16 Dec


In 1925 the man who was, arguably, that decade’s most acerbic wit went to Dayton Ohio where a Biology teacher was on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. However HL Mencken did not cover the trial of John Scopes instead taking on the role of the bemused anthropologist, describing the rube environs in which the The State of Tennessee v. Scopes played out: the heat, the crowds of hellfire amateur theologians spouting The Revelation of St John on the courthouse lawn, the woman who thought Coca-Cola “a levantine and Hell-sent narcotic”.

But the preachers who actually lived in this town struggled to make a living, picking strawberries on the side, cutting hair to supplement their meager income from half-empty churches squatting in weed-choked lawns. The bible-bashers were mostly from out of town. They came from places like Blue Mountain, Mississippi. The Butler Act forbad the teaching of science inconvenient to Christian theology but it did so amongst a population whose faith had waned in favour of hot dogs and corn liquor.

Then the story moves even further away from the courthouse courtesy of a woman reporting for a Chattanooga rag who invites Mencken up into the wilderness to see a pentecostal gathering replete with the speaking in tongues and bodies collapsed, the one on the others, in ecstatic torment. Testimonies too. A young woman proudly declares that she refused to trade with a book salesman. “Why, indeed, read a book? If what was in it was true, then everything in it was already in the Bible. If it was false, then reading it would imperil the soul.” For this crowd “speaking in tongues was real” and “education was a snare”.

Back east maybe the sophistos reading the Baltimore Evening Sun may have chuckled at Mencken’s word-pictures of these desperate yokels suffering from deprivation and shunning the one thing that might’ve lifted them out of it. Perhaps the joke gets stuck nowadays in the throats of similar personalities. Are there so many similar personalities? Mencken’s prose would be, I’d wager, regarded by his contemporaries as bearing the simple economy that came to define American writing in the 20th century. But would any newspaper in the English-speaking world these days hire a sub-editor who would understand a phrase like “there was a strong smell of antinomianism” without reaching for a dictionary? Could such be found? And if so would the editor let it pass?

I have my most sincere doubts. It does not pay in the current climate of consumer indulgence to remind those reading hi-falutin’ stuff in the quality press of their ignorance. The word ‘antinomianism’ would be banished replaced instead by an entire paragraph explaining the tendency of religious extremists to disregard the laws of their country out of the supposed exceptionalism bestowed by piety. Moreover this might, among the nefarious liberal press, be supplemented with a diatribe as to the dangers of such tendencies. An explanation would be warranted.

The slick ‘liberals’ – the American kind – with their half-baked Continental Philosophy mashed by mediocrities like Derrida and derivative pedants like Foucault, with their delusions that knowing the work of Epictitus somehow grants them enlightenment; these people with their confusion of the principles and consequences of liberalism and socialism, with their cowardice as to their own principles – they would deem it necessary to explain to their dwindling readership that a religious zealot, convinced of the inextricable Evil of the State and therefore dedicated to cleansing the country, was a dangerous person. The sad truth is that they would be right. As Frank Zappa writes, how can be people who’ve never read the Constitution possibly care when somebody tears it up? Few care, because so few are left that understand.


The belief that the reading of a single holy book is enough – and anything else too much – is familiar to anyone who has been in range of Western war propaganda these nine years past. We know about the schools in Pakistan, in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia where boys are taught to read only the Qu’ran and only thru the prism of the righteousness of a violent political struggle with the West. Girls are not taught to read in these places. And where, as in Afghanistan, this ethos is alone predominate, no girl learns to read and if she tries there can be dire consequences.

But these people are crazy, right? This is the Evil we must fight? Yeah?

Strange then, that the notion that learning is sinful is catching on in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Ann Coulter’s Godless deploys the standard rhetorical diversion of accusing one’s opponent of every wrong one is, one’s self, guilty of. Ms Coulter is a lawyer, a jurisprudential activist who seeks to overturn the secular foundations of the US Constitution and institute the apparatus of theology. I do not believe she does so out of adherence to faith. In one of interviews promoting this opprobrious assembly of sheer bollocks she’s asked to tell us her favourite prayer. So she shoots off The Lord’s Prayer says something like Our Father, Who Art In Heaven etcetera. Recited with all the soul of a Soviet apprentice apparatchik.

She’s full of shit. She wants the very people who’d most benefit from public education to shun it, nay demand that it be converted into an academy for theocratic bone’d heads. The ignorant are easy to manipulate and it’s only a matter of time before the intellectually impoverished masses of the United States make the connection that their false prophets and the corporatist interests with which they’re connected are responsible for their woes. How much longer will white trash rednecks and hard ghetto-bred brothers gonna take serving up their youth and health and lives in stinking deserts only to be discarded with smarmy self-righteousness by blue-bloods who pretend to be like them? How long before they simply just take charge of the country which they alone die for and they alone actually, truly care about? And if they ascend to the stage where they can exercise great political will and if their understanding of the Constitution and what it seeks to effect have eroded to the extent that a merger between Church and State seems like a good idea….


I have writ elsewhere that I believe in God. It’s true, I do. I, as they say, speak to the sky, and I imagine an enormous man, ancient yet vigorous with a white beard. This is Catholic imagery. The attempt by small creatures to put a face on the Infinite. Still I know that, according to the facts, there is no evidence of God save Creation itself. And that Creation is created by the whorls of simple energy organizing itself into complex patterns. I know the Universe is vast and might not be the only one. I wonder why Fundamentalists have so much trouble with Darwin when Hubble is so much the greater blow. Sorry guys the Buddhists were right, we’re just moss on a wheel within much bigger wheels.

What face or name can we put to the God of that?

Still there’s something to it – the starry skies above and the moral law within – there’s an idea that lingers on even as it morphs with our expanding horizons. An idea so powerful people will die and gladly in its name. Evolution more than geological history or the fact of an incomprehensibly massive universe, offends the fundamentalists because, as Bill Hicks quipped cruelly, they always ‘look so unevolved’. The faces of the crowd attending TV Preachers’ studios always seem so torn and crushed. They do not want to hear that they are monkeys because where they are, without the vicissitudes of culture to enhance and cultivate their instincts and persons, it’s all too obvious. And without a share in the benefits of the modern mind they reject its broader horizons.

They ain’t going there, ain’t goin’ anywhere… So why should you?


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