Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review
Summer for the Gods by Edward J Larson is a nonfiction book exploring everything leading up to, during and after the Scopes trial of the 1920s. This is often referred to as the “monkey trial” where a creationist was battled an evolutionist about the validity of the two world views. It was essentially a battle between whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, but the trail itself had a very different argument than the modern separation of church and state precedent that we are familiar with today.
The book I’m reviewing is the most recent edition of the original 1997 release. That is the 2020 edition which is the same exact book with a slightly modified afterward. While I received an e-ARC, I chose to listen to the edition on audible. I believe that is an adaptation of the 2006 edition which features its own afterword. After I listened to the book, I read the modified afterword in my 2020 e-ARC which I will discuss at the end.
I was surprised to learn that Scopes trial was not about separation of church and state as is the modern reasoning for keeping Christianity out and evolution in. I am loosely familiar with the Scopes trial period because I had a phase of extreme atheism (i.e. really into the social network), and the scopes trial was a major part of the atheist rhetoric and arguments discussed. However, most of my knowledge, while slightly vague, never really clearly defined the Scopes trial as it really was. A big part of this book is about debunking a lot of the misconceptions or the mindset the public has created around the Scopes trial.
The Scopes trial gave the “official” win to the state (supporting the law banning the teaching of evolution, but after the trial, there of re-branding where many saw it as a blow to creationists. This book discusses this thoroughly in the final part of the book. The book is split into three parts.
First is the period leading up to this trial which is an excellent review of what the societal mindset is around religion creationism in evolution. Second, the actual Scopes trial is discussed, and we learn that the trial was orchestrated by the ACLU to challenge that the law violated teachers individual liberties. The ACLU put out a request for a teacher to be used for this trial. What precedes is the trial as we know it. It comes down to trying to argue whether evolution breaks the law as defined by Tennessee.
Tennessee’s law stated that evolution couldn’t be taught because it contradicts the views of the Bible. Scopes (lawyer’s) defense tries to focus on the fact that evolution is consistent with an interpretation of Genesis depending on how you look at it. In the end Scopes loses because it’s clearly plain that he taught evolution and wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t about whether or not evolution is in line with Christianity because the law wasn’t about teaching things that go against Christianity; it was about teaching evolution.
However, the framing of the argument set up the infamous questioning of one of the states lead experts William Jennings Bryan. He was incapable of explaining away the many inconsistencies of the Bible with science (outside of just evolution). Many saw it as demeaning, and it resulted in Bryan being painted as uneducated and dumb by many in society. Granted, that view was among those who supported evolution. The opposing side saw Bryan as a martyr who stood for faith. Both of these views would fuel the more extreme actions of both the religious and the secular sides after the trial. It didn’t change the law, but it worked as a way of reshaping the battleground in a way that eventually lead to more action.
It was a long time before we started to recognize that the problem here isn’t that someone’s liberties were being infringed. Eventually, the emoluments clauses would be used to garner court decisions that set a precedent of a clear separation of church and state. You can’t block evolution because it is inconsistent with your religion (that is the state sanctioning or endorsing that religion over others). Nor can you teach creationism as if it is science. It’s a recognition that creationism is entirely outside of the purview of the secular state.
I went into this book expecting much more of a discussion about religion versus secularism (i.e. separation of church and state). That was only a small fraction of the book. That is probably my biggest disappointment with the book. I wanted more on freedom of religion and the ability of the state to teach one religion over the other (i.e. Christianity). In the context of the trial, this book a does a great job taking a broad look overtime. Necessarily, it limits how deep we can explore each part.
We get such a clear picture of what led to the Scopes trial and then everything that came after and how it re-framed the way society looked at Christianity and evolution. There was no change in the law, but it triggered a polarization on both sides, and it set the groundwork for this conversation of freedom of religion. So overall, this was a fantastic book. It is dense with information just the way I like it. As with any great book, it paints a clear picture while leaving the reader inspired to search out more to learn.
As for the changes in the book (i.e. the afterward), it was largely unchanged. The most significant change was a discussion of statistics on the relationship between education, geography, and the belief in creationism. We see a lot of things happening in modern day that ties back to the cases of the past and the argument of the Scopes as Christians continue to push the boundary of church/state separation. We see attempts to try and hinder the ability to teach evolution without alluding to Christianity, but the subtle approaches are still very clear in their intent. However, it doesn’t change that in the modern day we have conservative presidents like Donald Drumpf that contribute to the slow erosion of these previous presidents similar to the fears around the erosion of abortion rights as courts allow one new law after another that slowly restricts and decays the existing rights.
He makes a very persuasive and succinct argument as to why this information is still relevant to today. Speaking as someone from the South who grew up a young earth creationist, I think the mindset around evolution has changed, but religious extremism continues. If anything, the mainstream nature of evolution puts society at risk of complacency. It just highlights the need to understand and the importance of separation of church and state.
If you haven’t read this, 100% recommend (especially if you’re a history buff), but if you have a previous edition, I don’t think there is anything new here worth investing in.