Monday, October 22, 2007

Darrow and Bryan redux

The current contretemps between secularism and Christian fundamentalism in America is not new. These things come in cycles, as Susan Jacoby makes clear in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. I grew up not far from Dayton, Tennessee, where one clash of secularism and Protestant fundamentalism had its culmination in the Scopes Trial of 1925. And I lived through another dust up in the years after World War II, this one involving such Catholic luminaries as Cardinal Francis Spellman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, on one side, and the likes of kindly Eleanor Roosevelt, anti-Catholic pitbull Paul Blanshard, and crusading atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on the other. Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were part of the fray. Primarily at issue was public support for parochial schools, the teaching of religion in public schools, and censorship of books and films, the whole thing exacerbated by the Red Scare. Oh, what fun. We Catholics girded ourselves in the armor of faith ("Armies of youth flying standards of Truth..."), let our taste in movies be guided by the Legion of Decency (utterly fascinated, of course, by anything rated C (condemned, for the word "virgin" or Jane Russell's cleavage)), railed about the treatment of Cardinal Mindszenty by the Commies, and sputtered with moral indignation when Ingrid Bergman had a baby out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini.

The courts put the whole thing to rest, affirming the Constitutional separation of Church and State. The lingering ashes of controversy were swept away by the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, not to be rekindled until the era of George W. Bush and the political empowerment of Evangelicals, which brought the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens thundering into the lists. Once again, as in the Twenties, science is at issue.

This too shall pass, but not forever. Every generation of freethinkers must fight for the right to be free. Sometimes that means pushing back -- gently -- to preserve a little room for agnosticism. We cup our hands around the fragile flames of our lowercase truths, to protect them from the gales of righteous bombast. We will always have with us those who believe they know the Truth and want the rest of us to know it too.