In the Garden of Eden, an animatronic Adam and Eve revel in each other’s company. Just a few yards away, children play while dinosaurs roam nearby. A little farther is the Cave of Sorrows—a display of the “horrific” effects of man’s fall from grace—where “sounds of a sin-ravaged world echo throughout the room.” According to the web site, anyway. This is the Creation Museum; newly unveiled in Petersburg, Kentucky, it’s the grandest showpiece of the antievolution movement since 1925.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, evolutionary theory still vexes some conservative Christians, who continue to battle against the accepted science curricula of most U.S. schools.

Why is the evolution debate so fervid, and why does it keep raging on? In his new book, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement, political scientist Michael Lienesch tries to find out.

Lipstick and jazz

The hottest public evolution debates started in the 1920s, just after World War I, Lienesch says. Colleges across the country had higher enrollment than ever, and religious education—once the bread and butter of many colleges—was pushed aside in favor of more scientific, secular learning. Students started coming home from school with a new attitude that their conservative religious parents didn’t like one bit. These new grads were skeptical, serious, and definitely not into church. “They considered religion old-fashioned and out-of-date,” Lienesch says.

This modernist sensibility in colleges—and how fast it was catching on—troubled religious conservatives in the fledgling fundamentalist movement, he says. It was the Roaring Twenties, people were losing their faith, and fewer students wanted to go into mission work or become ministers anymore. Religion was out, and jazz music was in. Women wore lipstick and were voting. And young people didn’t believe the Bible—at least not the way their parents did.

The worst part, conservatives thought, was that these twenty-somethings weren’t alone. “Increasingly at the time,” Lienesch says, “lots of churches were controlled by modernists—people who thought that the Bible didn’t have to be understood literally anymore.”

Some of the country’s most powerful people agreed: John D. Rockefeller sent his money straight to the University of Chicago, which was filled with liberal theology professors. And William Poteat, the president of Wake Forest College and the most famous Baptist in the South, was famously liberal; he was also a scientist, professor, and—gulp—an evolutionist.

William Jennings Bryan, a well-known politician and brilliant public speaker, was troubled by modernism, too. He wanted to take action against the universities, which he felt were systematically undermining students’ religious views, Lienesch says. Bryan didn’t really understand the nitty-gritty science of evolution, but he knew he hated social Darwinism; the ideas of “every man for himself” and “only the strongest survive” greatly offended Bryan’s populist philosophies. With the two ideas conflated in his mind, Lienesch says, “Bryan depicted Darwinism as the root of virtually all existing evils.”

And while faith was a big part of Bryan’s motivation, he campaigned hard against evolution because he saw himself as a true democrat—the voice of ordinary men and women, Lienesch says.

“Ironically, Bryan wasn’t a fundamentalist. Most of his allies in the antievolution movement didn’t even vote for him,” he says. “The fundamentalist preachers in particular hated his liberal ideas.”

Let’s talk about sects

When Bryan started touring the country preaching against evolution, not many fundamentalists had ever even heard of it, Lienesch says. And a lot of those who had heard of it found it confusing and incomprehensible.

Bryan didn’t fully understand it either, but he didn’t let that stop him from getting people excited. He was studied enough on the topic to sound credible to one congregation after another, and once people started listening, they started talking, too. Conservative Christians of all stripes held rallies and debates about evolution, published treatises advocating their views, and mobilized politically in unbelievable numbers.

In the early part of the century, Christian fundamentalists weren’t yet a political force, Lienesch says. They were too scattered among various denominations—Baptists here, Presbyterians there, with nary a communiqué between them. But slowly, galvanized by their opposition to modern secularism, fundamentalists from different Protestant groups began to connect with each other. They built social networks through their megachurches and small Bible colleges, and formed the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association—a sort of early Moral Majority—in 1919. They rented a hall in Philadelphia for their first conference, expecting only a few hundred attendees. Six thousand showed up. By the early 1920s, they’d grabbed hold of evolution and taken the show to revivals across the country.

“Because fundamentalists seized evolution as an issue, they were able to get out of their churches and connect with the larger population,” Lienesch says. “They became interdenominational.” And even though many fundamentalists didn’t understand evolutionary theory, they framed it in ways that automatically turned listeners against it, Lienesch says. “They’d say things like, ‘Evolutionists believe that monkeys turn into men.’”

A perfect target

For Bryan and the fundamentalists, evolution provided an alluring bull’s-eye: the colleges. Conservatives wouldn’t have to waste time ranting about lack of spiritual values or something equally abstract; they could just get individual professors fired. For years, Bryan had portrayed academics as educated elitists who had no sympathy for democratic values. Suspicion of college professors was already widespread among fundamentalists, Lienesch says.

But the campaign didn’t stop at colleges. With the advent of compulsory education, there were more high schools in the United States than ever before—and more kids learning about evolution. Influential evangelist T.T. Martin, one of Bryan’s colleagues, published a book in 1923 called Hell and the High Schools. In it, he described the sinister chain of indoctrination: college professors taught students about evolution, and some of those students became high school teachers, passing on the ideas.

The strategy, Lienesch says, was to put pressure on the schools, demanding investigations of what teachers were teaching, and to consequently change what an entire generation of students was learning. And it worked—externally, anyway.

“In the 1920s, it was hard to find many science teachers in America who didn’t believe in evolution,” Lienesch says. “But it was a lot like McCarthyism in the 1950s. Small numbers were fired, but large numbers were terrified.” Antievolutionists didn’t limit their scope to biology professors, either; the crusaders were after secularism in general. So religious studies professors were pressured to remove modernist ideas from their classrooms, and social scientists were denounced for teaching progressive social theories. Anyone was fair game.

Eventually even the textbooks changed, especially in high schools. “Publishers just stopped including evolution,” Lienesch says. “In the early 1920s, almost all biology books taught Darwin’s theory, and a few even included his picture. But after 1925, they removed all that.”

In some cases, publishers would reprint textbooks with evolution included, but move it to the last chapter. “And everyone knows that teachers never get to the last chapter,” he says.

By the mid-1920s, twenty-one states had introduced anti-evolution bills into their legislatures, including Tennessee, where the bill became law. And it wasn’t long before that law was challenged at the trial of a humble young high-school science teacher named John Scopes. Scopes, Lienesch says, “wasn’t even sure he had taught evolution at all.”

Scopes had been hired to coach the football team and to teach general science courses at Dayton, Tennessee’s Rhea County Central High School. Another teacher was in charge of the more advanced biology courses, but for a few days in the spring of 1925, that teacher was out sick. Scopes stepped in to substitute, mostly helping students review for upcoming exams. But when local business leaders approached him that summer—the American Civil Liberties Union was looking for a test case against the antievolution bill—they already had their minds made up, Lienesch says: Scopes would be the guinea pig. No one cared whether he had actually taught evolution.

Click to read photo caption. Photo ©Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS.

So each side had their poster boy. Bryan was on one side, looking for the ultimate gold star as a moral crusader, and on the other side was Scopes’ lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Darrow wasn’t evasive about his purpose: he wanted both to nail Bryan and to drive a stake in the heart of the fundamentalist movement, Lienesch says. The ACLU had envisioned something a little more low-key than Darrow’s high-profile, controversial tactics—he was famous for taking up the causes of extremely unpopular defendants—but the media came in droves, the Associated Press picked up the story, and it made the front pages of papers around the world.

If the Scopes trial was a stage, the performance was outstanding. T.T. Martin showed up selling copies of Hell and the High Schools; prophets announced the end of the world; and street performers brought their acts to town, including one very short, misshapen man who labeled himself “the Missing Link.” And of course, Lienesch says, there were monkeys—monkeys in sports coats, monkeys in bow ties, monkeys with golf clubs.

In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined a hundred dollars. A year later, his lawyers appealed the verdict, and it was overturned on a technicality. But by that time, that damage was done—Scopes had lost his teaching job, and he never taught high school again. Tennessee’s antievolution law, on the other hand, remained on the books for another forty years.


Over the rest of the twentieth century, antievolutionism as an overt movement has waxed and waned, Lienesch says. But it has stayed alive by reinventing itself in PR-sensitive ways. For example, in the 1960s—a time of unprecedented public embrace of science—the movement’s public face became “creation science,” the idea that biblical explanations of creation were confirmed by scientific evidence. The concept wasn’t new, Lienesch says, but calling it “science” was. The latest incarnation? “Intelligent design,” or ID.

ID is the notion that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection,” according to the Discovery Institute, the major ID think tank. This theory, Lienesch says, is cast to appeal to a more mainstream audience—people who may believe in God and don’t fully understand the theory of evolution. To broaden the idea’s appeal, ID advocates have created sophisticated web sites, literature, and think tanks.

“Supporters include a small but growing number of advocates who have some scientific credentials, and these people are featured prominently in advertisements and petitions,” Lienesch says. “ID advocates realize that to succeed, they have to present ID as scientific.”

But popular success can come at a cost. ID advocates don’t specifically name God as the “intelligent cause”—at least not officially—and that gets under the skin of hard-core creationists, who believe failure to name God explicitly is a cop-out. And these tensions within the ID movement can limit its ability to speak with one voice, Lienesch says. He doesn’t think that will ultimately harm the movement too much. “All antievolutionists agree on what they are against, which is Darwinian evolution. And even though most creationists would say they want to get God into the school curriculum, more would say what they really want is to get Darwinism and its materialistic teachings out.

Not a simple story

For fundamentalists, who interpret the Bible literally, evolution goes to the heart of whether the Bible is true—the whole foundation of their faith. Another reason antievolutionists keep fighting this battle, Lienesch says, “is that we’re talking about our children, what they learn in school. And parents get very excited and upset about what their children are being taught.” And because public schools are democratic institutions, everyone has some claim on the curriculum: parents, taxpayers, teachers, science experts, and public officials.

Deep down, Lienesch says, evolution just isn’t emotionally credible to a lot of people. Evolution—and science as we know it today—is not a simple story. “It’s not easy to understand; you can’t visualize it. It explains the world, but at heart, for some people, it’s not totally satisfactory. Science doesn’t offer the certainty that it once did. Science today asks us to understand the world by asking questions, and to never stop asking questions. The truth is, evolution is a theory—a powerful and repeatedly proven theory—but for some people, theories aren’t enough.”