In light of the attack on staff at Charlie Hebdo I’ve been thinking about a clash between Religion and Freedom of Speech that started a century ago in the USA. And ask what the assailants might have learned? Until the late 19th century, creationism was taught in nearly all USA schools and with the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s 1859 theory, they started to teach evolution too; and this was considered by Christian fundamentalists to be directly at odds with their Bible. A surge of opposition to the idea of evolution in the aftermath of World War 1 led to a number of anti-evolution campaigns. These failed in Kentucky and South Carolina, but laws banning the teaching of evolution were passed in Oklahoma, Florida and Tennessee.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) felt such laws violated the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited: the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion; impeding the free exercise of religion; abridging the freedom of speech; or infringing the freedom of the press. And so they set out to challenge these state laws. They recruited John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher, who agreed to be arrested on a charge of having taught evolution; and in 1925 he was served a warrant and indicted – and so began what was to become known as the, “Monkey Trials”.
Now the Monkey Trials is viewed by many as an important moment in American history when: the aims of the founding fathers were realised; Separation of Church and State was confirmed; and science and education came to the fore. Ninety years later we can probably agree with this assessment, but at the time it was not so. In fact, the Monkey Trials were a victory for the anti-evolution lobby. After eight days of trial it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate, find John Scopes guilty and hear the Judge order him to pay a $100 fine. And the appeal, two years later at the Supreme Court of Tennessee, rejected all arguments put forward by Scopes lawyers.
How, then, did the Monkey Trials set themselves into the national consciousness as the victory for science and education that it is now understood it to be? Most historians agree that it was the fact that the details of the trial were widely reported in newspapers across America, leading to increased debate in the media on the subject of faith versus science and a gradual change in sentiment. The completeness of this change was reflected in the 1955 play, Inherit the Wind, that was based on the Monkey Trials and later made into a film starring Spencer Tracey, which wholeheartedly supported the position held by Scopes, Darrow and the ACLU and depicted the outcome of the trial as a miscarriage of justice. Such is the power of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. It may not match the short and medium term impact of law makers and law keepers, but it provides a continual drip feed of reasoned argument into the public consciousness, and this is real change that cannot be held back.
In discussing Charlie Hebdo, as I think we should, what conclusions can be made? First, I should say that I have neither read the magazines nor seen the cartoons; and cannot comment on whether they have crossed any lines. But history tells us of the power the press, and so Muslims are probably right to feel the need to defend their faith from such attacks. In this context it does not really matter if they’re offended, but it very much matters how they react, how they fight back and how they defend their religion. I agree that the nuclear option is appropriate but suggest that their strongest weapon, the weapon that is mightier than the sword, is their pen.