Charles Darwin, Clarence Darrow and the Scopes Monkey Trial

It's been over 80 years, and creationist fundamentalism is still no laughing matter.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Today is Darwin's birthday, and I am going to forego the obviously self-promotional opportunity, as Clarence Darrow's biographer, to go on again about the great lawyer's humiliation of William Jennings Bryan, and the cause of Fundamentalism, in their classic showdown at the Scopes Monkey Trial, in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. 

The Tennessee legislature, you may recall, had made it a crime to teach Evolution without Genesis in the public schools. The ACLU and some of Dayton's local boosters thought it might be worthwhile, and a bit of fun, to challenge the law in court.

It was a circus. When passing the law, the Vol legislators thought they were merely tossing a bouquet to their religious constituents, and none imagined any teacher would be prosecuted. Even back then, in the heart of the Bible Belt, the state's approved biology textbook recognized that Darwin had gotten it right.

Well, most of you have seen or read the dramatic portrayal of events in "Inherit the Wind," and know what a marvelous show it turned out to be. And if you haven't—or if you want to know what actually happened—I'm going to give you the opportunity to fork over $25 (or $9.99 on your Kindle) to Doubleday pretty soon.

But I can't let Darwin's birthday pass without taking a bit of a shot at the creationists, who still insist on grafting their peculiar branch of the Christian religion onto the public school biology curriculum. And so I'm going to be really vicious, in honoring the day, and let Henry Mencken have the floor, to warn us again, in his inimical style, that behind the entertainment is a very real threat to intellectual freedom.

"I sincerely hope that the nobility and gentry of the lowlands will not make the colossal mistake of viewing this trial of Scopes as a trivial farce," Mencken wrote, in the Baltimore Evening Sun. "Full of rustic japes and in bad taste, it is, to be sure, somewhat comic on the surface."

But "deeper down there are the beginnings of a struggle...and when the curtain falls at least all the laughter may be coming from the yokels. You probably laughed at the prohibitionists, say, back in 1914. Well, don't make the same error twice," he warned.

"Bryan understands these peasants, and they understand him. He is a bit mangy and flea-bitten, but no means ready for his harp," Mencken wrote. "He hates the learning that he cannot grasp. He hates those who sneer at him. He hates, in general, all who stand apart from his own pathetic commonness. And the yokels hate with him."

The "old buzzard" Bryan, said Mencken, "having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers."

"One somehow pities him, despite his so palpable imbecilities. It is a tragedy indeed to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge."

"This year it is a misdemeanor for a country school teacher to flout the archaic nonsense of Genesis. Next year it will be a felony. The year after the net will be spread wider," Mencken warned. "The Baptist preachers ranted unchallenged. Their buffooneries were mistaken for humor.

"Now the clowns turn out to be armed, and have begun to shoot."

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