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Larson: Summer for the Gods (Full Text)

Head Note: Edward J. Larson is a historian who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Scopes trial called Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and Americaís Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. He traces the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the 1920s. Fundamentalists opposed "modernism," which claimed that humans wrote the Bible and that its stories should be interpreted, rather than assumed to be literally true.

Middle ground did not exist between modernism and fundamentalism but gained little attention in the public debate surrounding the Scopes trial. Each viewpoint was internally consistent, but many Americans opted for a pragmatic compromise that left room for both traditional religion and modern science by maintaining that orthodox belief in the Bible does not preclude an allegorical interpretation of the creation account. "A man can be a Christian without taking every word of the Bible literally," one defense expert on theology offered to testify at the Scopes trial. "When St. Paul said: 'I am crucified with Christ,' and when David said, 'The little hills skipped like rams,' neither expected that what he wrote would be taken literally." Similar textual interpretation allowed this witness to reconcile evolutionary science with the genesis account by accepting evolution as God's means of creation. "I am thoroughly convinced that God created the heavens and the earth," he observed, "but I find nothing in the Scripture that tells me his method."

Another Christian theology expert argued for the defense that science and religion could never conflict because they belonged to separate spheres of knowledge. "To science and not to the Bible must man look for the answers to the questions as to the process of man's creation," he offered to testify. "To the Bible and not science must men look for the answer to the causes of man's intelligence, his moral and spiritual being." by presenting these two witnesses along with Mathews, the defense effectively demonstrated various ways that American Christians harmonized sincere religious faith with the findings of modern science.

The popular press seemed intent on pitting fundamentalists such as Bryan and Riley against modernists such as Mathews and Fosdick, or against agnostics such as Darrow, all of whom scorned the middle. Bryan, for example, publicly dismissed theistic evolution as "an anaesthetic that deadens the Christian's pain while his religion is being removed," while Mathews rejected attempts to retain Mosaic concepts of morality without Mosaic concepts of creation. During the twenties, these two extremes gained adherents at the expense of the middle-- and each claimed to represent the future of Christianity. Their clash spawned the antievolution movement and well deserved the attention it received during the Scopes trial. Christians caught in the middle sat on the sidelines. "The thing that we got from the trial of Scopes," a Memphis commercial Appeal editorial observed, was that most "sincere believers in religion" simply wanted to avoid the origins dispute altogether. "Some have their religion, but they are afraid if they go out and mix in the fray they will lose it. Some are afraid they will be put to confusion. Some are in the position of believing, but fear they can not prove their belief," the editorialist noted, so they leave the field to extremists such as Darrow and Bryan.

Source: Excerpt from historian Edward Larsonís book, Summer for the Gods, 1997.