The Scopes Trial and the Supreme Court


This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Scopes Trial, the original trial of the century. Civility, not a survival-of-the-fittest demeanor, marked the proceedings. It’s not a bad precedent for our U.S. Senators to follow in their deliberations over U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Judge John Roberts.

Why, after eight decades, does this historic trial continue to resonate with Americans? The standard reply is that the battle between evolution and creationism is still being fought. That may be true, in part, but it is a simplified, if not mistaken, conclusion.

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While the indictment against a first-year math teacher and beloved tennis coach John Scopes charged that he “taught that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” more was at stake. The trial, played out in Rhea County, Tennessee, lives in our collective memories not because it was about science, but because it wasn’t. Scopes represents the uniquely American ability simultaneously to accommodate and dismiss competing worldviews.

The American ideal — that all men are created equal, that all persons are gifted with inalienable rights — means that I must learn to maintain and defend my values while simultaneously respecting and defending the right of my philosophical opponents to hold their values.

I do not argue there are no absolutes; nor do I argue that someone is not wrong in the current culture wars. I do argue, however, that intellectual and philosophical differences — conservative and liberal, faith-filled and faithless, rural and urban, North and South, coastal cities and “fly-over” states — are bound together in the American experiment.

The Scopes Trial shows one early attempt by educated men to wrestle with a convergence of incompatible values. It was a legal proceeding with tensions that in many ways transcended the evolution-creationism debate: It was about Northern industrialism vs. Southern agrarianism, new vs. old, educational accountability vs. academic freedom, local control vs. governmental mandates of schools; parental involvement vs. professional standards in education; freedom of speech vs. community standards; and science vs. authority as ways of knowing. Evolution and “monkeys” were just convenient frames for examining the cultural milieu of the day.

No other trial has garnered as much popular intrigue as the Scopes Trial. What other trial has inspired a Pulitzer prize-winning book, a Broadway play, feature films, popular songs? Herein lies the problem: in a culture where an appreciation for intellectual rigor and critical thinking are panned, the stories told in fictional accounts — like Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s perennial-favorite Inherit the Wind — become “more real” and “more true” than the reality of the historic event.

In the late 1980s, community leaders in Dayton, the county seat of Rhea County, decided to use the public record to correct public misperceptions. A two-hour adaptation of the trial based solely on the official transcripts of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes emerged. In the early 1990s, while a professor at Bryan College, I directed the community’s production of the original script, Destiny in Dayton, for two summers.

The annual Tennessee re-creation is remarkable because of overwhelming local and national support. The play works with a volunteer cast. But community spirit prevails upon the current sheriff of Rhea County to play the role of the sheriff of Rhea County. A well-respected local teacher plays the role of the superintendent of schools. Managers from the Tennessee Valley Authority, laborers from the local La-Z-Boy factory, attorneys and business leaders from the community, students and faculty from Bryan College perform their assigned roles as prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, jurors, clerks, and defendants.

What surprises participants and observers alike at the annual event is the overwhelming graciousness they find in the characters of the judge, attorneys, and witnesses. The carnival atmosphere was outside on Dayton’s streets; inside its courtroom serious issues were debated and forcefully argued by friends. All parties seemed to lose their temper at some point during the trial, but a deferential courtesy always won the day. Perhaps it was the affable Judge Raulston or the Old South ethos of the place, but relationships were paramount to the participants.

One defense attorney served with Bryan when he was Wilson’s Secretary of State. The speaker at Scopes’ high school graduation in Paducah (Ky.) years earlier had been Mr. Bryan. Bryan offered to pay Scopes’ $100 fine after Judge Raulston’s ruling. Darrow and Scopes continued a friendly relationship after the trial, and I have a haunting feeling that Bryan, the jovial soul that he was, would have likewise maintained contact with the principles in the case had he lived longer than a week after the case was decided.

So here argued a team of attorneys on both sides of many cultural issues. The lesson of civility despite our differences is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the original trial. That is not a bad reminder for those who are embattled in today’s culture wars and the battle over Judge Roberts. It is one that Americans continue to long for in today’s public advocacy and political discourse.