Scopes revisited: Clarence Darrow strikes again
Don HinklePathway Editor
October 7, 2003
Another lawyer monkeys around with God’s Word
JEFFERSON CITY — It felt like I had been transported back to the summer of 1925.
In my imagination the setting could just as easily have been a steamy, tiny courtroom in Dayton, Tenn., but in reality on this late July day it was the air-conditioned conference room in the bowels of the Missouri Bar Association headquarters in Jefferson City.
Given the line of questioning, I couldn’t help but think about the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, a watershed event in our nation’s debate over science and religion. Only this time the subject wasn’t whether evolution should be taught in Tennessee public schools, but rather does theologically liberal/moderate trustees have the right to amend the charters of five Missouri Baptist Convention institutions so they can name their own successors? That provocative act removed Missouri Baptist churches from the trustee selection process, effectively severing their ties to the very institutions they birthed and supported with millions of dollars in offerings through the decades.
It now seems that part of the legal strategy of the lawyers representing the five breakaway entities –Windermere Baptist Conference Center, The Baptist Home, Word & Way, Missouri Baptist Foundation and Missouri Baptist College (I refuse to call it a university because that action was taken by an illegal board of trustees) – is to argue that the institutions were “rescued” by trustees from snake-handling, poison-drinking fundamentalists who have the bizarre view that the Bible contains no errors. As I listened to Clyde Farris, a respected St. Louis attorney representing the college direct questions in rapid-fire succession at Bob Curtis, immediate past MBC president and pastor of Ballwin Baptist Church, Ballwin, I could not help but rub my eyes, for Farris’ line of questioning sounded much like that used by acclaimed criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Trial.
Darrow, hired by the American Civil Liberties Union (an organization for which Farris is said to have an affinity), was hired to defend John Scopes, a Tennessee school teacher. The ACLU used Scopes, a science instructor, to challenge a Tennessee law banning the teaching of secular evolution in public schools. Passage of the law was a major victory in the intense nationwide campaign against Darwinism launched in the 1920s by Protestant fundamentalists led by the famed politician and orator, William Jennings Bryan.
Farris’ tactic of asking question after question about supposed errors and contradictions in the Bible was precisely the same used by Darrow as he sought to discredit the inerrancy of Scripture and paint its believers as stupid.
Like the moderates and liberals who illegally seized control of the college that Farris represents, Darrow hilariously suggested that fundamentalism would “kindle religious bigotry and hate” in America. His diatribe reminded me of the characterizations used by fellow moderates in this state to describe Missouri Baptist conservatives (perhaps one of the most infamous was moderate St. Louis pastor and American United for Separation of Church and State supporter Rudy Pulido referring to them as “the Taliban.” Moderates have certainly used the term “fundamentalist” aplenty, a term that has taken on a different meaning in recent years due to the increased Islamic terrorist activity in the world. Moderates – aided by their news media pals – now use the term pejoratively to describe Bible-believing Christians, often interchanging it with “Islamic fundamentalists.” All they have done is childishly mimicked the ridiculous characterizations of Darrow.
After suggesting that fundamentalists were hatemongers, Darrow, being ever the materialist he was, shifted his argument toward the Bible, insisting that it contained differing accounts of creation. Farris, falling short of the esteemed Darrow, at one point asked if indeed Curtis believed there were three literal days of creation. It would have been easy for Curtis (and a good many others in the room like myself) to have burst into laughter if the whole thing had not been so sad.
Darrow’s oratory at Scopes is worth revisiting if no reason to remind us from whence we’ve come.
“It (the Bible) is not a book on biology, (its writers) knew nothing about it … . They thought the earth was created 4,004 years before the Christian Era. We know better,” Darrow bellowed.
Hatred, ignorance and bigotry marked the antievolution effort, he continued, “But your life and my life and the life of every American citizen depends after all upon the tolerance and forbearance of his fellowman.”
It is interesting to note how news media accounts of Darrow’s oration were outlandishly praised. One account, as described in Edward Larson’s spectacular book on the Scopes Trial titled, Summer for the Gods, declared: “His words fell with crushing force, his satire dropped with sledgehammer effect upon those who heard him.” Larsen reports that many in the packed courtroom rushed toward Darrow when he had finished to congratulate him, while others hissed, drawing the ire of famed newspaperman H.L. Mencken who characterized them as “morons.”
No one rushed to Farris after his questioning, but it was clear that his goal was to make morons out of men who believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. He failed miserably.
I find it shocking that a college, with such a rich Baptist history and a solidly theologically conservative religion department, would hire an attorney to do such a thing. If there are any lingering doubts about whether the fight over the Missouri Baptist Convention and the five institutions in question, at the core, is a theological fight, then Farris’ antics should remove them.