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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2006
Vol. 33 No. 3

“This Evolution Bit is Straight from Satan”:
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and
the Democratization of Southern Christianity

Guy Lancaster

      Ever since the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee, the South as a whole has been excoriated on account of what others perceive as its benighted attitude toward the arts and sciences in particular and the entirety of modernism in general. Though many writers have aptly described the anti-intellectual tendency that permeates much of the South, with its fundamentalist preachers and scorn toward anything seen as originating from its perpetual enemy, the North, very few people have sought to ask just why this is so. Once we have the reason behind this characteristic of Southern cultural life, we might have to ask whether or not its relevance remains with us today, during a time of greater in-migration of non-Southerners and out-migration of natives to other parts of the country. Is the cultural dynamic central to the South’s historical identity still in play as its demographics change? Central to the Southern identity was the experience of the frontier, especially in the religious sphere, says W.J. Cash, who notes that this dynamic created a craving for a “personal God, a God for the individualist, a God whose representatives were not silken priests but preachers risen from the people themselves.”[i] Parts of the South retained their frontier mentality well into the twentieth century; for example, certain portions of the Arkansas Delta were not “tamed” until right around the time of the Scopes Trial.

 

Many observers at the time of that trial witnessed the gradual retreat of fundamentalists from the mainstream of American and Southern life and thus believed that the old Southern intransigence against modern ideas was destined for the dustbin of history. History, however, had other plans. In 1981, the Arkansas state legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law that would mandate equal time for the presentation of creationist theories of the origin of life in classrooms where Darwin’s theory of evolution was taught, thus precipitating a federal court case, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, during which all those old notions of Southern independence were found to possess a vitality long thought extinguished. The continual Southern struggle against the teaching of evolution in the classroom, especially as exemplified in the McLean case, reveals that one of the central pillars of Southern culture is the idolizing of democracy, especially in matters of faith and morals. What I mean by this is the oft-noted persistence of the notion that majority rule on those issues seen as touching upon faith and morals somehow render inviolable any facts perceived as being at odds with the majority’s will; this worldview manifested itself most clearly during the various anti-evolution trials in the South as well as during the Civil Rights era, when the anthropological definition of race as a social construct was “outvoted” by the Southern concept of race as an inherent characteristic. As Cash noted above, faith in the South tends to be practiced democratically. I shall take this notion as a starting point, working to understand truly the place and definition of democracy in the Southern mind, and then proceed forward to uncover its manifestations in the popular media during the 1981 McLean trial. I will demonstrate through a presentation of the popular reaction to the McLean trial and its outcome that there is in this culture an overwhelming “democratic” strain with regard to personal judgment of evolutionary theory that still threatens today to undermine the work of our nation’s educators.

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