On H.L. Mencken, Michael Gerson and Evangelicals in Public Life

H.L. Mencken’s reputation has suffered in recent years as people have realized that his bigotry extended far beyond his famous contempt for Biblical literalists, but no one has revoked his reputation as a wordsmith. When he arrived in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 to cover the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, he claimed to be pleasantly surprised by the inhabitants:

The town, I confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horse blocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town of charm and even beauty….

But this didn’t mean he had any respect for their point of view on the teaching of evolution. Remarking on the influence of prosecuting lawyer Williams Jennings Bryan, Mencken showed his true feelings:

He has these hillbillies locked up in his pen and he knows it. His brand is on them. He is at home among them. Since his earliest days, indeed, his chief strength has been among the folk of remote hills and forlorn and lonely farms. Now with his political aspirations all gone to pot, he turns to them for religious consolations. They understand his peculiar imbecilities. His nonsense is their ideal of sense. When he deluges them with his theologic bilge they rejoice like pilgrims disporting in the river Jordan…

In other words, Donald Trump is not the first American politician to hold these folks in his thrall. But, for former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, Trump’s influence is far more problematic. His most recent concern arose after he spent some time perusing the results in the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2019 American Values Survey and discovered some things that trouble him.

Republicans who are WEPs [white evangelical protestants] are the most likely group to say that immigrants are invading America and changing its culture. More than 90 percent of WEPs favor more restrictive immigration policies. They support the policy of family separation at the border more strongly than other religious groups and more strongly than Americans as a whole.

How have we come to the point that American evangelicals are significantly crueler in their attitude toward migrant children than the national norm? The answer is simple enough. Rather than shaping President Trump’s agenda in Christian ways, they have been reshaped into the image of Trump himself.

Here are some more findings that make Gerson uncomfortable:

According to the PRRI poll, nearly two-thirds of WEPs deny that Trump has damaged the dignity of his office. Ponder that a moment. Well over half of this group is willing to deny a blindingly obvious, entirely irrefutable, manifestly clear reality because it is perceived as being critical of their leader. Forty-seven percent of WEPs say that Trump’s behavior makes no difference to their support. Thirty-one percent say there is almost nothing that Trump could do to forfeit their approval. This is preemptive permission for any violation of the moral law or the constitutional order. It is not support; it is obeisance.

An extraordinary 99 percent of WEPs oppose the impeachment and removal of the president — which probably puts me in the smallest political minority I have ever had the honor of occupying.

During the Scopes Trial, William Jennings Bryan’s political heyday was behind him. He had tried and failed three times to become the president of the United States, and he would ultimately die six days after the conclusion of the case.  But, for Mencken, he was still a powerful and charismatic spokesman who commanded the obeisance of his followers:

This old buzzard, having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers. He can never be the peasants’ President, but there is still a chance to be the peasants’ Pope. He leads a new crusade, his bald head glistening, his face streaming with sweat, his chest heaving beneath his rumpled alpaca coat. One somehow pities him, despite his so palpable imbecilities. It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.

In Tennessee he is drilling his army. The big battles, he believes, will be fought elsewhere.

It’s not really clear that Bryan and Trump are so different, or at least different in the ways that Gerson would have us believe.

If Trump survives the impeachment process, and somehow wins a second term, many explanations will be offered. It may be that the Democratic Party went too far left, or picked a nominee with a glass jaw, or couldn’t swim against the political tide of a good economy. But there will be one reason behind all of these reasons: because evangelicals lost their taste for character and gave their blessing to corruption. And this grand act of hypocrisy would mark them for a generation.

Mencken left Dayton, Tennessee two days before the conclusion of the trial when a conviction of Scopes no longer seemed to be in any doubt. He issued the following warning:

[Defense attorney Clarence] Darrow has lost this case. It was lost long before he came to Dayton. But it seems to me that he has nevertheless performed a great public service by fighting it to a finish and in a perfectly serious way. Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law. There are other States that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.

By contrast, Gerson provides a different but still resonant warning:

But we should not underestimate the cultural trauma that many leaders of the religious right have inflicted. It is in the order of things that a younger generation should challenge the views and values of its parents. It is a source of cynicism and social disruption when an older generation betrays civilizing values in full sight of its children. Many evangelical leaders now lie drunk, naked and exposed.

The main difference between Gerson and Mencken’s takes is that Gerson blames the evangelicals for following Trump while Mencken emphasized Bryan’s efforts to lead them. But, in both cases, the evangelicals were easy to lead.

Mencken remarked of Dayton’s citizenry that “this is a strictly Christian community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law” and “what Bryan says [against the theory of evolution] doesn’t seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement to the obvious….”  It’s hard not to hear the echo in Gerson’s words: “American evangelicals are significantly crueler…than the national norm…they have become involved in a political throuple with Trump and Fox News, in which each feeds the grievances and conspiracy thinking of the others. The result has properly been called cultlike. For many followers, Trump has defined an alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own.”

Mencken believed that the leading citizens of Dayton hoped that the trial would revitalize their town which had been losing population over the preceding couple of decades; “It is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah.” But what is Fox News but this exact kind of refuge?

Nearly a century has passed since the Scopes Trial and most things have changed in dramatic ways. For one, towns like Dayton, Tennessee are less likely to be as idyllic as Mencken described:

It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. If it has any bootleggers, no visitor has heard of them. Ten minutes after I arrived a leading citizen offered me a drink made up half of white mule and half of coca cola, but he seems to have been simply indulging himself in a naughty gesture. No fancy woman has been seen in the town since the end of the McKinley administration. There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson’s drug store and debate theology….

Today, these towns are shells of their former selves, with opioid addiction more the norm than debates about theology.  In this limited sense, Gerson may be onto something when he argues that there has been a lowering of standards and moral leadership within the evangelical community. But the grievances and conspiracy thinking remain largely the same. The contempt for “fairness, justice and due process of law” is the same. The desire to be free of “the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah” is unchanged. The  “alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own” is only enhanced and weaponized by conservative media and a Republican Party that feed and rely upon it.

The big difference, of course, is that unlike Donald Trump, William Jennings Bryan never won a presidential election. This is the primary reason that Trump is the bigger threat. Another reason is that Bryan pursued at least some policies that would genuinely help the little guy. Trump never does that.

On the whole, however, once you reject science and the reality-based world, you can be led down any path. One day Trump will be gone and evangelicals will be led in a new direction.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com