Too liberal, too religious

Yesterday’s brown bag lunch at Dayton’s courthouse square drew me to the statue of Bill Bryan (William Jennings Bryan). When I was 14, my grandfather recalled reading about the 1925 trial of John Scopes in the Knoxville News, which editorially opposed the recently passed Butler Act that prohibited the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Tennessee schools.

My grandfather was the one who first helped me see that evolution doesn’t conflict with biblical faith. Science studies facts, asking “how” questions. Faith studies truth, asking “why” questions. Faith is about life’s meaning. After a recent foray into Bryan’s history, I realized that my view of him has been shaped by the Hollywood caricature presented through the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind.”

Bryan may be more remembered as the loquacious ringer to help Tennessee’s prosecutors, rather than as a 3-time presidential nominee (1896, 1900, 1908) and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. The “Great Commoner” was the most progressive political leader of his era. Think of him as an early Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, rather than as a foil for the character played by Spencer Tracy.

One observer said Bryan never made it to the White House because he was “too liberal for the religious and too religious for the liberals.” His death in Dayton five days after the Scopes trial made him an icon for anti-evolutionists. I bought into the movie version, but I now see him in a larger context. This is another reminder that I learn by asking questions, not by jumping to conclusions!

Even though all the names were changed, the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind” was clearly about the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted Darwin’s theory of evolution against creationism in court. Spencer Tracy (left) and Fredric March (seated) played Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, characters based on the real-life court opponents Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

(From “Two sides boldly taking a stand,” a review of the movie “Inherit the Wind,” by Roger Ebert, January 28, 2006)

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