Inherit the Myth

Danny Phillips was a bright, motivated high school student—the kind any teacher would love to have. One day Danny wrote a paper criticizing a video shown in the classroom that presented evolutionary theory as fact. The criticism was intelligently argued and persuasive, and school authorities agreed to stop using the video. Immediately, the press pounced on the boy. A prominent evolutionist attacked him as an "enemy of learning." Letters poured in to the Denver Post calling Danny and his supporters "religious fanatics," "scientific illiterates" and "know-nothings." Some of the letters were so vicious that the editorial page editor said that her liberal faith was shaken. Danny, you see, had triggered a common American myth—that if you criticize Darwinian evolution, you must be an ignorant, fundamentalist reactionary. The origin of that myth is a 1960 film called Inherit the Wind, based on a play of the same name.Many Americans think the film is a lightly fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." But in reality it's a master work of propaganda. Inherit the Wind tells the story of Bert Cates, a dedicated high school teacher in a sleepy Southern town who teaches his class about evolution, violating a state law. Cates is arrested, and the subsequent trial turns into a media circus. Cates's attorney Henry Drummond makes a fool of prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, portrayed as a fundamentalist Christian. The townspeople are cast in the role of ignorant, hate-filled bigots. These are the images a whole generation of Americans have grown up with. Schoolchildren read the play, and the film is shown in classrooms around the country. Never mind that it's a complete distortion of what happened in the real Scopes trial. The real trial was staged by the ACLU. Scopes was never arrested, and Dayton residents, far from being wild-eyed bigots, demonstrated the best of southern hospitality to the outside observers and reporters who flocked to their town. An excellent book that sets the record straight is Ed Larson's Summer for the Gods. Yet it's the play and the movie, not the real events, that have shaped the common stereotypes. This explains why the news media reacted so viciously to Danny Phillips. As Phillip Johnson writes in his new book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, they manufactured an image of a fundamentalist kid who was attempting to censor science education. That Danny might have had valid points to make "just wasn't in the script," Johnson says. Johnson urges all Christians to see the film if you haven't yet, in order to be aware of what we're up against whenever we challenge Darwinian evolution. Before we can even hope to be heard, we need to shatter the common stereotype. We need to make sure our first step is not to wave our Bibles or call evolution a lie of Satan, or anything else that allows us to be pressed into the "rustic ignoramus" caricature, to use a term from H. L. Mencken during the original Scopes trial. Instead, we need to do our homework, and come armed with the scientific facts that refute Darwinism. Keep reading the rest of this special series on Phillip Johnson's book. You'll learn more about how to get a fair hearing when you criticize evolution—and help put those "rustic ignoramus" stereotypes to rest at last.


Chuck Colson



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