Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: In the Beginning

In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, The Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement
Michael Lienesch
Chapel Hill (NC): University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 338 pages.
Reviewed by
Kevin C Armitage
The May 20, 2007, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer treated the opening of the so-called Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky — just a short drive from Cincinnati — with coverage that can only be described as fawning. The front page featured a red banner that framed the museum opening as a courageous new entrant in the "Creation vs Evolution" debate, followed by a large, bold headline that posed the question, "Did Man Walk Among the Dinosaurs?" The coverage continued into the Forum section under the headline "What the Lord Has Made." The newspaper did not attempt to explain any of the basic scientific facts that contradict young-earth creationist claims.

The coverage by the Enquirer points to the fact that anti-evolutionists are funding and building institutions, institutions that clearly exert, as in the case of the Enquirer, influence over other establishments of civil society. In other worlds, anti-evolutionism is not just a rejection of science or a political ideology, but a powerful social movement with its own identity, organizations and framing of political issues. It is precisely the understanding of anti-evolutionism as an abiding and powerful political movement that political scientist Michael Lienesch explores in his excellent In the Beginning.

Lienesch accomplishes this task by applying social movement theory to understand the history of anti-evolutionism. Happily, he does so in a sophisticated yet jargon-free manner that should satisfy academic and lay readers alike.

Anti-evolutionism as a movement derives from a series of pamphlets titled The Fundamentals, published and distributed for free by millionaire oilman Lyman Stewart. These pamphlets not only articulated a fundamentalist reading of biblical texts, but helped their audience forge a common character, an identity — not simply an ideology — "that formed the fundamentalist foundation on which creationism would be built" (p 9). That identity defined both Christian conservatives and their enemies, setting up the possibility that fundamentalists might be mobilized for political ends.

The mobilization was largely wrought by traveling lecturers — anti-evolutionists copied the Chautauqua circuit in this regard — who brought the fundamentalist message to both conservative and mainline denominations. Yet Christians were divided by both social and ideological factors and many remained wary of engaging the secular world. The movement needed an issue that would unite its followers and compel them to political action. In other words, the fundamentalist movement needed to frame an issue to perpetuate itself. Evolution, of course, was that issue. What social movement theorists term "framing" is the manner in which activists diagnose a malady, propose solutions, and motivate followers to ameliorative action. It was the theory of evolution — and the teaching of the theory in both university and secondary schools — that, according to fundamentalists, accounted for the growing secularity of society. Furthermore, they argued that teachers were responsible for indoctrinating naïve students into this theory, thereby displacing traditional values of home and community. Evolution, then, summarized and organized an inchoate hostility toward modern life into a specific, tangible enemy.

Yet to reach beyond their base and influence the public sphere, movements must engage in a process of "frame alignment" — the continual redefinition of issues so that they resonate with new audiences. One successful example of anti-evolutionist frame alignment was to place the creation story at the center of Christian belief. To cast doubt on a literal reading of creation meant "casting doubt on the fall from innocence, which meant denying the doctrine of the atonement, which meant eliminating any promise of salvation" (p 86). Thus not only did anti-evolutionists seize the center of Christian thought, but also cast doubt on theistic evolutionists. Controversy over teaching evolution in schools also provided a kind of built-in issue on which the anti-evolution movement could demand institutional change at the local, state and federal levels. And in "the Great Commoner" William Jennings Bryan, the movement found the perfect figure to help translate populist energy into tangible political gains. The state of Tennessee, for example, forbade the teaching of evolution in its public school classrooms.

It is a testimony to Lienesch's use of social movement theory that readers will actually see the Scopes Trial with fresh eyes. Each side believed it had won. Anti-evolutionists succeeded in "turning their cause into a conflict between irreconcilable enemies: Bryan and Darrow, creation and evolution, religion and science" (p 169). Their crusade would continue. Yet when anti-evolutionists poured their energies into the presidential campaign of Herbert Hoover — in no small part because his opponent, Al Smith, was Roman Catholic — they won a Pyrrhic victory: Hoover largely ignored them. Soon fundamentalists turned their energies to other causes, or withdrew from public life altogether. The Great Depression sapped what was left of its resources, causing many scholars to misinterpret the Scopes Trial as a crushing and irrevocable loss for anti-evolutionism.

In his final chapter — the majority of this book is about the years between World War I and the Great Depression — Lienesch shows how creationism has continually re-created itself up to the present day. Beginning in the 1930s anti-evolutionists retreated in order to regroup, but they never abandoned the institutions that sustain political movements: their publishing houses, radio communications, traveling lecturers, bible conferences and youth camps all flourished in the decades anti-evolutionism was supposedly moribund. Yet if this book has a missing link, it is that the middle of the twentieth century passes by much too quickly. I wished for greater insight into the ways anti-evolutionism maintained itself during the lean years. After all, it certainly was ready to seize the political moment when it came. As the new Christian Right became powerful in the late 1970s and 1980s, anti-evolutionists once again asserted their agenda with considerable success.

Lienesch concludes by noting the remarkable uniformity of anti-evolutionist arguments over time — and that despite setbacks to their movement, they are, as one Kansas pastor noted, "in it for the long haul" (p 239). The Creation Museum and the Discovery Institute have replaced the World's Christian Fundamentals Association, and agitators like the indefatigable William Bell Riley have given way to the likes of Phillip Johnson. This continuity is only one sign that the anti-evolution movement is not abating. It is Lienesch's considerable achievement to demonstrate exactly why that is so.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.