Who won the great debate in the 1920s about the future, the modernists or the fundamentalists?

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This debate was not settled, and there was no winner, then or now. In fact, the societal fault lines outlined by the question were shifting even in the Twenties.

Generally, the differences in worldview between so-called "modernists" and "traditionalists" were associated with rural and urban Americans. In the 1920s, advertising, communication, and mass media exposed a wide variety of Americans to what might best be described as an urban culture—one that was remarkably modern. At the same time, "traditionalists" were quick to use the same tools to popularize their worldview, especially evangelical Christians like Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson. Thus, there is a sense in which "traditional" ideas became "modern" in the 1920s.

Public opinion polls were a new phenomenon in the 1920s, so it is very difficult to measure how Americans actually felt about the issues that were associated with modernity and traditionalism. Mass media and the fact that increasing numbers of Americans moved to urban areas contributed to the perception of a cultural divide, and evangelicals, nativists, and many others responded visibly and vocally.

While conclusions are difficult to reach in terms of who "won" the debate, what we can say is that these divisions persisted. As early as the 1930s, "traditionalists" found common ground with corporate interests, the ultimate modernists, in their opposition to the New Deal, which they characterized as socialistic. This coalition between the so-called "religious Right" and business interests would be a powerful force in conservative politics beginning in the 1960s.

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The answer to the question of who won the debate between the modernists and the fundamentalists in the 1920s depends on one's chosen scope and focus. The question can be approached from a broad cultural, social, or political perspective or more specific ones, focused on a religious denomination or some community as a subset of the larger society.

If one is to take the prominent Monkey Scopes Trial (1925), which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow, Bryan won the case against evolution in the classroom in the short run, but Darrow's position triumphed in the long run.

The debate can also be seen as a continuation of a tension in western civilization between reason and faith or secular science and religion, which started long before the 1920s. These positions have coexisted and continue to coexist, overlap, and interact in complex ways, without a resolution even to this day.

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In general, the modernists won the debate in the 1920s, mainly because US society has vastly changed and become far more modern, both socially and technologically, since then. While fundamentalism is still prevalent in our society today, there has been radical change in many ways. Socially, women and minorities have gained numerous rights and liberties. Additionally, at least on the surface level, many hate groups have been eradicated and silenced. Technologically speaking, the developments have been just as vast, connecting the world and society at light speed and allowing us to reach the moon and travel into space and around the world rapidly.

The main change in US society since the early twentieth century is that fundamentalism is no longer viewed as a benevolent belief, for the most part. People who are radical fundamentalists now tend to become violent and aggressive, and the majority of society has learned to adapt to the times. This shift has caused modernism to expand exponentially and create new develops and societal changes that continue to this day.

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In our present-day society, there are aspects present that reflect the perspectives of both the fundamentalists and modernists. While there are certainly aspects of our society that would have been not tolerated by mainstream 1920s American society, such as the growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks, more acceptance of feminist and anti-racist ideals, etc., there are also aspects of fundamentalism in our current society. For example, transgender people face immense societal shaming and intolerance, and much of this intolerance is due to the world-views of right-wing religious individuals and groups.

Societal change does not exist in a vacuum. In the 1920s, for example, women were participating in pubic life and asserting their individualism in ways that were previously seen as unacceptable. However, religious fundamentalism was still deeply ingrained. For instance, women were, in many ways, still considered to be property of their husbands. From reproductive rights to not being legally protected if they were raped by their husbands, women still experienced massive oppressions. There are modernist aspects of our society, while fundamentalism, such as fundamentalist religious intolerance of LGBTQ+ people and anti-science rhetoric, continues to be a source of conflict.

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At the time, the modernists won the debate.  However, the debate is in some ways still being waged and the fundamentalists have retaken some of the ground in the US today.

In general, society has become much more "modern."  To take one very obvious example, women have much more freedom and a greater place in society today.  Religious orthodoxy has much less control of society today, with many fewer places having "blue laws" (restriction to activity on Sunday) and with the disappearance of things like organized teaching of religious values in public school.  In these ways, the modernists have won.  Society will never be as traditional or as dominated by religion as it was in those times.

However, on some issues, the debate is not at all over.  Fundamentalists can be said to have won the debate over evolution, for example.  If polls are to be believed, a large percentage of Americans do not believe in evolution and there are places where alternative explanations must be taught by law in addition to evolution.  In this way, at least, the debate is not over.

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