Such reactions are unsurprising in Tennessee, and in a nation where, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 34 percent of the population continues to reject evolution outright. Nearly a century after the Scopes trial, an aversion to scientific findings continues to shape American public policy, with skeptics of the scientific consensus on climate change taking a number of top jobs in President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.
But in Dayton, a tidy town of 7,200 people tucked in the east Tennessee foothills, the bristling fear of a creeping godlessness is just one of a spectrum of reactions to the statue. There is an enduring pride in being a part of American history. There is an eternal hope for tourism revenue — a sense that the event once known as the trial of the century is the town’s great market differentiator, its calling card, its giant ball of twine.
And for some reason, there has always been a blithe streak in Dayton in the face of the grand questions of creation over which Darrow and Bryan wrestled as the denizens of the Jazz Age followed along through radio, newsreels and newspapers.
During the trial, local merchants, hoping to cash in on the trial publicity, festooned their shops with apes and monkeys, and a local drugstore hawked “simian” sodas, according to “Summer for the Gods,” the historian Edward J. Larson’s 1997 account of the trial. Today, downtown Dayton features the two-year-old Monkey Town Brewing Company, a 7,000-square-foot brewpub that offers a double-dry-hopped Evolution IPA.
Brad Putt, the owner of a downtown music store, is among those who say that the statue of Darrow — sculpted by a Pennsylvania artist, Zenos Frudakis, and designed to stand at about the same height as the Bryan statue — simply serves to balance the historical record.
“People around here know that if you have a court case, you have to have two sides,” said Mr. Putt, who fell back on Eastern philosophy and the “Transformers” movies to bolster his case: “You can’t have Optimus Prime unless you have Megatron. You’ve got to have a yin to the yang.”
The opposition to the Darrow statue, which was installed Thursday morning, has been headed by June Griffin, 77, a repeat long-shot candidate for political office who was once lampooned by “The Daily Show” for her creationist beliefs. She was instrumental in arranging a July 1 anti-Darrow rally at the courthouse that included State Senator Mae Beavers, a Republican candidate for governor, and Larry Tomczak, a public policy adviser to the conservative Liberty Counsel. He described the gathering as a protest against the “ongoing attempt by secularists in America to blur or remove symbols reminding us of our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
In an interview this week at her knickknack store, adorned with paeans to God and country (a current sign reads “Darrow ACLU’s Favorite Communist”), Ms. Griffin predicted that the statue would not last long in the heart of the Bible Belt.
“There are a bunch of people back on the mountain, you don’t know what they’re going to do,” she said. “But I’m just going to leave them to their devices.”
Ms. Griffin’s efforts, however, have induced a certain amount of gentle disdain of the bless-her-heart variety, even among some Christians like Mr. Putt. Kirby Garrison, 27, the co-owner of the brewpub, said an unwritten rule in a small town like this was to avoid explosive topics like the intersection of religion and science — or at least limit them to Facebook.
“Unless you really want to spark off a debate, it’s kind of, ‘Keep it to yourself,’” he said.
If Dayton has had more than the normal share of controversy over the last 92 years, it has certainly brought it on itself. Its civic leaders, in an effort to raise the city’s public profile, arranged for Dayton to be the venue for the trial, which civil libertarians hoped would test a state law at the time that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. They even handpicked John T. Scopes, a teacher, as the defendant.
With the aid of Bryan — a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and staunch defender of traditional Christianity — the prosecution won its case, but many credit Darrow with landing serious blows against Bryan’s version of biblical inerrancy while examining him on the witness stand. Bryan died in Dayton a few days after the verdict was handed down.
In 1930, Bryan College, an evangelical Christian school, was founded in his honor in Dayton. It has had its share of controversy as well. In the early 2000s a federal lawsuit prevented its students from teaching religious classes in local public schools. The college reached a confidential settlement in 2014 with two former professors who were fired after they refused to sign a clarification of the school’s statement of beliefs that declared Adam and Eve to be “historical persons created by God in a special formative act.”
In 2005, in honor of its 75th anniversary, the college erected the Bryan statue in front of the courthouse. Four years later, William Dusenberry, a retired sociology professor at New Jersey City University who calls himself an “atheist pantheist,” made a road-trip detour to see the site of the famous trial and noticed the one statue of Bryan, which led to the effort to fund and create the Darrow statue.
Tom Davis is one of a number of Christians in town who are pleased with the new addition. In fact, Mr. Davis, a creationist, was the president of the county historical society when it approved the plans for the project.
Mr. Davis is also the main organizer of the yearly Scopes Festival, which for years has featured a play based on the trial that he said aimed to be fair to both Darrow and Bryan. (The bluegrass festival is a new addition to the festivities this year.) A small museum in the courthouse basement also strives for objectivity.
While Mr. Davis said he felt threatened by what he saw as creeping secularization, he said the statue did not seem threatening at all.
“If I’m going to oppose a different belief, I’d better understand it,” he said.
Among those at the official dedication of the statue Friday morning were Mr. Frudakis, the artist, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group. Ms. Gaylor said in an interview on Wednesday that she would come to town holding no grudges.
“It’s the missing link,” she deadpanned, “in the courthouse display.”