Apparently about a third of the population of Tennessee still doesn’t buy Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study) so it should not be too much of a surprise that in Dayton, Tennessee, site of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, a newly erected statue of Clarence Darrow in front of the historic red brick courthouse where the trial took place was met with some protests. At a County Commission meeting in the town, resident Ruth Ann Wilson suggested that bronze Darrow might unleash a plague or a curse. “I rise in opposition to this atheist statue, all right?” she said. “This is very serious, folks.”
No, that isn’t serious, but the persistence of ignorance both generally and about the issues battled over in 1925 are. Another resident, Brad Putt, is quoted by the New York Times as saying, “People around here know that if you have a court case, you have to have two sides,” referring to the fact that there has been a Williams Jennings Bryan statue standing in front of the courthouse since 2005. “You can’t have Optimus Prime unless you have Megatron. You’ve got to have a yin to the yang.” Well, that’s not quite right either, depending on what Bryan and Darrow symbolize. If the idea is to have the most famous opposing counsel in U.S. legal history facing off, okay, that’s fair. If he is saying, as I think he is, that science and religion must counter and balance each other, that’s nonsense.
It is true that Clarence Darrow was an outspoken agnostic, and delighted in ridiculing literal readings of the Bible. It is also true that once the judge in the Scopes trial disallowed his experts on evolution, geology, astronomy and other sciences, Darrow had the brilliant idea of impeaching Bryan as the prosecution’s “expert” on the Bible and Creationism, knowing that the trial was being broadcast live and that Bryan would be trapped—forced to play to a fundamentalist audience in the courthouse while trying not to sound like a loon to the less-fundamentalist Democrats in the radio audience outside of Tennessee that Bryan knew he had to impress if he was to have any chance at the fourth nomination for President be craved. But Darrow was not trying to declare that science was a new god, or prove that religion was worthless. Clarence Darrow was fighting for freedom of thought and speech, which is what the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution threatened. (It was the ACLU, not any scientific group, that hired him to defend Scopes.) The New York Times article about the opposition to the Darrow statue abets public ignorance by never clarifying what Darrow’s position was. He argued that a law making all knowledge subordinate to the Bible was a ticket back to the Dark Ages:
“Along comes somebody who says “we have got to believe it as I believe it. It is a crime to know more than I know.” And they publish a law to inhibit learning. This law says that it shall be a criminal offense to teach in the public schools any account of the origin of man that is in conflict with the divine account in the Bible. It makes the Bible the yardstick to measure every man’s intellect, to measure every man’s intelligence and to measure every man’s learning. Are your mathematics good? Turn to Elijah 1:2. Is your philosophy good? See II Samuel 3. Is your astronomy good? See Genesis 2:7. Is your chemistry good? See – well, chemistry, see Deuteronomy 3:6, or anything that tells about brimstone. Every bit of knowledge that the mind has must be submitted to a religious test. It is a travesty upon language, it is a travesty upon justice, it is a travesty upon the constitution to say that any citizen of Tennessee can be deprived of his rights by a legislative body in the face of the constitution…
Of course, I used to hear when I was a boy you could lead a horse to water, but you could not make him drink water. I could lead a man to water, but I could not make him drink, either. And you can close your eyes and you won’t see, cannot see, refuse to open your eyes – stick your fingers in your ears and you cannot hear – if you want to. But your life and my life and the life of every American citizen depends after all upon the tolerance and forbearance of his fellow man. If men are not tolerant, if men cannot respect each other’s opinions, if men cannot live and let live, then no man’s life is safe, no man’s life is safe…
Here is a country made up of Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotch, German, Europeans, Asiatics, Africans, men of every sort and men of every creed and men of every scientific belief. Who is going to begin this sorting out and say, “I shall measure you; I know you are a fool, or worse; I know and I have read a creed telling what I know and I will make people go to Heaven even if they don’t want to go with me. I will make them do it.” Where is the man that is wise enough to do this?
If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private school, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it from the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always they are feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until, with flying banners and beating drums, we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted torches to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”
That was Darrow, in part, beginning the defense of John Scopes case with his opening argument to the jury.
The great trial lawyer lost the case (as he intended to), but won the argument, as he had to. That’s what his statue should stand for, because that is what Darrow stood for: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and the banishment of ignorance. If you want yin to that yang, put his image opposite a statue of Stalin.
Or maybe Howard Dean.