BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1925, a young high school teacher stood at the center of a religious maelstrom. John Scopes was accused of teaching the theory of evolution, that life evolved from earlier life forms, rather than creationism, the belief that we sprang forth, just as we are, from the mind of God. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The verdict was eventually overturned on a technicality, but the so-called “Scopes monkey trial” put the debate on front pages nationwide. The two big-name lawyers personified each side of the debate, William Jennings Bryan on the side of creationism and Clarence Darrow, representing evolution.
In the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, Scopes is Cates and Barrow, well, he’s Spencer Tracy. So though Cates loses his case, Tracy wins the argument.
SPENCER TRACY AS HENRY DRUMMOND: For I intend to show this court that what Bertram Cates spoke quietly one spring morning in the Hillsboro High School is not crime. It is incontrovertible as geometry to any enlightened community of minds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A recent Pew Research Center poll found that one-third of Americans reject the theory of evolution, believing that, quote, “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Edward Caudill, author of Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution, says that the Scopes trial set a templates for the media that ensures the matter will never be settled.
EDWARD CAUDILL: The template is that you take a science religion issue and you make it political. If you say, hey, I’ve got this story about theology and the conflict of modern science, you can just see the reporter yawning, but if you come to him and you say, look, we've got these townspeople who are up in arms about teaching this course that just violates all their principles, and there’s going to be a lawsuit, you’ve said “legislation,” you’ve said “local school board,” you said “conservative and liberal,” this is language that reporters understand. Now we've got two sides. This is how we write a news story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporters are obliged to cover politics in the courts and the legislature and the local school board.
EDWARD CAUDILL: With the law of the land, how can you not cover it? I just don’t see the media finding a good way out of this, because you’re being victim of your own ethics here. Be fair. Tell the other side, even when the other side is not viable. You’re giving them legitimacy by interviewing me on this subject today. I give them legitimacy by writing a book about an idea that’s basically nonsensical, and equates it with one of the great scientific ideas in history!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, during the Scopes trial, Baltimore Sun journalist H.L. Mencken wrote about Bryan and the creationists, quote, “Peculiar imbecilities and theologic bilge.” And ever since those withering portrayals, creationists have struggled with an image problem. If we fast-forward to the 1980s, you say they came up with a genius plan for dealing with that.
EDWARD CAUDILL: That was the term “intelligent design,” by saying, I’m an intelligent design advocate, you’re simply saying, behind all of this it is so complex, so beautiful, so brilliant - there must have been a designer. It gives you a way in to sound scientific. We’ve equated science and technology with progress, so I can’t come along and say, look, let’s forget all this science nonsense. Then you’re regressive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re falling into theological bilge water, according to [LAUGHS] Mencken.
EDWARD CAUDILL: Yeah, you’re one of Mencken’s rude hillbillies and ignoramuses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that I learned from you was something called the wedge strategy, an antievolution manifesto, apparently, that was laid down in something called the wedge document. What was it?
EDWARD CAUDILL: The wedge document was a long-term tactical campaign plan for getting creationism into the American mainstream, including being taught in public schools. It emerged in the early nineties. It talks about the creation of publicity, academic articles, TV, radio appearances, newspaper and magazine articles, and how they’ll confront the scientific community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The five-year goals include to see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences, to see major new debates in education, life issues. The 20-year goal is to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science, permeating religion, culture and moral and political life.
EDWARD CAUDILL: [LAUGHS] It is audacious. The use of the term “intelligent design,” for example – you’re not saying “Christian” – does get you around the establishment clause violation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The constitutional prescription against creating a national religion.
EDWARD CAUDILL: That’s right. You can’t show preference for a religion. And creationism clearly is a preference for fundamentalist Christianity. So when I say, no, no, I didn’t say “God,” I didn’t say “Old Testament,” I said “intelligent designer” - a designer can just be whatever you want him to be want them to be – well, that’s a way of dodging the establishment clause restriction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In that recent Pew survey we mentioned, some 67 percent of Democrats believe in the theory of evolution, compared to 43 percent of Republicans. That’s a 24-point gap, a gap that has increased from a 10 point difference in 2009.
EDWARD CAUDILL: This is really telling us that creationists have successfully glued themselves onto a part of the Republican Party that rejects evolution, rejects some civil rights, such as gay marriage, that also is going to hold to the idea that this was founded as a Christian nation.
And I think that’s part of what’s brilliant about it, is that you bundle the issue of intelligent design and you say, if you buy into this, you're buying into my position on abortion, on individual rights, which means freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and you say, we are the rebels against this totalitarian system that dictates you must believe in evolution and your children will be taught evolution by force because you have to pay taxes. Gosh, that sounds awful, doesn’t it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward, thank you very much.
EDWARD CAUDILL: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward Caudill is a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of the book, Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution.