In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement

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In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement. By Michael lienesch. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. x, 338. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, index. $34.95.)

A few weeks ago, as I was reading this book, my secretary received a call from the mother of a prospective student. She wanted to know whether science professors at my university taught that creation occurred in six literal, twenty-four hour days, as chronicled in the book of Genesis. Once again, I was reminded that antievolution remains firmly entrenched in American culture, especially in the South.

Living in North Carolina, Michael Lienesch discovered the same phenomenon. Despite the fact that evolutionary theory has formed the bedrock of modern science for more than a century, over half of Americans continue to doubt the theory, and a significant number of them actively oppose it. Lienesch set out to understand how antievolution developed, and why it retains such a strong hold on Americans. The history of antievolution and the Scopes Trial, of course, has been told and retold, most recently (and perceptively) in Edward Larsen's Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (1997). lienesch, a historian of American political thought, analyzes the movement from the perspective of social movement theory; that is, the study of how ideas are channeled into organized political behavior.

The result, for the most part, is a familiar story with new labels attached. As Lienesch explains, with the publication of The Fundamentals in 1913, conservative Christian leaders established an identity for themselves. Eventually they mobilized a loose coalition of Christians from across the Protestant denominations, and they framed evolution as a significant issue of concern. In the 1920s, evolution acquired symbolic value for conservatives as the cause of the era's cultural and moral changes. The growing number of state-funded public schools in the South provided leaders of the antievolution movement with an opportunity to put ideas into practice, and they mobilized supporters to pressure state legislatures into passing laws restricting the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren. The result was the "staging" of antievolution at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, followed by the eventual dissolution of the movement in the 1930s. …