Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How progressives abandoned religion, helping along the rise of the "religious right"

Inherit the Wind represents some of the background mythology that progressives tend to believe about science and religion to this day. So it's worth pointing out that there is evidence that what drew religious people into the debate was the proto-Nazi nature of the eugenics movement and the politics of social Darwinism, not the desire to "impose" a theocracy from on high or to establish a church and so on.

The trial of John T. Scopes is an important milestone in the history of American legal thought. Known in the vernacular as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," the case took place in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. [...] At the time, the trial was the most public confrontation between religious fundamentalism and modern science. By 1955, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had written a play about the trial called Inherit the Wind, and film treatments of that play followed. These fictionalized accounts helped to create a mythic view of the case in popular culture. Today, the case is usually seen as a fable [Although it seems to be seen by most as historical fact.] that cautions against the dangers of religious establishment.

This interpretation of the case, however, omits key facts. Most importantly, the motivations of the Christian fundamentalists in seeking to ban the teaching of evolution must be questioned beyond the commonplace myth because, prior to the turn of the twentieth century, fundamentalists voiced no opposition to Darwin's evolutionary theory. It was after the First World War and after the legal environment for the poor and labor had been transformed through the rising tide of legal formalism that the fundamentalists began to reject theories of evolution. Without such crucial historical facts, the case appears to convey a simple and clear polemical message: fundamentalism ignores reason, and evolutionary theory is scientific, rational, and progressive. When one considers the complaints that the fundamentalists had against evolutionary theory, the popular account of the case seems at best incomplete.

This Article argues that a more thoroughgoing analysis of the history of the case, and especially the role of William Jennings Bryan, who was a leader of the fundamentalists' anti-evolution efforts, is needed to correct the distorted view of the popular understanding. As some historians have noted, the case took place in a period when the theory of social evolution that is associated with Herbert Spencer deeply influenced social thought. Spencer's philosophy of social evolution would later come to be called Social Darwinism...
(Capital University Law Review (2004)
Inherit the Myth: How William Jennings Bryan's Struggle With Social Darwinism and Legal Formalism Demythologize the Scopes Monkey Trial
by Kevin P. Lee)

The myths that came to surround the trial thanks to H.L. Mencken (unsurprisingly anti-semitic) and the Old Press were part of a general trend of progressives cutting away the religious foundation for their values combined with the rise of the "religious right."

So progressives are left with a littany of "problems" devoid of a unifying vision, i.e. a repetitive chant about "healthcare, the environment, education" and so on that the mind gets lost and weighed down in instead of an uplifting vision that transcends and unifies their specific viewpoints. E.g.
Bryan mixed his religion and politics. His pacifism and support for labor were both part of what he called applied Christianity. By this he meant that he believed that Christianity provided the principles for public policy and an approach to public life. One historian recalls:
"On one occasion Bryan was asked why Democrats were so earnest about democracy. He replied that to every Democrat "who knows what democracy means -- it is a religion, and when you hear a good democratic speech it is so much like a sermon that you can hardly tell the difference between them." This was true, Bryan continued, because a good sermon is built upon the ten commandments, the sermon on the mount, and the eleventh commandment..."

Now that progressives have been conditioned to feel that the ten commandments are unconstitutional they are left with their littany of problems, which depresses people. It doesn't seem that great for getting people to vote for you, which is probably why Republicans have been able to remain in power without doing much of anything.

(Related links: The Monkey Trial
This post was edited and extended from a comment here.)

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