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Friday, July 06, 2012

John Roach Straton

Guest Blogger: Heywood Broun. Sportswriter, drama critic, Algonquin Round Table wit, and social reformer, Broun offered a witty and insightful voice during the 1910s and ’20s. In this essay, he takes on John Roach Straton, who held the pulpit of New York’s Calvary Baptist Church from 1918-29, his rantings bolstered by radio. Straton’s tirades against the “bestial theories of evolution” would now seem quaint were this view not still shared by backwoods anti-intellectualists. From Broun’s collection Pieces of Hate, published in 1922 by the George H. Doran Co., New York.


Heywood Broun
IN THE COURSE OF HIS Sabbath day talk at Calvary Baptist Church the other day, the Rev. Dr. John Roach Straton spoke of  “miserable Charlie Chaplin, “ or words to that effect. This seems to us an expression of the more or less natural antipathy of a man who regards life trivially for a serious artist. It is the venom of the clown confronted by the comedian.

Dr. Straton is, of course, an utter materialist. He is concerned with such temporal and evanescent things as hellfire, and a heaven which he has pictured in one of his sermons as a sort of glorified Coney Island. Moreover, he has created a deity in his own image and has presented the invisible king as merely a somewhat more mannerly John Roach Straton. And while Dr. Straton has been thus engaged in debasing the ideals of mankind, Charlie Chaplin has brought to great masses of people some glint of things which are eternal. He has managed to show us beauty and, better than that, he has contrived to put us at ease in this presence. We belong to a Nation which is timorous of beauty, but Charlie has managed to soothe our fears by proving to us that it may also be merry.

While Straton has been talking about jazz, debauchery, modesty, vengeance and other ugly things, Chaplin has given us the story of a child.  “The Kid” captured a little of that curiously exalted something which belongs to paternity. All spiritual things must have in them a childlike quality. The belief in immortality rests not very much on the hope of going on. Few of us want to do that, but we would like very much to begin again.

Naturally, we are under no delusions as to the innate goodness even of very small children. They are bad a great deal of the time, but before it has been knocked out of them they see no limit to the potentialities of the human will. Theirs is the faith to move mountains, because they do not yet know the fearful heft of them. The world is merely a rather big sandpile and much may be done to it with a tin pail and shovel. We would capture such confidence again.

As a matter of fact, a great deal could be done with a pail and shovel. We do not try because we have lost our nerve. Nobody will ever get it back again by listening to Dr. Straton. He seems solely intent upon detailing the limitations and the frailties of man. We think he has outgrown his soul a little. He has sold his birthright for a mess of potterism.

But Charlie Chaplin moves through the world which he pictures on the screen like a mischievous child. He confounds all the gross villains who come against him. His smile is a token and a symbol that man is too merry to die utterly. Fearful things menace us, but they will flee before the audacious one who has the fervor to draw back his foot and let it fly.

Of course, we are not advocating any suppression of Dr. Straton by censorship. We regard him and his sermons as a bad influence. But after all, the man or woman who strays into Dr. Straton's church knows what to expect. In justice to the clergyman it must be said that he has never made any secret of his methods or his message. There is no deception. Sentimentally, we think it rather shocking that these talks of his should occur on Sunday. There really ought to be one day of the week upon which the citizens of New York turn away from frivolity. And still we do not urge that the Sunday Law be amended to include the performances of John Roach Straton. He is not one whit worse than some of the sensational Sunday magazines.

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