27. Monkeying around with H.L. Mencken

On February 3, 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to hold a group prayer to save the soul of the journalist H.L. Mencken. The proximate cause were three columns by Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun in January. Describing Arkansas as “perhaps the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy,” he dubbed it “the apex of moronia.” Mencken shrugged off the prayer session, saying, “I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did.”

Mencken was especially harsh on the religious southeastern and south-central states, coining the phrase “Bible Belt” to describe them. There, aggressive evangelicals often used government to impose their morality on others. This clashed with Mencken's tolerance as well as the scientific progress he championed. If “Genesis embodies a mathematically accurate statement of what took place the week of June 3, 4004 B.C.,” he argued, then “all of modern science is nonsense.”

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The clash erupted dramatically during the eight-day Scopes Monkey Trial held in Tennessee in 1925. (Mencken also coined the term “Monkey Trial.”) A high school teacher had broken a law against teaching evolution, and Mencken was determined to be a key player in the courtroom circus. He persuaded the famed attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the teacher against the equally famed politican-orator William Jennings Bryan.

Mencken's broadcasts blistered the radio waves with accounts of the courtroom's “air of a religious orgy.” A guilty verdict was inevitable, he announced, because “one accused of heresy ... is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap.” Such comments almost led to his lynching.

Although Scopes was found guilty and fined, with the judgment later overturned on a technicality, Mencken declared the trial to be “a great victory.” For the rest of his life, he cited it as proof that civil libertarians must ever be on guard against mandatory moralists.


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