Just back from a weekend down in Baltimore, where I gave a talk to the H.L. Mencken Club. Nice people; well-organized event; good reception for talk. However, I can’t forbear noting some dissonances pertinent to the theme of this blog.
Among the things H.L. Mencken is best remembered for is his coverage of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, in which he dealt quite mercilessly with the creationists and their champion, William Jennings Bryan. Mencken was an atheist, though not an angry or obsessive one, except when confronted with extreme fundamentalism. Try his essay titled “Sabbath Meditation” (though note that the one in the original American Mercury is significantly different from the version printed up later in the Chrestomathy).
Well, so there I was sitting down to dinner on the first evening of this Menckenfest. Seeing a plate of salad in front of me, I applied some condiments and started eating. In between the second and third mouthfuls I heard an amplified voice coming from the speakers’ tables: “All right, everybody, we shall now say Grace. Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts …” I felt as if I’d been caught picking my nose on live TV.
Somewhat later I got into conversation with the lady who had given out the Grace. She was very charming and friendly, and had been instrumental in getting the conference organized, so is obviously very capable. It emerged, however, in the course of our conversation, that she is a Young Earth Creationist!
What Mencken would have made of this, I don’t know. What I make of it is, that the prospects for a godless American conservatism are not very bright. Still, at least we have a blog up and running.
And in fairness, I should say that a full range of religiosity was present at the conference, from God-is-dead-get-over-it Nietzscheans to Blue Scapular RCs. We actually had two fine presentations on the mustachioed metaphysician (the excuse being that Mencken was an early admirer and translator of Nietzsche).
In some of the other addresses and commentary I am pretty sure I detected efforts by RC ideologues to “recruit” Mencken. They have gotten awfully good at “recruiting” historical persons and movements, like Latter-Day Saints baptizing their ancestors. Did you know that the scientific revolution was inspired by Catholic teaching? That the American Founders were crypto-Catholics? (Yes, even Jefferson — see e.g. Damon Linker’s book, p.71.) That Shakespeare was Catholic? Etc., etc. Whether the RC ideologues have yet managed to recruit Nietzsche, I couldn’t say, but I bet they have tried.
Julius Caesar? Gay! Jesus of Nazareth? Gay! Leonardo? Gay! Frederick the Great? Gay! All of them — gay, gay, gay! I do not recall having seen it argued that George Washington was gay, but I have not the slightest doubt that the argument has been made by somebody, somewhere.
Communists do it too. I used to teach English literature in Maoist China from locally-produced textbooks. All the “approved” writers turned out, in the accompanying notes, to have been socialists and revolutionaries, or at the very least “friends of the common people,” though of course their revolutionary sentiments were often suppressed and muddled, not having the pure light of Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung-Thought as a guide. This was even the case — I am pretty sure I remember this right — with such specimens as Wilde and Galsworthy. To the committed ideologue, it is unbearable to think that any worthy person or project, from any time or place, was not inspired in some way by the Cause.
Was Mencken, in between hooting at the backwoods glossolalists of Tennessee and telling us that “my true and natural allegiance [is] to the Devil’s party, and it has been my firm belief that … all persons who devote themselves to forcing virtue on their fellow men deserve nothing better than kicks in the pants” — was he actually sneaking off to do his beads in some dark corner? I expect to see it confidently asserted, if it hasn’t already been.
A deathbed conversion, too. Godly ideologues are fond of conjuring those up. At least, I have seen deathbed conversions argued for David Hume and Charles Darwin. These stories have inspired Richard Dawkins to insist that his own death be recorded on film, to foil any attempts to recruit him into the company of those who see the Light just as the actual light is fading.