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Reflecting on “Inherit the Wind”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

“As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.” Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) Inherit the Wind

Today has been a very busy day at work but I have been doing some reflection and instead of watching the Olympics tonight I decided to again watch the classic film Inherit the Wind. I really do believe that it is well worth watching, especially when a charlatan with no Christian virtues whatsoever stokes up the hopes of conservative Christians by promising that if he is elected he will make Christianity great again. Of course the Christianity that he refers to is not that of Jesus, but that of Constantine and every other strongman who has used the Christians and the church to achieve earthly power and to crush any opposition. Noted televangelists have come to Trump’s side, many like John Hagee saying that Christians that God will punish Christians, that vote against Trump. That is why this film is still so pertinent.

It is fascinating that a play and film set about an incident that actually occurred in the 1920s remains so timeless. It is hard to believe that 90 years after the trial and over 50 years after the movie that our society would still be debating the issue in the movie and that legislatures and school boards are still attempting to pass religious doctrine off as science.

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It is a film about what is commonly called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” which was litigated in July of 1925 and featured an epic battle between populist three time Presidential Candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

The trial was brought about after the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee. It was an act that made it a criminal offense to teach evolution in any publicly funded school. The act stipulated:

“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

The author of the act was Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, a farmer and the head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association an interdenominational organization dedicated to a “New Protestantism” based on the Pre-Millennial interpretation of Bible prophecy.

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Butler was heavily influenced by William Jennings Bryant who with his followers had gotten legislation banning evolution in 15 states. H.L. Mencken commented that over the years of his public life that Bryan had “transformed himself” into some “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.”

Butler was opposed to the teaching of evolution and the act passed the house by a vote of 75-1. No public hearings had been held on it and no debate proffered.

Butler’s legislation did face some opposition in the State Senate. However it passed there on a vote of 24-6 after the famous Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday preached as series of revival meetings to incite public opinion in favor of the bill. Sunday’s message was clear, he preached that “Education today is chained to the Devil’s throne” and praised Butler and the House for their “action against that God forsaken gang of evolutionary cutthroats.” The bill was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay, but Peay expected little to come of it.

The American Civil Liberties Union put the law to the test using high school biology teacher John Scopes who was charged with breaking the law. The trial ended up becoming less about the guilt or innocence of Scopes or even the constitutionality of the law, but rather as the field where the conflict between religious and social issues and faith versus intellectualism was fought. Butler, the man who legislated the law on religious grounds covered it as a correspondent.

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Mencken wrote of the trial:

“The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn’t been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law…”

 

It was an epic event covered by news outlets across the nation and the atmosphere in the town outside the courthouse was circus like, something that the movie depicts very well. The defense was not allowed to produce Scientists as witnesses, even to the chagrin of Butler who despite his opposition to evolutionary theory felt that it was not fair. When all was said and done Scopes had been convicted and a fine of $100 assessed, which was overturned on appeal. Bryan died a week after the trial and of the 15 states with similar legislation to Butler passed them into law.

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The film is based on the play of the same name written in 1950 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was written during the height of the McCarthy Era and opened in 1955. The first film version starring Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) while Dick York played Bertram Cates (John Scopes). Lawrence and Lee invented some fictional characters including Reverend Brown played by Claude Akins.

The film directed by Stanley Kramer captures the raw emotions of the trial, the participants and the spectators who came from near and far. The depiction of the angry mob of Christians is terrifying to watch. In the film they sing:

“We’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree. Our God is marching on! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Gory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. We’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, our God is marching on.”

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March’s depiction of Matthew Harrison Brady is riveting. The Brady of the film does not do justice to other parts of Bryan’s life. Bryan, outside his fight against evolution was ahead of his time in many ways. Earlier in his career he had pressed for Universal Suffrage, fought against war and labored against the social Darwinism of the banks, business and the Robber Barons. However the loss of three Presidential elections left him bitter and it is believed that he saw the trial as an opportunity to regain the limelight and perhaps build a base to again run for President. This speech by Brady is a fair characterization of Bryan’s beliefs:

“I have been to their cities and I have seen the altars upon which they sacrifice the futures of their children to the gods of science. And what are their rewards? Confusion and self-destruction. New ways to kill each other in wars. I tell you gentlemen the way of science is the way of darkness.”

The problem with the Bryan of the Scopes Trial was that he was a caricature of his former self, he played to the crowds. The trial played to the worst parts of his character and that shows in the movie depiction. Some Christians find this an unfair portrayal and even call it a lie, however even though March’s portrayal is fictional it does fit the spirit of the trial which is captured in the writings of many of the contemporary commentators of the trial. Mencken wrote of the real Bryan: It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.

 

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Another of those commentators, Marcet Haldeman-Julius wrote of the real Bryan:

“As he sat there in the court room, day after day, silent, fanning, fanning, his face set I was appalled by the hardness, the malice in it. No one who has watched the fanatical light in those hard, glittering black eyes of Bryan’s can doubt but that he believes both in a heaven and in a hell. At the same time the cruel lines of his thin, tight-pressed mouth proclaim, it seems to me, that he would stop at nothing to attain his own ends. It is anything but a weak face–Bryan’s. But it is a face from which one could expect neither understanding nor pity. My own opinion is that he is sincere enough in his religion. Also that in it is included the doctrine Paul so frankly taught–that a lie told for the glory of God is justified…”

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But I think that the real drama and tension in the film comes from Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of Drummond. This speech is taken almost verbatim from the trial:

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

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I think that this speech is the real crux of the tension that we face even now. Legislators in a number of States have enacted laws of much the same kind of spirit as Butler and defended them with the same kind of fire as Bryan. Civil libertarians, especially secular ones bring up the same issues as Darrow did. I am a Christian and a Priest and my thinking about this is much like that espoused by Drummond in the movie.

So the film may be a fictional depiction of the Scopes Trial, but it is a film that I think that people would do well to watch. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me or the issues that I agree with brought up by the character of Henry Drummond. However, I think that everyone should watch the film and come to their own conclusions as well as to ask themselves how their particular ethic, whether secular or religious informs them in how they deal with this issue and so many others that divide us today.

I just know when I watched it again this week that it could have been in the news this week, only with a different cast of characters. My concern is that there is a very loud minority that wants to inflict its particular religious view on everyone and use the public treasure to do it. The attitude of many of these people is much like the characters from the actual Scopes Trial including their view that pushes both demonizes those they oppose and their desire to regulate the secular opposition to the sidelines.

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I know that the same accusation is made by religious people of secularists, however I have seen the results of religious wars in Iraq and the Balkans, and from history. Those conflicts and the brutality of religious people in them give me great pause when I see religious and political leaders here suggest curtailing the civil liberties and even using the law against those that they oppose. As Drummond asked in the movie: “Must men go to jail because they find themselves at odds with a self-appointed prophet?”

That is why this film is so important.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Strike Down the Sinners: The Politics of the Christian Right

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is a topic that sadly I am again forced to return to in light of the incredibly vocal and strident calls of leaders of the Christian Right in response to the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality. The tragic thing is that these men and women seem not to care about the long term damage they are doing not only to the political system, but the witness of Christians and the continued viability of the Christian church in the United States.

Nineteen years ago today, when I was ordained as a priest I was a part of a church that was heavily invested in the political machinations of the Christian Right so I do understand from experience the mindset of some of these leaders. This is not to say that everyone in leadership of that church were like this, but some were, and they held important positions.

I write this on the anniversary of my ordination because I do care about the witness of Christians and the long term viability of the church. Since I am a historian I do understand what happens when church leaders allow their insistence on maintaining or gaining political power and influence to override the words of Jesus and the mission of the church. I want to point out, that while I certainly fall on the progressive to liberal side of the Christian faith that I know many wonderful conservative Evangelicals who while maintaining the their beliefs, still do all they can to be gracious and loving to all, and in their actions show that love and respect to people that they disagree with on doctrinal, social and political issues. Sadly, the actions of the leaders of the Christian Right are obliterating the efforts of these really good and caring Christians to maintain a witness of love, and that offends me. I was talking to one of these pastors today, an old friend from the Navy Chaplain Corps who is now retired and serving as pastor of a Baptist church here in Virginia, and we commiserated about what the actions of these leaders are doing.

Barry Goldwater, the man who was one of the most responsible for the resurgence of American Conservatism, had a keen sense of the danger faced by the conservative movement if the Christian Right ever took control of the Republican Party. Goldwater whether you liked him or not or disagreed with his political thought was no fool. In 1981 after the Christian Right had risen to power and helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency, Goldwater realized that the Christian Right was not content with being part of a conservative coalition but wanted control of the Republican Party. On the floor of the Senate Goldwater spoke these words:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Goldwater was right and the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian Right is an accomplished fact. The Republican Party is now the party of the Christian Right and the party of religious conservative culture warriors. It is unbending, uncompromising and many of its leaders, including most of the announced presidential candidates believe that they are acting in the name of God.

It is an incredibly dangerous situation, not just for the nation and our political system, but for the Church itself.

Our current political climate reminds me of the movie Inherit the Wind, the fictional portrayal of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the movie one of the most stalwart critics of evolution, the former presidential candidate and preacher Matthew Brady played by Frederic March, led the city where the trial is being held into an anti-secular fervor.  At the beginning of the trial he encourages the townspeople to attend a “prayer meeting.” The meeting becomes quite heated as the town’s preacher, Reverend Brown, played by Claude Akins launches into a full assault on all that oppose Brady, and therefore God.

The preacher works himself into a frenzy, condemning the accused and all that would defend him, including his very own daughter:

“Oh, Lord of the tempest and the thunder, strike down this sinner, as thou did thine enemies of old in the days of the Pharaohs! Let him know the terror of thy sword! Let his soul, for all eternity, writhe in anguish and damnation!”

His daughter, who is engaged to the accused cries out: “No! No, Pa! Don’t pray to destroy Bert!”

Then the reverend utters words which remind me so much of what I heard in Iowa this weekend:

“Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!”

At this point, Brady, realizing that the situation is getting out of control stops the preacher and says:

“it is possible to be overzealous, to destroy that which you hope to save — so that nothing is left but emptiness.” He then quotes from the book of Proverbs: “Remember the wisdom of Solomon in the book of Proverbs. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

To me this seems to be analogous to the current dilemma faced by the Republican Party. For decades has helped to create, sustain and institutionalize monster of the Christian Right. Old leaders see the danger but cannot admit their culpability in its rise and takeover of that party. As such they continue to enable it. Goldwater was one of the very few Republicans to see this coming and now, as he feared, the preachers have taken control of the party. Like Reverend Brown they will damn all who do not agree with them, even those of their own party.

The leaders of this political-religious movement have been overzealous, and will continue to be so because like Matthew Brady and Reverend Brown and their supporters, they cannot acknowledge that their zeal may be misdirected and malevolent.

Like Reverend Brown, they are consumed by their hatred for non-believers, that they are even willing to destroy the people closest to them to do so. I know this is true, because when I expressed doubt and did not tow the party line of my former church I was thrown out. Sadly, most of the men that I had previously counted as my closest friends abandoned or even condemned me.

I find the similarities amazing. But even more troubling I find the fear, hatred and paranoia the leaders of the Christian Right display all too reminiscent of church leaders in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s.  Those leaders, Protestants and Catholics alike supported Hitler, because Hitler promised to fight against the things that they hated; Jews, Socialists, Communists, homosexuals, immigrants, and of course atheists, agnostics and other non-believers.

Martin Niemöller, a man who now is nearly universally lauded for opposition to Hitler initially supported him. Niemöller, later regretted that support and wrote:

“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” 

German Christians, like Niemöller, felt that their values were under attack by Communists, Socialists, and Jews and yes, even homosexuals. In order to maintain their influence and power they willingly allied themselves with the Nazis. After the Nazis took power, the only spoke up against the Nazi abuses it to defend their own ecclesiastical power and place in society, and seldom to speak up for the victims of the Nazis. When the war was over and young people began to question the actions of those that led the Church in Germany it began a process that has led to the de-Christianization of that country.

The current leadership of the Christian Right, especially those with yearnings to be the next President, are doing the same thing as their German brothers did in the 1920s and 1930s. The constant hate filled attacks of Christian leaders on those that are not Christians will come back to bite them. This is not fantasy, it is reality. One only has to look at the history of the Church to see it played out time after time. But then, unless we decide to re-write history like the fraudulent pseudo-historian David Barton does so well, why bother reading it?

The actions of many Christian leaders are dangerous to the faith as a whole, but it seems that they are willing to throw that away in order to gain political power, and as Ron and Rand Paul’s adviser Gary North wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

The actions of the leaders of the Christian Right are blatantly short sighted and ultimately will hasten the decline and fall of what we know as Christianity in America, but they don’t seem to care. These leaders have subscribed to an Imperial Church model that must take and hold political power in order to maintain their own political, economic and social dominance, even at the expense of the Gospel. Instead of the message of reconciliation they preach pre-packaged, focus group tested selections of “Biblical Values” which they and their political allies know are useful as wedge issues to win political power.

The leaders of the Christian Right rail against things they consider “sinful” such as homosexuality, abortion and birth control. At the same time they willingly turn a blind eye to the treatment of the poor, support efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, even Christians that tend to vote for Democrats. They advocate wars of aggression and bless cultural and economic norms that go entirely against the Christian tradition as they go about with a Bible in one hand and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the other.

The effects of this politicization are more and more apparent and the statistics don’t lie. The United States is not Christian nation and any sense of the definition, and this is not the fault of secularists. It is the fault of Christians especially those political partisan pastors and pundits of the Christian Right that for the past 40 years have sold their souls for political power at the expense of the Gospel.

A recent Barna survey noted that less than one half of one percent of people aged 18-23 hold what would be considered a “Biblical world view.” This is compared to about one of every nine other adults.  Other surveys bear this out.

Think about it: The Barna Group in another survey of people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers.

This hypocrisy is demonstrated time and time again. In 2013 these politically corrupted religious leaders turned a blind eye to and even cheered the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 by the Supreme Court, or cheered that decision despite the fact that many of not most of those adversely affected by that decision are African American Christians. The next day they lambasted the same justices for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and refusing to hear a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, dealing with the Federal recognition of Gay marriage. Just over a week ago the same leaders were apoplectic when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marriage Equality and Gay Marriage, and upheld the Affordable Health Care Law.

The histrionics exhibited by them would be comical if the men and women ranting away were not so vehemently hateful towards their opponents, and some have suggested killing gays and their Christian supporters to root out evil. This isn’t just political theater for them, they really mean it. The real tragedy of their behavior is that even more people will turn away from Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi said it so well “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

The leaders of the Christian Right continue to wage the culture war, but what cost? Here I am not even dealing with the politics, as one can debate the merits of the Obama administration as well as its decisions and policies, and even Supreme Court decisions. Even many progressives criticize the President and the Supreme Court on a wide number of issues, so that is not the point.

The fact is that young people are leaving the church in unheard of numbers and it is very evident to me why they are doing so. The Church has embraced the culture wars over preaching the Gospel, which if I recall correctly is based on loving people, even ones enemies.  Jesus said it so well: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 NRSV.

In 2014 leaders of the Christian Right were able to bring enough culture warriors to the polls hold their majority in the House of Representatives and gain the majority in the Senate. But it was an election where less than 40% of eligible voters voted and most of the contested seats were in areas where they dominate, which magnified their strength. But in the coming 2016 Presidential election the demographics do not favor them and get worse in every year. The leaders of the Christian Right know this and still continue on and wage their culture war with greater zeal further alienating millions of people not just from their political position, but the message of Jesus himself.

Perhaps Christian leaders who have sold their souls for such paltry political gains should be asking these questions: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul and what does it profit the Church to wield political power but lose its soul?

It is a question that Christians need to ask. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wryly noted “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” Sadly, that train has left the station and the leaders of the Christian Right are not only on it, but they are driving it into oblivion.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inheriting the Wind: Iowa & the GOP 2015

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I wonder about the people now leading the Republican Party, especially the Christian Right and the politicians that fall all over themselves to ingratiate themselves to get their vote. I wonder if they have any clue as to the long term damage that they are doing to that party, their faith or to the country.

I should know something about this, because for most of my adult life I was a Republican, and at times subscribed to some of the same beliefs as the current leaders of the Religious Right that dominate my former party. To watch the events of this weekend, like so many others of the past couple of decades before, was mind-numbing.

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Mike Huckabee. the Trinity of Evil Incarnate: Preacher, Pundit and Politician 

The establishment GOP wants the votes of the Christian Right and the Tea Party, however, despite that they really don’t want them running the party. The establishment wants to have it both ways. They want to look like the boring conservatives of the pre-Reagan and Gingrich eras but they need to capture the votes of a base that is anything but that. That is why I find the potential candidacies of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney so amusing. Neither man can meet the ideological and religious litmus tests of the people who helped the GOP capture both the House and Senate and neither stands a bat’s chance in hell at winning the nomination, or if they do to secure the support of the base. In order to do that they would have to deny who they are, the true descendants of the less than ideological Republican Party of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford. Men whose relatively moderate beliefs were swept away by the so called Reagan Revolution and Gingrich takeover of 1994.

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But Barry Goldwater warned us about them. Goldwater said back in 1981:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

The situation reminds me of the movie Inherit the Wind, the fictional portrayal of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the movie one of the most stalwart critics of evolution, the former Presidential Candidate and Preacher Matthew Brady played by Frederic March, who has helped lead the city where the trial is being held into an anti-secular fervor.  At the beginning of the trial he encourages the townspeople to attend a “prayer meeting.” The meeting becomes quite heated as the town’s preacher, Reverend Brown, played by Claude Akins, who has launched into a full assault on all that oppose Brady, and therefore God.

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Reverend Brown works himself into a frenzy, condemn the accused and all that would defend him, including his very own daughter:

“Oh, Lord of the tempest and the thunder, strike down this sinner, as thou did thine enemies of old in the days of the Pharaohs! Let him know the terror of thy sword! Let his soul, for all eternity, writhe in anguish and damnation!”

His daughter, who is engaged to the accused cries out: “No! No, Pa! Don’t pray to destroy Bert!”

Then the reverend utters words which remind me so much of what I heard in Iowa this weekend:

“Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!”

Brady, not seeing just how he has brought this about stops the good Reverend Brown and tells him:

“it is possible to be overzealous, to destroy that which you hope to save — so that nothing is left but emptiness.” He then quotes from the book of Proverbs: “Remember the wisdom of Solomon in the book of Proverbs. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

To me this seems to be analogous to the current dilemma faced by the Republican Party. It has helped create, sustain and institutionalize a monster, and now seeing the danger doesn’t know what to do about it, and cannot admit its culpability in for it. Goldwater realized this in the earliest days of the movement which has consumed the Republican Party. The preachers have taken control and they will damn all who do not agree with them to destruction, even those of their own party.

The have been overzealous, and will continue to be so because like Matthew Brady they cannot acknowledge that their zeal may be misdirected and malevolent.

Like Reverend Brown, they are consumed by their hatred for a a non-believer, and they are willing to destroy the people closest to them to do so. I know this is true, because when I expressed doubt and did not tow the party line of my former church I was thrown out. Sadly, most of the men that I had previously counted as my closest friends abandoned or even condemned me.

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My situation reminds me of a another exchange in the film between Brady and his opponent, Henry Drummond played by Spencer Tracy. Brady said: “Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?” 

To which Drummond replied: “All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it’s you who’ve moved away by standing still.”

In standing still and condemning all who differ from their beliefs on any point, the preachers who now, in conduction with their business benefactors will indeed inherit the wind.

Ten years ago I could not have imagined this, but when I read the transcripts of many of the speakers fighting for the GOP leadership in Iowa this weekend it was yet another epiphany, in a series of epiphanies since I served in Iraq. The Iowa conference was a gathering of true believers, appealing to true believers. It was the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone with Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Steve King, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and the ever imbecilic Donald Trump leading the way. The Iowa meeting was more like the prayer meeting in Inherit the Wind than anything remotely connected with a normal American political meeting regardless of the party. Self congratulatory in denial the meeting was profound for its vapid rancor.

As far as me, watching this and all the other shenanigans of the Christian Right, I am sorry that I didn’t see it coming sooner. It took me until 2008 to realize that I really had not moved, but that the GOP moved, and continues to move away from me.

That is the scary part. Barry Goldwater was all too right in his analysis of those who have taken over the GOP. It is hard to believe that the only Republican bold enough to speak out against this takeover before it happened was the original “true conservative” of the GOP, a man whose 1964 campaign for President opened the door for their takeover of the party. Unlike those who attempted to claim his mantle including Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater really understood the danger of the genie that he let out of the bottle.

The irony is truly profound.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inherit the Wind: A Film for Today

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“As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.” Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) Inherit the Wind

It is fascinating that a play and film set about an incident that actually occurred in the 1920s remains so timeless. It is hard to believe that 90 years after the trial and over 50 years after the movie that our society would still be debating the issue in the movie and that legislatures and school boards are still attempting to pass religious doctrine off as science.

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It is a film about what is commonly called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” which was litigated in July of 1925 and featured an epic battle between populist three time Presidential Candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

The trial was brought about after the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee. It was an act that made it a criminal offense to teach evolution in any publicly funded school. The act stipulated:

“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

The author of the act was Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, a farmer and   the head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association an interdenominational organization dedicated to a “New Protestantism” based on the Pre-Millennial interpretation of Bible prophecy.

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Butler was heavily influenced by William Jennings Bryant who with his followers had gotten legislation banning evolution in 15 states. H.L. Mencken commented that over the years of his public life that Bryan had “transformed himself” into some “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.”

Butler was opposed to the teaching of evolution and the  act passed the house by a vote of 75-1. No public hearings had been held on it and no debate proffered.

Butler’s legislation did face some opposition in the State Senate. However it passed there on a vote of 24-6 after the famous Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday preached as series of revival meetings to incite public opinion in favor of the bill. Sunday’s message was clear, he preached that “Education today is chained to the Devil’s throne” and praised Butler and the House for their “action against that God forsaken gang of evolutionary cutthroats.” The bill was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay, but Peay expected little to come of it.

The American Civil Liberties Union put the law to the test using high school biology teacher John Scopes who was charged with breaking the law. The trial ended up becoming less about the guilt or innocence of Scopes or even the constitutionality of the law, but rather as the field where the conflict between religious and social issues and faith versus intellectualism was fought. Butler, the man who legislated the law on religious grounds covered it as a correspondent.

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Mencken wrote of the trial:

“The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn’t been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law…”

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/580245/Inherit-The-Wind-Movie-Clip-We-Are-Simple-Folk.html 

It was an epic event covered by news outlets across the nation and the atmosphere in the town outside the courthouse was circus like, something that the movie depicts very well. The defense was not allowed to produce Scientists as witnesses, even to the chagrin of Butler who despite his opposition to evolutionary theory felt that it was not fair. When all was said and done Scopes had been convicted and a fine of $100 assessed, which was overturned on appeal. Bryan died a week after the trial and of the 15 states with similar legislation to Butler passed them into law.

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The film is based on the play of the same name written in 1950 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was written during the height of the McCarthy Era and opened in 1955. The first film version starring Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) while Dick York played Bertram Cates (John Scopes). Lawrence and Lee invented some fictional characters including Reverend Brown played by Claude Akins.

The film directed by Stanley Kramer captures the raw emotions of the trial, the participants and the spectators who came from near and far. The depiction of the angry mob of Christians is terrifying to watch. In the film they sing:

“We’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree. Our God is marching on! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Gory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. We’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, our God is marching on.”

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March’s depiction of Matthew Harrison Brady is riveting. The Brady of the film does not do justice to other parts of Bryan’s life. Bryan, outside his fight against evolution was ahead of his time in many ways. Earlier in his career he had pressed for Universal Suffrage, fought against war and labored against the social Darwinism of the banks, business and the Robber Barons. However the loss of three Presidential elections left him bitter and it is believed that he saw the trial as an opportunity to regain the limelight and perhaps build a base to again run for President. This speech by Brady is a fair characterization of Bryan’s beliefs:

“I have been to their cities and I have seen the altars upon which they sacrifice the futures of their children to the gods of science. And what are their rewards? Confusion and self-destruction. New ways to kill each other in wars. I tell you gentlemen the way of science is the way of darkness.”

The problem with the Bryan of the Scopes Trial was that he was a caricature of his former self, he played to the crowds. The trial played to the worst parts of his character and that shows in the movie depiction. Some Christians find this an unfair portrayal and even call it a lie, however even though March’s portrayal is fictional it does fit the spirit of the trial which is captured in the writings of many of the contemporary commentators of the trial. Mencken wrote of the real Bryan: It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/179726/Inherit-the-Wind-Movie-Clip-Time.html 

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Another of those commentators, Marcet Haldeman-Julius wrote of the real Bryan:

“As he sat there in the court room, day after day, silent, fanning, fanning, his face set I was appalled by the hardness, the malice in it.  No one who has watched the fanatical light in those hard, glittering black eyes of Bryan’s can doubt but that he believes both in a heaven and in a hell.  At the same time the cruel lines of his thin, tight-pressed mouth proclaim, it seems to me, that he would stop at nothing to attain his own ends.  It is anything but a weak face–Bryan’s.  But it is a face from which one could expect neither understanding nor pity.  My own opinion is that he is sincere enough in his religion.  Also that in it is included the doctrine Paul so frankly taught–that a lie told for the glory of God is justified…”

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But I think that the real drama and tension in the film comes from Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of Drummond. This speech is taken almost verbatim from the trial:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_DQUAuNUvw 

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

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I think that this speech is the real crux of the tension that we face even now. Legislators in a number of States have enacted laws of much the same kind of spirit as Butler and defended them with the same kind of fire as Bryan. Civil libertarians, especially secular ones bring up the same issues as Darrow did. I am a Christian and a Priest and my thinking about this is much like that espoused by Drummond in the movie.

So the film may be a fictional depiction of the Scopes Trial, but it is a film that I think that people would do well to watch. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me or the issues that I agree with brought up by the character of Henry Drummond. However, I think that everyone should watch the film and come to their own conclusions as well as to ask themselves how their particular ethic, whether secular or religious informs them in how they deal with this issue and so many others that divide us today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECITwTYSIs 

I just know when I watched it again this week that it could have been in the news this week, only with a different cast of characters. My concern is that there is a very loud minority that wants to inflict its particular religious view on everyone and use the public treasure to do it. The attitude of many of these people is much like the characters from the actual Scopes Trial including their view that pushes both demonizes those they oppose and their desire to regulate the secular opposition to the sidelines.

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I know that the same accusation is made by religious people of secularists, however I have seen the results of religious wars in Iraq and the Balkans, and from history. Those conflicts and the brutality of religious people in them give me great pause when I see religious and political leaders here suggest curtailing the civil liberties and even using the law against those that they oppose. As Drummond asked in the movie: “Must men go to jail because they find themselves at odds with a self-appointed prophet?”

That is why this film is so important.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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