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Friday, September 17, 2004

A Free Thinkers' Bible Crusade - A Gideon Mencken In Every Hotel Room

Since 1899, the Gideon Bible Society has placed a Holy Bible in every hotel room in North America. But what's there for unbelievers and free thinkers? Now a New Orleans journalist wants to counter every Gideon Bible with the work of that notorious unbeliever, H.L. Mencken.

In 1925, William Jennings Bryan, three time Democratic Party candidate for the U.S. Presidency described Mencken as "the best newspaperman in the country!" Mencken did not show the same respect for Bryan. Bryan was a Christian Fundamentalist and H. L. Mencken hated religion, particularly of the Christian Fundamentalist variety. Bryan and his fellow fundamentalists, Mencken believed, were set on taking away, in the name of Christianity, every American's right of freedom of speech, right to be free from religious oppression and right to receive a decent education. The Fundamentalists believed that Darwin's Theory of Evolution contradicted the Bible and, in 1925, Bryan prosecuted John Scopes, a Dayton Tennessee schoolteacher for teaching Darwin's theory to his pupils. Reporters, including Mencken, flocked to the trial that Mencken labeled the "Scopes Monkey Trial". Mencken covered the trial for his hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun (click here for more about Mencken's coverage of the trial). He made fun of Bryan and the Christian fundamentalist citizens of Dayton. Mencken persuaded America's most famous lawyer and non-believer, Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes.

Non-believers all over America rolled in the aisles when they read Mencken's descriptions of Holy Roller prayer meetings in the hills above Dayton (Mencken invented the name "Bible Belt" to describe the area). Fundamentalist Daytonians, wrote Mencken, "are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland." Bryan, Mencken wrote, aimed to "shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses ... [to make Bryan] the peasants' Pope ... in a world unanimously sure of Heaven and unanimously idiotic on this earth." Darrow put Bryan himself on the stand and made a total fool of him in his cross-examination. Right after the trial Bryan died in his sleep. Bryan's supporters said Bryan had died of a heart broken by humiliation. Mencken said he died of habitual overeating and wrote an obituary cruelly lampooning him. Bryan believed, said Mencken "that the earth is square, and that witches should be put to death, and that Jonah swallowed the whale."

The jury convicted Scopes and a Fundamentalist judge fined him $100. A year later, a Tennessee Appeal Court reversed the jury's verdict.

We have told you all of this because, last Saturday, the Mencken Society held its annual Mencken Day celebration in Baltimore, Maryland (Mencken was born, lived and died in Baltimore; was known as the "Sage of Baltimore"). A Mencken scholar and well-known journalist Danny Heitman of New Orleans spoke to the afternoon meeting of the Society. Heitman offered for consideration of the membership a goal for the Society - the Society should, Heitman suggested, with all dispatch, cause every every hotel room in America (we assume that includes Canada) to contain a volume of Mencken's work.

The Eye Opener has discovered that there exists in Calgary, in Elbow Park, a "house of worship", the Church of Mencken the Agnostic. We spoke to the head honcho of the Elbow Park church, Learned Doubter Thomas. Like the Alliance Church (to which Preston Manning and Stockwell Day belong), Menckenites call other Menckenites only by their first names. Unlike the Alliance Church, the Menckenites do not speak in tongues or roll about on the church floor and they do have bishops who they call Learned Doubters).

"Why a Church?" we asked.

"Good question," replied the Learned Doubter. "And I'll give you a simple answer. Taxes and civility. Why should I be forced to pay property taxes to repair the rotting roads of Calgary when neither property developers nor Christ Church, just down the street, pay any? Why should Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons feel free to come knocking on my door and disturbing my privacy when I do not feel free to do the same to them?"

We asked Doubter Thomas if he knew of the hotel room proposal. He did. "What do you think of it?"

"It's in keeping with Mencken's deeds. As soon as Mencken entered a hotel room he rounded up its Gideon Bible and inscribed in its inside cover: 'Compliments of the Author'"

"What volume of Mencken would be appropriate?" we asked.

"Well, I'd recommend volume one of Mencken's Prejudices. In one story in Prejudices, "Memorial Service", Mencken draws up a long list of powerful gods of yesteryear. 'All these were once gods of the highest imminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament ... Yet they are all gone down the chute ... All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.' Mencken suspected the same fate awaited the father and son team worshipped by George W. Bush, and Stockwell Day."

"Or The Bums Christmas - just a small book but plumb full of the spirit of Mencken - a group of Baltimore non-believers throw a Christmas dinner for the downtrodden of Baltimore, complete with booze and strippers and ribald verse."

"And Mencken also drew up a list of Bible passages, risque or worse, but I cannot find the list in Mencken's works. It would certainly provide a useful companion to the Gideon Bible."

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