If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole Camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign alliances, and denounced their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for all forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whisky whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors. (H. L. Mencken, Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918)
Here’s help from H. L. Mencken:
Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith surely an important matter in any competent biography is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs.
As for me, I still wonder. (“Five Men at Random: Abraham Lincoln”)
The Congregationalist pastor, William E. Barton was, by the way, the father of Bruce Barton, the same writer who turned Jesus into a model business executive in The Man Nobody Knows
When little Felix comes home to his patriotic and Christian home with the news that the Fathers of 1776 were a gang of smugglers and profiteers, and when his sister Flora follows with the news that Moses did not write his own obituary and that the baby, Gustave, was but recently indistinguishable from a tadpole, and later on from a nascent gorilla—when such subversive and astounding doctrines are brought home from the groves of learning there ensues inevitably a ringing of fire- bells, with a posse on the march against some poor pedagogue.
What I maintain is simply that the vigilantes are right and the pedagogue wrong. His error lies in assuming that taxpayers lay out their hard-earned money for the breeding of traitors and atheists; taxpayers actually lay out their money for the breeding of more taxpayers like themselves. And their natural desire that this program be followed strictly is supported by the overwhelming force of the state, which loses strength and authority in direct ratio as its citizens become heretics. What holds it up is not primarily brute force, as so many theorists argue; what holds it up is the fact that, on all really essential questions, the vast majority of its citizens think exactly alike—that there is never any general doubt of the fundamental communal superstitions. Once those superstitions are seriously challenged, the whole fabric of the state begins to crumble. The true function of the pedagogue is not to attack them, but to propagate them. His is a sort of priestly office. He is not paid to marshal doubts and weigh probabilities; he is paid to expound revelation. If he finds himself temperamentally unable to discharge that solemn and awful duty, then he should quit pedagogy and go into bootlegging or some other free craft. So long as he is publicly consecrated to the birch, he can no more depart from his text-book with seemliness than a Christian clergyman could depart from his sworn belief in witches.
It is these sick and wounded of the army of learning, I suspect, who are responsible for most of the academic Bolshevism that now fills the newspapers. Having been purged, by their superior education, of the fundamental communal superstitions—or, at all events, of a few of them—they get revenge upon the society that ill-uses them by inoculating the children of honest Rotarians with their own odd and often nonsensical heresies. These are the fellows who, at frequent intervals, commit scandalum magnatum by teaching that the American patriot infantry, at Bunker Hill, ran all the way down the hill, or that General Grant was a heavy lusher, or that the Bolsheviki have not really nationalized women, or that the world is older than the Bible says, or that the Nordic Blond, biologically, is no more than a bald chimpanzee. And these are the fellows who yell that they are undone when indignant trustees give them the gate.
It seems to me that those who protest against their thus getting the gate fall into the elemental error of assuming, only too often, that an American college is the exact equivalent of a European university. It is called a university, and so they accept it as one in fact. But it is really nothing of the kind. There has been but one genuine university in the United States in our time—the Johns Hopkins under Gilman—and it turned itself into a college with frantic haste the moment he died. The college student differs from a university student in a most important way: his formal education, when he matriculates, is not completed, but simply entering upon its last stage. That is to say, he has not yet taken in the whole of that body of correct and respectable ideas which all of us must somehow absorb before we are competent to think for ourselves—at all events, to any rational purpose and effect.
Only too often the fact is overlooked that even the most bold and talented of philosophers must suffer that stuffing before he is ready to go it alone. Aristotle, you may be sure, had the Greek alphabet rammed into him like any other Greek of his time, and studied the multiplication table, and learned the elements of Greek civics, and all that was then accepted about the nature of the Persians, the functions of the liver, and the aorist. Kant was grounded in Prussian history, the humoral pathology, and the Leibnitzian law of preestablished harmony. Even Nietzsche had to master the grammar-book, the catechism and the Lutheran psalm-book, that he might be a good German and keep out of jail. Such training takes time, for children naturally resist it; it takes more time in America than elsewhere because our elementary-schools, in late years, devote themselves mainly to fol-de-rols borrowed from the Boy Scouts, Greenwich Village and Bernarr Macfadden. Thus the young American, when he enters college, is still only half-educated in the conventional sense. At least three of his four years are consumed in completing the lowly business of making him fit to vote, keep a checkbook accurately, and understand what is in his newspaper. Every now and then some humorist subjects a class of freshmen to what is called a general information test. Four-fifths of them invariably turn out to be as ignorant as so many European schoolboys of ten or eleven.
Obviously, it is as imprudent to parade political heresies before such infants as it would be to lecture on obstetrics before girls of thirteen. When they are graduated at last, they are perhaps ripe for it, but when they are graduated they commonly depart the halls of learning for the bond business. The relatively few who remain seem to suffer no damage from such ideas as they encounter in the graduate-schools. At all events, there is never any complaint that they are being ruined, nor do they themselves complain that the notions of the salient anarchists are being withheld from them. Most of them, having no desire save to get their Ph. D.’s and settle down as pedagogues, are probably anaesthetic to whatever play of ideas goes on about them. A few, taking fire, afterward lecture scandalously in the prairie “universities” to which they are doomed, stir up the students to revolt against their colleagues, and so get themselves cashiered. But not many. Nor is the practical damage serious. There is always room enough for the minority of genuinely intelligent fellows in the graduate-schools whence they came. The spotlights of Babbitt do not bathe these schools, for his sons are not in them; thus they are quite free to monkey with ideas all they please, even with red-hot ones. (H. L. Mencken, “In the Rolling Mills,” Prejudices, Sixth Series, 1927)
“Life in the Republic grows increasingly uncomfortable to men of the more urbane and seemly sort, and, despite the great material prosperity of the country, the general stock of happiness probably diminishes steadily. For the thing that makes us enjoy the society of our fellows is not admiration of their inner virtues but delight in their outward manners. It is not enough that they are headed for heaven, and will sit upon the right hand of God through all eternity; it is also necessary that they be polite, generous, and, above all, trustworthy. We must have confidence in them in order to get any pleasure out of associating with them. We must be sure that they will not do unto us as we should refuse, even for cash in hand, to do unto them. It is the tragedy of the Puritan that he can never inspire this confidence in his fellow-men. He is by nature a pedant in ethics, and hence he is by nature a mucker. With the best of intentions he cannot rid himself of the belief that it is his duty to save us from our follies— i. e., from all the non-puritanical acts and whimsies that make life charming. His duty to let us be happy takes second, third or fourth place. A Puritan cannot be tolerant—and with tolerance goes magnanimity.
The late Dr. Woodrow Wilson was a typical Puritan—of the better sort, perhaps, for he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman, but nevertheless a true Puritan. Magnanimity was simply beyond him. Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor old [Eugene V.] Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail. I daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln. But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed. In the full bloom of health, with a plug hat on his head, he aped the gentry of his wistful adoration very cleverly, but lying in bed, stripped like
Thackeray’s Louis XIV, he reverted to his congenital Puritanism, which is to say, bounderism. (“From the Memoirs of a Subject of the United States,” Prejudices, Sixth Series)
Imagine preaching a prayer.
Sometimes Tim Challies includes prayers from the congregation where he worships (the pattern seems to be using a common text for confession of sin rather than producing a transcript of the pastoral prayer):
Merciful God, we admit we have sinned. We have not nailed it in our spiritual lives. And even if we have not sinned badly, like David, we all stand together in need of Christ — the proof of Your mercy. He is our salvation. Our Rescuer. Our Redeemer. Our only hope to stand before You is to stand in His mercy… secured for us by His cross. So we throw ourselves upon You, God. For you are full of mercy. Amen
Of course, it is much easier to find Christian prayers in the prayer books of liturgical communions. Here is the Prayer of the Church from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for August 30, 2020:
Knowing the will of God that all would come to the knowledge of Your Son and find salvation in Christ, let us pray on behalf of our parish community and for all people according to their needs.
For our faith and faithfulness, especially for those persecuted for the cause of Christ; and
For our strength in time of trial and for us to persevere in grace in the day of trouble, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For the Church, Jerusalem on high, our mother in Christ until Christ is fully formed in us;
For the pastors who serve us, that they may be faithful stewards of God’s mysteries; and
For those at home and abroad, who bring the message of salvation to those who have not heard, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For Donald, our president; _____________, our governor; and all legislators and civil servants;
For those who must render judgment and impose punishment upon lawbreakers; and
For those who work for peace among the nations, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For favorable weather and for those who tend the soil and harvest its fruits;
For business and industry, service workers and artisans;
For generosity toward those in need; and
For the unemployed and underemployed, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For those married, that they would live in fidelity to their vows and promises;
For parents as they teach their children to know and love the Lord;
For single adults, that they may find fulfillment in their service to others; and
For our lives together showing the love of Christ one to another, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For grace to take up the cross and follow the Lord wherever He leads;
For courage in the face of challenge and adversity; and
For compassion and harmony in our life together, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For holy lives of faith;
For faith to receive the Lord’s gift of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament; and
For this holy assembly, that we may present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For our remembrance of the saints and grace to follow their example of faith;
For God to grant us a place with them in their fellowship; and
For our eternal life in God’s kingdom without end, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy….
Would you, if you were a pastor, preach either of these prayers? That may seem like a silly question. But if pastors preach from the Psalter, which they do, I’ve seen them, then preaching prayers is fairly routine at least among Reformed Protestants.
Take, for instance, Psalm 5:
Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
2 Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you[a] and watch.
4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.
But just because preaching the Psalms is familiar, the idea of preaching prayers is strange.
That could explain why, aside from how challenging Hebrew poetry can be, sermons on the Psalms can be hard to follow. Or often the three-point sermon treatment of a Psalm can seem artificial. I’m not sure that even H. L. Mencken is any help. He believed the Old Testament contained poetry “so overwhelmingly voluptuous and disarming that no other literature, old or new, can offer a match for it.”
That is high praise, but worship is not a seminar either in aesthetics or poetry.
From James Burtchaell’s history of Christian colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light:
Originally Davidson tied its identity to the Presbyterian church and required that the church serve as the guarantor of the college’s fidelity. When that became outdated the college undertook to vouch for its own fidelity. With the 1972 bylaws it fairly well disengaged itself from any norm or authority for faithful discipleship — Calvinist fundamentals, church, Westminster, Scriptures, or Jesus. The president and twenty-two of the forty voting trustees had to be members of the PCUS. No one else at Davidson College, including the educators, had to be in communion with that church. The only entity binding them together was a statement of purpose, which both Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken could perhaps have found their way to embrace. At this very time the moderator of the General Assembly was lecturing the church on their need to learn to live with the new onset of pluralism within their fellowship. . . .
There seems to be a problem in the bloodstream of the Presbyterians that has affected their colleges. The church was, from the beginning, largely composed of an industrious bourgeoisie. They were already well educated, and their Calvinist consciousness of public polity had from the beginning made Presbyterians instinctively supportive of the American civil authorities (as distinct from the British authorities, who had awarded them a hedged citizenship). Over here the Presbyterians were culture-friendly, and from the beginning they marketed their colleges openly: not simply to attract students and income, but because they saw the nation as a divinely blessed commonwealth. In this mood their educators were wholly undisposed to see their colleges as intellectually set apart. For moral purposes they were prepared to make their campuses defensive havens against a threatening environment, but not for intellectual purposes. Marsden and Longfield see this:
In 1935 H. Richard Niebuhr had warned that “if the church has no other plan of salvation . . . than one of deliverance by force, education, idealism or planned economy, it really has no existence as a church and needs to resolve itself into a political party or a school.” By the latter half of the twentieth century most mainline Protestant church schools had resolved themselves into being simply schools. . . Twentieth-century mainline Presbyterians, assuming that they were part of the cultural establishment, have seldom seen American culture as a threat and so have trusted in education. (221, 234-35)
Teaching Mencken during a pandemic is downright riveting. Imagine reading these observations while quarantined (with cats or not):
The suicide rate, so I am told by an intellgient mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive? Yet nearly all of us cling to life with desperate devotion, even when the length of it remaining is palpably slight, and filled with agony. Half the time of all medical men is wasted keeping life in human wrecks who have no more intelligible reason for hanging on than a cow has for giving milk.
In part, no doubt, this absurd frenzy has its spring in the human imagination, or, as it is more poetically called, the human reason. Man, having acquired the high faculty of visualizing death, visualizes it as something painful and dreadful. It is, of course, seldom anything of the sort. The proceedings anterior to it are sometimes (though surely not always) painful, but death itself appears to be devoid of sensation, either psychic or physical. The candidate, facing it at last, simply loses his faculties. It is no more to him than it is to a coccus. . . .
[M]en work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life — that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid and permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. (On Suicide, 1926)
What about how to dispose of human remains?
One of the crying needs of the time in this incomparable Republic is for a suitable Burial Service for the admittedly damned. I speak as one who has of late attended the funeral orgies of several such gentlemen, each time to my esthetic distress. The first of them, having a great abhorrence of rhetoric in all its branches, left strict orders that not a word was to be said at his obsequies. The result was two extremely chilly and uncomfortable moments: when six of us walked into his house in utter silence and carried out his clay, and when we stood by as it was shoved, in the same crawling silence, into the fire-box of the crematory. The whole business was somehow unnatural and even a shade indecent: it violated one of the most ancient sentiments of homo sapiens to dispatch so charming a fellow in so cavalier a fashion. One felt almost irresistibly impelled to say good-by to him in some manner or other, if only, soldier fashion, by blowing a bugle and rolling a drum. Even the mortician, an eminent star of one of the most self-possessed of professions, looked a bit uneasy. . . .
What is needed, and what I bawl for politely, is a service that is free from the pious but unsupported asseverations that revolt so many of our best minds, and yet remains happily graceful and consoling. It will be very hard, I grant you, to concoct anything as lasciviously beautiful as the dithyrambs in the Book of Common Prayer. Who wrote them originally I don’t know, but whoever did it was a poet. They put the highly improbable into amazingly luscious words, and the palpably not-true into words even more arresting and disarming. It is impossible to listen to them, when they are intoned by a High Church rector of sepulchral gifts, without harboring a sneaking wish that, by some transcendental magic, they could throw off their lowly poetical character and take on the dignity and reliability of prose — in other words, that the departed could be actually imagined as leaping out of the grave on the Last Morn, his split colloids all restored to their pristine complexity, his clothes neatly scoured and pressed, and every molecule of him thrilling with a wild surmise. (Clarion Call to Poets, 1927)
And then there is Mencken’s propensity for thinking outside the box:
What reason is there for believing that a high death-rate in itself, is undesirable? To my knowledge none whatever. The plain fact is that, if it be suitably selective, it is extremely salubrious. Suppose it could be so arranged that it ran to 100% a year among politicians, executive secretaries, drive chairmen, and the homicidally insane? What rational man would object? (Christian Science, 1927)
Happy computer modelling.
Worse, a minority not only has no more inalienable rights in the United States; it is not even lawfully entitled to be heard. This was well established by the case of the Socialists elected to the New York Assembly. What the voters who elected these Socialists asked for was simply the privilege of choosing spokesmen to voice their doctrines in a perfectly lawful and peaceable manner,—nothing more. This privilege was denied them. In precisely the same way, the present national House of Representatives, which happens to be Republican in complexion, might expel all of its Democratic members. The voters who elected them would have no redress. If the same men were elected again, or other men of the same views, they might be expelled again. More, it would apparently be perfectly constitutional for the majority in Congress to pass a statute denying the use of the mails to the minority—that is, for the Republicans to bar all Democratic papers from the mails. I do not toy with mere theories. The thing has actually been done in the case of the Socialists. Under the present law, indeed—upheld by the Supreme Court—the Postmaster-General, without any further authority from Congress, might deny the mails to all Democrats. Or to all Catholics. Or to all single-taxers. Or to all violoncellists.
Yet more, a citizen who happens to belong to a minority is not even safe in his person: he may be put into prison, and for very long periods, for the simple offense of differing from the majority. This happened, it will be recalled, in the case of Debs. Debs by no means advised citizens subject to military duty, in time of war, to evade that duty, as the newspapers of the time alleged. On the contrary, he advised them to meet and discharge that duty. All he did was to say that, even in time of war, he was against war—that he regarded it as a barbarous method of settling disputes between nations. For thus differing from the majority on a question of mere theory he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The case of the three young Russians arrested in New York was even more curious. These poor idiots were jailed for the almost incredible crime of circulating purely academic protests against making war upon a country with which the United States was legally at peace, to wit, Russia. For this preposterous offense two of them were sent to prison for fifteen years, and one, a girl, for ten years, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions. Here was a plain case of proscription and punishment for a mere opinion. There was absolutely no contention that the protest of the three prisoners could have any practical result—that it might, for example, destroy the morale of American soldiers 6,000 miles away, and cut off from all communication with the United States. The three victims were ordered to be punished in that appalling manner simply because they ventured to criticise an executive usurpation which happened, at the moment, to have the support of public opinion, and particularly of the then President of the United States and of the holders of Russian government securities.
It must be obvious, viewing such leading cases critically—and hundreds like them might be cited—that the old rights of the free American, so carefully laid down by the Bill of Rights, are now worth nothing. Bit by bit, Congress and the State Legislatures have invaded and nullified them, and to-day they are so flimsy that no lawyer not insane would attempt to defend his client by bringing them up. Imagine trying to defend a man denied the use of the mails by the Postmaster-General, without hearing or even formal notice, on the ground that the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech! The very catchpolls in the courtroom would snicker. I say that the legislative arm is primarily responsible for this gradual enslavement of the Americano; the truth is, of course, that the executive and judicial arms are responsible to a scarcely less degree. Our law has not kept pace with the development of our bureaucracy; there is no machinery provided for curbing its excesses. In Prussia, in the old days, there were special courts for the purpose, and a citizen oppressed by the police or by any other public official could get relief and redress. The guilty functionary could be fined, mulcted in damages, demoted, cashiered, or even jailed. But in the United States to-day there are no such tribunals. A citizen attacked by the Postmaster-General simply has no redress whatever; the courts have refused, over and over again, to interfere save in cases of obvious fraud. Nor is there, it would seem, any remedy for the unconstitutional acts of Prohibition agents. Some time ago, when Senator Stanley, of Kentucky, tried to have a law passed forbidding them to break into a citizen’s house in violation of the Bill of Rights, the Prohibitionists mustered up their serfs in the Senate against him, and he was voted down.
Imagine if Reformed Protestants were a minority.
I wonder if Timothy Isaiah Cho saw this (or thinks Jewish American who admire Machen are racist):
We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.
For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.
You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”
What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.
How did we get here? It is, as you might’ve guessed, a complicated question. In part, it has to do with the fluidity of the terms we use when we talk about being Jewish. Ours, we agree, is not only a religion but also an ethnicity, a confluence that can confuse us into assuming Judaism is big enough for whatever multitude we wish it to contain. It’s not. As inviting as our tradition of dissent and divergent interpretations is, at its core, it is impossible to divorce from the concrete theological foundations on which it rests. Like divine election, for example: Whether you consider the Jews followers of a faith, members of a nation, or both, you can hardly ignore the historical and doctrinal truth that they became whatever they may now be one day long ago at the foothills of a mountain far away, when they accepted the strange burden of becoming God’s chosen children. Considered from a modern, cosmopolitan perspective, it’s an inconvenient truth, which is why you likely won’t hear it discussed very often in op-eds or sermons. Wrestling with the bond that ties us to the Creator is hard; preaching some gauzy nicety about embracing the Other is not.
Don’t get me wrong: I take no inherent issue with progressive values, nor do I believe that they’ve positively no place in Judaism. But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—have no place in religion unless they spring, exclusively and clearly and forcefully, from theology. Otherwise, the City of God and the City of Man become one and the same: a dull and loud place in which no spirit can ever soar.
It is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Mencken’s book, In Defense of Women. An excerpt:
This sentimentality in marriage is seldom, if ever, observed in women. For reasons that we shall examine later, they have much more to gain by the business than men, and so they are prompted by their cooler sagacity to enter upon it on the most favourable terms possible, and with the minimum admixture of disarming emotion. Men almost invariably get their mates by the process called falling in love; save among the aristocracies of the North and Latin men, the marriage of convenience is relatively rare; a hundred men marry “beneath” them to every woman who perpetrates the same folly. And what is meant by this so-called falling in love? What is meant by it is a procedure whereby a man accounts for the fact of his marriage, after feminine initiative and generalship have made it inevitable, by enshrouding it in a purple maze of romance—in brief, by setting up the doctrine that an obviously self-possessed and mammalian woman, engaged deliberately in the most important adventure of her life, and with the keenest understanding of its utmost implications, is a naive, tender, moony and almost disembodied creature, enchanted and made perfect by a passion that has stolen upon her unawares, and which she could not acknowledge, even to herself, without blushing to death. By this preposterous doctrine, the defeat and enslavement of the man is made glorious, and even gifted with a touch of flattering naughtiness. The sheer horsepower of his wooing has assailed and overcome her maiden modesty; she trembles in his arms; he has been granted a free franchise to work his wicked will upon her. Thus do the ambulant images of God cloak their shackles proudly, and divert the judicious with their boastful shouts.
Women, it is almost needless to point out, are much more cautious about embracing the conventional hocus-pocus of the situation. They never acknowledge that they have fallen in love, as the phrase is, until the man has formally avowed the delusion, and so cut off his retreat; to do otherwise would be to bring down upon their heads the mocking and contumely of all their sisters. With them, falling in love thus appears in the light of an afterthought, or, perhaps more accurately, in the light of a contagion. The theory, it would seem, is that the love of the man, laboriously avowed, has inspired it instantly, and by some unintelligible magic; that it was non-existent until the heat of his own flames set it off. This theory, it must be acknowledged, has a certain element of fact in it. A woman seldom allows herself to be swayed by emotion while the principal business is yet afoot and its issue still in doubt; to do so would be to expose a degree of imbecility that is confined only to the half-wits of the sex. But once the man is definitely committed, she frequently unbends a bit, if only as a relief from the strain of a fixed purpose, and so, throwing off her customary inhibitions, she, indulges in the luxury of a more or less forced and mawkish sentiment. It is, however, almost unheard of for her to permit herself this relaxation before the sentimental intoxication of the man is assured. To do otherwise—that is, to confess, even post facto, to an anterior descent,—would expose her, as I have said, to the scorn of all other women. Such a confession would be an admission that emotion had got the better of her at a critical intellectual moment, and in the eyes of women, as in the eyes of the small minority of genuinely intelligent men, no treason to the higher cerebral centres could be more disgraceful. (7. The Feminine Attitude)