God in America
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Interview: Cynthia Lyerly

Cynthia Lyerly

Lyerly is an associate professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses in American women's history, race, gender and the South. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted on July 27, 2009 and June 2, 2010.

Is religion an important aspect of understanding the Civil War?

... Slavery is the central moral dilemma of the 19th century, and it's the central reason that the Civil War is fought. And slavery is a profoundly moral, ethical question, so I think religion had tons to do with this.

When you talk about morality in mid-19th century, are you talking about religion?

Yes. In the 19th century, there are very few people who would define themselves as secular. There are people who are unchurched -- people who don't go do church, don't belong to churches -- but very few people who don't define themselves as religious. So when you're talking in the 19th century about morality, you're talking about religion.

“In the 19th century, there are very few people who would define themselves as secular. … So when you're talking in the 19th century about morality, you're talking about religion.”

Interestingly, the churches tried to stay away from the question of slavery. They tried to, in the 1820s and 1830s, say slavery is really a state matter; it's the civil matter. Render unto Caesar things that are Caesar's.

But it was a very uncomfortable solution, because slavery touches on all kinds of moral questions that churches are interested in, such as the sanctity of marriages; such as the separation of families, slave mothers and their children; such as brutality, what's allowed for one human being to do to another just to extract labor. All kinds of profound questions slavery brings up, and they're religious in nature. ...

During the Civil War, does religion play a role in people's lives day to day?

Religion is profoundly important. For Southerners, ... there are all these revivals that happen during the war. They want these men to believe they're fighting for God's cause. And Northerners have the same spirit. Their hymns are millennial: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a millennial, religious hymn.

Especially for slaves and for black men who fight in the Army, it's Jubilee. It's this promised deliverance that they had been talking about back in the slave quarters or in their churches in the North that was going to come because black people in America were linked to Israelites, and God has promised to deliver his people, his chosen people. So there are religious implications for everyone. ...

There's even a move in the South, when the war starts going bad for Southerners, that we need to clean up slavery; we need to make slavery more Christian, because obviously God is angry with us. So there's even a move to pass laws that mandate keeping slave couples together ... and that don't allow slave mothers and children to be separated. They don't ever get a chance to pass these laws, because the war is over by that time. ...

What is the importance of Protestant Christianity to American life in the 1830s and '40s?

In the 19th century, evangelical Protestantism was the dominant religion in America. ... They dominate American politics. They dominate American institutions: social institutions, universities, orphanages, seamen's aid societies, abolitionist organizations and Bible societies.

They have this massive publication empire. They can issue tracts to any particular population they want to. And they have a way to distribute it, because they have these preachers who travel out on horses and go around huge circuits.

And they have masses of men and women -- largely women -- who are willing to spread this message and to contribute their might here and there to spreading the Good Word, ... but also hoping to bring about reform in America that meets with their Christian goals. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that America is an evangelical Protestant republic in a lot of the 19th century. ...

What did it mean to be a major Protestant denomination in 1830s America?

To be a member is a pretty significant commitment, because you have to have testified before your congregation or your pastor, depending on the rules, about your conversion experience. You have to consent to be monitored by your congregation for your moral activities, because these congregations pry into your moral activities. Are you beating your wife? The congregation could put you on trial for that. Are you seen as drinking? The congregation could put you on trial for that. You could lose your membership. So you give up some of your rights when you join some of these churches, willingly. ...

What happens when missionaries start to convert slaves in the Deep South? Why is that controversial with some slave masters?

... It had been believed in the colonial period that if you converted a slave to Christianity and they were baptized, you might have to liberate them. So that was one fear.

Masters also feared that a converted slave would be an uppity slave, would have pride and would be ungovernable. There were other masters who didn't want their slaves distracted by things like religion. On Sundays they wanted them around the plantation, perhaps working in their own gardens -- not on the master's crop, but they wanted them working and local.

And we have these churches -- the Baptist and Methodist, largely -- which start bringing in massive numbers of slaves. Then the turning point really is in terms of when a number of people say, "We need to get the Christian message to all the slaves that we can, and we need to get this message that we can control." It was Nat Turner's rebellion when it's clear in 1831 that here's this slave, he's a Baptist, he reads the same Bible as white Baptists do, but he clearly interprets it in a profoundly different way, and that shocks white slave-owning Christians. And they realize, we need to control the religious message that slaves are getting.

So the plantation missions, where these white ministers go out to the slaves on these massive Lower South plantations, they are of that moment in reaction to Nat Turner and thinking about controlling the Christian message, because slaves clearly don't read the Bible or understand the Bible in the same way their masters do.

Why does Christianity appeal to African American slaves?

Evangelical Christianity in particular appeals to slaves for a host of different reasons. A lot of scholars have pointed to the fact that there are similarities with African religions. Ecstatic experience is one of those that is profound -- the supernatural, the fact that you're still communing with God through the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical religion has a profoundly leveling effect. It's not an egalitarian impulse that's never completely realized, but it's got an egalitarian impulse: brothers and sisters in Christ; there is not black or white, no male or female. ... To reach God, as an evangelical, you don't need to learn to read the Bible; you don't need to memorize a catechism; and you don't have to be examined on any of these things. You have to have an intensely personal, emotional experience where you realize the depth of your sin and depravity and then accept Jesus into your life, using the Holy Spirit as the guide, and convert. That conversion experience is open to anybody. ...

Does Jesus hold any special message for people in bondage?

When we look at slave theology, I think the two things that would be most important to understand would be the identification in the Old Testament with the Israelites. They're God's chosen people, but they were enslaved, and God promised to deliver them. Slaves identify with them, although they suffer many trials and tribulations before they're liberated.

In the New Testament, slaves identify very closely and intimately with Jesus. They identify with him as a suffering servant. He had all these burdens. He was beaten; he was scourged; he was crucified; he was spat on. He was condemned by all the people in power, and they identify profoundly with that.

There's a lot of slave music that deals with Jesus' burdens. Jesus is the only one who would understand their burdens in slavery because of what he experienced.

Why do slaves have to worship in secret, and what kind of Christianity do they set up in their secret worship?

When we talk about slave Christianity, it's important to understand there's the outward, official worship, [because] a lot of masters either bring slaves to their church or allow them to go to white-sponsored churches, where they often hear, especially by the 1840s, a message: "Servants, be obedient to your masters. Don't steal his chickens. If you're disobedient, you're going to be beaten with many [strikes], and that's the Lord's will." And slaves feel that's profoundly alienating to them; that's not the Gospel that they know.

So in these hush harbors or hush arbors in plantations, off the beaten track, back in the woods, slaves meet among themselves, where they hear a radically egalitarian Gospel preached by slave preachers: "God loves you. God wants you. You're one of us. You're not relegated to this segregated balcony. You don't have to take communion after all the white people have taken it. You are the chosen." ...

What was the subject of much of their prayer?

Slaves prayed probably for two things most commonly, judging by the songs, judging by the WPA interviews with them in the 1930s and other records that we have: for deliverance from slavery -- that was one of the main prayers. The other thing was for the ability to withstand the suffering: "Let me cope." And of course as Christians, they pray for salvation and eternal life.

They also, in their prayers and in their music, use religion to process, to understand the family separations. So we see tons of songs and prayers about motherless children and "When I die, I'll see finally my family again." ...

How pervasive is the notion that America is a special place in God's eyes?

You'd be hard pressed to find a white American who did not believe that America was special in God's eyes, that the Lord had a special destiny for America, and that the Lord wanted America to be an example to the world. So all eyes were watching America, and if all eyes are watching America, and America is not getting rid of this enormous evil, that's a problem.

If abolitionists believe slavery is a sin, what are you supposed to do, as Christians, about this sin among you? And what level of sin did they think slavery was?

[Most] abolitionists come from this evangelical Christian background, And they read the Bible, and their conclusion is that slavery is a monumental sin. It's the sin of all sins. So they root it out from themselves. They get rid of it in their own families; they get rid of it in their own community; they get rid of it in their own states. Then their goal is to get rid of it in the nation. That seems a very logical progression to them.

But they suffer pushback. In particular, ... they suffer pushback from their fellow Christians, who say: "You people are just agitating this issue. It's a civil matter; it's a political matter, not a church matter. You're going to upset the Southerners. You're just making trouble. Shut up." So abolitionists [experience this] in all different kinds of denominations, from Quakers to Presbyterians to Methodists to Baptists to Congregationalists. ...

Abolitionists often worked outside of the church. Do they create their own type of church?

With abolitionists, there's at least two different kinds. ... There's the ones who come to work outside the churches because the churches perceive them as too radical. They're largely the Garrisonians, the followers of William Lloyd Garrison. They come to be known as the "come-outers," because you have to come out of any institution that is not radically abolitionist [and] that does not call for immediate, uncompensated emancipation. ... They have an influence far outside of their radical coterie. They have a much more widespread influence.

And there are a number of people who are against slavery and who hope emancipation can happen soon and who don't want slavery to spread, who stay inside those denominations. ...

Who were the abolitionists?

... The movement is mixed not just with the race; it's also mixed gender. ... A number of women abolitionists, when they're speaking out for the slave, get condemned because they're women. Women aren't supposed to speak on political matters, and they're not supposed to speak in public. So they have to defend themselves, speaking for the slave, and they come to articulate a feminist defense of their speaking for the slave.

So within abolitionism we get sucked in this issue of women's rights, which is another profoundly religious question. And they have to go to the Bible and find all the evidence in the Bible, because that's what people in the 19th century do. ...

Garrison comes to believe that slavery is a form of warfare, so he becomes a pacifist. So that gets sucked in.

Radical abolitionists, Garrisonians, are people who believe that this world must be perfected to bring about the second coming of Christ, and to perfect this world, there are a host of sins that are in the way of Christ's return to this earth. The biggest one by far is slavery. So their kind of millennial push, their push to further this second coming of Christ, to perfect the world, is driven by this belief that they have to do this. The Gospel commands them to do this.

It's almost like they have their own church of abolitionism.

The abolitionists start opening their own churches, everything. ... There's a number of free churches, meaning they don't associate with slaveholders, and they're committed to radical abolition. ...

But even within the movement, every abolitionist meeting involved singing of things like hymns, prayer. The speeches that people give are infused with religious rhetoric. And they're committed to this cause because they believe that God wants them to be and that their eternal souls rest on whether or not they remain committed.

When people say there's lots of slavery in the Bible, how do radical abolitionists respond, and why is that so radical?

The first thing they do [is] they go to the Bible. ... They find Isaiah saying, "Let the oppressed go free." ... The message in Exodus that God is going to eventually deliver his people ... seems to indicate to them that the Bible is abolitionist.

They look most profoundly or most importantly to the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and that you can't reconcile that with slavery. So [basically] the central Christian message, which is the Golden Rule, is opposed to slavery. ...

What is the importance of black churches for free blacks before the Civil War?

The black church in the pre-Civil War period is the Underground Railroad. We have a lot of misperceptions about the Underground Railroad. But if you want to look at the people who took in more fugitive slaves, helped them on their way, helped them escape permanently, you look at the black churches.

In a number of black churches in the North, these institutions had fugitive slave members that they protected. We see that after 1850. The Compromise of 1850 passes these new, stringent fugitive slave laws, and a number of black churches lose half their membership overnight. ...

It's the black church that calls for the end of colonization and that points out that colonization is merely a continuation of the racism that you see in slavery, and that we built this America, so we're Americans. We're not Africans anymore; we're Americans. It's these black churches that really lead that early opposition to colonization, that turn people like Garrison from colonization to abolition.

The black churches nurture black leaders, both male and female. They are the only institutions that offer people treatment as equals, because in many states, blacks can't vote, can't own property, can't participate in some professions. Black churches in the North -- in the South, too, as well -- [are] community centers. There's often schools in those churches. When there's mass community meetings, they meet in those churches.

So these are institutions that are central to the social and cultural life of black Americans in the North, and they're these islands without racism in a sea of white Northern racism. ...

How does [escaped slave, abolitionist and social reformer] Frederick Douglass see America's place and mission in the world?

Douglass is the profound unsettler. Douglass is America's Jeremiah. Douglass is declaiming America's sins. As America sits back on its haunches and thinks of itself as this bastion of liberty, ready to drunkenly celebrate July Fourth, Douglass says: Wait a minute. You're not a bastion of liberty. You're a bastion of sin. If the world is looking at you, what the world is going to see is a sinful, drunken, self-absorbed, materialistic, racist place. ...

I think Americans are happy and self-congratulatory about their special place in the world, their special place before God. Douglass warns them that, especially if they do not abolish slavery, that God will no longer not have a special place for them; he'll also consign them to a special kind of hell. So I think he unsettles this notion that America is the "city on a hill."

Why doesn't he leave America?

Douglass is an American. He was attracted to England for a period of time because he didn't experience any racism there. But he feels like he has a mission; God has called him. Just like God calls preachers to preach, God has called Frederick Douglass to rid this nation of its sin.

And he never stops. When Lincoln catches up with the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass is on him about getting slaves into the Army. In the postwar period, he's about black suffrage. So he's constantly, constantly saying: "We can do better. We can do better." I think he sees part of his mission in life as making America live up to its ideals. God has called him to do that. He can't abrogate that duty. ...

Why is Frederick Douglass' message so profound? What effect does it have on the abolitionist movement in America?

Frederick Douglass, first of all, is probably the best orator of the 19th century, even better than Lincoln. ...

Frederick Douglass, he's a convert. He's a Methodist. He was a church member. He was a Christian. He was an exhorter for the Methodist Church. But he quickly discovered, both in slavery and then later as an abolitionist, the inconsistencies between slavery and Christianity. ... ...

I think Douglass is really critical. ... Here is an African American who was born in slavery, who lived slavery, who also is very articulate, who's also a church member, who's saying, you people are inconsistent; you people are hypocrites; you cannot let this continue and call yourselves good Christians. ... Douglass' most vituperative language, most condemnatory words are reserved for people who claim to be Christian but still support slavery. ...

He's also exhibit A. They often showed him off like this, in ways that must have been very profoundly humiliating to him in some ways: Look at him. See? He's smart. He's a slave. Here he is. And he's a man. He's just like you and me. ... To suggest that a man like Frederick Douglass should be put in a system where he shouldn't have access to the written word, where he had to labor in the fields every day for somebody else's purse, is just fundamentally flawed. And everybody can see that when they see Frederick Douglass.

What is Douglass' impact on America?

Immense. I think Douglass has an immense impact on America. ... He's a household name, even among slaveholders. He's well known. He's considered the best orator in the 19th century by people who heard Daniel Webster, by people who heard Abraham Lincoln. ...

A person's impact is not always equal to their popularity. Douglass was not particularly popular among many different groups in 19th-century America, but he was so forward-looking. And the kind of America that Douglass wanted to see -- one where women could vote, where African Americans were treated as equals -- that's the kind of America we want to see. His impact continues to reverberate now. ...

How do pro-slavery Southerners interpret the Bible on slavery?

Pro-slavery Southerners marshal a host of evidence from the Bible to claim that God has ordained slavery. ...

A couple things that a lot of them point to -- one is the myth of Ham. In this story, Noah has these three sons. Noah one night falls asleep drunk in his tent, and two of his sons leave without looking on him, but Ham looks on his father. When he wakes up the next morning, Noah hears this story, and he curses Ham. He says, "A servant of servants shall your son Canaan be to his brothers." Southerners come to interpret this as: "Ah, that's where slavery begins, because Ham has sinned. He's offended the patriarchal dignity of his father. He and his sons are destined forever to become slaves of his brothers." And they come to argue that Ham is black, and that his brother Japheth is white, so that God ordained racial slavery back in this incident in the Old Testament.

Are there lots of examples of slavery in the Bible?

The other thing that pro-slavery Southerners look to are all these favored men of God, these Old Testament patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, David -- who own slaves. God has rules about slavery, but he certainly approves of them owning slaves. ...

In the New Testament, Paul says tons of things about, no matter what's going on in the world, it's your heart relationship with God. So servants, be obedient to your masters; wives, to your husband; children, to your parents. Paul is very useful.

But in addition to that, Jesus lived in the largest slave empire that the world had known up to that point and did not condemn the institution per se. So Southerners use all those different kinds of arguments to say that slavery is ordained of God.

Are Southerners being pushed by abolitionists to argue these things?

These biblical arguments in support of slavery had been around quite some time. But before the rise of radical abolitionists, most Southerners were uncomfortable defending slavery so vociferously. They thought slavery was a necessary evil, not a positive good. And they believed that there's enough in the Bible to make slave owners cautious about claiming that slavery was a divine institution.

It was the abolitionists' assault, though, claiming, "You're immoral; you're sinful; this is a huge, glaring sin," that causes Southerners to react and to say: "No, no, no. Not only is slavery not a necessary evil; it's a positive good, and here's where God tells us so." ...

The denominations split over slavery, split North and South. Why are these splits so dangerous for America?

When you look in the 1840s and '50s, as the sectional crisis worsens, there's three main institutions that hold the nation together. One is government, one is the courts, and the other is the churches. The first of these to definitely split are the churches, in a profound way in the 1840s. Because the radical abolitionists are pressuring their brethren, ... a number of Northern churchmen become uncomfortable not so much with slavery in the South, but with not condemning slavery as an institution or with having slaveholding members who are in the church hierarchy.

In both the Baptist and Methodist case, it's a slaveholding bishop, or a slaveholding elder, that causes the split. Northerners insist that no church officials can own slaves, and Southerners are affronted because this means if they can't own slaves, slavery must be wrong? Slavery is not wrong. Slavery is ordained of God. Southerners, en masse, walk out and form the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Southern Baptist Convention. ...

Why is [Bishop] James Osgood Andrew the target of the debate over slavery [in the Methodist Church] in 1844?

At previous conferences, the abolitionists within the denomination and outside of the denomination had been pressuring the Methodists to deal with the issue of slavery. ...

They come to the conference of 1844 with over 60 petitions about slavery that the conference is going to have to deal with. ... When the abolitionist delegates find out that [Andrew] has a connection to slavery, that's the issue that they're going to use to force the church to deal with slavery.

Why do they need the bishop's owning slaves to discuss slavery in the church? Why can't they just have a moral argument about slavery?

... You have a vast majority of Northerners who are in the middle. ... They feel like the abolitionists are actually causing problems. ... The church cannot fix this. It needs to be fixed in the political arena. So they want everybody to quit agitating. ...

They have the debate around the issue because they do not want to confront the issue of slavery directly. And for the abolitionists, his owning slaves is a godsend, because now they're able to confront it directly, because the rules still stipulate that the bishops cannot be encumbered by slavery.

Everyone follows the same rule book, which says a bishop can't own a slave?

There's vestiges of anti-slavery in the rule books. ... You're not supposed to buy and sell slaves, and certain church officers were not allowed to be involved in slave trading, as they called it in this time period.

The technicality that they hang Andrew on is that a bishop is supposed to be able to travel anywhere. Bishops are itinerant by nature in the Methodist Church, ... and because the slavery controversy has so divided the North and South by 1844, Andrew's encumbrance ... having these slaves means that he cannot preach in certain pulpits. ... So he cannot be a national bishop if he is connected to slavery. ...

What do Southerners do to defend their slaveholding?

... Southerners say, if you're claiming we can't have a bishop that holds slaves, then you're suggesting that slaveholding is somehow incompatible with being a good Methodist, and that means you're claiming that we're doing something wrong. And slavery is not only not a wrong; it's a blessing. ...

Why does the middle group want to avoid a split between North and South?

... As a united church, it's a real force. It's the most populous denomination in 1844 when it splits. So splitting in two means it's automatically going to weaken its power.

But think about this: Here are people, they believe the same things; they look to the same founders; they read the same documents. ... They have this shared history; they have this shared theology. And now, in 1844, they say, yes, but on this one thing we are fundamentally, diametrically opposed. So it's upsetting to them. ... It's a tectonic shift. The ground has shifted out from under them. The church is going to split. ...

Is the split purely regional between North and South?

Yeah. There's a few holdouts, but it's a North-South split in the church, this vote over slavery. ... What the vote in 1844 does is that all these men in the middle who had been anti-abolitionist but also were uncomfortable with slavery, ... it forces them to choose. And they choose regionally. These moderates decide to side against having a slaveholding bishop, which means the South leaves. ...

The Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians all split by 1845. How does that enable the hardening of positions? What happens in the North in the discussion of slavery?

In the North you've got periodicals that had not permitted any discussion of slavery before now permitting that discussion, so the abolitionists have this whole new forum that they can launch stuff in. And they can go to churches. ... So you've got this whole new audience that's open now to the abolitionist message.

Once Northern churchmen start looking at the issue of [slavery] as a moral Christian question, then they have to address all these things that Frederick Douglass had been bringing up for years, and William Lloyd Garrison: Is slavery a violation of the Golden Rule? Does slavery corrupt families? Is slavery conducive of other sins like more violence and greed and gluttony, etc.? They have to grapple with each of these issues that have been out there before. And the schism allows them to do this. ... And the positions harden pretty seriously after 1844.

What is the Southern version of the hardening?

The Southern Methodists decide that they take the discipline, and they're going to improve it, and they're going to make it safe for slaveholders. So they explicitly say that slavery is not a violation of Christianity, that you can be a good slaveholder and a good Christian, and that's perfectly compatible. So they embrace a pro-slavery position. ...

What happens when ministers start to talk about politics?

In the wake of 1844, in the wake of the church schism, ministers on both sides are able to now address political matters that have been prohibited, that they've been prohibited to address before.

So with each political crisis -- and there are a number of them that come up in the late 1840s and the 1850s -- you've got ministers on both sides that can give sermons on [it] and can write letters and can publish tracts for and against. Now there's no censorship, because slavery is no longer the untouchable subject. ...

Is the Gettysburg Address a religious speech?

In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln asks Americans who have suffered so much, and who are going to continue to suffer -- he knows this -- ... he asks them to reconceptualize this massive death. And he asks them to do it in a way that will be very familiar to them as Christians, and that [is] to look at it as redemptive bloodshed, like Christ's redemptive bloodshed.

This is a sacrifice. ... If you're a Christian, you understand with sacrifice comes atonement, comes rebirth; that Christ's crucifixion, his sacrifice, enabled us to have eternal life. So he's asking Americans to reconceptualize these massive deaths and to say they have not died in vain. Their blood has been shed for a new kind of America.

Lincoln starts in Gettysburg, and he continues in other speeches, the Second Inaugural in particular, to push American civil religion from its moorings as about freedom. We're showing the world an example of freedom; we're the shining city on a hill that will show the world how to be free. Lincoln pushes that to equality. ... So this death, this massive death, the sacrifice, is going to be for a new birth of freedom, which will be for all citizens in America. ...

Does Lincoln know the Bible?

Lincoln knows the Bible very well. He quotes it very easily and freely. It's peppered throughout his speeches. He's very familiar with it. And it's not just the rhetoric. ... He actually sometimes will launch into biblical-style cadences, so he'll sound like the Psalms or he'll sound like Jeremiah the prophet. So he's internalized its rhetorical structure in some ways, as well as he's memorized great portions of it.

Lincoln is shot on Good Friday, dies on Easter eve. What happens to this controversial president quite quickly, in death, in religious terms?

... Ministers across the North used this Good Friday metaphor and compare Lincoln to Jesus, that he's a redemptive figure. He saved the Union in his death, and they urge people to not let his death be in vain. ...

Lincoln becomes like a second Founder. ... He rebirthed America. ... He saved the Union. So when you think about the holy saints of American civil religion, you think of Washington; you also think of Lincoln. ...

We have to remember, too, that for the former slaves, for African Americans, Lincoln was the person who made freedom possible. ... Slaves had incorporated a myth that the slaves had incorporated the Old Testament story of deliverance and Moses into their understanding of their bondage. Well, their Moses was Abraham Lincoln.

So Lincoln lives on for many Americans from all the different kinds of walks of life for many different reasons, as an emancipator, as a redeemer president. Saved the nation, he gave people their freedom. We know now that it's not so simple as that, but it still was very potent notion for Americans. ...

If people go into the Civil War thinking that God is on their side, Lincoln says we don't know what God wants. Why is Lincoln important in understanding our covenant relationship with God?

I think he does this best in the Second Inaugural. What Lincoln does is he says God can't be on both of our sides; that's impossible. ... He introduces, I think, especially in that speech, a humility about America's relationship with God. If we are God's chosen nation, he's punishing us something severely, chastising us something severely. And he suggests it's for the national sin of slavery. He suggests that when he says that if we have to continue with the stroke of a sword to atone for every stroke of the lash that has happened on American soil for the past 250 years, if that's God's will, then his will is just and right.

So he presents slavery to the nation as a national sin, and he also suggests that we cannot be cocky about where God fits in this conflict; that even if you're a Northerner and you know slavery is wrong, the length of the conflict, the massive death toll, suggests that God is also chastising the North. So he complicates this idea that America has a special relationship with God. ...

How do Americans feel about their relationship to God at the close of the Civil War, after Lincoln's assassination?

Most Americans, even Southerners, which is kind of surprising, believe that the Civil War was providential; the outcome of the Civil War was providential; that God reunited the nation, and we're back on track with our special destiny. Therefore, once the wounds of the Civil War have been buried, have been healed, and the old feelings have been buried, they feel like the reunion of the North and South puts America back in God's special graces. ...

Are other things brewing before and during the war that will challenge religion?

It's certainly true that the Civil War masks some other tremendous changes that [occurred] in the postwar period. ... A lot of Americans are not paying close attention to the fact that we've got waves of immigrants coming, and they're not predominantly Protestant. They're Jewish, they're Catholic, and they're coming from Europe. And they're going to really fundamentally reshape the religious landscape in America.

Americans are confident in their "chosen" status, but at the end of the Civil War things are about to change. How will these changes challenge American religion?

You've got tremendous technological change. Life is going to feel like it's much faster to people than it had been before, and it feels out of control in many ways. People feel like the ground is shifting underneath them. You've got people who don't speak English flooding into America. You've got these immigrant waves.

The other thing that's going to challenge American religion in particular is trends that are happening in theological schools and universities in Europe, that suddenly American theologians in the postwar period start reading those works and embracing some of those ideas.

For an American of the 1870s, '80s, '90s, what does it feel like?

One thing that would be on everybody's mind, the wounds of the Civil War would still be fresh. The nation was reunited, but everyone was still figuring their way toward what sectional reconciliation was going to look like, what this new America was going to be, and what was the relationship of these newly freed slaves to this new nation and the defeated South.

Then you've got the technological change. The railroad, telegraphs are making communication and transportation much easier for people. What would that feel like on the ground? A trip from North Carolina to California would seem like an arduous, very difficult undertaking in the 1830s and 1840s. But by the 1870s and 1880s, it merely is a couple-week trip. It changes people's sense of how much of the world they can touch and how much of the world they're responsible for. ...

We see among Protestants in particular a new wave of millennial thinking. Heretofore, most Americans would have believed that the millennium was going to come, was going to be a good thing; that we would progress to a point that Jesus would come back and reign over the world.

But now we get a strain in Protestantism, and it's going to grow only bigger with time: the millennialists, who believe that no, the world's going to go to hell in a handbasket; the world's going to get worse, going to get progressively worse, until Christ comes back. We're not progressing toward some Christian perfected state; that we're regressing, and that God will have to intervene. So clearly, there's a number of Protestants who are thinking that America's covenant relationship with God is in peril in the late 19th century. ...

Why are they feeling that way? What's happening to the nation that would shake the ground beneath them?

What you see, especially in the late 19th century in the American cities, you see all these immigrants have crowded into these tenements, in squalid living conditions. You have, on the one hand, a woman giving a $50,000 party at Delmonico's while somebody starves to death in New York City. So you've got these extremes of weather and poverty. ... What's a Christian supposed to make out of that? ...

Then you've got a problem of there's no sanitation, so that we've got filth and dirt. Many of these cities are run by machine politicians, so they're corrupt. There's prostitution. There's a saloon on every corner. There's more saloons in New York than churches.

So there's a sense that these cities are cesspools of vice. And then you've got these immigrants coming in, who seem to be bringing some of this vice with them. So people are very unnerved about that.

In the late 19th century, there's a number of economic panics, and people start feeling like the economic system is in peril. So as we're trying to reconcile, as we're trying to reunite the North and South again and be one nation, you've got all these other wrenching changes that are going on that people have to cope with, [that] they have to put into their theological systems, and I think this new brand of apocalyptic thinking that's so pessimistic comes out of that.

What does World War I do to people who are thinking that way?

World War I is the proof that they needed that things were not progressing but were indeed spiraling into a worse and worse position. World War I, it seems so unnecessary after it's fought. What did it accomplish, except to kill waves of the youngest generation, millions of men, slaughtering them? What did technology accomplish, as [William Jennings] Bryan says, other than more efficient ways to slaughter? What has science given the world? ...

As religious people face this change, what are their options, their problem?

It's perceived by many religious people in America in the late 19th century that there's a problem, and that somehow the churches and the synagogues are failing to address this problem, especially the problem of the poor, the problem of vice, the problem of crime.

Especially Protestants embrace the Social Gospel, which is this idea they're going to make Christianity relevant. Instead of just converting souls to Christianity, they're going to go out and improve society. ... They're going to have soup kitchens, and they're going to have employment bureaus, and they're going to clean up the tenement houses and clean up the cities and clean up politics, and that's a Christian's obligation. It's not just to save a soul for Christ but to make the world more Christian, to make the world better. So that's one of the options you can take in this period.

Other people retreat into a kind of quietism. These people tend to be the pessimists that I was talking about earlier. Since they're embracing this pessimistic view of the end times, they just retreat into their own "We'll just all be pious, we'll convert our whole family, and we'll pray a lot. But we're not supposed to go out into the highways and byways. That's not what Christianity is about. We're supposed to be concerned narrowly with the state of our soul."

So I think those are two of the biggest options that you've got in this time period. And Protestants have huge feuds about what's the place of the Christian in this world.

Where does progress fit into that?

That's a great question, because there are a number of Protestants who say: "Progress! Bring it on!" They're going to get involved in progress. They're going to help effect progress. ...

There are a number of other Christians who go: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Things are changing way too fast. We need to stop; we need to go back to our roots; we need to think about what God would want us to do now." They have a much more wary view of progress. Progress to them is beginning to be progress away from a Christian republic that they thought America was supposed to embody.

Where are we in 1870 in terms of evangelical Christianity in America?

In 1870, evangelical Christianity is impossibly divided. You still have the North-South split that you saw before the war. The denominations have not come back together. There's no sign that they're going to. ...

Here's the most important event that Americans have ever experienced, the most significant seismic event, the American Civil War, and its religious people don't agree on what it meant. They have profoundly different opinions about why it was fought. What does the South's loss, the North's win, say about God in America and its nation and its destiny?

Then you have black Americans. When their deliverer, Lincoln, is killed, that is unsettling. And where did they go from there? Then you have all these people wondering what they're going to do with the defeated South.

If people don't agree about what the Civil War meant, how does that break down?

[You've got] Northern Christians who believe that the Civil War is a victory of Northern principles, and therefore God was saying slavery was wrong. ... You've got Southern Christians, however, looking at their loss in the war as the Lost Cause. ... It's not that slavery was wrong, ... but what does God do to people that he loves best? He chastises them; he traumatizes them; he puts them through trials and tribulations, because that's what God does to people he loves.

So the Civil War for white Southerners, as they're trying to religiously understand it: God was chastising us, but that's because we're his favorite people, and we'll come out better. ... We'll be better Christians. We'll be better able to serve as God's people. And the only reason we lost is because they had superior numbers. We didn't fall out of God's favor. We were always in God's favor. He chastised us with this loss.

Is there a fragility with evangelical Christianity, or is it still entrenched?

Evangelical Christianity in 1870 is still entrenched. I think it's still probably the most important religious force in America, but I think it's no longer monolithic. It certainly doesn't speak with one voice. It speaks with many different voices. And I think what's even more important is how profoundly they disagree, how on fundamentals they disagree.

How do most people read the Bible in the 19th century?

Prior to the advent of the split between liberal Christianity and fundamentalism, most American Christians read the Bible as a pretty straightforward literal word of God. It's the King James Bible. That's the translation people have used, and those are the words, the literal words that they believe came from God's mouth. ... Despite the fragility of reason and our imperfect understanding, they're the closest approximation we can get to what God wants, other than supernatural connection with God.

And the Bible tells these huge stories about how God has interacted with people in the world over time, and they have meaning for us. We're part of that history in the Bible. ... We still have to read the Bible and understand where we fit in it and what God wants us to do. So they're reading it as if it were God's will.

What are the new ideas about how the Bible was written and how to read it? Where are these ideas coming from?

There are a number of ideas that come predominantly from Europe -- largely Germany, but other European seminaries as well -- that argue that the Bible is not the literal, breathed word of God. And they argue that they need to look at the Bible like you would any other book. You need to ask questions about who wrote it. You need to ask questions about who translated it. ... You need to understand their particular context. ...

In 1881, a group of Christians come together and say, "We need to have a better translation of the Bible." A number of Americans are highly upset about that. ... The idea that you could read the same Hebrew or Aramaic and come up with two different translations, that suggests that there may not be just one interpretation, and people found that very disturbing. ...

Then you have a number of scholars, especially in Germany, who are saying if you look at the Bible as a document, you study the texts close together, it's hard to believe that the people who claim to be the authors of these books actually could have been the authors of these books. In particular, the first five books were supposedly written by Moses, but Moses makes reference to his death, and how could Moses have written this? ... So if Moses didn't write those first five books, who did? ... So you've got the authorship question that comes in.

The other kind of most important new thoughts that come in that disturb people's reading of the Bible have to do with science. [Charles] Darwin is probably the one that most people think of as upsetting, because Darwin comes to believe that humans evolve from apes. That contradicts the literal interpretation in Genesis that God created a man and a woman, and that's where all further humans come from. ...

Archaeology starts questioning some of the chronology of the Bible. Scientists go, wait a minute. You can't stop time. There's things that happen in the Bible that violate natural law, when he blows the horn and time stops, when Jonah is swallowed by the whale. And a number of scientists say these things just couldn't have happened the way they're described in the Bible, much less the miracles that Jesus was supposed to have performed in the New Testament. And then let's talk about a virgin giving birth. None of these things happen in the natural world. They're not scientific. So science comes to be brought to bear on the Bible, to cause people to question whether every word in it is the literal truth. ...

[Presbyterian theologian] Charles Briggs studies in Berlin. How do these new ideas shape his beliefs about being Presbyterian, Christian, an evangelical?

The Briggs case is kind of ironic because Briggs is trying to preserve the Westminster Confession [of Faith], preserve Presbyterianism in the wake of what he sees as new knowledge. You can't say this knowledge just is irrelevant. You have to integrate this new knowledge into what you previously believed. ... He's a profoundly committed Christian, ... and his modifications of Presbyterian dogma are not huge. ...

The young Briggs writes: "The Bible is lit up with a new light. [But] the world needs new views of the truth. The old doctrines are [good but] insufficient." What is he getting at? Is this new for American Christians?

Probably because of the controversy over slavery, which dominated American thinking and American religion for so many decades, these ideas come very late to America. They'd already been accepted in the continent, ... so it comes as a kind of shock to German theologians that Americans find these ideas controversial.

When confronted with -- whether it's Darwin or the idea that the Bible is a document that must be put in its context, that we must question its authorship, that every word may not have come from God himself -- [Briggs] says, that doesn't create a problem. That means I've got more things to think about. That means I'm closer to the Truth -- with a capital T -- that God wanted me to get at rather than farther away. ... So if you want to have a better understanding of God and God's will, then you have to incorporate these new truths. ...

What is a modernist?

The greatest common denominator of modernists is that they do not believe every word in the Bible was breathed out of God's lips. ... Nonetheless, modernist Christians still believe that the Bible is a holy book that contains profound truths and moral guidelines, and that there's still a heaven; there's still a hell; there's still salvation. ...

Describe Briggs' speech from his perspective.

Briggs thought he was giving a calm, rational speech that would be persuasive to people, that would set out the case for why the traditional interpretation and reading of the Bible was not accurate and how we had to make it more accurate. It's not a shrieking speech. It's a very measured, calm, reasoned argument.

What is the reaction?

... There's a hushed silence in the room as he sets out the Moses thing. But I think the thing that was most shocking is when he said, "Miracles cannot violate natural law." What does that say about the miracles of Christ healing the sick and the lame, making the lame walk and bringing Lazarus back from the dead? That's problematic. If you're a Christian, you need those miracles. So I think there's a pregnant pause.

But the orthodoxy decided that they were going to make an example of Briggs -- "We're going to gag him; we're going to silence him" -- because he's teaching in a seminary; he's teaching future reverends. He's supposed to be mouthing what is orthodoxy.

Briggs hopes to bring Presbyterians together, but what is the result?

The irony of the Briggs heresy case -- and other cases like that, among all kinds of evangelical Christians -- is they fracture. Rather than drawing everybody in and making everybody orthodox again, or drawing everybody out and making everybody modern in a new kind of way, they split, almost all of these churches, along lines of fundamentalist, modernist -- or orthodox, at this point, and modernist. There's splits that develop, deep cleavages that are not going to go away. ...

Was there a reaction beyond the Presbyterian church to the speech and heresy trial?

There was probably more of a reaction in the country to the heresy trial than to the speech itself, because the idea that you're trying somebody for heresy in the late 19th century is shocking to a lot of people, even to conservative Christians. Heretic hunting is something that Catholics do. It's something that was done in the Middle Ages. It's not something that modern contemporary Christians do. ...

So his case becomes front-page news, and people follow the heresy trial. He would have had no impact whatsoever giving that speech in that theological seminary, but he has a great deal of impact when he becomes, inadvertently, the spokesman for modernism.

How do ordinary Americans respond to these conflicts over how to interpret the Bible? Is it trickling down, or only in the upper echelons of theology?

I think ordinary people are thinking about these ideas ... because their pastors are talking about them. ... As you can imagine, a heresy trial creates some unease among other clergy, because they start thinking: "Wait a minute. Am I 100 percent orthodox? Do I believe everything my denomination says is absolutely central to my faith?" There had not been a lot of monitoring, and American churches weren't big into heresy trials before this. ...

Who was Robert Ingersoll?

... Robert Ingersoll was really the first American public atheist. ... He went on tours. He made money lecturing on why you shouldn't believe the Bible, why Christianity was a bunch of bunk. He was very charming and clever and witty and funny in doing so. He was very confrontational, too, and controversial.

He used controversial language -- you know, people who believe in the Bible still believe in fairy tales. You might as well believe in leprechauns as believe in the Holy Ghost. He was in your face with this kind of language about his skepticism.

How do Americans respond to Ingersoll?

I think he's on the fringe. He's also a good show. A number of people who don't plan to become skeptics and probably will not become skeptics even if they laugh during some of these lectures go to see him. So he's a big draw. ...

Seminarians and theologians are more upset with this kind of intellectual threat that we see in the Briggs case. But people who are on the street -- clergy, pastors of churches -- realize that the bigger threat is Ingersoll, because he's drawing these massive crowds, he's clever, and in two sentences, he's telling you why the Bible's not true, and Moses couldn't have written those books; therefore you're wasting your time in church.

So they have to deal with him. He's a very popular figure. You see a lot of reaction. A lot of people give sermons against Ingersoll. A lot of anti-Ingersoll reaction is out there. It gets spread in the culture widely.

Can you connect Darwin and science to an opening for secularism in America?

Certainly Ingersoll believed that science was the reason that he was rejecting Christianity and the Bible, and religion generally. He felt like science was moving through the landscape, knocking down these shibboleths that we had believed in, and was bringing the light, the truth. So I think a number of people believed that science was a threat to faith in this time period, and Ingersoll comes and reinforced that idea. ...

Why do people call William Jennings Bryan "the Great Commoner"?

William Jennings Bryan comes from a small town in Illinois, and even though he's a lawyer, which sets him apart in some ways, he feels like he's connected to people who farm. ... He is very Jeffersonian almost in his American republicanism. He believes that the farmer is the backbone of America, and the farmer is the common man, and the Union will be preserved and be good, [and] it will be because the farmers have kept it that way. ...

How does Bryan view the slums, poverty, poor sanitation, labor problems?

Bryan first gets involved in progressive populist politics because of the farm crisis. There's a number of farmers who can't sell their product. They have trouble getting it to market, and they come to believe that it's because of big money. It's Eastern bankers, railroads, monopolies that are stifling them and not giving them their just due. So this idea that wealth should belong to those people who create it ... rather than people who shift papers all day long, that's where Bryan's populism really starts in the rural areas. ...

He expands that analysis to take in these urban problems as well; that we've got unregulated big-money monopolies who are not operating by biblical principles, which Bryan believes a government should. ...

Does Bryan see a separation between these ideas and religion?

Bryan is the most radical Christian politician of the early 20th century, late 19th century. I don't think anybody else, even up to our own time, has used the Bible and the kind of morality that he saw in the Bible as a basis for governing or for setting policy like Bryan did.

Bryan said radical things, such as the Sermon on the Mount should become the basis for government; the Golden Rule, he believed, should be the fundamental basis for all law and all operations. He believed in the brotherhood of man, although he was also a racist. ... He tried to oppose U.S. entry into World War I and opposed once we were in, because he believed that violated these fundamental Christian principles. More than any other politician that I can think of, his faith shaped the way he viewed policy.

What does it mean to make the Sermon on the Mount the basis for government?

If you want to make the Sermon on the Mount the basis for government, you lift up the weak; you take care of the oppressed; you cherish the poor. Those people become the people that government is for, not for the big money. ...

So he, in all his many speeches -- and he was a extremely good orator, and a lot of people heard him on the platform -- said these things. [He] was never embarrassed about using biblical philosophy, a biblical idiom in his speeches, and would tell people: "Blessed are the meek. That should be the way the government sets itself up." ...

What does it mean to be a fundamentalist Christian?

The fundamentalists take that name from the series of books called The Fundamentals that are published in the teens and '20s, articulating the absolute bare minimum that you must believe to be considered as part of the Christian community. ...

Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inerrant, that it's the literal word of God and it has no errors in it. They believe in the Virgin Birth. They believe in Jesus' miracles. They believe in the substitutionary atonement, by which they mean that Christ died on the cross for all of humanity's sins; that that was a one-on-one replacement. They believed that the miracles described in the Bible literally happened.

It is a response to change, that they feel the need to declare these beliefs?

A number of churches were taking bits [and] pieces of modernism, or adapting pieces, whether it's the Revised Standard Version Bible or allowing that maybe evolution could fit into Genesis. And a number conservative Christians said, "Wait a minute."

The Fundamentals was kind of their Maginot Line. They really felt under assault by modernism and unbelief and skepticism and science, ... and they were assaulting them at a time period where we've got all these other changes going on, these profound economic and social dislocations that are happening -- not to mention women were agitating for the vote, which seemed to fundamentalists another kind of profoundly disturbing part of modernism. ...

What do fundamentalists want? Do they want to go back to a simpler time?

Fundamentalists certainly want to return to this older style of Christianity, where conversion is at the center of all efforts of the churches. ...

They initially try to effect change [at] local levels. ... Their children are going to school, and they're reading these textbooks with science in them that contradicts fundamentalist belief, and they don't think that's right. They don't think that their children should have to be exposed to things that undermine their faith in the public schools. A number of fundamentalists influence, especially at the state level, legislatures to pass not just temperance legislation but legislation about what can be in public school textbooks.

Why is Bryan drawn to the fundamentalist movement?

He'd always been a more conservative Christian, but you'd think that in the 1890s, with his embrace of the common man, that he's almost a Social Gospeler at that moment.

But for Bryan, there's two intellectual developments that come together, and that is Herbert Spencer's adaptation of Darwin to social Darwinism, where he applies what he thinks of as Darwinian principles to the evolutions of societies and peoples and races. These social Darwinists say things like, yes, it's the survival of the fittest among mankind; might makes right. ... Some of them even go so far as to embrace eugenics, that certain people should not reproduce, to further the advance of mankind.

The social Darwinism, this idea that we're going to progress, but by doing so, we're going to leave all the poor, humbled, crippled, weak people outside the evolutionary prospect, profoundly disturbs Bryan. He thinks it's those ideas -- [Friedrich] Nietzsche is this big devil that he holds up -- but the ideas of these new secular scientists and social Darwinists led to World War I, and led to this massive slaughter of young men for no good reason. ...

He becomes convinced that to counter that profoundly anti-humane impulse that he sees in social Darwinism, that the way he retrenches to a fundamentalism, that fundamentalism is the place from which he can attack social Darwinism, he thinks best.

Describe Bryan in 1925, when he arrives in Dayton, [Tenn., for the Scopes trial].

In 1925, as we get Bryan coming into Dayton, he is a three-time presidential candidate and loser. He left the [Wilson] administration when he was secretary of state because of his opposition to World War I. He's still a popular lecturer, but he's not got political power anymore. His party is going a different way. So he's feeling that he's on the fringes of power when he was at the center of it before. And he's laughed at often ... [because of] the moralistic tone he uses to talk about politics. ...

He's still important to a lot of people. The letters to him -- that was what was most striking to me, is the number of people who write him letters that "You're the only person who cares about us downtrodden people." So a lot of people have invested their faith in Bryan, these common white men and women across America. ...

Who is Clarence Darrow in 1925?

He just came off the Leopold and Loeb [case], a big, sensational murder trial. Darrow hit the headlines for that as this sensational trial lawyer, ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] spokesman, the village atheist. He's this avuncular, knowledgeable, witty lawyer who is seen as a radical. ...

Why is their involvement in this case important?

... To have these important public figures -- and Bryan hadn't practiced law in a long time -- coming to argue this case in this little town of Dayton, Tenn., that brought the limelight. That brought the press to Dayton in a way that I'm sure the town could not have anticipated.

What was Darrow's objective in taking on this case?

There's two levels of this. On a basic level, Darrow takes this case because he believes in freedom of thought, and he believes that science has been constrained by these religious people -- the religious zealots, he would see them -- who want to dictate, "Here's what you can believe, and here's what you can't believe," ... though, you can't read that transcript of that trial without realizing that the other thing that he wants to do here is, he wants to put fundamentalism on trial. ... If Darrow can bring Bryan down, he can make significant inroads into knocking down fundamentalism.

Describe the atmosphere in Dayton, Tenn.

There's over 100 reporters, some from around the world, there. Probably the most prominent reporter is H.L. Mencken, and people are reading his reports. ...

You also get the defenders of both sides converging on Dayton -- in particular, the religious people. So from out of town, you get all these people who come in who feel like they have a stake in this trial. They're around the edges of this community.

The irony is, the community itself welcomed this lawsuit. [People from Dayton] persuaded Scopes to take this because they thought it was a stupid law. But ironically ... Dayton becomes kind of the watchword for backward-thinking Bible thumpers. ...

Why does Darrow put Bryan on the stand?

As the trial progresses, one of the things Darrow is going to do is bring experts in who are going to show that the Bible cannot be the literal word of God and to prove that evolution is a established scientific theory. The court disallows that. And he says: "Well, Your Honor, I need a defense. I need to be able to mount a defense here. I need to be able to question somebody on this. I need to be able to talk about the Bible versus evolution." ...

He proposes that since William Jennings Bryan, who has been for the last decade out there as the public spokesman of fundamentalism, surely no one knows the Bible better than the Great Commoner. Let's put Bryan on the stand. And Bryan foolishly -- almost every historian believes this -- foolishly snaps at it and says, "Yes, I will go on the stand."

Why is this a trap?

It's a trap because Bryan, even though Bryan is a fundamentalist, and he believes most of the fundamentals of Christianity, he is no theologian. He is no Bible scholar. ...

Are Darrow's questions really about evolution? Does this have anything to do with Darwin?

No. And one of the reasons that Bryan takes the bait and agrees to do something he probably shouldn't have is that he knows that what's going on here: Darrow is putting the Bible on trial. At that moment, it's not about evolution; it's about the Bible. And Darrow thinks if he can make the Bible look foolish, then a larger point than whether this teacher is guilty of violating a state statute will be made. ...

When Darrow starts questioning, how does Bryan respond? Is he able to answer?

There's a couple questions that Bryan answers very confidently and quickly. But quickly Darrow narrows in on a lot of things in the Bible that ... if you're a fundamentalist you have to claim that you believe, but that if you are not a fundamentalist you find problematic. So he zeroes in on things that, from Thomas Paine on, that skeptics have zeroed in on, that are problematic about the Old Testament, and Bryan's stuck.

Describe Bryan as he takes the stand.

Darrow is going to ask him questions about the Bible. What could be easier than that? He's confident that he can answer the questions that this atheist is going to throw at him. ... Bryan knows the Bible. He's studied it all his life. He's read it a bunch of times. He feels pretty confident in it. ...

And is Bryan able to defend [his] positions on the stand?

I think Bryan's mistake is he's not a theologian. Even though he's read his Bible a lot, he's not really been grappling with these really difficult textual problems that have been huge parts of denominational strife for decades. But he was a politician. He wasn't in the seminary bickering about these things.

So when Darrow seizes on these things, I think he's thrown. I really do think he's thrown. I don't know what he thought Darrow would ask him, but I don't think he thought Darrow was going to seize on these particular items because he would have studied them.

When Bryan says he doesn't think it's necessarily a 24-hour day, how is that the answer that Darrow wanted?

Darrow was trying to shake him up. If you believe, as fundamentalists purport to believe, that the Bible is the literal truth and every word in it is true, then a day has to be a 24-hour day, or now you're doing what the liberal Christians are doing, which is saying: "Oh, a day doesn't mean a day. A day is a metaphor for something." ...

Bryan is criticized actually, in the aftermath of the trial, for claiming that a day could be a period, or that God's days might not be the 24-hour day. ... Jerry Falwell criticized him in the 1980s for that. When Darrow trips him up, that continues to be something that reverberates in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy today. ...

If Bryan had been able to give his closing argument, how might that have changed how we think of the trial?

Bryan's closing argument is much more reasonable and empathetic than his short, clipped answers, irritated answers to Darrow's questioning. You see in that closing statement ... his concern that what is challenging us here is this view of man as brute, that might makes right. ...

The other thing he says is that parents should be able to control what kinds of challenges come to their kids' faith. This idea of local control of schools, it still continues to this day to be a hot-button issue. There's a number of people who would still adhere that parents should be able to dictate curricula. He doesn't seem like that much of a fanatic when you look at an unreasoning person, when you read his closing argument, as opposed to when you read that back-and-forth with Darrow.

But he's never able to give the closing argument.

Right. He never is able to give it.

So what is the outcome of the trial?

In the wake of the trial, Bryan is made to look foolish. ... Unlike the movie suggests, he's not destroyed, and he's going to continue on. There's no reason to believe, if he hadn't died, that he wouldn't have been a defender of the faith. And probably if he had been able to speechify on it, he would have probably made up for the lost capital of this trial.

Darrow is made to look like a champion of free speech and free thought, like he is.

Fundamentalists retreat. Not that those laws against evolution go away entirely, but fundamentalists retreat from public life, set up their own institutions. They become a little insular. ... They work on building their own internal empire, their own publishing arms, their own radio stations, later their own TV stations. ... We don't see them again until the Moral Majority. So fundamentalism takes a public knock. ...

How do you interpret the Scopes trial? Is it about Darwin and evolution, or something else?

The Scopes trial is about a lot of things. On a religious level, it really is about skepticism, fundamentalism and modernism all together thrown in there, that mix. It's also about cosmopolitanism versus rural America.

The Scopes trial, in Mencken's coverage of it, posits these two different Americas. One is backward and ignorant and rural, and the other is forward-thinking, secular and urban. I think that opposition stays with people for a long time after the trial. ...

What does the Scopes trial tell us about the divisions among Protestants? What are the divisions that we're seeing among religious people?

... There are two very diametrically opposed camps. Just like with the slavery question, they read the same book; they believe in the same God; they believe in the same Christ. But they are fundamentally at odds over basic questions of faith, so Protestants themselves are fractured.

Does anyone end up on top at this moment in 1925, or is it more about division?

... I don't think that these divisions are healed until the 1950s, when, because of the Cold War, you get this idea that America is a religious nation, and so Protestant, Catholic, Jew, whatever you are, that we're people of faith. The Communists don't have faith. ...

Where are we with the notion that America has a special destiny and is chosen by God by the end of the Scopes trial?

What you would have to conclude by the end of the Scopes trial is that no matter where you fall on the spectrum of faith in this time period, that you can no longer be so confident in America's special relationship with God. The feeling that religious people would be that, that's imperiled because of these divisions even between these religious groups. How can God still have chosen America as favored if we don't even agree with each other, with like-minded people of faith?

And then if you're Bryan, you're thinking, America is turning its back on God. It was chosen by God for this special mission, and now America has rejected God, certainly in the public schools. Even though he wins, he loses. He loses in the public relations. He loses in the hearts and minds of most Americans. ...

Is Scopes connected to the cleavage between conservatives and liberals in the Briggs trial and to the denominational splits within American Judaism?

... The great divide in America in the 19th century was about slavery. It's certainly not the origins, and it's not the end, but it marks a different religious divide in America, between people who are more literal in their interpretation of whatever holy book they have, the fundamentalists on the one hand and the modernizers on the other. ... It's between people who believe in a literal and traditional reading of their sacred texts and people who don't. ...

What does the story of Jews in America, as told through [Isaac Mayer] Wise, tell us about America and religion in general?

... I think it's inescapable that religious groups come to America and they are as shaped by America as America is shaped by them. I think there's something about Americans' perception of their special relationship with God that means every religious group that comes to America has to grapple with, whether they're going to be of America or outside of it. ... And then, in making themselves more American, they shape their religion. Their religion changes. Catholics in America are different from Catholics on the continent. ...

I think this conflict within Judaism that you see, between "Are we going to embrace modernity, or are we going to reject modernity?," that's happening in every religious group in America. They're all struggling with that question.

What is "disestablish," and how is that important to the Jewish story?

Disestablish is the separation of church and state the Founders put in with the Bill of Rights. By not embracing an established church -- which is the first time since Constantinople that it happens, so it's really world-historic -- by rejecting an established church, the Founders enable religious competition in America.

We like to call it the "marketplace of ideas," and that religious competition means that all of a sudden you're not getting your money from the state; you have to attract people to the church. So now you're competing for converts. It just makes America a different kind of place for every religious body that comes.

How does it relate to the Jewish story of Reform and Isaac Mayer Wise?

Jews don't suffer the kind of legal disabilities in America that they do in other places. They don't have to hide their Judaism. They don't have to pay special taxes because they're not worshiping at the state church. America allows for the flourishing of religious difference.

So I think that Jews -- even though, don't get me wrong, there's tons of intolerance, and there's tons of anti-Semitism in America -- at least at the political level, there's not those legal disabilities. So Jews have the opportunity to build synagogues and have organizations and practice their faith freely.

Can freedom of religion threaten religion in some ways, too, if there's no state-sponsored religion?

... They don't think that until the late 19th century, when it's apparent to everyone that there are a number of Americans -- a significant number; they're still a minority, but they're significant -- are choosing not to have any faith at all. They're not choosing between denominations or between Judaism and Christianity; they're choosing between belief and unbelief.

There's been people around in America from Ben Franklin on who reject churches, but not enough of them to register on anybody's radar until the late 19th century.

Where do liberal Christians or modernists go with that challenge to their faith? How do they make their faith more relevant?

If you want to make your faith more relevant in the late 19th century, you embrace science rather than viewing it with hostility. ... With the perceived threat of evolution with Darwin, a number of Christians say: "Finally! Now that evolution is proven, we are given finally the license to be able to use reason. We do not have to accept the entire Bible as a book that has no errors in it. When our brain tells us that this story conflicts with this story, we can say, 'Yes, the Bible is imperfect document.' We don't have to leave reason at the door when we go to worship." ... So these Christians feel liberated by embracing the modern. ...

Are they also embracing science? When the fundamentalists want to ban teaching evolution in public schools, how do liberal Christians react? What have they come to believe about Darwin?

Liberal Christians come to believe that ... [the Bible is] an imperfect document, even though it is a revelation and it does tell spiritual truths. ... So they're not threatened by Darwin.

So science should not shake their faith at all. In fact, science is something they can embrace, because science shows that the wonders of creation, science shows us how brilliant God was and how amazing this world he made is. So they embrace it. ...

In fact, [evolution] for many liberal Christians fits better with their worldview, because they were seeing the world as progressing and improving, and [that] Darwinian ideas -- is that the world does improve, that species improve -- fits in with that idea that we're moving toward something better. ...

When the fundamentalists campaign to ban Darwin, what do liberal Christians fear? What is the threat if you ban Darwin in schools?

Liberal Christians perceive this to be a fight about tradition and progress. They feel like their children are going to be stifled because there's a group of conservative people who don't want them to learn what science is telling them. They feel like America's going to be set back. The rest of the world is moving forward. Why should American children not have the received wisdom of science, what the best minds think?

It's interesting that one of the things Bryan seizes on is the fact that these surveys show that the more education you have, the less religious you are. Clearly the universities are creating atheists, he believes, in some way. That's one of the reasons he actually looks to his children's textbooks, is, what's happening in the school system to turn people who are more educated away from Christianity? ...

What does it tell us about religion in America that so many people are interested in this trial?

America is religious. Every foreigner who comes to America in this time period remarks on the number of churches and how many religious gatherings, how many times people go to church and how many things they do at church.

Not only is America religious; America is publicly religious. Even though we've separated church and state, religion is everywhere. You have prayers before Memorial Day celebrations given by preachers; you have preachers who are chosen to give commencement addresses. Religion is in the public square. ...


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Published October 11, 2010

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