The Scopes Option

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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

No doubt there’s something appealing about the Benedict Option, blogger Rod Dreher’s proposal that religious conservatives form themselves into communities of the upright and faithful to preserve (Christian) civilization in the new Dark Ages. How pleasant to think of oneself ensconced behind robust stone walls like the early Benedictine monks (though heterosexually married with kids, of course), spending one’s days praying, tilling the soil, eating and drinking well, and copying out ancient texts!

But really, the historical analogue for an American contemplating such a strategic retreat today is not Western Europe after the Fall of Rome but the United States after World War I, when secularism first hit the country full force. Under the pressures of urbanization and mass entertainment, of scientific advance and industrialization, the 19th-century evangelical consensus broke down and conservative Protestants panicked.

Their response was fundamentalism, a restatement of traditional Christian doctrine hopped-up with new rigidities like biblical “inerrancy” and an imminent millennium. They lost the battle for one mainline Protestant denomination after another, and the emblem of their defeat was the Scopes Monkey Trial, the media event in Dayton, Tennessee, that left the Jazz Age laughing at the old-time religion as the province of backwoods illiterates.

In its wake, the fundamentalists did more or less what Dreher has in mind. They created denominations in their own image and Bible colleges to feed them. They withdrew from an increasingly alien national culture and kept aloof from politics, spreading their gospel and growing their flocks in their own revivals and on their own radio stations. And in due course, they made a big comeback, becoming a force to be reckoned with from the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s until the Age of Obama.

So what’s the post-Obergefell Scopes Option for today’s religious conservatives? They’ve already got their denominations, their colleges, their media; and they don’t lack for mighty megachurch campuses to retreat from “a country in chaos,” to quote the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. What they lack is a younger generation concerned about same-sex marriage, the rise of the Nones, and the government’s insistence that health insurance provide free contraceptive coverage for women.

I’d say they have their work cut out for them.

  • MarkE

    Mark – great observations. Conservo-fundamentalism may indeed be their last refuge. I wonder if anyone has looked at the second generation products of their exclusive upbringing – through home-schooling and fundie “colleges” – whether that younger generation is toeing-the-line or finding some liberty in getting out on their own and exercising their brains (and free will).

  • Jack

    The fundamentalist/evangelical retreat from American politics and culture before and after Scopes was a strategist blunder and bad for the nation, turning a vibrant, outward looking part of American society, one which had brought down slavery and actually sowed the seeds for progressive change, into an ingrown, reactionary movement.

    It was during their absence, and in the vacuum that absence created, that America witnessed the rise of big government as the one-size-fits-all simplistic answer to every problem and the gradual weakening of the institutions of civil society which government began replacing. The retreat from constitutionalism also occurred in the years of their absence.

    I hope that today’s evangelicalism doesn’t make the same mistake now as it did then. We are still living with the results.

  • Jack

    The short answer is neither. The home-schooled kids tend to do pretty well; ask any Ivy League admissions counselor. That’s because home-schooling parents are a self-selecting bunch…..the ones who do it are more likely to have college or advanced degrees than the general population of parents. I’ve met a number of these kids and they tend to be exceptionally bright and well-informed and do well on standardized tests as well.

  • Jack

    What’s missing in this analysis is how, in the decades after WW II, a new evangelicalism emerged from the old fundamentalism, one that was more inclusive and less separatist, and which paved the way for the re-entry of evangelicals into public life beginning in the 1970s.

    The danger today is that this more inclusive evangelicalism will slide back into Scopes-era separatism.

  • Matthew Kilburn

    The problem is that the 1970s and 1980s revival of Evangelical, Conservative Christianity never really produced the dramatic social changes we would have desired of it. There rather than being the mouse that roared, it has been the lion that squeaked. We saw no new restrictions on divorce, a general expansion of the practice of abortion, increased tolerance of homosexuality, and the continuation of stubbornly low birth rates. This is not to say the televangelism era was bad, only that it wasn’t terribly effective.

  • George

    The Scopes trial was a watershed event because it was the first trial carried on national radio — there was no TV. It gave evangelicals an opportunity to make their argument for a literal interpretation of the Bible through the testimony of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time democratic nominee for president, a former secretary of state, and a self-professed biblical expert. Scopes actually lost the case and had to pay a $100 fine, but fundamentalists lost the debate.

  • Jack

    Well, yes and no, Matthew. The evangelical revival of the 1970s and 1980s affected little in terms of governmental response to hot-button social issues. But…on the more-important grassroots level of daily behavior, it had an enormous effect on the nation, one we are still feeling today. Virtually every form of social pathology has since declined dramatically, from drug use to abortions, from violent crime to promiscuity. Today, a majority of children graduate high school as virgins….and it has been that way for nearly a decade. If someone in the 1970s had made such a prediction, they’d be absolutely laughed out of court. That means fewer teen pregnancies and abortions, and fewer kids having sex before they’re emotionally ready.

    And by facilitating the election of the first competent foreign policy president since JFK, the revival helped the US to help Christians behind the Iron Curtain bring it down peacefully, freeing hundreds of millions of people.

  • Jack

    What’s most striking is how few evangelicals realize that there was a revival in the 1970s and 1980s, and just how strongly that revival affected the course of the nation and world.

    That’s probably because too many evangelicals continue to misinterpret their own millennial eschatology, believing that things have to get worse and worse in society in the end times. Some almost seem to be hoping that things will get worse so reality will fit this simplistic narrative. There’s a fine line between having a pure heart that longs for Jesus’ return and a dark heart attracted to sensationalism and that can’t wait for the hammer to come down, the bombs to go off, and the bread lines to begin.

  • Dimitri Cavalli

    I am not alleging that Prof. Silk has done this, but let’s also keep the actual historical events of the Scopes Trial separate from how they were presented (and distorted) in play and film “Inherit the Wind.” See Prof. Carol Iannone’s article in First Things (Feb. 1997),–36

    Was the real-life John Scopes denied bail and had to stay in the local jail for the duration of the trial like his counterpart, Bertram Cates, in the play?

    William Jennings Bryan may have rejected evolution (and its contemporary application, as Social Darwinism, to the social problems of the time), but as a pacifist, champion of the poor, organized labor, and farmers, he was a progressive, and the Occupy folks (who might wrongly consider him “right-wing” or “reactionary”) may find substantial agreement with many of his views.

  • Dean Schulze

    Snide and vacuous.

    Silk seems oblivious to the wave after wave of attacks on religious liberty that will occur now that the supreme court has created a new right that collides head-on with the first amendment. Chief Justice Roberts was adamant about what is to come in his dissent. He used the word “ominously” when referring to the majorities refusal to mention that the first amendment guarantees the right to “exercise” religion, not just to teach or advocate.

    Obergfell is a 5-4 decision with obvious flaws, like the idea that the “dignity” to marry is limited to two people. Why don’t polygamists have the right that comes from “dignity”? What if two brothers or two sisters want to get married? Is that a constitutional right?

    There are lots of shoes to drop on the marriage issue, especially how it will lead to attacks on religious liberties.

  • Samuel Johnston

    @Mark: “…19th-century evangelical consensus broke down and conservative Protestants panicked…”.”Their response was fundamentalism, a restatement of traditional Christian doctrine hopped-up with new rigidities like biblical “inerrancy” and an imminent millennium.”
    @Jack “What’s missing in this analysis is how, in the decades after WW II, a new evangelicalism emerged from the old fundamentalism, one that was more inclusive and less separatist, and which paved the way for the re-entry of evangelicals into public life beginning in the 1970s.”
    This BLOG is entitled, Spiritual Politics. I care about personal freedom, and religious freedom, but I wonder whether I care about Spiritual Politics, unless it relates to these. If the measure of spiritual endeavors is their political influence, then no- I do not care. “Render unto Caesar” should cover the field. Religion can be defined in institutional form or in the most intimate personal terms. I reject the former.