Inheriting a Myth

The historical parallels between Kitzmiller v. Dover, the intelligent design case now being tried in Pennsylvania, and the "Scopes Monkey Trial" aren't lost on the judge hearing the case: John Jones. Jones told the Philadelphia Inquirer last weekend that he "became a judge with the hope of having an opportunity to rule in matters of great importance." That's why he looked forward to hearing this case. People who have tried cases before Jones characterized him as being "meticulously prepared," and given the attention surrounding the case, Kitzmiller is no exception. But there's one bit of preparation from which Jones should have abstained. He told the Inquirer that, as part of his preparation, he planned on re-watching the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the Scopes trial. While Jones admitted that he didn't know, as he put it, if seeing the film "would be helpful to the decision I have to make," he thought it "would help put things in historical context." Well, I have written the judge, telling him that just is not so. When I say that Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account, I'm not just referring to a few name changes and a bit of dramatic license. I mean the kind of changes that stand the original story on its head and leave viewers with a completely erroneous sense of what happened in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. In the film, John Scopes is a principled and heroic biology teacher doing battle against the forces of ignorance and intolerance. The locals are depicted as little short of peasants with torches and pitchforks who yell, "Devil!" when Scopes's defense attorney, based on the famous Clarence Darrow, arrives in town. Led by a minister (of course), they drag Scopes out of the classroom and put him on trial. Meanwhile, the prosecutor, based on William Jennings Bryan, is a dour fanatic whose religious beliefs do not withstand scrutiny. The problem is that none of this is true. The Tennessee law, while on the books, had never been enforced. John Scopes never taught biology; he was the football coach recruited by the ACLU as a "test case." And far from being dragged out of the classroom, after his conviction, which was overturned, he paid a $100 fine and went to play tennis. The real William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate, was once called "the closest thing to socialism the American mind could tolerate." Bryan's main concerns about Darwinism had to do with its social, not its theological, implications. And unlike the movie, where he collapses under cross-examination, in real life Bryan gave as good as he got. Now, these distortions wouldn't matter except that the average American's views of the Scopes trial are almost entirely the product of Inherit the Wind. That's why I wrote Judge Jones, informing him about the film's inaccuracies. If he or you want to "put things in historical context," a much better place to look is the excellent new book by Marvin Olasky and John Perry titled Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial. The book debunks the Scopes myth created by H. L. Mencken and other reporters and replaces it with the hard facts of the case. And this is something that I recommend you do to educate your neighbors. After all, the issues in the Pennsylvania case are difficult enough without confusing movies for real life.
For Further Reading and Information
Today's BreakPoint offer: See Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture Director Stephen C. Meyer's article "Teach the Controversy" and frequently asked questions about intelligent design, evolution, and education. Amy Worden, "Bad Frog Beer to 'intelligent design'," Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 October 2005. Interview with Edward Larson, author of Summer for the Gods, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that tells the truth about the Scopes trial, Booknotes, 28 June 2005. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1998). Read this review from First Things. Marvin Olasky and John Perry, Monkey Business (Broadman and Holman, 2005).


Chuck Colson



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