Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind.
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism and Evolution.
Fundamentalism, McCarthyism, Trumpism and Democracy.
The Relevance of Inherit the Wind: Problems with Democracy.
Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee is a fictional dramatization of the celebrated 1925 Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee teacher, John Scopes, was prosecuted for teaching evolution in his biology classes. Teaching evolution in public schools was prohibited by Tennessee state law. The play, which was first performed in 1955, was intended as an implied criticism of the anti-Communist witch-hunts then being conducted in the United States by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others. The authors considered both the Scopes Monkey Trial and McCarthy’s loyalty hearings to be antidemocratic attacks on freedom of speech.
The play focuses on the dangers to democracy when a ruling majority persecutes less powerful minorities. Majority rule becomes a travesty of democracy when elected officials and popular leaders abuse their positions of authority to bully dissenters and nonconformists, and when demagogues stoke fear and hatred in traditionalists by demonizing progressives, pitting religion against science, prejudice against reason, and promoting visceral reactions and simplistic solutions to complex problems. The authors’ intention was to portray the crusade against evolution in the United States during the 1920’s as analogous to the crusade against Communism during the 1950’s, and to condemn both.
It is unfortunate for us in the United States today (April, 2019) that what with having to cope with the presidency of Donald Trump and the threats to democracy that his administration represents, the play continues to be relevant. Demagogic bullying, authoritarian tactics, and fear-mongering that demonizes progressives and vilifies immigrants, pits religion against science, prejudice against reason, and fear against hope, have become Trump’s standard operating procedures. Deja vu all over again.
Inherit the Wind was a Broadway hit when it first appeared and has been widely popular ever since. It has been filmed four times, each time with a stellar cast, most memorably in 1960 with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, and Gene Kelly in the main roles. It is a brilliant play. Facetiously funny. Dramatically poignant. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. A vehicle for excellent acting. It leaves readers and viewers with more questions than answers. And its themes are easily accessible. For these reasons, the play works as a perfect assignment for middle school and high school students, and it has been widely read in literature classes and performed in drama classes since its first publication.
Inherit the Wind is a pedagogic play. Its authors are trying to teach us something about society and social change, and it contains lessons that the authors hope we will learn. Given the play’s continuing popularity and widespread use in schools, I think it is important to understand what those lessons are and to evaluate their applicability to the present day. What ideas about society and social change will students get from the play, and are they helpful ideas? In my reading of the play and my perusal of educational websites that are designed to help students understand it, I have come to believe that the play teaches three key lessons, each of which is problematical in my opinion.
The first lesson is about the relation between science and religion, and particularly the relation between the Book of Genesis in the Bible and the theory of evolution. As portrayed in the play, the lesson is that science and religion are incompatible. We have an either/or choice between one and the other, and science is the proper choice.
The second lesson is about the relation between liberty and democracy, and particularly the relation between individual belief and majority opinion. As portrayed in the play, the lesson is that enlightened individuals must stand up against the ignorance and intolerance of the masses, and against the demagogues who manipulate the masses. The play depicts the descent of majority rule into mobocracy, and promotes individualism as the antidote to a tyranny of the majority. We have an either/or choice between the dignity of the individual and the mandates of mass society, and individualism is the proper choice.
The third lesson is about the relation between people who politically disagree and the nature of political debate between them. Political debate is portrayed in the play in the form of the criminal trial of the biology teacher. A criminal trial is a conflict in which one side wins, the other side loses, and never the twain shall meet. If political debate is like a criminal trial, then the goal is to defeat those who disagree with you, and not to try to find some common solution. In this view, political and intellectual differences invariably involve either/or choices.
The play brilliantly teaches these lessons. It is very convincing. My problem with the play is that I do not think these are the best lessons to teach about the relations between science and religion, liberty and democracy, and the parties in a political debate. Promoting science over religion, valuing individualism over democracy, and insisting on a winner in every political debate are, in my opinion, recipes for irreconcilable conflict and unresolved social issues.
I am especially concerned that the play leaves young people with a wrong impression about how things can and should work in our democratic society. While some issues are inherently either/or choices, it can be unproductive and even counterproductive to approach most political and intellectual disagreements in that way. Consensus, compromise, and coexistence are just a few of the possible alternatives to an all-out either/or conflict. The purpose of this essay is to explain my concerns with the play, offer a way of teaching the play critically, and suggest some ideas of what might be more productive ways to approach the issues in the play.
Background: Testing the limits of the law at the real Monkey Trial.
The Monkey Trial was the result of a law enacted in 1925 by the State of Tennessee making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge the law as unconstitutional, and a volunteer to test the law was sought among Tennessee biology teachers. John Scopes volunteered to be the test case. He then sought to be arrested for teaching evolution in his classes, and recruited some of his students to testify that he had taught them about evolution. The prosecution of Scopes was what might be considered a friendly litigation in which both proponents and opponents of the law sought clarification from the courts as to what was and was not permitted under the United States Constitution.
Evolution was a cause celebre in the United States during the 1920’s among both opponents and proponents of the theory. There was a major expansion of high school education in the country during that decade and the nature of the secondary school curriculum was still evolving. Fundamentalist Protestant Christians claimed that the theory of evolution contradicted the Bible’s account of creation and was therefore sacrilegious. Teaching it in the public schools, they insisted, would be tantamount to government support for atheism. It could even be considered promoting satanism in impressionable students. To scientists who supported the theory, evolution was an icon of scientific discovery and a key to understanding the world. Teaching evolution was fostering human progress and even helping to do God’s work.
Both opponents and proponents of teaching evolution approached the Scopes trial as a high-stakes political contest. As such, both sides wanted the trial to be conducted with a maximum of publicity so as to be able to get national attention for their respective positions. Toward this end, the prosecution brought in William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State and three-time Democratic Presidential nominee. Scopes’ defense was headed by the nationally renowned attorney Clarence Darrow. H.L. Mencken, the famous, maliciously irreverent columnist for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, which helped pay for Scopes’ defense, covered the trial. He invented the term Monkey Trial to mock the proceedings, an apt description that stuck in the public mind.
Scopes’ situation was ironic in many respects. Among them was the fact that public school biology teachers were required by the Tennessee Department of Education to use a textbook that taught the theory of evolution, and it was the only biology book they were allowed to use. Scopes was effectively caught in a double bind, violating one law in order to obey another.
The trial was conducted in a friendly almost circus-like atmosphere. The site of the trial was the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, which warmly welcomed everyone involved in the case, whatever their position on evolution. The trial was a major tourist attraction and the atmosphere in town was like a county fair, with entertainments, circus acts, and popular exhibits all around.
The opposing parties were also mostly cordial. Scopes was never jailed and he did not face jail-time if convicted. The prosecution sought a $100 fine and Bryan offered to pay the fine if Scopes was convicted. The judge in the trial was respectful to the defense but interpreted the scope of the proceedings very narrowly. He refused to admit testimony from a battery of scientists and theologians that the defense had hoped would show the reasonableness of evolution and its consistency with the Bible. The judge ruled that the only issue in the case was whether Scopes had taught evolution contrary to the law, not whether the law was reasonable or right. The judge did, however, allow the experts to submit written arguments that the defense could use if the defense appealed a guilty verdict against Scope. Which they did.
Contrary to popular opinion, the trial did not pit Christian believers against atheist non-believers. It pitted fundamentalist Christians who believed in a literal reading of the Bible against modernist Christians who believed in a metaphorical and allegorical reading of the Bible. To modernists a “day” in the Book of Genesis could, for example, stand for millions or billions of years in evolution. There was, they claimed, no necessary conflict between the Book of Genesis and the theory of evolution. In attacking the law, the modernists were not trying to force an either/or choice between the Bible and science. They were offering an inclusive solution of the sort that the Catholic Church has generally taken in recent years.
Likewise, contrary to the situation today, opponents of the theory of evolution were not uniformly identified with political conservatism. Just the opposite. Bryan was a long-time champion of liberalism who opposed evolutionary theory mainly because it was widely associated with political conservatism. Much to Charles Darwin’s chagrin, no sooner did he publish his theory of biological evolution by natural selection than the conservative philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the process and applied it to social evolution. Spencer and his colleagues contended that not only did natural selection operate between species but also within species and that it explained social differences.
In what came to be known as Social Darwinism, Spencer claimed that evolution was essentially a free-for-all in which the stronger survived and thrived, and the weaker justifiably perished. He compared evolution to free-market capitalism which he extolled as the best of all possible economic systems. He claimed that among humans there were fitter races, in particular the so-called white race, and that among the fitter races there were fitter social classes, in particular the rich. By dint of fighting their way to the top of the economic system, rich people demonstrated their fitness to rule over the lower classes. Social Darwinism also discouraged labor unionism and higher wages for workers and philanthropy toward the poor as contrary to the laws of nature.
Although Darwin rejected Social Darwinism and tried to distance his theory from it, the theory was popularized in the United States by the distinguished sociology professor William Graham Sumner and was essentially adopted as the law of the land by the Supreme Court during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Many populist progressives, such as Bryan, rejected evolution in large part because of what Bryan condemned as the “brutishness” of Social Darwinism. Bryan embraced creationism on the grounds that Genesis established that all humans were created equal as was also proclaimed in the sacred Declaration of Independence.
Bryan was not initially a fundamentalist. He began his career as an adherent of Social Gospel Christianity and what could be considered a modernist Biblical interpretation. The Social Gospel movement promoted Christianity as a benevolent religion, focusing on Jesus as a teacher, healer and comforter. To Bryan, Christianity was a “gospel of collective good works.” In contrast, fundamentalism promoted Christianity as an antidote to human wickedness, and focused on the crucified Christ who died for our original and ongoing sins. It was a harsh and rigid religion.
Bryan moved toward fundamentalism when his mainly small town and rural supporters rejected modernism as the theory of an upper class urban intellectual elite. Ironically, fundamentalism evolved to promote what was essentially the harshly conservative Social Darwinist social message that had led Bryan to reject modernist Christianity and the theory of evolution.
One of the great political and social transformations of the early twentieth century was the transmogrification of the corn and wheat belt Midwest from radical populism and socialism to anti-government and individualist conservatism. Oklahoma, for example, at one time the state with the highest percentage of Socialist Party members and voters in the country, turned 180 degrees to become one of the most archconservative states in the union. As a result, Bryan ended his career fronting for a much different message than the one he began with.
In a celebrated portion of the Scopes trial, Bryan took the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible and Darrow questioned him about such things as where did Cain get his wife if Cain and Able were the only two offspring of the only two humans in the world, Adam and Eve, and what would physically happen to the world if God had actually stopped the sun to help Joshua win the battle of Jericho. Bryan was not very comfortable or convincing in his responses, essentially just claiming that an almighty God could do anything He wanted. In asking these questions, Darrow, although himself an agnostic, was not trying to discredit the Bible but merely trying to promote the modernist Christian view of the Bible as metaphor and allegory.
Scopes was found guilty, as was expected by all parties. And then the defense appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which was the defense’s plan all along. The appeal was based on three key grounds. The first was that the term “evolution” was too vague and too broad to be the subject of a ban. The term was used in many contexts and about many things that were scientifically and historically verified and that had nothing to do with the Bible. The law was, thus, unclear and unenforceable. In this ground of appeal, the defense was essentially offering the court a way to void the law without having to address the validity of evolutionary theory.
The second ground of appeal was that the law violated the separation of church and state and the protection of individual religious belief required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The third ground was that the law violated the free speech rights of individuals and groups guaranteed by the First Amendment. In these latter two grounds of appeal, the defense was essentially offering the court other ways to void the law without having to address the validity of the theory of evolution.
The Court didn’t accept these offers but it upheld the law without addressing the validity of either evolution or the Bible. The justices narrowly ruled that Tennessee had the right to set the curriculum for its public schools and that banning the teaching of evolution was within the state’s educational jurisdiction. And that was the end of the matter in Tennessee until 1967 when the state legislature repealed the Butler Act. Then in 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution in public schools violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment. The position of the defendants in the Monkey Trial was thereby validated and vindicated.
The Plot: Making monkeys out of the townspeople and the prosecutors.
Inherit the Wind was not intended to be historically precise. That is a reason why the main characters were all renamed. Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady in the play, Darrow became Henry Drummond, and Mencken became E.K. Hornbeck. And while the play follows most of the basic arguments that were made in the actual trial, including the famous Darrow-Bryan interchange on the Bible, it deviates from actuality in its characterizations of the protagonists, its description of the atmosphere around the trial, and, most important, its presentation of the debate at the trial. The changes are significant and diminish the usefulness of the play as a model of political debate for progressives, which was a main purpose of the play.
Unlike the actual townspeople of Dayton, the fictional townspeople in the play are portrayed as almost unanimously hostile to outsiders, and act towards outsiders as though they are agents of the devil, which their preacher Reverend Brown continuously proclaims. Reverend Brown, who does not represent anyone in the actual town of Dayton, is portrayed as a wild-eyed zealot who would sacrifice anything, even his own daughter, to the fundamentalist cause. The fictional townspeople are depicted as ignorant yokels who are ready at the drop of a damnation by their preacher to become a lynch mob. They are seemingly irredeemable to the cause of knowledge and progress that is being promoted by the character Drummond and the authors of the play.
Matthew Harrison Brady, the surrogate for Bryan, is portrayed as a blathering, publicity-seeking fool. He is vehemently hostile to the teacher Cates. Almost everything in the play is melodramatized to make the anti-evolutionists all seem like ignoramuses and extremists. Unlike the actual case, the teacher in the play has been locked up in jail and remains there throughout the trial. He is repeatedly damned to hell by Reverend Brown. And when Cates is fined $100 after being found guilty, Brady, instead of offering to pay his fine as Bryan did for Scopes, goes on a rampage because the teacher wasn’t sent to prison for his heinous offense.
The religiosity of Scopes’ actual defenders is left out of the play. They are portrayed as concerned only with promoting the sacredness of science, to hell with the Bible, and protecting the right of the individual to speak his mind, the interests of the community be damned. In all, the play presents the discussion of religion and evolution as an either/or debate, and the relation between the individual’s freedom and the community’s concerns as an either/or choice, very different than the actual trial. I think this is a mistake, both historically and politically.
Cognitive Dissonance as a Human Condition: Free Will Determinists and Agnostic Theists.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that definition, I think that almost everybody must have a first-rate intelligence, because it is almost impossible for humans to live without holding contradictory ideas. Living with cognitive dissonance is seemingly part of the human condition, and may be one of the key things that distinguishes us from other animals.
One of the characteristics of an extremist is the unwillingness or inability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, and the insistence on adhering to only one side of the contradictions with which we have to live. Extremists insist on posing all issues in either/or terms and refuse to recognize that some things, including some very important things, cannot fit within that framework of debate. But, despite themselves, extremists can’t really avoid the dissonance in our lives and minds, and can only desperately try to fool themselves while making trouble for others.
Take, for example, the contradictory ideas of determinism and free will. Determinism essentially means that everything is the product of a chain of causes and effects. Present events are determined by past events. What will be, will be. And there is no choice about it. Free will essentially means that people have the ability to make choices. Things are not predetermined by a chain of causes and effects. What I will, will be.
It is virtually impossible not to act as though you believe in both of these ideas. Take, for example, the mindset of an evolutionary biologist. In their professional work, biologists are generally proponents of determinism. They look for the causes of things, and they professionally see the world in deterministic terms. But the evolutionary biologist who proclaims determinism in her work will come home from her laboratory and choose what to have for dinner as though she has free will and a choice in the matter. Likewise in more important matters such as whether to marry, whom to vote for, what medical treatments to take, and so forth. She can’t not choose. And she must live with the cognitive dissonance of accepting two contradictory ideas.
On the other side of this contradiction, fundamentalist Christians generally claim that people have free will and must choose what they will do and be. Sin, for example, is generally not sinful to a fundamentalist unless the sinner has freely chosen to behave in that way. But those same proponents of free-will will also generally have to accept that genetic predispositions, social circumstances, and psychological conditions will sometimes cause people to behave in ways that are not a product of free choice. In sum, whatever our ideological presuppositions, the ideas of both causality and free will are engrained in our brains and we cannot pragmatically go forward without accepting them both.
It is the same with matters of religious belief in which it is virtually impossible not to be both a theist and either an atheist, agnostic or antitheist. In fact, the evolution of the word “atheism” is an example of the wrongheaded consequences that can come from insisting on an either/or conclusion to a debate. As a general rule, when you place an “a” in front of a word, it connotes that one is uninterested in the thing that the word denotes. It is a matter of indifference, but not opposition. An “a” is not the same as “anti.”
When, for example, you place an “a” in front of the word “political” and say that a person is apolitical, it means that the person is not interested in politics. It does not mean that the person is opposed to politics, which would be “antipolitical.” Likewise, with the word “social.” An asocial person is not interested in society, but that is not the same as an antisocial person who would be opposed to being in society. The same goes for lots of other words.
The word “atheism” was apparently coined in the sixteenth century during the European religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in which adherents of the two Christian religions were slaughtering each other over their differences as to how they thought God wanted people to believe and live. In the midst of the carnage, a small group of pacifistic Protestants suggested that maybe people should be allowed to worship as they pleased and that social policy should be decided without reference to God. They did not deny the existence of God, and were in fact true believers. They just thought that there was so much confusion over what God wanted that maybe what He really wanted was for people to decide on their own.
These self-styled atheists proposed separating sacred worship from secular activities so that adherents of different religions could worship as they pleased on their own and at their own peril if they got it wrong in the eyes of God, but still work together within the same community. This would allow space for the sacred and the secular to coexist side by side, albeit with a bit of cognitive dissonance. As such, the word “atheist” originally denominated a person who just believed that God was irrelevant to the discussion of worldly affairs. It did not mean that the person was opposed to belief in God, which would make him an antitheist.
The word “atheism” was not, however, allowed to keep that neutral meaning. Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches, which could not agree on anything else, agreed on this one thing, that they would allow no middle ground between believers and non-believers in what each church deemed the true religion, and no secular cooperation between those they deemed the righteous and the damned. They insisted that one either believe wholly in their God and do what they insisted He wanted or be cut down as an agent of the devil. So, both the Catholic and Protestants churches deemed atheism to mean antitheism, which is how the word is generally used today, and together they righteously slaughtered the atheists. A perfectly good word and useful concept was, thereby, ruined by either/or thinking.
In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley, who was a devoted follower of Charles Darwin and a ferocious proponent of the theory of evolution – he was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” — determined that there was need for a word that described what he saw as the neutral relationship between science and religion, and particularly between evolution and God. Huxley’s point was not to deny the existence of God. God may exist and may be in some sense the Creator. But, Huxley insisted, His hands were off of evolution, which He allowed to work on its own.
Huxley took the word “atheism” which like “theism” is based on a Latin word for God, “deus,” and he substituted a Greek word for God, “gnosis.” The result was the word “agnosticism,” which essentially denotes the same thing as the original meaning of the word “atheism.” That is, a middle ground between theism and antitheism, which allows people to believe in God but keep Him out of the discussion of scientific issues and social problems. It was a peaceful resolution of the ostensible conflict between science and religion. Although the meaning of the word “agnosticism” has devolved over the years into denoting someone who is unsure of the existence of God, rather than someone who just thinks God is irrelevant to worldly issues, it has retained at least some of its original connotations.
In any case, it is virtually impossible for an atheist, agnostic or antitheist not to harbor at least some hidden faith in some sort of god, even if the person finds the idea of God unbelievable or unacceptable. The reason is simple. It is impossible for humans to live from one moment to the next and to go on doing whatever they are doing without feeling that the universe is orderly. That is, that things will not all of the sudden go haywire. That we can have faith in the laws of gravity. That we can count on counting. And so forth.
Well, that assumption of orderliness in the universe is not unlike a faith in a god, even if it is a nature god. A sense of confidence in the orderliness of the universe is a key thing that gods provide to the faithful, and when we act with that confidence, we are essentially acting out an assumption of god. It may be merely a feeling and not a belief, that is, not an idea, but no matter what we think and say about God, actions speak louder than ideas and words.
It is, in turn, almost impossible for a theist or true believer in God to deny a certain amount of uncertainty and disorderliness in the universe, and some uneasiness about God’s intentions. This is particularly the case with the existence of evil in the world. A perennial question that has chronically plagued theists is how could an all-powerful and ostensibly all-good God permit so much evil to exist, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and especially little children. No theologian has ever come up with an intellectually and ethically satisfying answer to that question. As a result, intellectually and ethically honest theists have to accept that there are things in heaven and on earth that they cannot explain and that could justify in good faith an agnostic and even antitheist position on the question of God.
The inevitability of belief and disbelief in God going hand in hand, faith and doubt coexisting side by side in the same mind, is a case of cognitive dissonance that seems to call for tolerance among believers, doubters, and non-believers. This was the position of those naïve sixteenth century pacifists who coined the word “atheism” and who were massacred for their tolerance by extremist Protestants and Catholics alike.
Fundamentalists for Evolution: Science meets Religion.
Although the play Inherit the Wind leaves the impression that there is no room for tolerance between religion and science, there are many ways for theists to accept both Genesis and the theory of evolution, and seemingly most theists do so even if it involves some cognitive dissonance. The most pragmatic way to reconcile Genesis and evolution is to maintain that the Bible was inspired by God and reflects His core messages, but to accept that the Bible was compiled by fallible humans who expressed their religious views in the language and cultural concepts of their own time and place, which may not be the same as ours today.
In this view, the Bible should not be taken as the literal Word of God but as inspired words that have to be translated from ancient Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew into modern languages and into modern-day concepts of the universe. The Truth may be there but you have to work your way past the literal words to get at it. In this process, people will likely disagree about the meaning of the words, but that is the nature of words and translations, and it is seemingly what God intended. It is cognitive dissonance in action and a God-given characteristic of humans.
A second way of reconciling the Bible with evolution is to see the Bible as an exercise in metaphor. This is the modernist approach taken by the people who defended Scopes in the actual Monkey Trial. In this approach, a day in Genesis can stand for billions of years. Making humans out of dust can stand for the evolution of people from inorganic matter. Interpreting the Bible as metaphor is inevitably a contentious process since different people will almost inevitably have different interpretations of the images and ideas in the Bible. The same people may even have different interpretations at different times. But that is the nature of metaphor and was seemingly intended by God. It is cognitive dissonance at work and a test of our faith.
Fundamentalist Christians, such as those portrayed in Inherit the Wind, are unwilling to accept either a nonliteral or a metaphorical reading of the Bible, and they take an either/or view of Genesis. You either take Genesis in its literal sense or you are damned. They have, in turn, historically insisted that this requires rejecting the theory of evolution. The agnostic authors of the play also seem to take an either/or view of the Bible but in the opposite way. To them, if you take a literal reading of Genesis and reject evolution, you are doomed. I would suggest that within the terms of their own positions, neither fundamentalists nor agnostics need to reach such categorical conclusions about either Genesis or evolution.
Jesus famously warned about beholding the mote or speck of dust in another person’s eye while missing the beam or piece of wood in one’s own, or at least that is how the conventional translation goes. I think this parable may apply to the authors of Inherit the Wind. The play portrays fundamentalists as dogmatic and dictatorial but the authors of the play seem to be just as doctrinaire and quite arrogant. This is exemplified in the play’s title. The title is drawn from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 11. The chapter contains a series of either/or propositions about righteousness versus wickedness. Either follow the straight and narrow or be damned.
The chapter includes the admonition that is translated in the King James Bible as “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise at heart.” In the Jerusalem Bible, this sentence is translated as “He who misgoverns his house inherits the wind, and the fool becomes the slave to the wise.” Interpreters of the play almost invariably focus solely on the first clause of this proverb about inheriting the wind, and generally conclude that the title of the play is a warning from the authors to fundamentalists who are like Brady and Brown that if they disturb the house of science and education, they will be blown away by history. This is pretty high-hatted stuff. But the second part of the proverb gets even harsher.
This second clause – about the fool becoming the servant or slave of the wise – implies that fundamentalists are fools to reject science and will rue their willful ignorance when they are essentially enslaved by those in the know. That is, the world will inevitably be ruled by educated people who are capable of using scientific knowledge, such as evolutionary theory, to get things done and to gain power. Those who reject that knowledge will be ruled over by them and be second-class citizens, at best. In sum, the play’s authors seemed to be giving fundamentalists an either/or choice: Either give up a literal reading of Genesis or be doomed to domination.
Blowing in the wind and bowing down to an educated elite was the fate predicted by Lawrence and Lee for fundamentalists unless they saw the light of science. With respect to blowing in the wind, it seemed to many during the 1950’s, when Lawrence and Lee wrote their play, that fundamentalism had in fact been vanquished by science and was disappearing. We know today that this was not so. In the ebb and flow of religiosity in the history of the United States, fundamentalism may have ebbed in the 1950’s but it is blowing up a storm today. So, Inherit the Wind conveys an incorrect impression of the fate of fundamentalism and the state of religiosity in America. The snide journalist Hornbeck may have the last laugh in the play, but the winner, if any, of the reality show is still undecided.
With respect to wise men and the fools, it seemed to many during the 1950’s and 1960’s that scientists were, in fact, going to rule the world. During this period, the idea of meritocracy was being widely promoted by members of the highly educated classes. The idea was that the world had become so complex and required so much knowledge to succeed that only those with the most expertise and experience would and should control things. That is, those who merited power based on their knowledge and skills would rule the world. Those who held onto outdated superstitions and ideas, such as fundamentalism, would be relegated to second-class status.
The idea of meritocracy was effectively a new form of what could be called Social Darwinism with rule by the rich replaced with rule by the best and brightest, as this new elite was called. The appeal of Trumpism today to those with less formal education, so-called low information voters, can be construed as in part a backlash against this idea.
But is the choice between subservience to an educated elite and rejection of a literal reading of the Bible the only option for fundamentalists? Or might it instead be possible for a person to believe in both the literal truth of the creation story in Genesis and the theory of evolution? Most fundamentalist believers in the Bible and most adherents of science would say “No.” But I think the answer is “Yes,” and I would suggest that for a fundamentalist not to accept the theory of evolution could be considered blasphemy. The logic behind this conclusion is simple.
Based on calculating the peoples’ lives and the events described in the Old Testament, an early eighteenth-century Anglican Bishop named Usher claimed that God created the universe in 4004 BCE. His calculations essentially start with some historically known events, such as the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 725 BCE and the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE, and proceed back to the beginning in Genesis. Christian fundamentalists tend to treat this starting date of 4004 BCE as gospel, and it was an issue in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Modern scientists, however, date the creation of the universe to some 15 billion BCE and trace the development of life as an evolutionary process since that time. The problem for those fundamentalists who want to pit Genesis against evolution is that all of the factual evidence that exists, and there is an enormous amount of it, points toward a starting point for the universe and for life on earth, including human life, that precedes the year 4004 BCE by a large margin.
Now, here is the point: if one believes that God created the universe in 4004 BCE as Bishop Usher concluded from Biblical sources, God created it in 4004 BCE to look and work as though it was created billions of years ago. He also made it to look as though humans evolved from other animals some hundreds of thousands of years ago. Why would God do that if He didn’t want us to treat the universe and human life as though they were the result of an evolutionary process lasting many billions of years?
Even a fundamentalist who believes in a literal reading of the Bible must consider God’s creation to be no less a statement of His thinking than the Bible. And to a religious believer, whenever and however God created the universe, she has no choice but to read it in evolutionary terms. To do otherwise would be to accuse God of being a liar and a trickster, of saying one thing in the Bible but then saying something else in His creation that He does not want us to believe. Fundamentalists must, therefore, I think, believe in them both. It is, seemingly, God’s will.
To a religious believer, we are put here on earth to do God’s will and to exercise a stewardship over His creation. In order to do God’s will on earth, we must understand how the world works, and the only way we can understand that is through treating it as a product of a multi-billion-year evolution. Almost all the modern sciences and developments in other areas depend in some way on evolutionary ideas. So, fulfilling God’s will requires an acceptance of the theory of evolution.
In sum, fundamentalists may believe that the universe was created in 4004 BCE as seemingly described in Genesis, but they must leave that belief aside when they enter into the work of the world and their social relations with other people. In their work and social relations, they must accept the theory of evolution and the cognitive dissonance that goes along with that acceptance.
In turn, evolutionists must be willing to accept the possibility that Genesis is right and that the universe was created in 4004 BCE. After all, as the factual Bryan and the fictional Brady repeatedly argued, an almighty God can do whatever He wants. If there is such a God — and it cannot be proven beyond any doubt that there isn’t — then God could seemingly create a universe in 4004 BCE that looks as though it is fifteen billion years old, and that for all practical purposes – and this is the key – it has to be dealt with as though it is fifteen billion years old.
Approaching the theory of evolution in this way will not convince dogmatic fundamentalists. The Reverend Browns of the world will not be swayed by reason or practical rationality. But if evolutionists were willing and able to treat fundamentalists with respect, rather than ridicule them as the authors do in Inherit the Wind, it might make pragmatic sense to some of them. And that could make a difference in the debate over teaching and accepting the theory of evolution.
Problems of Democracy: Freedom of Speech for Individuals and Groups.
Inherit the Wind is a play about what happens when a popular majority is mobilized to suppress unpopular ideas and unconventional people. In the play, the theory of evolution is the unpopular idea and the biology teacher Cates is the unconventional individual, but the target of popular enmity could be any innovative idea or person. When this happens, democracy becomes mobocracy, as we see in the play when the townspeople become a rabid mob and the once-upon-a-time Democratic leader Brady becomes a raving fanatic.
As it is portrayed in the play, democracy is essentially defined as the sum of individuals’ rights, especially the right to free speech that is guaranteed to individuals by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In turn, in portraying the problems that can undermine a democracy, the play focuses on the suppression of the rights of individuals, especially individuals’ freedom of speech. Drummond, the Clarence Darrow figure in the play, repeatedly complains that Cates’ freedom of speech is being denied by the law that prohibits him from teaching about evolution. The authors of the play condemned the crusade against teaching evolution during the 1920’s and, by implication, the crusade against preaching socialism during the 1950’s because the crusades suppressed the speech rights of individuals. While I agree with their concerns, I am concerned that the authors’ view of democracy and the First Amendment is too narrow and individualistic.
In emphasizing individual rights, the play fails to address the equally important rights of unconventional minority groups and their suppression by a conventional majority. The biology teacher Cates not only represents the right of an individual to speak and the right of an unconventional idea to be heard but the right of a minority group, the scientific community, to speak and be heard. Cates’ lawyer Drummond lets pass all-too-easily the rejection of the scientific community’s testimony by the judge conducting the trial and the rejection of the scientific community’s expertise by the legislature that passed the law. This is an important omission when it comes to the play’s real target, which was McCarthyism.
The suppression of individuals’ rights during the McCarthy period was egregious but the real targets of the witch hunters were political and intellectual groups. It is the same with the Trumpists today. In focusing solely on individual rights, the play leaves us with a too narrow view of the scope of the First Amendment, and a too shallow view of the problems posed by McCarthyism during the 1950’s and, by extension, Trumpism today. The First Amendment does not merely guarantee the rights of individuals. It encompasses and connects freedom of speech with freedom of assembly, and guarantees both. Freedom for unconventional and minority groups is a key to democracy, as the Founders of the country repeatedly emphasized.
The Founders had two overriding political concerns in constructing and construing the Constitution: the potential for a demagogue to become a dictator, and the potential for a majority group to ride roughshod over minority groups. By minority groups, they meant not merely the racial, ethnic, religious and other social groups with which we are much concerned today, but also economic, geographical and political groups. Conflicts between the rich and the poor, urbanites versus rural folks, Easterners versus Westerners and Northerners versus Southerners, and reformers versus traditionalists, were among their concerns.
The Founders were concerned that a majority group that gained power might attempt to keep that power through tyrannical means, thereby denying minority political and social groups the opportunity to possibly win enough support to rule as a new majority. The First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and assembly were efforts to thwart a tyranny of the majority. The various checks and balances and divisions of powers that the Founders built into the Constitution, many of which are under attack and being overridden by President Trump today, were intended to deter potential dictators and protect the rights of minority groups.
Consistent with the Founders’ view of government, democracy can be described as a system of majority rule with minority rights, the most important of which is the right of the minority to someday possibly become the majority. Groups are made up of individuals and, thus, the rights of individuals are fundamental to the rights of minority groups. But it is the rights of minority groups that makes for democracy as opposed to mobocracy or a tyranny of the majority. And this is a main concern of the First Amendment and the Constitution as a whole.
As it is portrayed in Inherit the Wind, democracy seems to consist merely of individual rights and these rights are endangered by majority rule. “Majority” was a suspect term among intellectual circles during the 1950’s. Concern for what was called a tyranny of the majority, in which individuals would be suppressed, was widespread. The concern stemmed in large part from the fact that masses of people in Europe had supported Nazi and Fascist regimes during the 1930’s and 1940’s, seemingly mesmerized by the irrational appeals of Hitler, Mussolini, et al.
Concern with the potentially malign malleability of the majority was magnified by what were seen as the dangers of conformity in what was seemingly becoming a mass society, that is, a society in which individuals were being subjugated by the mass media and molded into whatever shape advertisers and demagogic politicians might want. In a mass society, progressive intellectuals such as the authors of Inherit the Wind worried, democracy can readily descend into a tyranny of the majority, as represented by the law against teaching evolution in the play, and into mobocracy, as represented by the rabid townspeople in the play. To many people, seemingly including Lawrence and Lee, an assertion of individualism was the only way to save democracy. I don’t agree.
The victims of McCarthyism were individuals but the real targets of McCarthy and his cohorts were political and social groups. Most especially political liberals. And that was for both sincere ideological reasons and cynical political purposes. Liberal Democrats had largely controlled the federal government from 1932 to 1952. Anti-Communism was a convenient way for Republicans to attack Democrats during the 1950’s. Stoking paranoia was a political tactic.
Communists were not even the main targets of the McCarthyite redbaiters. Their targets were usually those they condemned as so-called fellow travelers of Communism and Communist sympathizers who favored liberal policies that were also promoted by Communists. These liberal policies included support for labor unions, civil rights, civil liberties, national health insurance and other social welfare programs. That Communists might like something was enough to taint it as subversive and un-American. Liberals were condemned as facilitators of Communism.
McCarthyites claimed that Communists and especially their liberal allies were insidiously undermining American values, traditions and institutions, which McCarthyites equated with the dominance of white people and especially white men. Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential candidate in 1964, famously claimed that liberals were a greater danger to America and Americanism than Communists because liberals were pushing the country onto the slippery slope of creeping socialism. Like the frog who was blithely boiled to death through small increments of heat, we would supposedly end up in thralldom to Communism through increments of liberal reform. It might feel nice as it goes along, but the end would be fatal.
Trump and his collaborators today are working out of the same playbook. This is not surprising since Trump’s longtime mentor, from whom he admits he learned his politics, was Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was McCarthy’s right-hand man and the brains behind McCarthy’s tactics. Trump, thus, learned from the master. Trump’s attacks on Muslims, immigrants, blacks, gays and other minority social groups are a means for him and his allies to attack the Democrats who have liberalized American society in recent years and even elected a black man as President.
We are even starting to hear warnings from Trumpists about creeping socialism. Liberal social and economic policies will end in our enslavement, they proclaim. In the name of public safety, liberals will take away our guns and in the name of climate change, they will take away our pickup trucks. Democrats are Communists in fluffy sheep’s clothing. The goal of this Trumpist demagoguery, along with gerrymandering and voter suppression, is to secure an enduring conservative Republican majority in the government and to suppress any opposition. This is exactly the sort of thing the Founders were intent on avoiding. Deja vue all over again.
In focusing solely on the rights of the individual, the authors of Inherit the Wind missed the greater threat of fundamentalism to the minority group of scientists during the 1920’s and the threat of McCarthyism to the minority group of liberals during the 1950’s. Similarly, the play does not speak to the threat of Trumpism against progressive groups today.
Trumpists, like their McCarthyist forefathers, are extremists, mostly elderly people, who won’t or can’t accept the cognitive dissonance of living in changing times, even as they take advantage of the changes. They are epitomized by the anti-government right-wingers who vehemently insist that the government keep its hands off of their Medicare, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Medicare is itself a relatively recent liberal government program. But that incognizance could be an opportunity and not merely an obstacle to meaningful communication between liberals and these conservatives. They like their Medicare. So, what else might they like?
The Nature of Political Discourse: Setting the terms of debate.
Inherit the Wind is a play about political debate. In a debate, two or more parties present differing points of view on an issue and try either to defeat the others or come to some agreement with them. A key factor in which side will likely gain the upper hand is the way in which the terms of the debate are defined. That is, the way in which the issues are presented, the way in which the participants are characterized, and the range of positions from which auditors of the debate are allowed to choose a winner. This can be more important than anything that is actually said in the debate, and can determine what readers and audiences will take away from the debate.
For example, if you are setting up a political debate in which you are a participant and you want to fix it so that your position will most likely gain the audience’s approval, just make sure that your position is in the middle of the range of plausible options, and that there is someone more conservative than you on your right and someone more liberal than you on your left. It often does not matter what your position is so long as you have people more extreme on both sides of you. Most people naturally go for the middle and seemingly more moderate position in a controversy, and will most likely see your position as the most reasonable.
Another important factor in setting up a debate is whether the issues are presented in solely “either/or” terms or whether there are other options. That is, do the terms of the debate present the plausible options in exclusively “Yes or No” terms or also provide for “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” options. “No” is a dispositive response. It effectively forecloses any negotiated solution. A “Yes or No” debate is a fight to the finish with no chance of consensus. In the end, one side will win and the other side will be disgruntled. A “Yes or No” debate also usually favors the conservative alternative. Most people will naturally choose the least disruptive solution to a problem and in an either/or debate that will usually be the more conservative choice.
“Yes” is a more nuanced and flexible response, and has more progressive possibilities. It can open the door to possible agreement with the other side or at least to tolerance of his position for purposes of going forward on other issues. “Yes, but,” for example, allows debaters to reach partial agreement or mutual tolerance, albeit with ongoing areas of disagreement. “Yes, and” allows for partial agreement or acceptance with the possibility of additional areas of agreement or acceptance. In both cases, tolerance of the other party’s position on an issue does not require agreement on the issue. It just means the parties are going to ignore their disagreement on that issue in order to go forward on others. “Yes, but” and “Yes, and” have agnostic connotations.
Some debates naturally fall into “Yes or No” either/or terms. They must be fought to the end. With most debatable issues, however, you have a wider choice. And a debate that allows for “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” conclusions leaves open the possibility of agreement among at least some of the debaters on enough things to be able to go forward together, even if it requires some of them to accept, overlook or set aside things in which they don’t believe for the sake of going forward on others. It may require them to live with some cognitive dissonance because they must simultaneously accept or at least tolerate opposed ideas. But it gives peace a chance.
It is my conclusion that despite the best of progressive intentions on the part of its authors, Inherit the Wind does not depict a viable method for dealing with fear mongering demagogues and intolerant majorities. To the contrary, I think that unless the play is approached with a critical eye, it could leave readers and audiences, particularly middle and high school students, with a counterproductive model of political debate. In portraying the terms of political debate in either/or terms (science versus religion in the Monkey Trial) and rejecting any possibility of a “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” option (science plus religion, as was an option in the actual Scopes trial), the authors are playing into the hands of demagogues who thrive on irreconcilable conflict. Likewise, in ridiculing as hopeless ignoramuses all those who fall prey to demagogues (the townspeople in the play), the authors eliminate any possibility of swaying some of those in the intolerant majority into switching to a more tolerant and reasonable position.
The fact of the matter is that the oppressive fundamentalism and arch-conservatism that dominated politics and culture during the 1920’s in America came to an end during the 1930’s as a consequence of the actions of political parties, labor unions, teachers organizations, and other minority groups that came together to make a majority and the New Deal. It was the actions of groups, not just individuals, and it was a New Deal that reached out to fundamentalists and traditionalists through Social Security, support for small farmers, and other social programs.
Likewise, the oppressive anti-Communism and anti-liberalism of the 1950’s was brought to an end during the 1960’s by civil rights organizations, labor unions, anti-war demonstrators, progressive professors and students, and other minority groups to make a majority and the Great Society programs. The great reform movements of that time were made up of groups as well as individuals, and it was a Great Society that reached out to traditionally conservative people through Medicaid and Medicare medical programs for the poor and the elderly.
The lessons of the 1930’s and 1960’s are that the way to counter reactionaries, demagogues and fear mongers is through organizing progressive groups and promoting inclusive social programs. Reach out to unthinking opponents and encourage them to think, rather than ridicule them as the authors do in Inherit the Wind. Ridicule the demagogue. Try to reason with his followers.
In the present day, Trump’s proposed elimination of Obamacare would hurt proportionately more so-called Red State residents than Blue State residents. His denial of climate change and tax cuts for the wealthy are hurting Red State residents more than Blue States. There may, therefore, be opportunities for “Yes, but” and even “Yes, and” cooperation between progressives and some traditional conservatives, maybe enough to end the scourge of Trumpism.
In sum, I think Inherit the Wind is a great play and a potentially great teaching resource. But I think it is important to approach the play both sympathetically and critically, balancing its dramatic strengths with its messaging weaknesses.
 Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. New York: Ballentine Books, 2003.
 Sparknotes.com “Inherit the Wind.” Accessed 3/8/19. Cliff Notes.com “Inherit the Wind: Themes.” Accessed 3/8/19. Shmoop.com “Inherit the Wind.” Accessed 3/8/19. Wikipedia.org “Inherit the Wind (Play)” Accessed 3/8/19.
 Wikipedia. “The Scopes Trial.” Accessed 3/8/19.
 Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. New York: Bantam Books, 1931/1946. Pp.227-233.
 Richard Hofstader. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.
 Michael Kazin. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Pp.123-125.
 Ray Ginger. Six Days or Forever. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
 Wikipedia. “The Scopes Trial.” Accessed 3/8/19.
 Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.
 Michael Young. The Rise of the Meritocracy. London: Taylor & Francis, 1958.
 See for example Richard Dawkins. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
 Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York: New American Library, 1961. See especially James Madison’s famous essay Federalist #10.
 See for example David Reisman et al. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.
 See for example David Caute. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
 See for example Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. Pp.58-59.