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Mencken in Machen’s World: A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken, by D. G. Hart. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, xiv + 259 pages, $14.04 Kindle, $19.37.

Damning Words, D. G. Hart’s religious biography of H. L. Mencken, does not fit the norm for the genre. Mencken, perhaps the most well-known American newspaperman and satirist of the first half of the twentieth century, made no pretense of being religious. Mencken took prophet-like status among secular intellectuals as he warred against popular causes (sexual oppression, Prohibition, etc.) and superstitions (Christianity) prevalent in rural America. So disdaining was Mencken of faith in Christ that he named the final volume of his memoirs Heathen Days.

Andrew Ferguson, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, emphasized this angle from the start of his review of Damning Words in the December 14, 2016, issue of the Wall Street Journal. He wrote,

Everyone involved with “Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken” seems to know it’s pretty wacky—publishing a book about Mencken in the Library of Religious Biography, “a series of original biographies on important religious figures throughout American and British history.”[1]

Ferguson noted that series co-editor Mark Noll in his forward to the book asks why Hart would think anyone would be interested in a religious biography of Mencken. After listing Mencken’s literary accomplishments in the first two pages of the introduction, Hart himself poses the question, “What does any of this have to do with religion? Why should Mencken qualify for entry in a series of religious biographies of prominent Americans?” (3). In Ferguson’s judgment, Hart is not persuasive in supplying an answer. For all the book’s virtues, particularly its charming writing and the author’s knowledge of the subject, Ferguson concluded that Hart became enamored of Mencken as a literary figure and wanted to write a Mencken book.[2]

It is a fair question, and Ferguson wrote a fair review. But, for readers of D. G. Hart’s writings on J. Gresham Machen, there are clues to his motivation. In his intellectual biography of Machen, Defending the Faith, Hart on his opening page established the post-World War I setting in America through the lens of Mencken. What Hart found intriguing was Mencken’s belief that the whole Protestant project of refashioning Christianity in modern garb had failed. Mencken wrote, “What survives under the name of Christianity, above the stratum of the mob, is no more than a sort of Humanism with little more supernaturalism in it than you will find in mathematics or political economy.”[3] Mencken the secularist echoed the verdict of Machen the Calvinist.

The connection between Mencken and Machen undoubtedly played a part in Hart’s motivation. Mencken wrote two memorable pieces about Machen in 1930 and 1937, but, as Hart writes, “to Mencken devotees, Machen is just one more obscure figure from the past” (6). For Machen devotees, however, Mencken provides historical context and a level of discernment for Machen and the Presbyterian Conflict. He might have loathed Machen’s Calvinistic beliefs, but he understood the import of Machen’s argument. Lose the authority of Scripture and the supernatural, and you lose historic Christianity. Upon Machen’s death, Mencken wrote:

[Modernists] have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again—in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-giving and mudupbringing. Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed—but he was undoubtedly right. (8)

Hart concludes that Mencken seemed to be able to tell the difference between serious and ephemeral forms of belief. This is the thread that Hart pursues in Damning Words. It is also why he believes that a religious treatise on Mencken is valuable.

Born on September 12, 1880, in Baltimore, Henry Louis Mencken was baptized into the Protestant Episcopal Church. The christening was not because of the faith of his parents, August and Anna, but because Anna believed it was a rite of passage in civilized society. When Henry was old enough to go on his own, August would send him off to Sunday School with the Methodists. August’s motivation was not that his son would grow in the knowledge of Christ, but that August would have a quiet time to nap.

At fourteen years old Mencken was confirmed on Palm Sunday 1895 at the Second English Lutheran Church. The Episcopal connection for the family had ended with the 1891 death of his paternal grandfather, Burkardt Mencken. The custom remained in the Mencken family, however, that the children were to join the church, even if, like Henry, they did not believe.

In 1899 August Mencken died, and Henry was free from family expectations. He did not want to be a part of the church; what he wanted was to be a newspaper writer. He was soon hired by the Baltimore Morning Herald. Hard working and ambitious, Mencken was soon writing around five thousand words a day for the paper. A few years later he started taking on editorial tasks and even found time to write books, including The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1908.

Mencken’s interest in Nietzsche was tied in part to Mencken’s desire to break the hold that he believed Christianity had on American culture. Nietzsche had argued that Christianity was untrue and degrading. Mencken would labor throughout his career to find scientific support for these philosophical contentions.

The same year that Mencken published his Nietzsche volume, he started writing for the literary magazine Smart Set. Through Smart Set, Mencken’s national reputation was established. In 1913 he assumed the role of co-editor with George Jean Nathan. In their editorial policy, they wrote, “Both of us are opposed to all such ideas as come from the mob, and are polluted by stupidity: Puritanism, Prohibition, Comstockery, evangelical Christianity, tin-pot patriotism, the whole shame of democracy” (77).

Mencken’s mocking definition of Puritanism in 1917—“Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”—is perhaps his most well-known epigram. The individual that embodied Puritanism for Mencken more than any other was Woodrow Wilson, the Presbyterian president who advocated the adoption of Prohibition. Wilson unwittingly helped to create the new era of American Puritanism where “the special business of forcing sinners to be good was taken away from preachers and put into the hands of layman trained in its technique and mystery, and there it remains” (93).

For Mencken the problem with mixing Christianity and politics to create right-thinkers often depended on a belief in the goodness of man. Hart writes:

Perhaps Mencken’s greatest objection to his Christian citizens was their optimism about human nature, a concern that ironically put him closer to Augustinian notions of depravity than his churchgoing opponents. Mencken observed perceptively that causes like Prohibition and Comstock depended on the “doctrine that virtue and ignorance were identical—that the slightest knowledge of sin was fatal to virtue.” Consequently, the way to prevent drunkenness was not through moderate consumption of alcohol, but through complete avoidance of it. (115)

Mencken’s view that men were inherently selfish, envious, and fearful of others had a resemblance to Calvinistic anthropology. According to Hart, the difference was “where the Calvinist saw such defects in all persons, Mencken attributed them overwhelmingly to rural folk; for him the city dwellers were superior” (124).

The 1925 John Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, allowed Mencken to extend his views regarding rural backwardness and urban enlightenment to evangelical Christianity and scientific knowledge, respectively. Mencken, who was friendly with Clarence Darrow and despised prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, attended the trial in person.[4] Mencken encouraged Darrow to put Bryan on the witness stand. Bryan said, “They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it” (136).

Hart also recounts Mencken’s observations about attending a week-long revival meeting headlined by Billy Sunday, “the celebrated American pulpit-clown.” Mencken reported that men came forward every evening, crying out for help against their sins. He did not see one woman come forward. He concluded that they had too much good sense.

By 1930 Mencken believed that the landscape for Christianity in America was shifting. There was less antagonism among Protestants. Christians were adopting the progressive spirit. He predicted a common American religion was coming soon, one part Wesleyan, the other part Roman Catholic.

Mencken continued to write about Christianity from the perspective of a skeptic throughout the rest of his career. He never fully recovered from a stroke in 1948, and died on January 28, 1956.

Endnotes

[1] Andrew Ferguson, “Poking the Ribs of Believers,” Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.

[4] Interestingly, in Defending the Faith, Hart writes that lead counsel William Jennings Bryan had requested in writing that J. Gresham Machen appear as an expert witness at the trial. Machen declined. See, Hart, Defending the Faith, 84–85.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2017.

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