Religion, science on trial in ‘Inherit the Wind’

Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan were opposing

Last Friday I found myself sitting in a jury box. With my fellow
jurors, I heard opposing arguments in the centuries-old trial of
religious faith versus scientific fact. My journey to deliberating
on this dynamic debate started when I stepped into the Morgan Hill
Community Playhouse to watch a South Valley Civic Theater (SVCT)
performance of the American classic

Inherit the Wind.

Last Friday I found myself sitting in a jury box. With my fellow jurors, I heard opposing arguments in the centuries-old trial of religious faith versus scientific fact. My journey to deliberating on this dynamic debate started when I stepped into the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse to watch a South Valley Civic Theater (SVCT) performance of the American classic “Inherit the Wind.”

The moment I entered the theater, producer Beth Dewey asked if I wanted to participate in that night’s performance. I eagerly accepted her offer to sit on stage as a member of the jury. Ten minutes later, I found myself dressed in a starched white shirt and black bowtie, stepping into the character of a small-minded, small town citizen in the Deep South of the 1920s. When the bailiff called the jurors from our front-row audience seats to the stage’s jury box, we witnessed a battle of legal titans as two opposing lawyers argued the issues of evolution.

The plot of “Inherit the Wind” is based on the historic “Monkey Trial” that took place in a Dayton, Tenn. courthouse in July 1925. The play’s character Henry Drummond (played cynically by James Pearson) is a representation of attorney Clarence Darrow whom the American Civil Liberties Union hired to defend high school biology teacher John Thomas Scopes, who was put on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The character Matthew Harrison Brady (portrayed with bombastic big-ego gusto by Allen Siverson) paints a fictionalized portrait of the great American politician William Jennings Bryan. In the Scopes trial, Bryan served as the prosecuting attorney, representing the state of Tennessee – and moral absolutism.

A century or so ago, Bryan was a larger-than-life figure known as “the Great Commoner,” an extremist liberal who unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the presidency in 1896, 1900 and 1908. You might compare him in popularity among his followers and personal style of communication to Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Bryan, like Perry today, was devoted in his faith in the inerrancy of the Bible and the moral code of Christianity. A brash populist much like Perry, Bryan was a hypnotic orator. He spoke more like a Bible-thumping preacher than a politician, showing absolutely no embarrassment in bringing prayer and praise to God to the campaign trail.

Bryan helped shape modern American politics. He essentially invented today’s campaign tactics of stump tours and tent meetings, using his powers of hypnotizing oratory to fire up followers to vote for him. He stood against the gold standard and corporate trusts. He stood for women’s suffrage and prohibition. He shaped the Democratic Party’s populist themes, paving the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

As a God-fearing fundamentalist Christian, he promoted the passage of anti-evolution laws by state leaders. He believed teaching that humans evolved from less complex organisms would plant seeds of doubt in young minds about the words of the Bible. Doubting scripture, he felt, would lead to the corrosion of morals.

Bryan’s fervent fight against Darwinism led many state legislatures – especially in the South – to ban public schools from teaching evolution. Tennessee passed the Butler Act of 1925 that prevented teaching the science of human evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union found biology teacher Scopes as a willing participant to test the constitutionality of this law.

In July 1925, Americans sat riveted as they listened on the radio to Monkey Trial attorneys Bryan and Darrow duke out the debate of faith and facts. At one point, Darrow even brought Bryan into the witness box as a Bible expert. Bryan testified the world was not billions of years old but was created 4,000 years before Jesus Christ’s birth.

Considering the strong anti-science bias among many of today’s extreme conservative politicians – especially those whose strict adherence to religious dogma cause them to deny the science of evolution and also of climate change – there’s an irony in the fact that it was Bryan, a extreme liberal politician, who planted in America the seeds of our nation’s distrust in science. Planting seeds of doubt about science is how politicians use dogma to control minds and retain power. Galileo faced much the same trial as Scopes when he battled Catholic Church authorities who feared his teaching the astronomical science of a sun-centered system might undermine their religious supremacy. It didn’t. Likewise, teaching evolution and climate change science to young minds in today’s schools will not undermine their spiritual values and cause immoral behavior in society.

The trial of religious faith versus science facts still goes on in America. Let us heed Proverbs 11:29. If we trouble our own house by preventing young minds from discovering the wonders of science in our nation’s classrooms, we shall inherit the wind.

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