The Persistence Of Creationism Shows Losing Could Make Trumpism More ExtremeRoundup
tags: religion, fundamentalism, Donald Trump, creationism
We have seen this before. A national populist leader, reviled by elites but beloved by his base, is humiliated on the world stage. His embrace of bad science earns him the jeers of scientists but the trust and faith of millions of Americans.
The year was 1925, and the leader was not President Trump but William Jennings Bryan, the former presidential candidate and secretary of state. The lessons of that episode carry a sober warning for today. Loss and humiliation do not make bad ideas go away. Rather, they can take on wilder and more outrageous forms that attract more and more adherents.
Bryan’s embarrassment, which came at the legendary Scopes trial, provides the most famous example. Without an invitation, Bryan volunteered to help prosecute Tennessee teacher John Scopes, who stood accused of breaking a new Tennessee law against the teaching of human evolution. Bryan’s participation helped elevate the modest test case into a worldwide spectacle. At the time, Bryan was one of America’s leading culture warriors, attacking the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools as anti-Christian and anti-American.
At the Scopes trial, though, he was forced to admit that he did not understand America’s growing consensus about science and religion. Nor did he offer a satisfying explanation for his opposition to the teaching of evolutionary theory.
At least, that’s how his detractors saw it. As one New York Times reporter related, when Bryan took a seat in the witness stand to defend his anti-evolution ideas, “There was no pity for his admissions of ignorance … his floundering confessions that he knew practically nothing of geology, biology, philology, little of comparative religion, and little even of ancient history.”
In the eyes of many elites at the time, then, Bryan’s performance seemed to herald the end of the anti-evolution crusade. One popular 1930s history explained that “civilized opinion everywhere” was revolted by Bryan’s anti-evolution ignorance. Into the 1950s, leading historians repeated the mistake, with one declaring that the trial sent Bryan’s movement into “a period of rapid decline.”
But predictions of creationism’s demise were wrong. Anti-evolution sentiment did not die with Bryan’s swan-song testimony. In fact, it grew more radical.
How did elites get it so wrong?
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