Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Second Coming of Clarence Darrow

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

There is a new controversy brewing in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, the community that became world famous in 1925 for being the scene of the Scopes Monkey Trial, a legal test of a Tennessee law which forbid the teaching of evolution in public schools.  And much like that courtroom drama of the last century, the new maelstrom pits fundamentalist Christians against some of the more open-minded members of the community.

The original trial, which went on to stir nearly a century of profitable tourism for Dayton, was a colorful legal battle between two of America's best known lawyers and orators of the time, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.  Bryan, a former United States Secretary of State and a three-time Democratic nominee for President, acted for the state as prosecutor and defender of the law.  Darrow, an agnostic, represented John T. Scopes, the young high school teacher who was on trial for teaching evolution to his students.  Much of the trial focused on Bryan's strong belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible  - and of Darrow's mockery of Bryan's rigid religious standards.

Bryan won for the state, but the judge minimized the victory by only levying a one hundred dollar fine against the teacher - and the verdict was soon overturned on a technicality.   Clarence Darrow had scored major points with the public as he pilloried Bryan, whom he put on the stand as a "Biblical expert," over literal truth of such things as if Eve was created from Adam's rib, where did Cain get his wife?  At one point when Darrow was questioning Bryan, the angry Bryan flared that Darrow's purpose in questioning him was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible."  Darrow shot back, equally angry, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States!"

Hello, Donald John Trump and Betsy DeVos.

Throughout the famous exchange, which actually took place on the courthouse lawn due to overcrowding and the insufferable heat, William Jennings Bryan kept insisting that Darrow was "slurring" the Bible, and Clarence Darrow kept responding that Bryan's defense of the religious tome was "foolish."  The animosity between the two old friends was so intense, and the summer heat so unrelenting, that Bryan fell ill at the close of the trial and died in Dayton a few days later.

Fast forward to current times:

A statue of William Jennings Bryan was erected on the courthouse lawn in Dayton in 2005 by Bryan College, an evangelical Christian school that was established in the town a few years after the famous trial as a namesake of the famed orator.  After that statue was unveiled, some interested individuals and the county historical society began raising funds to place a statue of Clarence Darrow on the courthouse grounds as well.  That $150,000 project came to fruition last week when the new statue was unveiled and presented to the community.

Of course, it's still rural Tennessee, and a lot of people currently living in and around Dayton are just as close-minded as their grandparents were nearly a century ago.  One resident told a recent meeting of the county commission that she feared the presence of the Darrow statue might unleash a plague or a curse on the community.  She pleaded, "I rise in opposition to this atheist statue, all right?  This is very serious, folks!"

And on the other side of that coin, the co-president of the "Freedom from Religion" atheist group mused at the Darrow statue's unveiling that it represented a "missing link" in the courthouse display, proving beyond doubt that while atheists may be godless heathen, they do possess a sense of humor, a quality the religious right has never seemed to be interested in cultivating.

And in the soft breezes of a Tennessee evening, perhaps two old friends are once again sparring about the literal truth of the Bible - on the same lawn where they originally argued so many, many years ago - happy at last to be together again.

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