Damning Words: the Life and Religious Times of HL Mencken

by DG Hart, Eerdmans, £18.99

Henry Louis Mencken worked hard to poke fun at religion. The best gags came when Mencken was in epigrammatic mood. “The Christian,” he wrote, was “one who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line at one wife.”

All too often, Mencken’s faith-bashing invective lacked substance and he came across, as Darryl Hart puts it, as “one part village atheist and one part town drunk”. Sometimes, though, a depth can be discerned in Mencken’s religious musings.

Hart argues that his subject “devoted far more time to religious beliefs, practices and institutions than someone who was simply antagonistic might reasonably spend”. Mencken was “also much more conversant with Christian theology and the niceties of Church polity and liturgy than someone might expect of a person only interested in stripping the altars bare”. By turns Mencken was bemused and irked by Christianity, but he took it seriously.

It’s not difficult to locate moments when Mencken’s critiques were rooted in the assumption that faith stymied fun. He worried that religion risked turning life into an “orderly and tedious march … with all the hands trooping up the celestial gangplank in a lockstep”.

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