03 November 2017

From saint of science to Catholic convert

John Thomas Scopes

There are things that you end up learning every day. For example, yesterday I found out that John Scopes, the man who stood up to no less a figure than the mighty Great Commoner himself, William Jennings Bryan (and who in turn was defended by Bryan’s one-time Populist colleague Clarence Darrow) over the topic of evolution, was a convert to Catholicism, and stayed a Latin throughout his life – even having a Roman Catholic burial in Shreveport, Louisiana.

On inspection, it seems like Scopes made his decision for the same reason many fellows end up converting – to please his wife. Scopes remained an agnostic even after having been received into the Catholic Church – he converted only for love. In that he seems a foil for his Hollywood-fictionalised counterpart Bernard Cates of Inherit the Wind, who doesn’t compromise his convictions even though his fiancée pleads with him repeatedly to do so. Still, to my contrarian Tory-radical heart, the little factoid of Scopes’ Catholic conversion produced an altogether too-tempting, deliciously-poetic image of Scopes.

It struck me that a man caught in the middle of the storm between the hard-nosed roundhead bigotry and tea-totalling nativism of Bryan’s nascent fundamentalist-Protestant Religious Right on the one hand; and the cynical bloodless contempt, empty witticism and life-hating eugenicism of Darrow’s and Mencken’s élite high modernism on the other; would be tempted to break off the whole blasted debate. Indeed, that’s what Scopes did. He shunned the spotlight after the trial, hated the very idea of being made a carnival sideshow, refused to cash in on his fame and even burned a stack of his fan/hate mail, convinced that it wouldn’t contain anything valuable, and refused to talk with reporters about the trial afterward, mentioning it only to his immediate family, and only when they asked him first.

It struck me that it would have been well within his character to convert to a religion which both eschews anti-scientific pietism and which rejects an anti-human contempt for the common man – a religion which, moreover, positively invited the opprobrium of both the fundamentalist nativist Right and the cynical modernist sæcular Left. Personally, as an Orthodox Christian, the ‘plague o’ both your houses’ temptation is still a remarkably strong one for me on the ‘scientific issues’ of the day.

Sadly, though, for Scopes this was not the case. Scopes was thinking only of his dark-haired, brown-eyed South Carolinian belle: which, to be sure, is an altogether understandable reason as well. Probably, in the end, it’s nobler and healthier to be a gentleman and get married to one’s lady in the church of her choosing, then settle down out of sight to raise one’s family, than it is to insist on fighting Quixotic intellectual battles. In that, John Thomas Scopes, for all his stated agnosticism, may have been a better catholic Christian than I am.

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