The themes of Inherit the Wind — the necessity of freedom of thought and the value of seeking the truth — are revealed through the many conflicts in the play. The obvious conflict, that between Drummond and Brady, most obviously highlights these themes, but Lawrence and Lee include other conflicts, both external and internal, as well. The conflicts that their characters face in Inherit the Wind give the audience an appreciation for the value of ideas, the need for mutual respect regarding differing perspectives, and the importance of the freedom to think.
The focus of Inherit the Wind is the external conflict between Brady and Drummond. The conflict has been referred to as "the legal battle of the [twentieth] century." Brady, the prosecuting attorney, is on the side of creationism. He is fighting in favor of the Butler Law, which prohibits teaching evolutionary theory in public classrooms in Tennessee. Drummond, Cates' defense attorney, is on the side of evolutionism. He is opposed to the Butler Law because the freedom to think is jeopardized when knowledge is censored.
At one time, the men had been good friends. They admired and understood each other until their opposing beliefs caused them to become adversaries. The conflict between Brady and Drummond is resolved in the play. Brady wins the trial, and Drummond wins a moral victory. Because Cates stood up for what he believed — that it is right to teach evolutionary theory to students — a bad law was "smashed" and Cates has "helped the next fella" who decides to stand up and fight.
The conflict between Brady and Drummond is not just a conflict between two men and their beliefs. Their battle represents conflicts that exist within American society — for example, the continuing conflict between evolutionism and creationism, modernists versus fundamentalists, church versus state, and agnosticism versus faith. Conflicts arise when people do not value or respect differing beliefs. Lawrence and Lee use the conflict between Brady and Drummond to convey the need to fight for the freedom to think and the need to respect differing perspectives.
Lawrence and Lee also bring awareness to cultural conflicts by presenting the differing perspectives between the North and South and between cosmopolitan and rural areas through the external conflict faced by Hornbeck. Hornbeck, a sophisticated newspaper columnist from the city, detests being in Hillsboro, "The buckle on the Bible Belt." He can't wait to get back to civilization (Baltimore, in the North). Even his clothes "contrast sharply with the attire of the townspeople" who live in the rural south. Hornbeck continuously mocks rural Southern society for its ignorance and bigotry and, in contrast, comments on the progressive ideas and beliefs held by people living in cosmopolitan areas of the North.
The conflict Cates experiences is also external. He has violated the Butler law because he taught evolutionary theory to students in a public school in Tennessee. Cates is in jail and is fighting for his freedom and, ultimately, for the repeal of the Butler Law. Cates' conflict is representative of the conflict that exists between collective versus individual rights — in this case, the government of the state of Tennessee versus Cates and his belief that the Butler Law is unjust because it violates his Constitutional rights.
Brady also experiences an internal conflict. He is a dynamic character who changes during the course of the play due to his experiences. When the play begins, Brady is self-confident and arrogant. He is leader of the common people, and he basks in his popularity. He is sure that fundamentalism is right and evolutionism is wrong. As the trial progresses and Brady takes the witness stand to be cross-examined by Drummond, his character changes. He experiences inner conflict because he is forced to admit that he doesn't interpret the Bible literally, a major fundamentalist tenet. His once loyal followers laugh at him and then ignore him as they turn their backs and walk away. Brady is transformed from a confident leader to a tragic character who, because of his ordeal, dies.
Rachel's internal conflict between fundamentalism and modernism enables the authors to convey their belief in freedom of thought and the value of ideas. Raised a fundamentalist, Rachel loves her father (Reverend Brown) and only knows one way to think. She also loves Cates, a modernist who believes in thinking and in wondering about the world. Rachel's conflict involves her love for her father and her lifelong fundamentalist beliefs and her love for Cates and his different thoughts on life and religion. After reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Rachel is enlightened. She chooses to think and recognizes the value of ideas — good or bad. As she tells Cates and Drummond, "I was always afraid of what I might think — so it seemed safer not to think at all . . . But now I know . . . A thought . . . has to be born . . . ideas have to come out. . . . ." Rachel makes the choice to leave Hillsboro and her father with Cates.