Bryan’s embarrassment, which came at the legendary Scopes trial, provides the most famous example. Without an invitation, Bryan volunteered to help prosecute Tennessee teacher John Scopes, who stood accused of breaking a new Tennessee law against the teaching of human evolution. Bryan’s participation helped elevate the modest test case into a worldwide spectacle. At the time, Bryan was one of America’s leading culture warriors, attacking the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools as anti-Christian and anti-American.
At the Scopes trial, though, he was forced to admit that he did not understand America’s growing consensus about science and religion. Nor did he offer a satisfying explanation for his opposition to the teaching of evolutionary theory.
At least, that’s how his detractors saw it. As one New York Times reporter related, when Bryan took a seat in the witness stand to defend his anti-evolution ideas, “There was no pity for his admissions of ignorance … his floundering confessions that he knew practically nothing of geology, biology, philology, little of comparative religion, and little even of ancient history.”
In the eyes of many elites at the time, then, Bryan’s performance seemed to herald the end of the anti-evolution crusade. One popular 1930s history explained that “civilized opinion everywhere” was revolted by Bryan’s anti-evolution ignorance. Into the 1950s, leading historians repeated the mistake, with one declaring that the trial sent Bryan’s movement into “a period of rapid decline.”
But predictions of creationism’s demise were wrong. Anti-evolution sentiment did not die with Bryan’s swan-song testimony. In fact, it grew more radical.
How did elites get it so wrong?
They didn’t understand that they did not think like Bryan’s supporters. While Bryan's performance cost him credibility with elites, their derision only made him more of a hero with his followers.
Hearing the laughter and reading the cruel words, Bryan’s fans did not abandon their creationist beliefs. Instead, they dug in. They recognized that their ideas about science and religion were no longer respected in mainstream institutions and began building an alternative set of institutions to propagate their beliefs.
After Bryan’s death, his admirers founded a university in his name. Bryan University (now Bryan College) opened in 1930 dedicated to teaching the ideas that Bryan defended on the witness stand. All faculty members had to agree that humanity was created by God as described in Genesis.
Bryan was very clear: The universe could not have been created in only six literal days nor could it be as young as 10,000 years old. In 1923, he lambasted such ludicrous ideas as a mere “straw man” that had been foisted upon him by sneering skeptics. Real Christians, Bryan wrote, could never believe such anti-scientific nonsense. It was only their enemies who accused them of such things, just as they “accuse orthodox Christians of denying the roundness of the earth, and the law of gravitation.”
After Bryan’s humiliation, however, institutions such as Bryan College no longer competed for mainstream respectability, as he had. Instead, they doubled down, embracing radical notions about the age of the Earth and the roots of our species.
It did not happen right away. In Bryan’s era, scientists still had not figured out some of the key elements of evolutionary theory. By the 1950s, though, those scientific debates had ended. Institutions such as Bryan College faced a crucial challenge: accept the established consensus about evolutionary theory or embrace the scientifically impossible idea that the universe was truly created in six literal days and not more than 10,000 years ago. No longer tempted to fight for respect from mainstream scientists, some of them chose the radical path.
The path to radicalized creationism was different at different institutions. At Bryan College itself, the creationist crisis was put off until recently. In 2014, Bryan College tightened its creationist requirements for faculty. Until then, professors could disagree about the details of creationism, as long as they agreed — like Bryan himself — that God had created humanity somehow, maybe using long evolutionary processes, maybe not. Since 2014, however, faculty members must affirm specifically that no evolution of humanity occurred, that Adam and Eve were real “historical persons” and the parents of the entire species. In the words of President Douglas Mann, Bryan College’s goal is for “the study of every discipline” to enable students “to see God’s creative hand and give Him glory through its pursuit.”
While Bryan saw himself as making the case against evolution using the latest evidence from leading scientists, institutions such as Bryan College have little interest in evidence offered by scientists when it conflicts with biblical teachings. And they remain potent forces in American society: As Gallup polls show, even today, about four in 10 adults think that humans were created “pretty much in their present form” within the past 10,000 years, a number that has remained fairly steady since at least the 1980s.
The influence of these institutions reaches far beyond the science classroom. Among Trump’s most stalwart supporters are White evangelical Protestants, the group that built this network of creationist colleges. Certainly not all, but many conservative evangelical institutions have taught students for generations to be suspicious of mainstream science, to look askance at “fake news.” In many ways, the universities that took pride in their radical creationism were the same ones that shared Trump’s “Make America Great Again” dream.
The history of Bryan’s humiliation and its radical creationist aftermath offer some insights into our current precarious situation.
Once again we have a national leader humiliated because of his rejection of facts and science but still widely adored by a fiercely loyal base. In many ways, the two men could not be more different. Even Bryan’s fiercest opponents conceded his fundamental decency and stout sense of ethics.
In one way, however, Trump is reviving Bryan’s memory. The president’s shameful science denialism, like Bryan’s, has only made him more popular. Trump infamously touted ludicrous ideas about science and medicine, including recommendations to inject disinfectant as a cure for the novel coronavirus. Yet among Republican voters, Trump’s unbelievable and outrageous statements did not disqualify him. Entirely to the contrary — he secured the second-most votes in history as millions of Americans who feel scorned by elites flocked to the anti-expertise president.
As in the wake of the Scopes trial, there is discussion of Trump establishing a network of institutions to carry on his ideas — most especially some sort of broadcasting vehicle.
As the history of creationism shows, there is a vast difference between kicking an idea out of mainstream respectability and kicking it out of American culture. The lesson from Bryan’s long cultural shadow is to watch carefully the networks that spring up to carry on Trump’s ideas. It is easy to conclude that outsider networks have disappeared once they no longer have a prominent voice in the Oval Office, but that is precisely the time for mainstream society to pay closer attention.