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.