Saturday, December 29, 2007

Dowland reviews Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement

Michael Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) is reviewed for H-Law by Seth Dowland, University Writing Program, Duke University. Dowland writes, in part:
In May 2007, a conservative Christian group called Answers in Genesis opened the gleaming Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. The $27 million facility covers sixty thousand square feet, all of it dedicated to promoting an understanding of the world's origins based on a literal reading of the book of Genesis....

Michael Lienesch's fine new book, In the Beginning, helps us understand the milieu from which the Creation Museum emerged. Lienesch contends that in the years between World War I and the Great Depression, an identifiable antievolution movement took shape. He draws extensively on social movement theory to make sense of the movement's early years. The book demonstrates how opposition to evolution became a cause celebre among conservative Christians, and it illustrates how antievolutionists transformed their ideology into a political movement.

Lienesch begins his narrative by tracing the emergence and early development of fundamentalism, a religious movement that coalesced in the 1910s. Like previous scholars of fundamentalism, Lienesch rejects stereotypes of the movement as a rural, southern phenomenon. He locates fundamentalist origins in major northern cities, such as Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Lienesch differs from previous scholars who have defined fundamentalism according to its doctrinal characteristics. Fundamentalists, he argues, "were less concerned with creating creeds than with constructing community" (p. 10). He demonstrates how fundamentalists used prophecy conferences, bible camps, denominational structures, and published materials to create a movement with a collective identity. Furthermore, Lienesch details how fundamentalists leveraged a sense of shared identity by mobilizing millions of conservative Americans against "modernism."

By creating institutional and rhetorical structures in which conservative Christians could unite around a shared perception of rising secularity, fundamentalists had laid the groundwork for a mass political movement. But in the early 1920s, they lacked an issue around which they could rally their followers. Evolution became that issue. Though complex and poorly understood by most Americans, evolution "seemed somehow less philosophical and more specific than naturalism, materialism, or skepticism" (p. 70). William Jennings Bryan, who was not a fundamentalist himself, nonetheless became the foremost antievolution activist, and he connected the teaching of evolution to all manner of ills. The "Boy Orator of the Platte" contended that evolution "denied the existence of a personal and revealed God, destroyed human morality, and created a war of all against all" (p. 71). In short, evolution became the "symbol for everything that was wrong with the nation" (p. 85).

Fundamentalists' ability to employ evolution as a diagnosis for all that ailed the United States helped them to build alliances with non-fundamentalists, and this coalition building facilitated the transformation of fundamentalism from a religious identity to a mass political movement....

Lienesch's use of social movement theory is both a strength and a weakness. By filtering historical research through the lens of social movement theory, he is able to show not only what fundamentalists thought about evolution but also how they mobilized a diverse constituency against it. But on a few occasions, Lienesch's reliance on theory threatens to overwhelm the historical narrative. The book's final chapter, which tracks the various manifestations of antievolutionism from 1930 to the present, attempts to subsume a host of developments under a handful of theoretical concepts. The theoretical concepts Lienesch introduces here are plausible, but without the patient historical work he provides in the preceding seven chapters, this jaunt through eight decades of history risks oversimplification.
But that is a minor quibble. Lienesch's book succeeds admirably on a number of levels. Lienesch provides a detailed chronological account of early fundamentalism rooted in careful archival work. He offers a model of interdisciplinary scholarship by showing how social movement theory can inform historical research. And most important, Lienesch details how antievolution represents so much more than an "assault on science." Scientists may scoff at the Creation Museum--and at those who buy into its presentation of natural history--but antievolutionism is not going away anytime soon. It behooves all of us to understand how this movement emerged and why it persisted. In the Beginning is a perfect place to start.

The full review is here.