How The Butler Act and Scopes Trial Compare with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

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Words: 2109 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 2109|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

“The devil can cite scripture for his purposes” said William Shakespeare in The Merchant Of Venice. Much like the devil in this quote illustrates, the Scopes Trial was a battle for control of American society and American culture with fundamentalism as the weapon of choice. At the time, many people were anxious about where they stood in terms of morality and religion. The prime movers and figures involved in the religious-backed persecution of Scopes were not uneducated or overzealous about attacking the theory of evolution, instead they were opportunistic to take advantage of this cultural chaos. Today, politicians use geo cultural, socioeconomic and other societal dichotomies to align themselves with particular progressive or fundamentalist causes in order to accumulate support. American society has and always will be an amalgamous, and thus a highly volatile culture. It is dynamic and is ever facing changes in political, societal, and economic fronts which are dependent on installations from the tug-of-war between tradition and progression. The societal boundaries that exist as a result of this tug-of-war further section parts of American past and present as people struggle to find the right answer to particular issue, even if they know where they stand in the spectrum of fundamentalism versus modernism.

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The Butler Act and the Scopes Trial were both ploys for personal benefit or biased agenda and were merely the culmination of a power struggle over control of American values and thus the American people. The Butler Act is seen by some as a direct attack on science for it denounced “[the teaching of] 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” (Butler). However, the author of the Butler Act, Johns Washington Butler, was a prosperous tobacco farmer who claimed to have read the Origin of Species and was open to sharing the information with his own children (Bradbury). He opposed the teaching of evolution in public schools as a ploy to maintain the favor with the overwhelming majority that elected him into office. The Scopes Trial was itself a test case the media used for a showdown between the fundamentalists and the modernists. William Jennings Bryan represented the State against John Scopes. Bryan was a fundamentalist who led a systematic crusade against evolution education in American classrooms. This was most likely because he wanted to maintain the traditional values he had long supported and because he wanted to stay at the center of public attention for the sake of his political career (“An Introduction”). Thus Bryan had both fundamentalist and opportunistic reasons for participating in the trial. The ACLU who recruited John Scopes as the offered up guilty party for the modernist cause, did not originally want Clarence Darrow on the defense, fearing that his overzealous agnosticism would turn into an unnecessary attack on religion that the ACLU hoped to avoid (“An Introduction”). The ACLU wanted to avoid the offensive argument Darrow could provoke because the trial was not about attacking religion or attacking science, it was about attempting to regain control of American attention and keeping sympathy on the modernist side against the otherwise ruling power of the fundamentalists.

Much like the ACLU and Bryan, Flannery O’Connor, a born and raised Catholic, created the story of Hazel Motes in order to warn those who believed they could escape the traditions and values that are fundamental to America as a Christian-borne nation. In her novel, O’Connor at first builds Hazel up as if he was in control and could get away with rejecting the light of God before she slowly destroys him as punishment for his crusade against Christian teachings. Hazel Motes, even in his namesake, is made imperceivable as well as unable to perceive. O’Connor described Hazel as someone with an “expression [that] seemed to open onto a deeper blankness” (162) and as a nearly invisible figure for whom “The porter didn’t stop” (11). O’Connor created Hazel to be erroneously obsessed with materialism and as part of his punishment, she takes away his essex, the symbol of his power and emerging religion. With this she instills the sense of inevitability that even Hazel, one of the more despicable Christians is unable to face anything other than redemption. The novel is yet another example of attempting to control the American population that is close to or already has strayed from the traditions of the Christian faith.

We can see much of the same cunning phenomena from the passing of the Butler Act and the Scopes Trial in today’s political realm. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his campaign included little to no support for gay rights. In fact in a pre-election interview he expressed his personal definition of marriage as “the union between a man and a woman” and that “for [him] as a Christian it is also a sacred union [and] God’s in the mix.” Once elected and two years into his first term, Obama showed half-hearted sentiment attempting to placate both conservatives and progressives stating that “[he] [has] been unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of [his] understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage” while meekly acknowledging “that attitudes evolve, including [his].” However, when running for a second term in 2012, Obama seemed to have a complete reversal in his views five months before the election, stating that “[He] just concluded that for [him] personally it is important for [him] to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married” (Weinger).

Optimistically, critics would say that Obama had a personal change of heart as his opinion evolved in office. However, realistically, we are faced with the more likely scenario that Obama, like many presidents before him and most likely many to come, used the gay rights agenda as leverage in both of his elections. He took wildly different stances to follow the push and pull of the majority vote tide. In the first election, he angled to grab support of conservatives on the Republican side and in the second election, he focused on maintaining a strong democratic vote with his Hail Mary of jumping onto the progressive platform. Obama is one example of many politicians and influential figures who actively obscure their personal values in order to appeal to the majority of voters and supporters. Instead they align themselves on the spectrum between conservative and liberal, hoping they land in the perfect balance for victory. In the end it is unlikely that there is concern for morality among the politicians, rather what becomes important is office election.

A major and continuous division the Scopes trial represents is the long established cultural regionalism between rural and urban, and to some degree North versus South. In the 1920s, urban America was changing. Most of this development was also occurring in the the Northern parts of the United States as opposed to the south. Huge numbers of immigrants flooded to American cities, rapidly changing demographics as a result. Technology further accentuated the rural and urban division. City dwellers had electricity, running water, radios, and movie theaters. As lifestyle changed, so did values. Urban America became the center of innovation, cultural festivity, and intellectual experimentation with a place for jazz and flappers. It moved away from the traditional values that still dominated the countryside. The Scopes Trial however, took place in a rural part of Tennessee. The Butler Act that banned the teaching of evolution was meant to uphold traditional religious ideas against the spreading influence of the modernist ideals of science above religion. This law was one aspect of the fundamentalist attempt to maintain the supremacy of their beliefs and a resurgence for control over American values.

The Scopes Trial itself also played up the differences between rural and urban America. Urban newspaper and radio reporters flocked to Dayton to cover the trial. Many of them, especially H.L. Mencken portrayed the prosecution and the people of Dayton as backwards and narrow-minded. Mencken described Bryan who was leading the persecution as a “pathetic man” which “a cruel mouth shut tightly” (Mencken). The media conspicuously sided with the modernists and thereby helped to propagate the idea that there was a fundamental cultural differences between rural and urban communities (“Introduction”). The Scopes Trial was the turning point in the struggle between rural fundamentalist values and those of scientifically-inclined urban dwellers. It could have been responsible for inhibiting the passage of laws similar to Tennessee’s in other states that did not want to endure the ridicule that had been heaped on Dayton (“The Scopes Trial”).

The divisions that exist within America, even the political and social separations of the young and the old, stem from a weak sense of national identity, something most other nations hold in high regard. Often this American characteristics is seen as a benefit that it is an amalgamation of many cultures and philosophies. However despite the sentiment, this quality also serves to fester a form of cultural and societal chaos. Following World War I, this aspect of American society heightened the morally anxious and restless youth. In the wake of these two factors erupted a mass cultural revolution and a complete shift away from Victorian era values. They were instead exchanged for the pursuit of intellectual experimentation and stimulation (“An Introduction”). As a result, many of the older generation saw their values and traditions becoming a barren wasteland laid to rest by the youthful recklessness and moral ambiguity of the younger generation who were becoming young and politically conspicuous in the ‘20s. Jazz music, flapper culture, birth control for women, and anti prohibition were embraced by the younger generation as the older generation looked on in horror of the slowly crumbling institutions they had built (“An Introduction”).

The divisions between old and young, often with a religious argument in the mix, are still seen today in the the form of many issues including gay marriage rights and abortion. On the front against gay marriage, one of the pivotal arguments remains that in Leviticus 20, the Bible states that “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. Many of those who reference scripture against gay marriage are of the older generation who often attended church and had grown up pious. Meanwhile the members of the younger generation take a strong stance for gay marriage because their exposure to religious influence was much lesser than that of their predecessors. They instead look outside religious teachings and intellectually consider the concept of restricting marriage from a biological and emotional standpoint. However the pro gay marriage and anti gay marriage sentiments are sometimes muddled and can instead be rooted in political agendas for cultural control of people rather than the morality of the issue at hand.

Abortion rights are also debated using religious ideas of life’s sacredness, that destruction of conceived human life is an attack on God’s work and that doing so is murder which breaks a main commandment of “Thou Shalt Not kill” (Exodus 20:13). On the other hand the younger generation of adults argue scientifically that up to a certain point fetuses are not human and are merely a mass of cells so abortion in any case should be up to the woman. Both of these issues are only scratching the surface of the different distinctions between the old and young, the Christian raised and the scientifically curious, the creationists and the evolutionists. The oscillating eras of peace and war combined with the weak sense of national identity has created a deep decisiveness between the ages.

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The Monkey Scopes Trial was about making the fight between fundamentalism and modernism the spectacle of a lifetime and utilizing it for control. For the most part it was successful, as the modernists gained much support from reports and news castors while making the fundamentalists of the rural south appear backwards thinking and ridiculous. In the end the Scopes Trial and the Butler Act were hardly isolated events. Politicians use alignment and views as ploys, the division between rural vs urban is hardly different. Many of the same issues that stood then, still stand now. The Monkey Scopes was run by three wise monkeys which were the press, the persecution, and the defense. Together these monkeys vied for control of American sentiment amidst the chaos and carnivalesque culture of the 20’s.

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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How The Butler Act and Scopes Trial Compare with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from
“How The Butler Act and Scopes Trial Compare with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019,
How The Butler Act and Scopes Trial Compare with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Apr. 2024].
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