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Individual Liberty Versus Majoritarian Democracy in Edward Larson’s Summer For the Gods

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Individual Liberty Versus Majoritarian Democracy in Edward Larson’s Summer For the Gods

The Scopes trial, writes Edward Larson, to most Americans embodies “the timeless debate over science and religion.” (265) Written by historians, judges, and playwrights, the history of the Scopes trial has caused Americans to perceive “the relationship between science and religion in . . . simple terms: either Darwin or the Bible was true.” (265) The road to the trial began when Tennessee passed the Butler Act in 1925 banning the teaching of evolution in secondary schools. It was only a matter of time before a young biology teacher, John T. Scopes, prompted by the ACLU tested the law. Spectators and newspapermen came from allover to witness whether science or religion would win the day. Yet below all the hype, the trial had a deeper meaning. In Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson argues that a more significant battle was waged between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy. Even though the rural fundamentalist majority legally banned teaching evolution in 1925, the rise of modernism, started long before the trial, raised a critical question for rural Americans: should they publicly impose their religious beliefs upon individuals who believed more and more in science.

Larson divides his account into three sections: before, during, and after. The first section carefully exposes the political struggle over individual rights hidden in the debate between science and religion. What emerge are the political views of the two opposing parties: William Jennings Bryan and the ACLU. William Jennings Bryan’s adherence to fundamental Christianity and creationism was only one part of his politics. He also believed that the state had a duty to ...

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...e and technology with their religious beliefs.

Summer for the Gods profoundly contributes to the scholarship of progressivism. The role of experts, legal reform, majoritarian democracy, modernism, and individual rights were all part of the progressive movement. The Scopes trial is the perfect test case to show how these progressive tenets were not coherently driving toward a single societal goal. William Jennings Bryan could claim to be a progressive as much as the leaders of the ACLU. Religion and science became the sticking points between progressives like Bryan who believed in majority rule and the ACLU whose very adherence to science and experts pushed them to favor individual freedom. While science lost the trial to religion, Larson shows how a fundamental shift to modernism produced the rise of individual rights and the decline of majoritarian democracy.
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