And although the United States has seen cases everywhere, these states’ early reopening plans and hands-off measures, most recently a ban by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on local mask requirements, reflect a cultural emphasis on prioritizing freedom from government dictate — and an anti-science bias rooted in the history of the region.
Many people have resisted even simple measures — including social distancing and the now highly politicized wearing of masks — that public health officials indicated might be enough to contain the novel coronavirus. In some Florida localities, for example, opponents of requirements to wear masks claimed that the idea of their providing protection was based on “pseudoscience.” During a court hearing to consider mandating mask-wearing in Palm Beach County, opponents told lawmakers, “You are not God,” citing how those who support masks “want to throw God’s wonderful breathing system out.”
In June, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, openly warned of the risks resulting from this rampant “anti-science bias” and anti-intellectualism, which has only risen on the right during the Trump administration. And while this phenomenon is deeply historically rooted, covid-19 is exposing how dangerous it can be to public health when expert recommendations are ignored and undermined.
Where did this anti-science bias come from? It became rooted in Southern culture and politics with the Scopes Trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn.
The trial stemmed from the modernism rising in the post-World War I era. Southern whites felt that these changes challenged their way of life, including seeing the teaching of evolution as an attack on traditional values. They moved aggressively to retain socio-cultural control in a time of transformative change by limiting modern influences.
Tennessee accordingly passed the Butler Act in 1925, which banned the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools. In demonstrating that all humans descended from apes, teaching evolution undermined the belief in white superiority that defined the Jim Crow South. A Dayton businessman emboldened teacher John Scopes to challenge the law in the hopes that the ensuing controversy would attract new business to town.
An international media frenzy engulfed Scopes’s ensuing trial, which pitted three-time former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan — arguing on behalf of the state — against celebrated lawyer Clarence Darrow. Bryan also took to the stand as an expert witness, and he exalted anti-intellectualism, making America a laughingstock on the world stage.
Scopes would be convicted of violating the Butler Act, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality.
Nonetheless, as had occurred around the turn of the century when the Lost Cause movement emerged to glorify the antebellum South, the Monkey Trial became mythologized in the Bible Belt. The intensity of the trial breathed new life into the anti-evolution movement, coupled with an emphasis on biblical literalism, which found a home among evangelicals who began to define Southern culture and, eventually with Billy Graham’s support of Richard Nixon, came to define Southern politics.
Following the trial, anti-intellectualism became more acceptable. This was solidified with the establishment in Dayton of William Jennings Bryan College in 1930, where students and faculty must annually affirm their belief in the story of Genesis. Anti-intellectualism drew strength from the gathering of religious fundamentalists whose mission to spread their beliefs became more public as southern Whites responded to changes that occurred as the result of the civil rights movement.
At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, White southern evangelicals saw their long-standing regional dominance threatened by civil rights activism and federal legislation expanding Black civil rights. Exemplifying this trend, Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967, and the Supreme Court ruled against a similar law in Arkansas the next year. During the same period, Congress and the high court shattered Jim Crow segregation and banned prayer in public schools.
Their monopoly on political and cultural power seemingly under attack, White evangelicals clung to biblical literalism and embraced anti-intellectualism as a refuge. They successfully organized to stem the progress of the growing women’s movement and, in particular, to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, with their newfound emphasis on teaching female subordination. Outside of Tennessee and Texas, the Bible Belt rejected the amendment, providing just enough states to prevent ratification.
In the 1980s and 1990s, egged on by a rising conservative media, southern White evangelicals, who increasingly became the base of the Republican Party, came to associate intellectualism and science with coastal elites who looked down upon them and scorned their values. Conservatives who flocked to Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign against the ERA saw a liberal elite centered in universities, the media, the arts and the Democratic Party determined to ram morally anathema things, like legal abortion, explicit and anti-Christian movies and music like “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Me So Horny” (1988), and rights for LGBTQ Americans down their throats. Democrats also favored environmental policies that many Southern evangelicals saw as unnecessary and damaging to the economy.
This political culture fueled ever-increasing anti-intellectualism that traced its origins back to the Scopes trial. In 1997 and again in 2005, the courts heard and later decided against biblical literalists in Louisiana and Georgia, respectively, when they sought to include an advisory on the teaching of evolution in science textbooks.
When it comes to the latest covid-19 battleground, reopening schools, opposition to scientific experts, specifically guidance provided by the CDC, has been persistently displayed by the Trump administration, especially Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Republican allies at the state level. The administration has stubbornly insisted on getting children back to school without offering any advice on how to safely achieve this. Notably, DeVos has applauded Miami-Dade County’s plan for in-person learning, despite the region being a covid-19 hot zone. Substituting rhetoric and culture war politics for expertise is dangerous.
Covid-19 is proving that an unwillingness to listen to doctors and scientists can do great harm. Religious freedom and public health aren’t actually incompatible. But countering the anti-science bias that has become a stalking horse for the culture wars is crucial to creating better policies and allowing citizens to make the best possible choices for themselves and for society.