I was watching the PBS series God in America between football games yesterday and learned that during the 20th century the dominant debate revolved around the inerrant nature of scripture, highlighted by the "Scopes monkey trial" in Dayton, TN in 1925.
But let's go back to 1895. In that year, the Woman's Bible was published by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This challenged the traditional role of subservience for women that was the common Christian interpretation of the Bible. The nation was shocked. Some conservatives still resist the ways that women serve in the work place and in politics. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter.
In 1915, conservative Protestants published a series of pamphlets titled "The Fundamentals". The series stresses the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body. The Fundamentalist movement began and the name still identifies those with such strict beliefs.
In the 1920's, commercial radio programming began, and Christian evangelists dominated the airways, as they still do. Billy Sunday, Sister Aimee McPherson and Father Charlie Coughlin were popular radio personalities of the 1920's and 1930's.
In 1925 the Scopes trial pitted fundamentalist orator William Jennings Bryan against trial attorney Clarence Darrow. While the trial focused on the accusation that high school biology teacher John Scopes was violating the law by teaching evolution, the underlying theme was whether the Bible should be interpreted literally or not. Darrow got the court to agree to let Bryan take the stand to defend the Bible. Darrow tore him up. The proceedings were broadcast nationwide over the radio. The trial judge throws out Bryan's testimony, Scopes is found guilty of teaching evolution, the decision is overturned on a technicality, and Bryan dies a few days later.
The press claims the trial is a big defeat for the fundamentalists, and thus begins (or reinforces) the animosity between conservatives and the mainstream media that continues today.
With Bryan's death the fundamentalists retreated from the public sphere. Modernist thought expands.
Of course history tells us that the fundamentalists make a resurgence in the latter half of the 20th Century.
History also tells us that we can go back even further to document the divide in this country. President Obama is criticized for his statement that we are not a Christian nation.
"One of the great strengths of the United States," the President said at a press conference in Turkey in 2009 , "is ... we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."
Maybe, rather than being an indication that Obama is not a Christian (he is) it is an indication that he is educated (many are not).
In 1797 president John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, assuring the Muslim nation that we will not start a religious war. Article 11 states:
"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
Now Adams was present when the documents that created our country were written. In fact, he was one of the Founding Fathers and therefore should have a pretty good idea what the consensus was.
Religious conservatives want to deny history and deny science. The battle continues.
Update: A reader has strongly suggested seeing the movie, "Inherit the Wind" staring Spencer Tracy, about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Here it is on Netflix. I second his recommendation.