God's Country by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan smiles on Aiken, S.C. -- where the debate between evolution and creationism still rages

 
Adapted with permission from "In Search of America," published by Hyperion in conjunction with the ABCNews series. Copyright (c) 2002 The America Project, LLC

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The Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, is one of the few Cold War nuclear weapons plants still operating into the 21st century, though its five towering reactors are all now shuttered. Glenn Wilson is a 39-year-old nuclear technology instructor who works there. By day, Wilson trains workers in the principles of nuclear waste disposal; principally, the delicate methods by which they will discard over 35 million gallons of radioactive waste still being stored in tanks on the site, the residue of fifty years of production when SRS supplied the killing material for every kind of nuclear weapon in the American arsenal.

By night, he tirelessly plots a campaign to have the Aiken public schools adopt a new biology curriculum that would include not only the study of the theory of evolution, as the present program does, but a "scientific" argument for a competing theory as well, the one which argues the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, that men once inhabited the earth with dinosaurs, that a man called Noah lived to be 950 years old, and that God began life by placing a fully formed human being named "Adam" in the Garden of Eden. In other words, Wilson is one man of science who rejects the theory of evolution in favor of a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Wilson’s campaign recalls the celebrated "Monkey Trial" of 1925, when the state of Tennessee, in order to protect its children from "blasphemous" science (read more), actually banned the teaching of evolution in its public schools and the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law, leading to America’s first nationally broadcast courtroom drama. Then, and particularly later, when the trial was the subject of "Inherit the Wind" (read more about the movie vs. the trial), an immensely successful play and movie, it was popularly identified as the moment when religious fundamentalism was defeated by the force of reason.

Even though Tennessee actually won the Scopes trial – named for John T. Scopes, the teacher who agreed to test the law – it has long been believed that by making a buffoon of fundamentalist lawyer William Jennings Bryan (read transcript), the famous courtroom attorney Clarence Darrow settled the argument on the side of science: reason triumphing over faith, modernism over tradition. Distinguished historians including Henry Steele Commager, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, saw Scopes as just such a turning point in American history. And yet, we now know nothing could have been further from the truth. In defiance of popular culture and the nation’s educated power elite, religious traditionalism, has refused to die; indeed, seventy-five years later, in the age of the human genome project and nanotechnology, it thrives.

The statistics are clear. While nearly all Americans (95 percent) profess to believe in some kind of God, almost half (47 percent) believe in the Biblical story of creation, and more than a third (44 percent, including the reigning president, George W. Bush) describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical," statistics which dramatically set Americans apart from the rest of the Western world.

Far from ending the central importance of traditional religion in American society, the Scopes trial appears to have been a landmark in re-affirming it: after Scopes, Arkansas and Mississippi joined with Tennessee to enact laws against the teaching of evolution, while innumerable local school boards, particularly in the South, imposed restrictions on its teaching. Only with the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s and 1970s, when the political and social turmoil of the day prompted Time to ask "Is God dead?" did the mood change. Religion was forced out of the schools, allowing evolution to creep back in. Yet while it has since become an accepted fact in "enlightened," urban Western society that when it comes to explaining the universe, science takes precedence over faith, it has also continued to be apparent that a sizable part of the American population – if not an outright majority – strongly disagrees.

 

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