The separation of church and state is put on trial in Tennessee.
The Fundamentalist Party, engaged just now at Dayton in defending an ancient Chaldean creation myth which was copied into the first chapter of Genesis twenty-three hundred years ago, is by far the most interesting factor in American politics.
It does not call itself a party or believe itself to be one. It is not commonly recognized as such. Its leaders neither hold nor seek public office, and it took a rare humorist to picture Mr. Bryan as hoping to be elected to the Presidency on the Fundamentalist ticket. Nominally and to outward appearance, the Fundamentalist Party is a religious organization and that alone. In effect, however, it is much more. Without troubling to name candidates for office, it aims to control the men who are already in office by coercing legislatures and ultimately Congress and thus securing what all political parties strive to secure — namely, laws embodying its own convictions. According to Mr. Bryan the Fundamentalist Party will not be satisfied with writing a defense of the twenty-three-hundred-year-old Chaldean creation myth into the criminal code of State after State; it must be written into the federal Constitution itself.
Journalists laugh. But they are the same journalists who laughed when these same people, not satisfied with capturing State after State for prohibition, began to talk of an Eighteenth Amendment.
But evolution is only superficially the issue at Dayton. At bottom, the issue is a vastly older and vastly more important question — the question as to whether the separation of church and state shall be maintained. To be sure, there is no mention of this at Dayton. The fundamentalists are not saying, even among themselves: “There should be a Protestant state church in America,” nor are they saying, even among themselves: “Theocracy is the ideal system of government.” No more are they saying, even among themselves: “Fundamentalism attempts to establish a protectorate over the United States of America. Just as a Khedive is retained in Egypt, or a Sultan in Morocco, or a Maharajah in India, so the present rulers will be retained in America; only, the Fundamentalist Party will rule those rulers.” No such monstrous ambitions are consciously entertained by fundamentalists, but the significance of fundamentalism lies not in what it is consciously but in what it is unconsciously. Unconsciously, it puts the church above the state.
That it should fail to recognize that it is doing so is not remarkable. Less than a third of its clergymen have ever attended any college. Many of them are graduates of such establishments as the Moody Bible Institute, “entrance requirement a common-school education or its equivalent.” The majority received their training in seminaries which Dr. Robert Lincoln Kelley, special investigator for the Institute of Social and Religious Research, describes as “scarcely qualifying as educational institutions.” Great numbers of them preach “the literal, bodily, visible, imminent return of Jesus Christ to this earth as king.” That, for example, is the belief of Mr. Bryan’s distinguished colleague, the Rev. J. Frank Norris, who has repeatedly appeared before State legislatures in defense of “monkey bills.” It is likewise the belief of the Rev. W. A. (Billy) Sunday, who, next to Mr. Bryan, is probably the fundamentalist swaying the greatest number of American minds.