Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

George W. Bush and the life of Bryan

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 15 August 2005

Legislatures and school boards in more than 16 American states are now considering the question of what to teach children about evolution and creation. Indeed, the debates around this question have made many American schools into religious battlegrounds.

George Bush has waded into the debate with his comment to US reporters recently that the theory of intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Mr Bush sidestepped the question of whether he thinks intelligent design is an alternative to evolution, and instead answered, “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought ... you’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is 'Yes'”.

There’s nothing much new about this, as Bush’s position on evolution in schools has been voiced consistently at least since he first stood for the presidency in 1999. However, Bush and his staff are now pushing “intelligent design” rather than creationism. As a Kansas Museum director Leonard Krishtalka once quipped, “intelligent design” is only “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”. In fact, Bush’s conservative supporters hailed the remarks as supporting their own position on creationism.


Bush’s view that both sides of the debate ought to be taught in public schools was echoed in some remarks by Peter Costello at the annual conference of the Hillsong Church in Sydney in July (“Costello addresses Hillsong congregation”, Lateline, July 4, 2005). Fresh from the conference, Costello told the ABC that he was personally uplifted. However, Costello noted that he did not agree with Hillsong’s Brian Houston about everything. Costello seemed to think that there was nothing peculiar about Houston’s book entitled You Need More Money except that it has a “provocative title”.

Costello told the ABC that he did believe in evolution, even though a dollop of creationism from the likes of religious leaders such as Brian Houston was not a bad thing for the young. Like Bush, Costello suggested that both evolution and creationism could be taught in schools.

Although Costello seemed optimistic that religious commitments could be kept separate from politics, the linking of creationism with right-wing politics seems like a scary prospect. Before we get too carried away, however, it is well to remember that opposition to the theory of evolution has no natural or necessary link to reactionary political values and ideas.

The picture of creationists as politically mad, bad and dangerous seems to have been forged at the trial of John Scopes, in what is often known as the “Monkey Trial”, in July 1925. Scopes was indicted for teaching the theory of evolution to his science classes, thus violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching in public schools of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” (Scopes Trial archive and Smithsonian Institution archive, unpublished photos from 1925 Tennessee v John Scopes "Monkey Trial").

The trial of Scopes stands as a landmark in various histories - of the acceptance of evolution in scientific circles, of the rise of the American religious right and of freedom of speech. The trial was immortalised in the film Inherit the Wind, in which Fredric March played the prosecutor and Spencer Tracy the defender of the accused teacher. March and Tracy were thinly disguised versions of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow respectively. The film portrayed Bryan as a backwoods hick, and this characterisation of him and of his supporters has stuck.

Some opponents of evolution these days are indeed redneck hillbillies, albeit very rich ones like Brian Houston of Hillsong (or the Till on the Hill as it is known among its neighbours). But William Jennings Bryan was not a hick, and he was not rich. Moreover, Bryan’s opposition to the teaching of evolution did not stem directly from his adherence to Biblical accounts of creation. Indeed, it is not absolutely clear that Bryan thought that public schools should teach creationism, only that they should refrain from teaching evolution.


Bryan was no reactionary in politics. He was the Democratic Party candidate for the US presidency three times, as a progressive. In fact, a little more than progressive. Bryan railed against monopolies and the unbridled capitalism of robber barons like the Rockefellers. In his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1900, Bryan championed the rights of man over the “worship of mammon”, which he held to be a defining activity of the Republican Party (plus ça change …). He stood for women’s suffrage and the direct popular election of senators. He argued strongly against American imperialism, and resigned his position as secretary of state in protest against Woodrow Wilson’s militarist policies.

Bryan was certainly deeply religious, and he believed that the theory of evolution was false. But its falsity was not something of overwhelming concern to him until after the Great War, when he became extremely troubled by the consequences of teaching evolution. That is, Bryan’s public stance on evolution was not focused on its truth or otherwise, but on the consequences of teaching it, the moral consequences for the formation of democratic character in the young.

What concerned Bryan after 1918 was the association of the theory of evolution with claims about the inevitability of war, and with hostility to political reform. Bryan’s view was that Darwinist evolutionism was an endorsement of the barbarism of warfare. He argued that an acceptance of Darwinism (and of Nietzsche) underpinned Germany’s militarism. Bryan had also long taken the position that Darwinism undercut radical reform efforts on the basis that “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate - the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak”.

Bryan’s conservative enemies opposed socialism on the grounds it interfered with the laws of nature mandating the triumph of the strong over the weak. After World War I, many of these US proponents of evolution forged open alliances with the eugenics movement, whose most successful campaign was for the involuntary sterilisation of Americans with “moral feebleness”. This campaign reached an intellectual high point in the judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes at the US Supreme Court in the 1927 case of Buck v Bell, upholding the sterilisation of Carrie Buck on the basis that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Buck v Bell and archive on the American Eugenics Movement). In turn, American laws mandating sterilisation became the model for the Nazi Germany’s 1933 Law for Protection against Genetically Defective Offspring.

Bryan was concerned that the teaching of evolution would lead to young men and women holding contempt for the weak, a contempt that flawed their character as democratic citizens. In answer to criticisms that the indictment of Scopes threatened freedom of belief and freedom of speech, Bryan responded that the dispute was not about belief in evolution. Scopes was free to believe what he wished, and he was free to express his views. But as an official of the state, Scopes was not free to teach students what he pleased in public schools.

Scopes was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned on a question of procedure. The Scopes trial is not often remembered accurately or fairly. Creationism is a perspective now almost invariably allied with an economic and political version of the survival of the strongest, with the politics of money and support for war. However, the life of Bryan suggests another possibility for engagement of the religious in politics: the possibility that a commitment to God can accompany and inform radical populist ideas and values in the service of dignity. That might be really something to teach school students.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

First published in the Canberra Times on August 5, 2005.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

8 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Helen Pringle
Photo of Helen Pringle
Article Tools
Comment 8 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy