All About M(mmm)e(eeeeEEEEE)ncken

My editor made me do this.

Tonight I’ll be delivering a book talk on Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken. The event starts at 7:30 and takes place in the Dow Center at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale County has an airport. If you plan to fly in for the event, call (517) 797-4833.

Here is how the book begins:

H. L. Mencken remains a man who needs no introduction to any American familiar with literary and social criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who covered most of the national political conventions for four decades, along with the Scopes Trial, and prize boxing matches to boot, Mencken became a literary critic for The Smart Set, eventually took over that magazine, and then went on to found another literary publication, The American Mercury. As editor, Mencken published the early work of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Eugene O’Neill, and Ezra Pound. Many of those same authors revered Mencken. Even Ernest Hemingway, a novelist for whom Mencken had little regard, paid deference to The American Mercury’s editor in The Sun Also Rises. To explain Robert Cohn’s inability to enjoy Hemingway blamed Mencken, who “hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.”

The author of more than fifty books – the first to write in English on George Bernard Shaw and on Friedrich Nietzsche – his topics ranged as wide as women and European night life. Mencken was also an amateur philologist whose American Language cataloged sometimes brilliantly the differences between British and American English. That overview hardly does justice to Mencken’s output and influence. According to the literary critic, Alfred Kazin, “If Mencken had never lived, it would have taken a whole army of assorted philosophers, monologists, editors, and patrons of the new writing to make up for him.” According to Edmund Wilson, long-time critic for The New Yorker and the New Republic, Mencken was “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist.” According to Terry Teachout, another critic and one of Mencken’s biographers, Wilson’s acknowledgment was “[i]f anything an understatement.”

Aside from the sheer volume of his writing, Mencken was remarkable for a prose style rarely executed before or since. In a review of one of his books, Walter Lippmann acknowledged that Mencken’s reputation for calling average people “cockroaches and lice” lapsed into “unjust tirades.” Even so, Mencken had attracted a large readership because “this Holy Terror from Baltimore is splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.” Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer for The Nation, wrote soon after Mencken’s death that the Baltimorean was the best prose writer in twentieth-century America, a man whose gift “was inimitable” and who used “as a genuine instrument of expression a vocabulary and a rhythm which in other hands stubbornly refused to yield anything but vulgarity.” More recently, Joseph Epstein wrote that much of Mencken’s appeal owed to his comedy and uplift. “Some writers . . . do lift one out of the gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes,” Epstein explained. Mencken was one of them and one of the ways he did that, Epstein added, was by having “an appreciation for the reality of things.” “His animus against the [idealists] of the world is that, with their concepts and notions, they flattened out reality – and, in the act of doing so, not only got things wrong but made them less interesting than they are.” The collision of Mencken’s candor and Americans’ idealism was always riveting. To capture some of that amusement this book violates rules against learned in graduate school. This book includes many block quotations, the crutch of the young historian. The hope is that readers unfamiliar with Mencken will appreciate the appeal of his prose. Another reason for violating historical protocol is to stave off the boredom that afflicts authors when reading and proofing manuscripts. At least Mencken will keep this reader awake.


Deconstructing Evangelicalism

I told you so:

There’s another problem here. Many of the best pollsters lack a deep understanding of the subtle outlines of the thing they’re trying to measure. It’s hard enough to quantify evangelicalism when you basically, if vaguely, grasp what it is, but it’s almost impossible to do so if you’re otherwise unable to tell a Pentecostal from a Presbyterian. So it would seem like the pollsters best-qualified to tackle this tricky business would be those with a first-hand, native-born understanding of what American evangelical Christianity is really like — knowledge that comes from living it on the inside.

But there’s a little problem with that, and a big problem with that. The little problem, as we’ve already mentioned, is that evangelical Christians themselves aren’t usually any better able to limn the outlines of their category than anyone else — hence the NAE turning to a British scholar of religious history to describe for them who they are. As the old joke says, if you want to know what water is like, don’t ask a fish.

The big problem, though, is a doozy. Part of the character of evangelical Christianity is that it is contentious and disputed. Bebbington didn’t include this in his quadrilateral, but it has been true ever since at least the Reformation, and it greatly intensified throughout the 20th century. Evangelicalism is, among other things, a category of people who are perpetually arguing over which among them does and does not legitimately belong in that category. The definition of “evangelical” provided by any given evangelical, therefore, tends to be fraught. Evangelicals have a hard time measuring their group without taking the opportunity to declare that others aren’t measuring up and don’t legitimately belong with the rest.
So even though we have some very skilled evangelical pollsters and data-crunchers, and even though they’ve done some laudable work trying to refine their measurements and metrics, these folks also tend to be bound up and beholden to the very same evangelical institutions involved in the tradition’s never-ending disputes over legitimacy. When those institutions seek a head-count of evangelicals or a measure of evangelical opinions, they’re almost always also seeking to count others out.

Back then W. was in the White House, evangelicals had access to power, and White Christian America was only in critical condition. Deconstructing evangelicalism then was a lot harder to do than it is in the age of Trump.

Did P&W Make Straight the Way for BLM and LBGT?

The Lutheran Satirist provides an answer:

Granted, the liberal social justice warriors were not the only ones to inherit the “take, don’t make” mentality. For the past several decades, conservative Christians adopted the parasitic approach, convincing themselves that overtaking secular nests and repurposing them in a “Christian” style was somehow more virtuous than actually making something new.

Having embraced the same mindset as many secular counterparts, Christian parents convinced themselves that creating their own unique faith-driven stories or storytelling genres, like Dante and Milton and Bunyan and Wallace and Lewis and Tolkien had done, would have been too much work and required capital and capabilities they didn’t have, so they churchified the Saturday morning cartoon nest by showing their kids videos of a talking cucumber lecturing them about honesty and fairness with a Bible verse or two thrown in at the end. They swapped out Batman episodes with the adventures of Bibleman and praised themselves for their faithfulness. They put the “Facing the Giants” DVD in the “Remember the Titans” case. They justified all of this thinking rebuilding secular nests with Christian garbage was best for their children.

Likewise, with regard to music, furthering the tradition of legendary Christian hymnists and composers like Paul Gerhardt and Johann Sebastian Bach would have required a skillset these modern Christians were neither taught nor willing to learn, and finding their own voice would have proven just as difficult.

But three chords and pop song structure were pretty easy to imitate, so when they saw their children listening to music that glorified premarital sex and drug use, they parasitically strapped on guitars, infested the pre-existing nest of secular music, and produced awful Christian rockers, embarrassing Christian rappers, and an endless array of Top-40-sounding Christian artists ranging from bad Belinda Carlisle knockoffs to somehow-worse-than-actual-Richard-Marx Richard Marx knockoffs.

The results, however, were disastrous—not just because, in seeking to make Christianity better, they only made rock and roll worse, but also because they rendered us, their children, incapable of knowing any better. Because they settled for secular copycats, they never exposed us to Christendom’s great music, literature, artwork, and architecture. Because of this, we’ve become a bunch of musically illiterate, artistically impoverished believers with no appreciation for beauty who are perfectly content to spend Sunday mornings singing terrible music in repurposed movie theaters or gymnasiums, aspiring to nothing more because it’s never even occurred to us that the Christian faith gives us the power to form culture instead of parodying it.

By trying to safely place us into those pre-built but repurposed nests, our parents only succeeded in obligating us to the parasitic tradition. We’re already passing down that tradition to our offspring, and until we learn to stop believing the lie that taking is greater than making, I fear we’ll never recover the ability to create.

I’ve (mmmmeeeeeEEEEE) been trying to make this point for twenty years. Still works.


One of the advantages of falling behind on reading is that the distance of several months adds the perspective of Monday morning’s quarterback to what at least in a magazine looked relatively reliable. For instance, while reading the October 2015 issue of First Things yesterday, I saw a review of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster) which sounded not nearly so smart now that we’ve had seven months of Donald Trump:

Well-designed policies supposedly can make up for the family’s collapse and set young people on the right course. Putnam recommends beefed-up tax credits, monetary transfers, benefits programs, better-trained and better-paid teachers, vocational education and apprenticeships, community college aid, widely available preschools, and free after-school sports programs. These lavishly funded initiatives will enable teachers and bureaucrats to substitute for parents from birth to adulthood, returning us to a previous idyll of mobility and equality. There is nothing really new here, and Putnam’s exposition seems half-hearted, as if he doesn’t really believe this laundry list will do the trick, even with renewed effort and much more money.

There’s also a call for a massive mentoring program for lower-class children, with the well-educated acting as surrogate parents and advisors on a wide scale. The goal is to socialize poor children to upper-class norms, thereby equipping them to attend and get through college. ­Putnam’s mentoring idea is a ­variant of the pet elite project of college-for-all, which looks to education as the force of salvation and rescues working-­class children by transforming them into upper-class kids.

This pie-in-the-sky dream reflects the deep logic of our post-1960s world, which offers the good life to the knowledge class, but lacks any approved or positive vision for others. On this view, careerism, “creativity,” ­consumerism, lifestyle cultivation, expressive ­individualism, and sexual adventure are fulfilling and prestigious, while civility, duty, ordinary work, and ­fealty to conventional social roles are exploitative and oppressive. ­Given this outlook, college for all makes perfect sense and anything else looks unjust.

In fact, the project is unrealistic and thus ultimately pernicious. Not everyone is able to join the knowledge elite, nor does everyone want to. Our society will always need basic low-skilled labor, from serving meals to caring for dependents to cleaning toilets. The working class cannot be phased out or made to disappear. Economic improvement for workers is an important goal, although difficult to achieve. But it cannot be enough. What is needed is a viable and vibrant culture that maintains the meaning of working-class life and recognizes its dignity. On this, ­Putnam has virtually nothing to say and little to offer.

Except that now, as opposed to last summer when this review was likely written, it turns out that Donald Trump is the one responding to the division between American elites and workers in an electorally successful way. Instead of a culture what the disenfranchised want is a reality show candidate. Did the Trump campaign actually read Putnam?

In that same issue, Russell Moore wrote a spokesmanish piece that put its foot squarely down on the conviction that evangelicals would not be cowed by same-sex marriage:

…the Evangelical cave-in on sexual ethics is just not going to happen. There is no evidence for it, and no push among Evangelicals to start it. In order to understand this, one has to know two things about Evangelicals. One, Evangelical Protestants are “catholic” in their connection to the broader, global Body of Christ and to two millennia of creedal teaching; and two, Evangelicals are defined by distinctive markers of doctrine and practice. The factors that make Evangelicals the same as all other Christians, as well as the distinctive doctrines and practices that set us apart, both work against an Evangelical accommodation to the sexual revolution.

And then came Donald Trump who apparently has shown that evangelicals (at least some of them), are far more interested in economic than social issues, thus making attractive a candidate who will if elected likely not do a thing to oppose same sex marriage. Could it be that evangelical spokesmen don’t really speak for evangelicals, that evangelical is too crude a religious identity to be useful for social analysis, that evangelicals are not all their cracked up to be (as in conservative)? Michelle Boorstein thinks so:

The divisions have led to a range of viewpoints about what is happening in American evangelicalism and whether the splits will endure after the fall election. Some, like Galli, see a new breakdown based on attitudes towards race and ethnicity. Others see an intensifying split between those who prioritize personal morality and those who emphasize free markets and capitalism as a route to power and freedom. Some frame the split as Christian pragmatists vs. Christian idealists.

“There was in the past a very large camp of evangelicals who were primarily interested in electing the most Christian kind of candidate. And then over time bigger doses of pragmatism set in,” said DeMoss, who was a top advisor to Mitt Romney’s two campaigns. “Evangelicals got splintered between the religious litmus test folks and the pragmatists.”

The Trump phenomenon has some leading evangelicals looking more closely at their label. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader, wrote last month that he is so disgusted with being lumped in with Trump supporters that “at least until this crazy campaign year is over, I choose just to say that I’m a gospel Christian” instead of an evangelical.

Some pollsters say “evangelicals” have been way over-counted – or seen as a huge block — because the definition is so hazy. As a result, they say, practicing Christians who reflect traditional evangelical beliefs like the necessity of a born-again experience and a requirement to evangelize are being lumped in with people who are more nominally connected to Christian practice.

Perhaps the most lasting lesson of Donald Trump’s appeal to evangelicals is that no one has transformationalized the religious landscape the way the leading Republican presidential candidate has. If the comprehensive Christian crowd really wants to transform society — from neo-Calvinists and Kellerites to Roman Catholics and those nostalgic for Christendom — they may want to take a page from Donald Trump.

Two Kingdoms and Confessional Protestantism Look Pretty Good NOW

Stephen Prothero explains why evangelicals look even less reliable than they always have to those in confessional communions who take church governance seriously:

For decades, pundits have viewed white evangelicals as perhaps the most powerful voting block in American politics—the base of the Republican Party. Cohesive, well organized, and politically active, they crafted their identity around a shared belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and a shared commitment to supplant the moral relativism of the insurgent 1960s cultural revolution with “traditional values.” It’s a bloc that’s persisted for decades. Today, roughly a quarter of all Americans identify as evangelicals, and white evangelicals make up the majority of Republican voters in many Southern primaries. In 2012, four out of five of them preferred Romney over Obama.

White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhaps the great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.

What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Scarred by these battles, some evangelicals have withdrawn from politics, pursuing what blogger Rod Dreher has referred to as the “Benedict Option,” which focuses on fostering local Christian communities rather than taking yet another whack at the lost cause of Christianizing the nation. Others have continued to try to bend the arc of American history toward biblical values. And some of them are now denouncing Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—even as the larger flock appears poised to make him the Republican nominee.

The most outspoken of the no-Trumpers is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has repeatedly whacked Trump—a man whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord”—as a reprobate unfit for the presidency. “The gospel is more important than politics,” he warns his fellow Bible believers. You can stump for Trump or be an evangelical, he says. But you cannot do both.

But Moore’s effort to keep evangelicalism pure, in a world of increasingly polluted politics, is a lost cause. Paradoxically, that effort has actually alienated him from the modern evangelical movement itself. Moore essentially admits this: in a recent op-ed, he announced that until voting habits change, he won’t even to refer to himself as an evangelical anymore. He lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been too willing to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics . . . as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.”

Prothero is right to see the inconsistency in evangelicalism.

What he misses is the inconsistency of academics who study evangelicals. For at least thirty years students of American religion have told us that the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are — wait for it — evangelical. That’s like saying BMWs and Yugos are cars, as if the parts are interchangeable, as if they cost the same, as if the owners come from the same demographic, as if the same kinds of technology go into these automobiles.

In other words, not many of the smart people who study religion prepared Americans and even earthlings for what’s happening now. Some did.


Obviously, Ross Douthat isn’t following 2k debates nor has he read A Secular Faith:

What’s more, the alternative perspective here — that a politician’s religious commitments are so personal and private that no one else can reasonably be asked to comment on them, or even to identify them at all — usually belongs to a particular slice of the secular left: The slice that doesn’t think that religion should have any public role in politics, the slice that was so anxious about “theocracy” in the Bush era, the slice that finds Walker’s own public expressions of faith eminently mockable today. That’s where you’ll find a principled argument for regarding Obama’s religious profession as irrelevant to our political conversations. But that argument points toward a full privatization of religion, toward a system much more like French laïcité than the American tradition of religiously-informed politics — and as such it’s a very strange argument for American conservatives to embrace.

Heck, he hasn’t even read J. Gresham Machen:

you cannot expect from a true Christian Church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the Church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the Church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the Church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ.