McCarthyism and Inherit the Wind
US Senator Joseph McCarthy unleashed an era of suspicion on the American people as he went looking for communists. His trials, both public and behind closed doors, focused on the government as well as Hollywood and the Army. He claimed that he had lists of communists, but failed to produce that list. It wasn’t until the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring and summer of 1954 that his unfounded hearings were put to rest.
Is Inherit the Wind historically accurate?
One year later the play Inherit the Wind opened. It was supposed to be a critique of the McCarthy era set inside of a re-telling of the Scopes “monkey” trial. In doing so, it got many of the facts wrong. John Scopes never spent any time in jail. He didn’t have a girlfriend, and that girlfriend was not berated on the stand. The townspeople of Dayton, TN were welcoming to both Bryan and Darrow.
To explore this work of art and revisionist history I spoke with the hosts of the Seeing and Believing podcast Kevin McLenithan and Sarah Welch-Larson.
Select differences between the Scopes trial and Inherit the Wind
- John Scopes was arrested but never spent time in jail.
- He was “arrested” in a soda fountain where the test trial was conceived and not in school.
- Scopes later claimed he never taught evolution, which is why he never took the stand in real life.
- The entire case was set up as a publicity stunt to bring attention to the town of Dayton, TN. They got the idea when they saw an ad placed by the ACLU.
- The character of Rachel did not exist in real life.
- The people of Dayton were welcoming to both Darrow and Bryan and Scopes was loved by many. He even spent time swimming with the prosecution between trial sessions.
- The moment when Bryan was on trial was held outdoors.
- H.L. Mencken was not some loveable curmudgeon. He was an anti-semite and a racist.
- Dayton largely did not vote for Bryan when he ran for president.
- Bryan died a few days after the trial, not while in the courtroom.
- Darrow did not carry a copy of the Bible and Darwin out of the courtroom.
- The textbook in question during the trial was clearly pro-eugenics, was sold in the soda fountain, and had been approved by the state textbook committee.
- The preachers of the town were kind. The odd sermon given the night of the trial never happened and the script adds a lot of strange things that are not in the Bible.
- Bryan wished the law to have no penalty, unlike his stand-in in the movie who hoped for a harsher punishment.
- Inherit the Wind (1960 version) starring Spencer Tracy
- Summer for the Gods by Edward Larson
- Chris’ own visit to the Dayton museum dedicated to the trial
- Helpful video about the Napoleon painting
- Where is the line between art and propaganda?
- Does art have an obligation to the truth?
- Do you see McCarthyism in Inherit the Wind?
- Is Inherit the Wind a fair way of discussing the Scopes trial, or a work of revisionist history? Why does it matter?
- What would it mean for a group that feels maligned and misunderstood to have a film misrepresent them?
Did William Jennings Bryan kill fundamentalism when he took the stand?
The trial was basically over. The prosecution won. John Scopes was moments away from being convicted of teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. The ACLU and the prosecution had what they wanted. But Clarence Darrow did not. He wanted to make a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan, the famous “fundamentalist”. But how?
Clarence Darrow sets a trap for William Jennings Bryan
Darrow knew that if he turned down the chance to make a closing argument that Bryan would not be able to make one either. That meant that Bryan’s carefully crafted words would never get heard. But he had one more trick up his sleeve. He would call Bryan, the lawyer for the prosecution, to the stand. Imagine that! The case was no longer about the defendant. It was about the lawyers trying to flex.
Bryan took the bait. He got on the stand outdoors next to the Rhea County Courthouse in front of an audience of millions. Darrow, in a masterstroke, hit him over and over with the questions of any village atheist. Did Jonah really get swallowed by a large fish? Did the sun really stand still because Joshua prayed that it would? And Bryan… floundered on live radio.
Inherit the Wind gets the story of the Scopes trial all wrong
This event was made even more famous by the long-running play Inherit the Wind on broadway, which was followed up by a movie adaptation. But the play got it all wrong. Edward Larson, professor at Pepperdine University, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods, joins Chris to uncover what really happened on that muggy summer day.
- Bryan believed in majoritarianism. What is that idea? What do you think of it?
- Do you think Bryan should have gotten on the stand? Why or why not?
- How did Bryan do on the stand in your opinion?
- Does this court case matter in your understanding of fundamentalism?
- How and when should Christians make stands for their beliefs? When should we stay quiet?
Not all evangelicals or fundamentalists are against evolution
In the 1600s, an Irish Archbishop named James Ussher did a bunch of math. The Bible is full of numbers and genealogies. He sat down and calculated that, in his opinion, the Bible dated creation at 4004 BC. According to Ussher, that is when God created man. That number has really stuck around!
I gathered my small group together to explore the Adams Synchronological Chart. It is a 23-foot-long timeline of human history, beginning in 4004 BC and ending in 1900. There it was! The 4004 BC number! Which brings up an interesting question, right? What did Christians really believe about evolution just before it became a linchpin battle for fundamentalists?
Why did fundamentalists fight against evolution in the Scopes trial?
I turned to Edward Larson for answers. He’s a professor at Pepperdine University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Summer for the Gods”. The book chronicles the Scopes “Monkey” trial that we’ll be covering in the next two episodes. But it also gives us a great introductory look at what Christians believed about evolution in the build-up to the trial.
It turns out that evangelical Christians and even fundamentalists were all over the place when it came to ideas of evolution. Many Christians, like William Jennings Bryan, believed in an old earth and even some forms of evolution. But they thought that it was God who caused that evolution. Charles Darwin, though, said that evolution was a matter of chance adaptations, thus cutting God out of the equation. Fundamentalists like Bryan were determined to stop the spread of Darwinian evolution for that very reason. They believed that if young people were taught that they were the result of grand mistakes then what reason did they have to treat each other with respect? To be good citizens?
- “Summer for the Gods” by Edward Larson
- “A Godly Hero” by Michael Kazin
- “The Birth of a Nation” on YouTube
- Article about James Ussher and his burial in Westminster Abbey
- Helpful article about Lamarck
- “The Evangelicals” by Francis Fitzgerald
- More about Henry Ford’s Anti-Semitism
- An interesting article about “The Birth of a Nation”
- How did Cuvier and Lamarck differ in their ideas about evolution?
- Do you believe in a young or old earth?
- Do you believe in some evolution, macro-evolution, or no evolution at all?
- What is the best way to oppose an idea?
- When should we propose laws to combat ideas we don’t like and when should we allow others to believe what they like?
- Do you think the fundamentalists were right to combat teaching evolution in schools?
- Now that you know about Bryan’s failure to call out the KKK, what do you think of him?
- “Birth of a Nation” shaped American views about black people. Are there more modern films and series that have shaped society in similar ways? Or changed public opinion in other ways?
Why are conservative Christians against social programs?
Walter Rauscenbush published his classic book Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907. It went on to become a defining work of the social gospel movement. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the social gospel this season. That is because it has been identified by historians as the key movement that fundamentalists rebelled against. So we really should understand it, right?
In this episode, Chris takes us through highlights of this classic book in order to understand how the social gospel differed from evangelical Christianity. While it lifted up the necessity of doing good works, the social gospel often omitted salvation altogether. Contrast that to evangelical preachers like D.L. Moody who lived their lives with the sole purpose of evangelism.
This division between evangelicalism and liberal theologies led to the Great Reversal when theologically conservative Christians went from participating in public acts of goodwill to distancing themselves from it. Why are conservative Christians against social programs? Because people like Rauschenbush tied social programs to liberal theology and socialism.
Christianity and the Social Crisis
Breakdown of points made from Christianity and the Social Crisis
- Rauschenbush’s thoughts on socialism (p152)
- Theories on prophets of the Old Testament creating Judaism – p3 – 5
- Amos and Jeremiah denied that God ever told them to sacrifice – p6
- Morality is the only thing God cares about – p6
- God is interested in the morality of the nation over the individual – p11, 29
- The Bible has been altered when it comes to the stories of Jesus – p62-63
- Wealth is associated with the wicked in the Bible – p13
- Jewish people distributed land in communistic ways – p14
- John the Baptist and Jesus both wanted to restore theocracy to Israel – p53
- Rauschenbush’s ideas about how industry chews people up – p370
- Socialism is inevitable – outside link page 153
- What is Christianity?
- How much of Christianity can you remove before it becomes something else?
- Why are we so split between those of us who think of good works and those of us who think of salvation?
- What is the role of Christians in society?
- Now that you’ve decided on the role of Christians in society, how do you match up with your own expectations?
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What is dispensationalism?
This season we’re tracing the history of Christian fundamentalism through the life of William Jennings Bryan. But first, we need to learn some important definitions. Our big word of the week is dispensationalism. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Dispensationalism is (in part) the notion that God treats humankind differently depending on what era we are in. It is not accepted by all Christians, but it is a building block of fundamentalism. Another component of dispensationalism is the secret rapture–the idea that God will take His elect to heaven just before the tribulation. It also asserts that the Christian Church will become apostate before the end times. This last tidbit is important! Premillennialism made Christians suspicious of the outside world, but it was dispensationalism that made us suspicious of each other.
Who created dispensationalism?
John Nelson Darby is often credited as the father of dispensationalism. He came up with the idea of the rapture and is the man who packaged a bunch of existing ideas into this systematized vision of the Bible. In the 1700s and 1800s, people adapted the scientific notion of categorizing everything into genus and species and applied it to all areas of study, even when reading the Bible. This encouraged people like Darby to break the Bible into “dispensations” or eras.
Our guest this week is George Marsden. He’s the author of “Fundamentalism and American Culture”.
- Are you suspicious of other Christians? Why is that?
- Do you believe in the rapture? Why?
- Does the God of the Bible behave differently in different parts of the Bible? Or is He the same throughout?
- Do you believe that Jewish people were destined to return to Israel based on Matthew 24:32-33 or Romans 11:25-26?
- What did you know about the French Revolution before our recent episodes on it? Do you think it was a significant event in world history? If so, why?