There has indeed been far too little attention paid in our civic discourse to the role of so-called Christian churches and their ministers in fomenting hatred, legitimizing discrimination, undermining science education in the public schools and like crusades that have become almost daily occurrences (Hoppe, “Religion and Politics,” Jan. 18-25). But the apparent upsurge in the political influence of fundamentalists in recent years is by no means unique in our nation’s history.
The period from World War I up to the Great Depression saw an unholy alliance between fundamentalist clergy, elected politicians and (according to some) the Ku Klux Klan. Together, they helped to bring about Prohibition and the Volstead act, to perpetuate the reign of “Jim Crow,” and to introduce legislation forbidding the teaching of evolution. Fortunately, we can revisit and learn from that period, thanks to the many volumes of critical commentary bequeathed to us by journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken. One of the best is a recent anthology titled H.L. Mencken on Religion. Whenever I read Mencken’s trenchant observations on this subject, and particularly on the machinations of the fundamentalists of his time, I am struck by how his words seem just as relevant today. Here are a few Mencken quotes that serve to underscore the point that tolerance of another person’s religious beliefs does not necessarily require us to remain silent in the face of Bible-based bigotry and/or willful stupidity:
“The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone … No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offense.”
“There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly.”
“The evangelical churches, in fact, are rapidly becoming public nuisances. Neglecting almost altogether their old concern about individual salvation, they have converted themselves into vast engines for harassing and oppressing persons who dissent from their naive and often preposterous theology. No one hears of them saving souls any more; they seem to devote their whole energies to getting bodies into jail.”
Posted by Gary E. Spittal