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A Scopes Trial Redux: Evolution, Coronavirus, and the Evangelical War on Science | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.

Black and white picture of the anti-evolution league at the Scopes Trial with a booth filled with men dressed in suits and fedoras.
Anti-Evolution League, at the Scopes Trial, Dayton Tennessee From Literary Digest, July 25, 1925. Image by Mike Licht – Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

Evangelicals have massed at the border of science and religion to unleash a new anti-science attack. I will argue that this is just a new mutation of the old war on evolution in the early 20th century. And evangelicals seem to have forgotten the outcome of the last war. It’s as if the Confederate States of America would have made the same mistake twice. 

The evangelical and right-wing attacks have most recently been directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 36 years, is a widely-respected immunologist and major public face of the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. Despite his credibility established over decades as a public health official, right-wing media have begun to launch attacks against “Dr. Doom Fauci,” blaming the medical expert for allegedly harming the economy and undermining President Donald Trump. 

Lou Dobbs recently led the attack on science represented by Dr. Fauci, gleefully reporting that “Dr. Fauci is wrong.” Dobbs has been mimicked by a plethora of FOX talking heads and right-wing pundits. Fox News host Steve Hilton aired a segment chastising Fauci as an out-of-touch elitist who has an “easy” time overreacting to coronavirus because “he’ll still have a job at the end of this, whatever happens.” Hilton added that while “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces” like Fauci “can afford an indefinite shutdown, working Americans can’t, they’ll be crushed by it.”

Evangelical leaders sing the chorus to this awful song. The River Church in Tampa, FL was packed last Sunday in violation of a “Stay-at-Home” order. The pastor called people concerned about the disease “pansies,” and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.” The pastor has since been arrested. In Baton Rouge, LA, pastor Tony Spell held services in violation of Governor Edwards’ orders not to have large gatherings. Pastor Spell said, “We’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well.” Jerry Falwell, Jr. – who proclaimed the coronavirus as an overhyped effort to bring down President Trump – has reopened Liberty University, and twelve students now have the coronavirus. 

Evangelicals and right-wing politicians are two peas in the same poisoned pod. Evangelicals are leaders of the anti-science movement and have been since the Scopes Monkey Trial caused them to obsess about evolution. Haunted by “evolution,” some of their leaders have managed to blame “evolution” for every disaster that has happened since 1925. 

The message is clear from the right-wing media and preachers: Scientists are to be mistrusted and ignored because they are out-of-touch, elitist, and hate Donald Trump. This anti-science message is one that evangelical Christians, not all of them, but a vast majority, are already predisposed to hear. 

The idea that science and religion are at war is actually a rhetorical creation of modern thought and ignores the long history of science and faith. For example, the Church was the incubator for the birth of western science. As David Lindberg demonstrates so thoroughly in his magisterial work, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, by founding and funding the ancient universities the Church provided the means for the production of what became science. While the church’s relationship with science has experienced its ups and downs, as Copernicus and Galileo, two historical examples of the complicated relationship, can attest, by and large the relationship of church and science has not been adversarial over the centuries. The precursor of scientific naturalism, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, dominated the first fourteen centuries of the church’s thought. Aquinas was such a fan of Aristotle that he simply referred to him as “the philosopher.” Even the current outbreak of anti-science fervor, some might say fever, has affected or infected only a portion of the Christian church, in particular the evangelicals. 

But it needs to be noted that in the 18th and 19th centuries, American evangelicals were not anti-science. They pursued investigation of the physical world with vigor. If, indeed, all around us was God’s work, exploring and understanding what he had accomplished was divine labor. George Marsden, historian of modern evangelical thought, wrote that the evangelical approach to science 

provided a firm foundation for a scientific approach to reality. In a nation born during the Enlightenment, the reverence for science as the way to understand all aspects of reality was nearly unbounded. Evangelical Christians and liberal Enlightenment figures alike assumed that the universe was governed by a rational system … guaranteed by a … benevolent creator. The function of science was to discover such laws.          

One word reversed this historic connection between evangelicals and science: evolution. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, conservative evangelicals in America had a reaction that bordered on panic. In the early twentieth century, they mounted a wholesale attack on Darwin and the new biblical criticism originating in the German schools. Already thinking they were supremely rational and in possession of the best possible scientific method (Bacon’s inductive reasoning), fundamentalists reached the conclusion that, in the words of Charles Blanchard, the new higher critics of the Bible “have been usually men who have poisoned their nervous systems and injured their minds by the use of narcotics and other poisons.”            

So, these conservative evangelicals, or fundamentalists, declared war on science. As Carlyle Marney said, “Science and reason [were] made dragons at which believing Don Quixotes tilt with blunted lances.” This ill-begotten war would end for the fundamentalists in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, with the same sense of tragedy as the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox.  Clarence Darrow, in the courtroom, humiliated William Jennings Bryan, and H. L. Mencken added his vitriolic satire to make it a rout. Fundamentalists slipped back into the woods like Lee ferrying his defeated army across the Potomac.

From the Scopes Trial to the coronavirus pandemic, the pandemonium among evangelicals has always been about opposition to evolution. The symbolic epicenter of the anti-coronavirus movement is the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Inside the tech-savvy Disney theme park edifice is enthroned the king of anti- evolution – Ken Ham. Neither scientist nor theologian he routinely rips apart science and theology. He assures his adoring fans that he doesn’t interpret the Bible; he merely reads it and its message is at once plain and clear. Ham is perhaps the quintessential example of the evangelicals who routinely believe that the Bible gives up its treasures to nothing more complicated than “common sense.” 

The Creation Museum is the Temple of Doom, as it defiles, denies, and attacks science. Ham’s obsession with painting evolution as the “beast out of the bowels of Darwin” provides the foundational ideology for the anti-coronavirus movement. Behind the mistrust of science and expertise, behind the denial of the pandemic’s scope, behind the spectacle of pastors holding mass services in states where people are fighting for their lives : behind all this is the anti-evolution movement.

Ken Ham’s message has found ardent support among the millions of evangelical Christians who are easily persuaded that science and scientific expertise is an attack on the Bible, the American way of life, and on Christianity itself. So, it is that the ghosts of fundamentalism’s last stand at the Scopes Monkey Trial have returned in evangelicals like ancient witches and wizards gathering for the triumphant return of Voldemort. At the opening of the Creation Museum Ham expressed this residual resentment against Darrow and spoke of repairing the damage: The Scopes Trial “was the first time the Bible was ridiculed by the media in America. We are going to undo all of that here at the Creation Museum.” 

The declaration of the continuing war could not be clearer. Every week, some business person or politician with evangelical ties adds to the creationist-inspired movement against science movement. Hobby Lobby, in direct violation of orders to be closed, reopened its stores, before announcing they would close again. The mayor of Cummings, GA rescinded his lock-down order and re-opened his city. The governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, has chosen prayer over following the recommendation of health officials. The governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, resisted issuing any order to shut down before relenting by telling the people of Alabama a shutdown was the only way to salvage football season. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has appealed to Christian convictions in his call to reopen schools and businesses. 

But with the coronavirus pandemic, evangelicals may have overplayed their hand, and finally exposed the soft underbelly of their anti-science, anti-intelligence, anti-history bias. Evolution isn’t as scary as COVID-19. Evangelicals may have once again picked the wrong enemy, allowing Americans, who usually pay no attention to evangelicals, to see just how dangerous they can be. This seems like a foolish attack akin to Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. When General Lee told General Pickett to rally his division, Pickett allegedly told him, “Sir I have no division.” When this current battle over science plays itself out, one can only hope that the forces of anti-science evangelicals will have been shredded and sent back to the woods from whence they emerged. Perhaps we will look back and say that the Trump presidency was the “high watermark of the evangelical movement,” before its collapse. If that is the case, it will be a tragic end to a once proud movement. 

Update: The Kansas City Star has published my latest letter to the editor on the subject, which you can read here.