Christianity Framed Mencken

Andrew Ferguson wonders why Eerdmans would include an entry in its American religious biography series on H. L. Mencken:

The co-editor of the series, the church historian Mark A. Noll, raises the question in his foreword: “Whatever could have led Darryl Hart, himself the author of several worthy books patiently explaining the virtues of historical Calvinism, to think that any one at all could be interested in a religious biography of H.L. Mencken?”

A few pages later, the author himself wonders the same thing. After ticking off Mencken’s many admirable qualities—his productivity as a journalist, his fearlessness as a magazine editor, his unfailing humor, his tough-mindedness—Mr. Hart asks: “What does any of this have to do with religion? Why should Mencken qualify for entry in a series of religious biographies?”

I would like to report that the answer Mr. Hart gives to this question is an irrefutable and bold assertion about . . . something or other. But I can’t. For all the book’s virtues—it is charmingly written and comprehensive of its subject—the author struggles to explain why it should have been written at all.

But, for what is Mencken best remembered? The Scopes Trial. What about his attack on Puritanism (“the haunting idea, that someone, somewhere, may be happy”)? And what about his confrontation with the nation’s Protestant-inspired decency laws? Also, what to make of his withering critique of the moral idealism that Woodrow Wilson used to rally the United States to enter a war “to end all wars?”

The point is not that Christianity defined Mencken and that he ironically owed a debt to the believers who bemused him. Instead, taking account of his life makes little sense without noticing how his literary battles with Puritanism, his columns against Prohibition, his pointed coverage of the Scopes Trial, his protracted legal contest with Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, or the book he considered his most important, Treatise, set Mencken apart from his contemporaries, gave him a lot to say along with a large readership that wanted to listen. Christianity and its dominant position in American society was not responsible for producing Mencken. But it was a sufficiently large part of his experience and thought to justify a religious biography. (Damning Words, 4)

If Mencken is best remembered for his opposition to Christianity in its political, cultural, and moral dimensions, then isn’t religion a big part of his life even if he didn’t believe? Christianity framed Mencken. He would not be the man or writer he was without having been surrounded by and pondered Christianity. That makes a religious biography plausible.


Fresh from the afterglow of a recent post on sex, I’ll take another stab with a remark about gay marriage. Noah Millman observes in passing an exchange between David Frum and Andrew Sullivan which went like this:

the question – as Andrew Sullivan posed it repeatedly to David Frum over the years, Frum being well-aware of these alternative approaches to the marriage “problem” and their potential normative costs – is: what, in your worldview, are you offering to gay people, if not marriage? And there was never a good answer to that. And, there being no good answer – good in the sense of being something that would be readily accepted as an answer – the marriage movement grew, and burgeoned.

I know some of this exchange had to do with policy alternatives to existing marriage laws, but I am still puzzled by the substance of Sullivan’s question — as if changing marriage law will fundamentally change gay life in the United States. As most married couples know, the respect of a spouse is as important to the survival of a relationship as is romance, more so. Right now in the U.S. gay men receive more respect without marriage than African-American men ever did before (and arguably after) the Civil Rights Act. The image of gay men may trade on stereotypes but compared to those associated with heterosexual young males, being articulate, having impeccable taste, knowing table manners, being able to throw a great dinner party, knowing how to decorate a room beat pretty much any day of the week being crude, unrefined, poorly read, wearing t-shirts and baseball caps backwards, drinking bad beer, and watching televised sports. In fact, it takes marriage to domesticate most heterosexual men. Gay men generally don’t need it.

Of course, this is not argument against gay marriage. It is only to say that marriage may not be the panacea that Sullivan imagines. Here the old line of Irving Kristol comes to mind. When asked about gay marriage, Kristol said, “Let them have it, they won’t like it.”