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.
Among the fundamentalist rank and file, profundity of intellect is not too prevalent, nor is the understanding of politics in the larger sense of the word. From that rank and file comes the membership of the Ku Klux Klan. But an understanding of politics in the narrow sense of the word is not lacking by any means. Under Mr. Bryan’s shrewd guidance the movement thrives, and the fundamentalists have learned much by experience. As the Prohibition Party, seeking to put their leaders into office, they failed. As the Anti-Saloon League, coercing the men already in office, they succeeded. The lesson is not forgotten, and the technique acquired in learning it remains an invaluable asset. Just as the Anti-Saloon League bullied legislative bodies by claiming “an overwhelming majority of the American people,” so the fundamentalists claim that only a handful of atheists want “Darwinism” taught in our public schools.
Politicians are not fooled into imagining that Mr. Bryan is backed by “an overwhelming majority of the American people.” All told, the fundamentalists number hardly more than twenty-five million. Something like 70 percent of them are women, and women have not extensively availed themselves of their right to vote. But politicians know that on one issue appearing to involve a defense of Christianity, so called, against atheism, so called, the threat to “get out the woman vote” may well be taken seriously.
Under a republic such as the framers of the Constitution supposed that they were founding, twenty-five million fundamentalists would not be a particularly grave menace. Representatives, chosen for their wisdom and good conscience, were to legislate in accordance with their wisdom and good conscience, ignoring “the mob.” But, though the capital is still at Washington, remote from great centers of population, and though an electoral college still goes through the ancient ceremony of choosing the President, lest “mob” influence should prevail, we long ago abandoned the republican form of government. The mob rules. Of this or that obnoxious bill, a Congressman or Senator will say frankly: “I don’t believe in any such measure, but I shall vote for it because I learn that my constituents desire me to.” For this he is not only unrebuked, he is applauded.
No one foresaw that America would change from a republic to a democracy. Today, it seems ridiculous to hint that America may in course of time change from a democracy to a theocracy. But only a short while ago it would have seemed as ridiculous to predict that a former Secretary of State, holding honorary degrees from several institutions of learning, would one day be defending a twenty-three-hundred-year-old Chaldean creation myth, and, in so doing, advocate the principles of theocratic despotism.
Nothing about America is more curious than its choice of fears. With the utmost ease any impostor can convince America that Jews are about to control us, though there are hardly three million Jews in the entire country. It is a simple matter, likewise, to convince America that the Catholic church hopes sometime to control us, though Catholics believe in the separation of church and state, and though we have in all only 18,000,000 Catholics in the country. Yet, despite the fundamentalists’ much greater numerical strength, despite their success in forcing Congress and the legislatures to adopt national prohibition, despite their already more or less successful demand for the religious control of public education, and despite what is now going on at Dayton, it is with difficulty that any American can awaken in himself a very lively fear when he inquires where all this is going to end. We clearly perceive and resent the apparently isolated onslaughts of fundamentalism upon our liberties, but do not recognize as clearly or as resentfully its underlying policy. We combat it, not in its essential character, but in its manifestation. We have an Association Against the Prohibition Amendment to fight fundamentalism’s control in matters of personal habit. We have a Science League in America to fight its “monkey bills.” But we have as yet failed to combat its underlying policy by founding a League to Maintain the Separation of Church and State.
Through methods purely educational, such a league might do quite a little toward Christianizing the fundamentalists. Gently, and with suitably adroit diplomacy, it could remind them that Jesus of Nazareth, to whose precepts and example they now attach but slight importance, never prosecuted his fellow-men for seeking enjoyments different from his own, and never sought to obtain from the Roman government the power to do so. He conceived of religion as a persuasive, not as a coercive, force. He believed in the separation of church and state.