Mencken Rides Again
The Religion News Service is not a website its readers visit to find out what is actually going on in the world of religious belief and practice in America. The so-called progressive Christians and secular liberals who visit the website go there for about the same reason they tune into National Public Radio or watch public television. They visit the website to get their marching orders on which villain on the American scene they’re supposed to regard with contempt until the next news cycle. These days it’s Christian Zionists and Evangelical Protestants in the United States who support the Jewish state. A special hatred is reserved for Christians United for Israel or CUFI, which recently held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
This hatred was on display recently when the RNS published a fact-free op-ed written by Lynn Gottlieb from Jewish Voice for Peace and Graylan Hagler from the United Church of Christ, accusing CUFI of antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia. The accusations were leveled without a shred of evidence. No quote, no citation, no nothing, just accusation after accusation. It’s an ugly variant of peer pressure — jeer pressure.
After reading the article one can almost be forgiven for thinking that Evangelical Protestants in the United States are in cahoots with ISIS and Al Qaeda as they secretly try to impose a Christian-Muslim caliphate on American society. Hagler and Gottlieb would have us believe that Christians United for Israel is part of a coalition of Evangelicals who engage in ISIS-like tactics to impose Christian sharia on American citizens. There’s just one catch: The Supreme Court approved gay marriage in 2015 and Evangelicals responded by peaceably abiding with the court’s decision — without putting on masks and attacking their opponents in the streets with pepper spray, bike locks and milkshakes.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confronted Gottlieb and Hagler’s paranoia during his speech to CUFI, declaring: “A lot of people get spun up with the wrong ideas that American evangelicals want to impose a theocracy on America. I wish they would be concerned about the real theocratic takeover that has been happening in Iran for the last four decades.”`
Portraying Evangelicals as enemies of all that is good and just in modern American society has a long and storied history. In his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, H.L. Mencken inveighed against the “immortal vermin” who fell under the sway of Fundamentalist preachers in the U.S., declaring, “They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little of anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.” Regarding Evangelical Protestantism itself, Mencken wrote, “Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love.”
Mencken didn’t show much love in his assessment of William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer, who on behalf of the state of Tennessee, prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolution in the classroom. Mencken described Bryan as a “walking malignancy” declaring that, “Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.”
It was polemics like this — which were recapitulated and dramatized in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind — that helped give so-called progressives in the U.S. a decisive victory in their battle with conservatives over the direction of public life in modern America for the next few decades. As a result of the public relations drubbing they endured at the Scopes Trial in 1925, Evangelical Protestants retreated to the margins of American culture and politics and stayed there until the late 1970s and early 1980s when they came roaring back under the leadership of people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. (Anthropologist Susan Harding does a masterful job of detailing this process in The Book of Jerry Falwell.)
In the years since Evangelicals ended their self-imposed exile from American politics, their progressive rivals have expressed contempt for Evangelicals in a lot of ways, especially in their ongoing attacks on Christian Zionists who are portrayed as Israel-loving — but Jew-hating — yokels who wanted to bring all the Jews back to Israel so that Jesus could return in a blaze of glory and consign all the infidels, Jews especially, to the fires of hell. Promoting this narrative about Evangelicals was a crucial part of the strategy that liberal Protestants and secular progressives used to maintain the dominance their ideological ancestors had achieved in the years after the Scopes Monkey Trial.
To be sure, writers like Hal Lindsay, author of The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkings, co-authors of the Left Behind series, gave Evangelical critics a lot of material to work with in telling this story, but the progressive critics of the Christian right ignored one important fact: Many Evangelicals themselves were embarrassed by the popularity of these books and supported Israel for reasons that had nothing to do with Armageddon. Part of it was Evangelical guilt over the role Christians played in the Holocaust and respect for Israel which does a much better job protecting the rights of Christians than any other country in the Middle East.
None of this penetrated the hermeneutic bubble of the folks who live inside the virtue-signaling industrial complex. People who live and work in this complex (which includes a large number of academics and journalists), regard and portray Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. like animals in a zoo.
For the uninitiated, the virtue-signaling industrial complex is made up of people who engage in politics not to pursue and protect their legitimate material self-interests and to protect the welfare of themselves and the people they love, but to use politics as a stage to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of us.
Virtue-signaling usually entails defaming people who struggle to keep themselves and their families safe — say with a security barrier in the West Bank — as paranoid racist monsters. It also entails promoting a utopian pacifist agenda that puts other peoples’ lives at risk — like demanding that Israel dismantle said security barrier, for example. That’s the main thing to remember: Virtue signaling always entails messing around with other peoples’ safety and welfare without risking one’s own.
The folks in this virtue signaling bubble lack the moral imagination and the curiosity to ask themselves why so many people found books by Lindsey and La Haye so enthralling, but instead drew a straight line between the popularity of these books and aspects of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
For example, lots of commentators blamed Evangelicals for their support for the invasion of Iraq without taking into account the role Kenneth Pollack from the left-leaning Brookings Institution played in legitimizing the invasion in his book, The Threatening Storm. Blaming Christian Zionists for foreign policy disasters is, for some folks, as satisfying as blaming the Jews. (For some, it’s the same thing.)
For the denizens of the virtue signaling industrial complex, Evangelicals in general and Christian Zionists in particular, were what left-leaning anthropologist Susan Harding calls, the “repugnant other” — the bad people against whom people unite in anger and hostility to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority. “The modern point of view in America emerged in part from its caricature of conservative Protestants as Fundamentalists. They were the ‘them’ who enabled the modern ‘us,’” Harding writes.
Once a group (or nation) is placed in the slot of the repugnant other, its members or citizens are not entitled to fair treatment in the press but instead become legitimate targets for the Mencken treatment. Under this approach, commentators are entitled to do whatever is necessary to affirm their status as bad people, yokels, throwbacks who should have disappeared from the scene decades (or centuries) ago.
The point of articles like Gottlieb and Hagler’s piece in RNS is not just to make Evangelicals (and Israel) look bad, but to make the folks who read these stories feel superior, sure in their status as one of the cool kids of modernity.
But here’s the rub. The cool kids are cowards. When it comes to standing up for modern values, the cool kids are very careful in choosing whom they stand up against. Manning the barricades against law abiding Christian Zionists is one thing. Standing up to throat-slitting jihadists and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, well that’s another thing altogether.
The perennial critics of Christian Zionism and Evangelicalism who railed against CUFI in Washington, D.C. have very little to say about the enemies of democracy in places like Portland and human dignity in places like Tehran.
You hear that sound? It’s the Weimar wind. And it’s headed our way.