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.

Which Doesn't Belong and Why?

Warning: really, really shameless self-promotion.

Bernard McGuirk, the executive producer of Imus in the Morning, did (and may still do) a bit in which he played Cardinal Egan and would ridicule Don Imus up one side and down the other in a thick Irish accent. His barbs were far more abusive than anything the host said about the women’s basketball players at Rutgers University.

One part of Cardinal Egan’s shtick was the game, “which doesn’t belong and why.” He would name three people, objects, teams or songs, and then ask Imus to identify the odd one out. Imus was always wrong because Egan had a witty and sometimes degrading reason for which one actually did not belong.

In the spirit of a show I used to listen to before Imus got fired and is no longer syndicated, I post the series of events scheduled at Eerdmans this summer to mark the publisher’s 100th anniversary. I am honored and do not feel worthy of this company, so I have my own answer to the question, “which doesn’t belong and why.” But I invite readers to submit their own answers. The winner (the funniest) will receive a copy of the book.

P.S. Apologies to Nick Wolterstorff for not posting this in time for his lecture last week.