Scopes isn’t cause for celebration

As happens in the newspaper world, this weekend I wrote an editorial in The Herald-News that may have assumed too much. While I know the overwhelming majority of folks who read our newspaper don’t keep up on the blogosphere, I figured I’d take advantage of modern communication and clarify a few things.

The editorial I wrote was on the importance of the Scopes Evolution Trial of 1925 and the need to support Dayton’s commemoration of the trial each year. Today, Sunday, July 10, marks the 86th anniversary of the beginning of the trial. The editorial was directed at, obviously, local readers — readers who have seen dozens of stories about the trial and festival and for whom the whole ordeal has probably grown old. Nonetheless, the editorial encouraged them to catch part of this coming weekend’s activities.

After watching a CSPAN special on the trial today (Yes, I’m one of those people who spends a leisurely Sunday afternoon watching CSPAN. It’s okay to laugh at me.)I began to reflect on what I had written and realized a bit more nuance may be required. Let’s start with the important difference between two words: celebrate and remember.

Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

Those of us living in Dayton should by all means rememberthe Scopes Trial. Historically speaking, the trial dramatically green-lighted the national debate that persists today on key cultural topics: the role of science, the role of religion, church vs. state (though this debate has over the years become a bit of a straw man), fundamentalism vs. progressivism, local governance vs. state/federal governance. Today, if a three-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state came to our modest town to match wits with the most famous trial attorney of our day, it would be an event worth remembering. Thus it was when William Jennings Bryan came to meet Clarence Darrow. No matter your personal feelings about the fate of the Butler Act — the state law that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools — or your stance as an atheist, evolutionist, creationist, etc., the Scopes Trial was a landmark for our country. Its ramifications are still felt today.

But here’s why the Scopes Trial should not be celebrated, especially for those of us who call Rhea County home. For starters, it became a black eye for Dayton (and the whole South and Appalachia) because of portrayals in pop culture. Plays, films, stories, even newspaper accounts of the day all portray Dayton and the people who inhabited it as stupid simpletons, “ignoramuses,” as Darrow put it during the trial. As stereotypes do, that one has followed Dayton folks, merited or not (which I’ll come back to later). That punch-in-the-gut doesn’t need a celebration the likes of the Strawberry Festival.

Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

Furthermore, the overtones of the debate have cast Bible-believing Christians in the same insulting light in the eyes of many today. The image some people call to mind when they think about Bible-believing Christians is a black and white photo of someone holding hands with a chimpanzee dressed in a suit. Many people write Christians off altogether because of the stigma of the Scopes Trial. We’re seen as stupid, illogical, and willfully blind to science. All these portrayals, when taken as generalities, are false. Sure, there are ignorant Christians in the world. But there are just as many ignorant atheists. To classify the lot of Bible-believing Christians as ignorant or simple is gross deception. Can it be said that men like C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer are uneducated simpletons? Yet, that is today’s popular portrayal of Christians. While we haven’t always helped our cause, the Scopes Trial overtones have perpetuated much of it.

Getting back to the local angle, it’s true that some people living in and around Dayton exploited the manufactured PR stunt. Bringing in the monkeys dressed in seersucker was a bad call. In doing so, and by bringing about a carnival-like atmosphere, they ultimately hurt their own cause, though I’m convinced the likes of Darrow and H.L. Mencken would have done that anyway. Again, that should not be celebrated. But the people of Dayton didn’t just act that way out of backwoods backwardness. The whole point of the trial was to bring publicity and, ultimately, money into the faltering town. Dayton’s major industry — coal mining — had by 1925 fallen on its face, leaving the town in an economic tailspin and desperate for revenue. It was for that reason F.E. Robinson, George Rappleyea and others sat around a small table in Robinson’s Drug Store and concocted the trial. Writing more on that and the fall of the Dayton Coal and Iron Company is one of my long-term goals.

Does the Scopes Trial need remembering? Yes. Good or bad, events in history of such magnitude need to be studied. Especially since we’re still fighting the fights kicked off with the trial.

Should we rejoice in the stigma the trial brought upon us? Certainly not. But remembering it, hopefully, will convince us never to do the same thing again.


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