Darwinism in Reagan Country: Antievolutionism in Texas since the Scopes Trial
“I’m a Christian mother…and I am not going to let that kind of rot go into Texas textbooks”
----Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, Governor of Texas and chairwoman of the Texas Textbook Commission in 1925 about the insertion of evolution into textbooks
“Well, it is a theory, it is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. But if it was going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught.”
—Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a Dallas speech to conservative Christian leaders
Who should control the education of children in science? This question has sat in the center of America’s battle over evolution. Responses to evolution nationally would be reflected in their complexity on the microcosmic scale in Texas as the 20th century unfolded.
In the 20th century the major clash would be between the community of science with that of evangelical Protestants known as “fundamentalists”----a sub-movement within the larger group of evangelicals; divisive and belligerent, it was initially a harsh reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment being applied to the study of the Bible as a text that had to be stripped of its supernatural content. But in the period following the First World War, William Jennings Bryan, the nation’s most famous fundamentalist, led a crusade against the teaching of the Enlightenment science of evolution. According to historian Edward Larson, Bryan jumped into action when he discovered German militarism had ideologically linked itself to Darwin’s theory, and that research had shown Christian young people were losing their faith by being exposed to the attacks of college professors against faith in the Bible as supernaturally inspired.
With a strong belief that taxpaying parents should control their children’s education, in 1925 Bryan would lead the fundamentalist crusade to outlaw Darwinism in Tennessee public schools, which culminated in the Scopes trial. The American Civil Liberties Union, based in New York, would come to Dayton, Tennessee, in the midst of international attention, to do battle for academic freedom.
Various Texans responded to the trial differently, demonstrating a division within the state that reflected regional polarities within the nation. According to historian Charles R. Wilson, the Scopes trial represented a conflict between value systems and ways of life. To conservative religious people evolution was the worst side of modernity and a deep threat to Christian morality; defenders of evolution held that the modern world would leave Texas behind if the state ignored science.
Wilson recounts how the city-country division on the issue of evolution was apparent in the state in the area of newspaper publishing. Most newspapers dismissed the trial as a joke. In the Austin American, the trial appeared to a circus for national consumption. However, some small town weekly papers defended the fundamentalists. The Galveston Daily News stated that the event demonstrated the deep regional disdain Northerners had for Southern tradition, especially its religion.
Wilson notes the Galveston paper’s sentiment was echoed among Texas fundamentalists concerned with the upholding of Christian morality, which he claims was the central concern of the opponents of evolution. At a south Texas convention, the Seventh Day Adventists’ position was that the Scopes trial was a battle between Christian theology and evil. Pierre Hill, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, articulated a belief that Darwinism was linked to a general moral deterioration in the 1920s, a statement that also reflected nativist prejudice; he claimed evolution had created an atmosphere that disdained convention, reveled in nakedness, and had brought primeval dancing from nonwhite nations into America, thus stimulating lust and moral decay among youth.
However, not all Texas evangelicals held such extreme views. According to historian John Davies, the president of Baylor University at the time, Samuel Palmer Brooks, fought vigorously for academic freedom against the attacks of the publicity-seeking pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, J. Frank Norris, Texas’s most well-known fundamentalist and evolution-fighter.
The struggle to control children’s education would dissipate between the 1920s and the 1960s partly because, as a result of the Scopes melee, textbook publishers either eliminated or downplayed evolution, out of fear about sales. However, the Cold War created the context of a new battle to come. According to historian Ronald Numbers, in 1957 the Sputnik satellite launched by the Soviet Union compelled a national effort to get America’s schoolchildren a complete exposure to all of modern science immediately, out of fears that the nation was falling behind its enemy in a nuclear world.
The re-insertion of Darwinism in textbooks prompted a backlash. A Virginia Tech engineer named Henry Morris launched a new crusade for a form of creationism that argued for a young universe created in six 24-hour days and a worldwide flood as the basis of fossil deposition—a view known as “creation science” that would be eventually juxtaposed as worthy of equal consideration against “evolution science”. This was a new take on the controversy. Numbers notes the argument for equal time in the classroom was borrowed from the world of televised broadcasting which was required to give political candidates equal opportunity to disseminate their views. Morris would found the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which today is located in Dallas.
The 1960s were a turning point for evangelical fundamentalists, as they now read evolution as the basis for social revolutions such as women’s right to an abortion,the rise of the gay rights movement, and the sexual revolution—all of which they perceived as threats to biblical morality. Sociologist William Martin argues that Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas gained a national reputation as highly influential in evaluating the content of Texas textbooks which were used around the country; they believed that while eliminating what they termed “secular humanism” in form of sex education and other novelties, creationism should have a place in the public school classroom. The new leaders of the Religious Right, which in the 1970s was a new breed of politically active fundamentalism, held the Gablers as champions seeking to redeem a lost America. According to Martin, the Gablers reached a level of national prominence such that they were featured on national programs such as 60 Minutes and Good Morning America.
By the 1980s, creationism had found a new home in the Republican party, due to the party’s focus on limiting the federal government’s control of children’s education, the very aspect of the federal scene that had catapulted evolution back into textbooks in the 1960s. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan courted the Religious Right, which had strong Republican leanings; his statement in Dallas is given above.
Furthermore, three important developments created a new context for the controversies. ICR celebrated credentialed scientists as part of its staff, arguing that science and biblical literalism could coexist; secondly, a new generation of lawyers rose in defense of religious freedom based in part on the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment; lastly, anti-creationist watchdogs organized in the form of the National Center for Science Education based in California, with an affiliate in Texas, the Texas Freedom Network. Legal battles over the insertion of creation science into public schools would culminate in a Supreme Court case, Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, which ruled creationism in the schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment but that alternative theories could be legitimately examined in class.
Partly in response to this openness expressed by the Court, intelligent design (ID), a new form of creationism which emerged in the 2000s, sought respectability while defending antievolutionism. (The Discovery Institute based in Seattle—the foremost ID organization—now has a branch office in Dallas). However, ID would fail to make significant inroads among Baylor faculty and would be shot down nationally on Establishment Clause grounds in terms of public education , but found support with Republican president and former governor of Texas George W. Bush, according to The Washington Post in 2005.
“Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about,” he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: “Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”
Hence the equal time argument, the search for academic respectability, willingness to adapt, and legal expertise that was successful in persuading a few Supreme Court justices have given creationists a national profile as well as prominence in Texas life.
In a case that related to the later Supreme Court decision, in 1982 Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould gloated that defenders of evolution had annihilated the arguments of creationists after the trial concerning the battle over creation science in the Arkansas public schools. Defenders of science in the 21st century, however, find themselves now battling for evolution and climate change simultaneously against conservative evangelicals. Both sides have gained dominance in separate spheres—evolutionists in the public classroom and creationism in private schools and the homeschooling world. Each side continues to battle as if under siege; creationists have fought for the continuance of Christian morality from America’s past; evolutionists for science literacy they believe essential for America’s future. Both sides have, however, been frustrated in their attempts to extinguish the other. The legacy of the Scopes trial continues to resonate in the 21st century.