[The following is an adaptation from a paper I wrote for my Law and American History
course. The paper was about the relationship between law and society in general, and the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in specific. Unless otherwise noted, all citations refer to historian Jeffrey Moran's book, described below.]
Some media, instead of defining progressivism, are defined by it. At the time of the Scopes trial, the New Republic
, while opposed to the Butler Law [a Tenessee statute that barred public schools from teaching anything which contradicted the fundamentalist view of the Genesis creation story], argued that the state legislature was the place to correct a bad law, not the court system. Better to leave popular sovereignty intact, even if it means allowing a bad law to remain on the books (Moran 38). The magazine in essence argued that society changes law, not the other way around: “Courts can no more make us wise and tolerant and eager for the truth than they can make us kind or generous. No community can become enlightened by having enlightenment judicially thrust upon it” (Courts Should Not Rule over Legislature
138). Today such a view would place one squarely in the conservative camp. The New Republic
and other liberal or progressive publications in 2006 would most likely argue the exact opposite point.
Historically, progressivism has backed some remarkable ideas. One could say the movement was principled. Yet today it risks defining its principles not on an objective standard of morality, but on the concept of pursuing whatever the next unattained idea is. When the rights of the British colonies were endangered, progressive-minded people took the lead in implementing an idea never successfully accomplished before in human history. When America was entrenched politically and economically in slavery, progressives were the first to call for a stop to that moral evil. When women lacked the right to vote, progressivism advocated universal suffrage. When big cities had major health and sanitation issues with their poor populations, progressives started and supported places like Hull House and advocated for better treatment of the “least of these.” Progressives were behind the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. These were all good ideas, and they were all moral. But modern progressivism, or modernism, or liberalism, seems to have reached a limit. Modern progressivism supports ideas that go beyond what the moral standards of America have historically restrained. Modern progressivism is where one finds support for gay marriage, abortion rights, unlimited and inconsequential sexual freedom, euthanasia, multiculturalism and moral relativism. But the value of an idea is not found in its not being reached yet. Progression for progression’s sake is dangerous, especially if that progression leads in the wrong moral direction. Some may say that we are in a cultural shift similar to the ones in the 1920s or the 1970s. Indeed, the following quote is from the second decade of the last century, although it just as well could have been published today:
Finally, we come to religion. The younger members of society have thrown religion overboard—that is, religion as conceived by their elders. No longer do we believe in a Deity moulded [sic] in the form of a police inspector. But out own faith in an Infinite Being possessed of infinite comprehension is too great to leave us stranded high and dry on the rocks of unbelief. As we sought, and are finding freedom in other channels, so will we find it in religious ones. (Malone 202)
The decline of fundamentalism in America began, at the most basic level, with the type of un-helpful rhetoric that William Jennings Bryan [chief prosecutor in the Scopes trial] personified. In reacting to his non-believing contemporaries who expressed skepticism for Christianity, Bryan seemed to dismiss skepticism altogether, in any form. Indeed, he readily admitted the following the Clarence Darrow [Scopes' chief defense lawyer]: “I have been so well satisfied with the Christian religion, that I have spent no time trying to find arguments against it” (Did the Flood Wipe Out Civilization? 152). Bryan clearly illustrates the difference between the blind-faith believer, irresponsibly untroubled by any hint of paradox or inconsistency within his faith, yet who viciously reacts to any skepticism (honest and defamatory alike), and the believer who struggles honestly with his faith, asks questions and seeks wisdom, yet in the end is bound, despite his uncertainties, to the salvation granted to him by faith and the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Bryan’s lazy brand of fundamentalism no doubt festered due to a lack of significant intellectual opposition and historical entrenchment. When finally challenged, the believers, rather than engage in a legitimate dialogue, took the attacks personally and chose to cry “martyr!”
Interestingly enough, the challenge to complacent and lazy thinking has come full circle. Evolutionists are the majority today, yet conservative Christians are launching an intellectual and scientific attack on what has morphed into more than just a theory, but rather an ideology and a philosophy. The ideas of evolution, which have fomented in America over the last hundred years or so, have contributed to the naturalist worldview that a significant population shares. It came about by the victory of socially liberal thought over fundamentalism, and the latter’s consequential decrease in social authority. The basic, original tenets of fundamentalism—the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for human sins, the miracles or the inevitability of Jesus’ return to earth to usher in a millennium of peace (Moran 12)—remain solid, even if the intellectual and cultural connotations of such a term remain pejorative. The orthodox, Biblical approach to discerning truth, combined with a healthy dose of skepticism and intellectual training (the missing ingredient in the past), can successfully compete with the now dominant cultural forces of evolutionism, naturalism and secularism.
Progressivism should always strive for what is better, not just what is new and different. The cultural changes it pursues should be qualitative. Fortunately for the movement, most of its historical causes up have fit within a correct view of morality and its restraints. Now it has surpassed those constraints and abandoned its moral authority. There is no right or wrong answer about the relationship between law and society, because both affect each other. Indeed, people often argue one over the other in order to fit a certain political or religious ideology: One argument against the re-criminalization of abortion is that women would get abortions anyway. In other words, they are saying that a law banning abortion would not significantly affect society’s views on abortion. Perhaps the only supporting argument for this point is the fact that, despite abortion having been legal for over thirty years, most Americans remain opposed to certain abortive procedures. However, I doubt the abortion supporters are itching to use that fact to boost their case. In contrast to abortion, many people believe that legalizing gay marriage and publicly affirming the homosexual lifestyle will lead to more social acceptance for homosexuals. Obviously, those folks believe that changing the law would influence society. Ironically, it is safe to assert that most Americans who agree with one of the above views agrees with the other as well. This simply illustrates the inextricable nature of law and society; the cause-effect relationship is mutual. A perfect recent example is the “public domain” case of Kelo v. The City of New London, Connecticut. When the Supreme Court ruled, in essence expanding eminent domain latitude to claiming privately-owned land and re-selling it to businesses in an effort to bring in more tax dollars, a flurry of legal activity erupted across the states. Already, many states have enacted legislation aimed at limiting Kelo’s power. It is a fascinating example of the intertwined relationship between law and society. The bottom line is that law will always influence society, and society will always influence law. The exciting next step is to look to the future and attempt to take part in the process.
Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin’s. New York: 2002.
Regina Malone. “The Fabulous Monster,” Forum, July 1926. As published in The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. By Jeffrey P. Moran. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. p 201.
Tags: progressivism, liberalism, modernism, William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, Scopes Trial, New Republic, Kelo, law, history, society, evolution, creationism