial represented a resounding defeat of Christian conservatism and opened the door for an America unencumbered by outdated religious convictions.


Religious historian George Marsden describes in several of his books what happened next. Fundamentalists, especially, but also evangelicals in general surrendered and began a withdrawal from the public life of the nation. Their churches became notable as places of counter-cultural identity. They built their own colleges; established their own newspapers; and published their own books. They in essence built their own religious sub-culture as a way of responding to the national mood.


Their conviction was that the nation was on a course they could not and would not support so their best option was to intentionally build an alternative culture in which they could live out their own convictions and build their own identity.


According to Marsden, this general cultural withdrawal continued until the 1970s with the election as President of self-professed Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. His conservative religious background brought evangelicalism once again into the open.


A few years later with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, evangelicals were fully engaged in national politics. With the two elections of President Ronald Reagan they achieved their highest level of influence and became a de facto lobbying arm of the Republican Party.


Today, all that has changed. Almost 85 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, those of us who embrace evangelical truth find ourselves back in the position of outcasts. Once again, we’re aware of the departure of the nation from our core convictions. Once again, we find ourselves faced with the option to withdraw from the culture in order to build our own identity.


Laura Turner writes of our situation in the current issue of “The Atlantic” magazine of the new circumstances of conservative Christians in our country in a piece called “When the Moral Majority becomes the Minority.”


Increasing support for gay marriage, the declining rates of marriage, and the rise of the “nones,” all seem to indicate waning evangelical influence on American culture. In the fight-or-flight response to feeling threatened, more and more Christians are taking (or at least talking about) the road out of Rome [not to become Catholic but to leave Rome and build more private faith communities]. They want to regroup, immerse themselves in communities that share their values, develop more robust theology, and emerge, in a sense, stronger than before.


No one knows at this point where all this will lead. It may be that evangelicals will withdraw from the public square as we did in the previous century in order to clarify our beliefs and build our own culture. Or it may be that we will engage America with a renewed sense of urgency with the gospel message. However we end up responding, though, there a few things we can learn from the experience of our forebears, in the years following the Scopes Monkey Trial.


  • The nation and the world are different today than they were 85 years ago. The nation then was still operating out of a set of basic biblical values. Such is not the case today. The basis for the national cultural, social and legal life is so thoroughly secularized that it’s hard to imagine how biblical convictions can find much resonance at all. Both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were debating from the same Bible; their dispute was over the interpretation of the document. Today, with no single grounds of authority and truth (which the Bible held for most of American history), the only appeal to resolving a debate is to personal preference and political will—which is exactly how the debates on both abortion and homosexual marriage were settled.


  • The exploding internet has made withdrawal from the culture a problematical experience. No monastery walls can keep Google out. No attentive parent can completely protect their children from facebook. No community of faith is immune from the pervasive influence of social media, which continually compares, criticizes, critiques and distorts the ministry the congregation is trying to perform. In other words, withdrawal from the culture into a culture of its own making—which was possible for the evangelicals of 1925 isn’t so easy anymore. Any movement in this direction will include by necessity a creative and intentional interaction with the surrounding society that protects the purpose of the community while at the same time recognizing the web we all live in.


  • The denominations, churches and people who withdrew from the culture following the Scopes trial ended up, 85 years later, in a place that didn’t best represent the Kingdom. They found a way to the halls of political party and actually had a seat at the table with powerful political leaders as well as entertainment moguls and other cultural icons. But—as our founding fathers understood better than we do—when religion and politics are combined, it’s religion that comes out the loser. Our purpose as believers is always the Kingdom’s advance more than the national agenda. When the Moral Majority threw their weight behind the Republican Party through the 1980s and 1990s, maybe they helped sway the elections toward their preferred candidate. But the cost that they paid was the erosion of their own witness. If evangelicals withdraw once again from the culture, we need to be much more circumspect and biblical about our purpose. Is it to recoup so we can once again charge into the American political landscape? Or would it be so we can more fully know our God, and learn to live more humbly in his presence and power?


We evangelicals are going to be wrestling with our direction for the foreseeable future. But with the Scopes Monkey Trial as a touchstone, we may be able to make wise choices about where we’re headed.

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