Last edited: April 18, 2004

Elitist Condescension Toward the Provinces

Providence Journal, April 9, 2004

By Jonathan Zimmerman

NEW YORK—HEY, CHECK OUT those crazy right-wing Christians down in Dayton, Tenn.!

Last month’s news from Dayton was great fun, if you’re the type of American on either coast who enjoys condescending to religious conservatives in the Great Middle. It seems that the good burghers of Dayton—actually, of the surrounding Rhea County—tried to prohibit homosexuality.

By a unanimous vote, eight local commissioners approved a measure barring gays from Rhea County and making violators subject to prosecution for “crimes against nature.” National media outlets pounced on the story, because Dayton also hosted America’s most famous single act of judicial theater: the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Indeed, reporters took pains to note, the Rhea County commissioners approved their anti-gay motion in the same courtroom where John T. Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution. That’s right, folks: the same courtroom! The only difference lay in the final outcome. Like the Scopes Trial itself, the anti-gay measure made Dayton a target for national ridicule. Amid a firestorm of adverse publicity, then, the county commissioners voted to rescind their motion just two days after they passed it.

But the larger point was clear. Down there in Dayton, you see, some things never change. Ignorant yokels are still trying to force their religious dogmas down the throats of innocent minorities. And right-thinking Northern liberals—especially in the news media—are still the last line of defense.

Alas, this storyline reflects an enormous distortion of the Scopes Trial itself. The most vocal critics of evolution instruction in 1925 were themselves liberals, not conservatives. Rather than connecting the present to the past, then, the recent anti-gay brouhaha shows us how much they diverge.

Recall that William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes at Dayton, also favored the minimum wage for workers, higher taxes on the rich, state aid to farmers, and municipal ownership of utilities. Even more, he was a devout pacifist who denounced America’s involvement in World War I.

Why would a progressive anti-war activist oppose the teaching of evolution? Simply put, Bryan believed that the spirit of God undergirded his campaigns for peace and social justice. By eroding Americans’ religious faith, Bryan feared, the theory of evolution would also weaken the political reforms that he championed.

But there was more. To Bryan, the ideas of Charles Darwin promoted “survival of the fittest”—the very doctrine that corporate kingpins invoked to protect their ill-begotten riches.

“The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak,” Bryan thundered.

If a child learns evolution in school, then, “he will yield more easily to the temptation to do injustice to his neighbor.” However incongruous to us, these positions made perfect sense to William Jennings Bryan. Indeed, Bryan admonished a cartoonist who had depicted him as a hunter shifting his target from a Republican elephant to a Darwinian monkey.

“You should represent me as using a double-barreled shotgun fixing one barrel at the elephant as he tries to enter the treasury,” Bryan urged, “and another at Darwinism—the monkey—as he tries to enter the school room.”

But the cartoonist captured the tone of national media coverage, which distorted Bryan’s campaign into a narrow-minded attack of religious zealotry upon scientific reason. To H.L. Mencken, the best-known scribe at Dayton, Bryan epitomized rural American ignorance and intolerance.

“He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, who died a few days after the Scopes verdict.

“He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning.”

Over the next few decades, most foes of evolution instruction would retreat from the political arena. They would return in the 1970s as the so-called “Christian Right,” which abandoned nearly all of the progressive social causes that Bryan had championed. These voters would become a linchpin of the modern Republican Party, powering Ronald Reagan’s watershed victory in 1980.

Rather than attacking the GOP elephant, in short, they rode it all the way to the White House.

But they’re not cartoons; they’re people. And they have changed over time. By linking the present-day citizens of Dayton to the prosecutors of John T. Scopes, we do an injustice to both of them. And we continue our inglorious tradition of elite condescension, which can only serve to widen America’s gaping cultural rifts.

  • Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Harvard, 2002).

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