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

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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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In the eighteenth century, Americans debated the line between science and religion, and worried over the decline of morality. In Aiken, in the twenty-first century, they debate the line between science and religion and worry over the decline of morality. Just how can a religious nation reconcile faith with science and reason? In a democracy, does the majority have the right to dictate its will even if that will should run against well-established science? Is the freedom to practice religion denied when the state teaches something wholly inconsistent with – indeed, hostile to – mainstream faith? Is science inherently godless; and does its world view erode the ability to establish right from wrong? In a secular society, what moral authority can take the place of religion? Without moral authority, does society decay?

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