What the School Wars Are Really About

At first glance, today’s school wars seem like a cut and dried case of modernity versus tradition, secularism versus religion, liberality versus conservatism.

There’s the book banning, taking place in 86 school districts in 26 states, removing works by Judy Blume, the much-loved author of fiction for children and young adults, the late Toni Morrison, who won both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for literature, and biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Nelson Mandela, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Malala Yousafzai. There are the bills that ban the teaching of critical race theory, Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, and a raft of other proposals that would sharply restrict what teachers can say, and what students can read and learn, both in primary and secondary schools, as well as state-supported universities.

This phenomenon isn’t new. Public schools have been the focus of political energy for as long as they’ve existed in the United States — often acting as the staging ground for broader conflicts over race, sex and sexuality, religion and a host of other debates.

The most prominent example of school wars as proxy for political wars is the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, when John Scopes, an elementary school teacher in Tennessee, stood trial for violating the state’s legal ban on teaching evolution. The dramatic show trial embodied the contest between traditional religion, on the one hand, and empiricism and modernity, on the other. In many ways, it’s a fitting analogy for our own time.

But, dig deeper, and you’ll see the Scopes trial was also about more than religion and science, or tradition and modernity. It was about two very different conceptions of democratic freedom.

Should local communities enjoy the right to govern themselves and their institutions, including schools? That’s one definition of freedom.

Or do individuals enjoy certain inalienable rights, including the right to free speech and expression, that majorities can never restrict? That’s another.

The tension between majoritarian democracy and civil rights was very much at the heart of the Scopes trial, and it remains at the heart of our current politics — motivating conflicts over everything from whether the state can regulate access to medical care and contraception, to whether majorities can require business owners to serve LGBTQ customers. That tension does not break down along partisan lines. Both parties have struggled to articulate a consistent vision, in part because these two ideas of freedom can often exist in tension with each other, and yet each is embedded in America’s political culture.

The real history of the Scopes trial

Forget what you learned from Inherit the Wind. It’s a great film, but it perpetuates several popular misconceptions about the Scopes trial.

For one, defendant John Scopes was not the victim of a brutish act of state censorship. He basically volunteered for the job.

After the state legislature enacted its ban on teaching evolution in the classroom, local town leaders in Dayton, Tenn., read in the newspapers that the American Civil Liberties Union was “looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing” the state’s new anti-evolution law in the courts. “Our lawyers think a friendly test case can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job,” the ACLU ad continued. “Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need now is a willing client.”

George Rappleyea, a 31-year-old native of New York who had moved to Dayton just a few years before, was convinced that a show trial might be just the thing to lift the town’s economic fortunes. A trained chemist, Rappleyea was a devotee of modern science and thoroughly convinced that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was sound learning. He easily sold his idea to friends like Sue and Herbert Hicks, two brothers who shared a law practice, and School Superintendent Walter White, a former state senator — all of whom were sincerely opposed to teaching evolution in the classroom. Rappleyea and the others were on opposite sides. But above all, they were town boosters.

Scopes was a perfect candidate for the job. He was well-liked and affable; he had few roots in the community and, as a bachelor, stood to lose little in the way of economic security and family standing. He was also eager to please. Since he had been teaching students about the soundness of evolution theory for several months, he was already a “law breaker,” in the strictest sense of the term. The ACLU’s chief counsel, Arthur Garfield Hays, later wrote that “had we sought to find a defendant to present the issue, we could not have improved on the individual.” It took little prodding before Scopes agreed to lend his name to the test case that would soon be billed as the “trial of the century.”

The entire affair was to be a gentleman’s match of wits and ideas, all in the service of a paramount goal: reviving the town’s fortunes. (“Something has happened that’s going to put Dayton on the map!” Superintendent White boasted to the Chattanooga News, in a statement that belied the trial’s allegedly political and religious origins.) While Rappleyea called a justice of the peace to swear out an arrest warrant against Scopes, the young teacher left to play a tennis match. All present agreed that Sue Hicks, a close friend of Scopes, would organize the prosecution.

The second misconception about the trial was that it was an unmitigated win for the modernists.

The contest, broadcasted live by radio, then a very new medium, and reported in real time by national papers and wire services, saw two of the country’s greatest public men face off against each other: William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman, three-time Democratic presidential nominee and secretary of state; and Clarence Darrow, the most prominent defense attorney and civil libertarian of his generation. Bryan, a devout Christian and believer in biblical inerrancy, argued for the state. Darrow, an avowed atheist, represented Scopes.

In good humor, Bryan handed Darrow a wooden monkey sculpture on the trial’s opening day in July 1925. Hicks and Scopes fraternized throughout breaks in the hearing. But the proceedings took an unusual turn when the defense called to the stand no less a biblical expert than William Jennings Bryan. Bryan readily agreed to the challenge.

Realizing the import of the moment, the trial judge moved the proceedings outside, to a speaker’s platform that the city had erected near the courthouse. Future generations of movie-goers would envision the scene all wrong. As Life Magazine later explained, in Inherit the Wind “Spencer Tracy gave Frederic March the verbal thrashing of his life” inside a packed country courthouse. In reality, Darrow gave Bryan the verbal thrashing of his life — on the front lawn.

Darrow posed a series of questions designed to cage a biblical literalist like Bryan. How did Jonah survive inside a whale for three days? How did Joshua lengthen the day by making the sun — and not the Earth — stand in place? These were not original inquiries. But, as Darrow later boasted, they forced “Bryan to choose between his crude beliefs and the common intelligence of modern times.”

As news of the debate spread through town, 3,000 observers (over a thousand more people than actually lived in Dayton) gathered on the courthouse lawn to see history in the making. “Small boys went through the crowd selling bottled pop,” the New York Times reported. “Most of the men wore hats and smoked.” Darrow continued his barrage.

Did Bryan believe that in the book of Genesis “days” truly represented 24-hour periods of time? “Have you any idea of the length of these periods,” Darrow asked?

“No; I don’t,” Bryan replied.

“Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?”


“And they had an evening and morning without sun?”

“I am simply saying it is a period.”

Bryan had committed a fatal error. He had conceded the necessity of some (though surely not considerable) interpretation in reading the Bible. It was a slight admission, and one that would not have bothered a religious moderate. But it unnerved Bryan, who sure enough lost his composure. “I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States,” he cried. “The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur the Bible, but I will answer his questions.”

Most observers then and since believed that the Scopes Trial sounded a death knell for fundamentalism. Although Scopes himself was convicted and slapped with the minimum fine, liberals declared total victory. They boasted that Darrow had exposed conservative evangelicalism for the inchoate drivel that it was. “For the first time in our modern history,” argued Maynard Shipley in War on Modern Science, “organized knowledge has come into open conflict with organized ignorance.” Organized knowledge was winning. Mark Sullivan, the author of a popular 1935 historical retrospective, concluded more boldly that the “Scopes trial marked the end of the age of Amen and the beginning of the age of Oh Yeah!”

In fact, the conservative Christians were far from licked. Though they receded for a time from politics, in the decades following the trial they chartered missions, publishing houses and radio stations; they founded 70 bible colleges, most notably, Bryan College in Dayton; and they strengthened existing fortresses of traditional evangelicalism like Riley’s Northwestern Bible Training School in Minnesota and Moody Bible Institute in Illinois. In the 1940s they began to reappear in public life, and by the 1980s they once again assumed a strident voice in political and cultural debates.

Today, they are a force to be reckoned with at every level of politics — especially on school boards.

Two competing meanings of freedom

The Scopes trial was about much more than tradition versus modernism, or religion versus science. It was also about the very meaning of freedom. Bryan, who cut his political teeth as a populist congressman in the 1890s, was a staunch believer in the power of majoritarian politics. Over a long political career, he touted the power of people over moneyed interests and steadfastly maintained that citizens had a right to determine their own economic and political fate. While certainly motivated by Christian conviction, he was also a passionate supporter of state-level efforts to ban the teaching of evolution because he believed that a Christian polity was entitled to determine the education its children received in public schools.

“Teachers in public schools must teach what the taxpayers desire taught,” he affirmed, well before the Scopes trial. “The hand that writes the pay check rules the school.” Bryan, known in his political heyday as the “Great Commoner,” spoke in almost biblical terms about the power of majoritarianism. “The people gave and the people have taken away, blessed be the name of the people,” he argued. He also viewed America as a fundamentally Christian country and took heart in the conviction — almost certainly wrong — that “nine-tenths of the Christians” opposed the teaching of evolution. “[I]n this controversy, I have a larger majority on my side than in any previous controversy.”

To understand Bryan’s position, it’s essential to consider the context in which he operated. For decades, he had championed the right of ordinary farmers and workers to organize politically, elect their own representatives at the local, state and federal levels, and exact a modicum of economic equality. Edgar Lee Masters, Darrow’s former law partner who by 1925 was a critically acclaimed poet, observed that for Bryan, “the desideratum was not liberty but popular rule.”

Indeed, Bryan was not insensitive to the right of people like Scopes to read and talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution. But they could do it on their own time — “as individuals they are at liberty to think as they please and say what they like,” he argued, but “they have no right to demand pay for teaching that which parents and the taxpayer do not want taught.”

The ACLU, which looked for a fight in Tennessee, disagreed. Founded by anti-war dissenters during World War I, the organization was born out of a struggle against wartime state repression: the beating and jailing of pacifists and German Americans, crackdowns against anti-war newspaper publishers and organizers, the denial of free assembly and speech to those who spoke out against Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. In the 1920s the organization broadened the scope of its interests to include the rights of workers to organize unions, and the fight against new restrictions on what university and public school teachers could teach in the classroom. The ACLU saw the dark side of majoritarian democracy and endeavored to protect individuals from fundamental incursions against their natural and constitutional rights, even when those incursions were the outcome of democratic process.

In effect, where Bryan and his followers defined freedom as the right of majorities to govern themselves, the ACLU spoke for a growing number of Americans who believed that the Constitution ensured certain protections that majorities could never take away, even in times of national emergency.

“Today you can talk on any subject you please,” argued the ACLU’S general counsel, “except on a subject which, as a burning issue, would most profit by untrammeled discussions. Speech and assembly are free in New Jersey, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, except to union men in time of strike. If you talk labor unionism then, you land in jail. I know because I’ve tried it and I landed in jail.”

The ACLU worried not only that anti-evolution laws impeded the free speech rights of teachers and professors, but that broader trends in education violated the First Amendment by effectively turning public schools into factories of Christian indoctrination. States like Tennessee mandated Bible reading in classrooms. In Georgia, when a Jewish citizen complained of organized Christian prayers in the local schools, the state Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, ruling tartly that “[t]he Jew may complain to the court as a taxpayer, i.e., when the Legislature authorizes such readings of the Bible or such instruction in the Christian religion in the public schools as give one Christian sect a preference over others.”

The ACLU spoiled for a fight in Tennessee because the organization believed that freedom was a fundamentally individual right. The right to free speech and assembly — the right not to be proselytized in a public school — the right to think freely.

Unfortunately, the organization chose the wrong lawyer. Where Hays hoped to turn the Scopes trial into a competition between majoritarian tyranny and individual freedom, Darrow accepted the job with one intention. “My object,” he later wrote, “was to focus the attention of the country on the programmer of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America.” Darrow was a committed civil libertarian. But he was an even greater opponent of conservative Christianity.

Religion and modernity took center stage at the trial, but the tension between majoritarian politics and individual liberties was never far below the surface.

Today’s battles lines

The Scopes trial offers a useful template for understanding our current school wars.

Much as Bryan argued that the people of Tennessee had a right to determine what could be taught in the schools that they funded, do the citizens of states like Texas and Florida not enjoy the prerogative to ban books by Blume and Morrison? Banning books might be silly. It might put their children at a competitive disadvantage when they apply for college or enter a diverse, modern, 21st century workforce. But don’t parents, speaking through their elected school boards, have the right to make that choice?

Conversely, aren’t there rights that majorities cannot take away? The right to read a particular book or to access it in a public library. The right to free speech and expression — to talk about people and families who do not conform to the Florida state Legislature’s heteronormative ideas about what people and families should look like. The right to attend a high school football game without its devolving into a Christian prayer meeting. The right to use a bathroom designated for the gender with which you identify? The right to privacy, choice and access to contraception?

There is inconsistency aplenty, on both sides.

Conservatives who insist on the majority’s right to govern school library shelves often develop a passion for their individual rights — as when state legislatures bar them from discriminating against LGBTQ customers in a business setting, or from carrying and concealing firearms.

Liberals who insist that the individual’s right to free speech or expression cannot be legislated away by the Florida state Legislature sometimes find no issue with restrictions against hate speech or incitement.

Some of the inconsistency can be dismissed as rank hypocrisy. But as we learned during the Scopes trial, freedom and liberty are malleable ideas. For Americans, the tension between civil rights and majority rule has long been bound up with discussions about race, religion, gender and ethnicity. In other national cultures, rights are more affirmative — the right to certain things, rather than the right to be protected from something. Hence, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provision that “[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The debate over how we govern schools represents a larger and, in some ways, timeless argument about what it means to be free. Majorities have the right to govern their institutions and economies, but individuals enjoy inalienable rights that majorities cannot take away. Inevitably, those two political dictums collide, and when that collision involves schools and children, it can result in a political firestorm.