Bert Mahon, lukewarm Christian, has a Catholic moment

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Bert Mahon, an Iowa farmer who must have died more than 50 years ago, would never have imagined his name appearing in any newspaper, and certainly not a Catholic diocesan paper in southern New Jersey. My father, who knew Mr. Mahon, guessed that he had never set foot inside a Catholic church and probably didn’t even know the name of the pope. He might have been a nominal Protestant, if he was affiliated with any church at all.

But this man, at most marginally religious, made what could be described as a generous gesture of solidarity with my Catholic father when he was young, and he did it by saying a few impudent, untrue words in a tense situation.

Mr. Mahon — who should be referred to as “Bert” because, as my father remembered, he was known to be “just a big kid” at heart — had two teenage boys, and my father was killing time with them one day. The year was 1925, and someone came to the Mahon farm and invited Bert to some kind of meeting in nearby Correctionville. Out of boredom, Bert took his two sons and my father to the gathering, which was being held on the second floor of a store.

It turned out to be a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. About 100 white-robed Klansman were present.

The evening included several fiery speeches. The Klansmen began with a long list of angry complaints about Jews. Next was a long list of angry complaints about blacks. Then came an especially long and angry rant against Catholics, with the speaker feeling extra wound up because of news coverage of the upcoming Eucharistic Congress in Chicago.

After the speeches, Klansmen approached the “guests” one by one in an effort to sign up new members. My devout father sat silent and uncomfortable (probably saying Hail Marys) as a man in a white sheet came to Bert and asked if he and the young men with him wanted the honor of being members of their group. My father held his breath.

“Oh, we can’t join,” the old farmer drawled. “The four of us, we’re Catholics.”

At this, the room was quickly filled with angry shouts and unrepeatable language, and the four of them — one faithful Catholic and three pretenders — were immediately thrown out, roughly but unharmed.

Did Bert feel sorry for my father, who had just heard his faith vilified at length? Or did Bert say what he did simply out of pure contrariness? My father never knew. And he was sure he would not have gotten a straight answer if he asked.

Today hate groups recruit members and influence people in ways that Iowa provincials could not have imagined in 1925. The web is overflowing with overheated political rhetoric, and the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a river of suspicions, accusations and recriminations.

I don’t know if Bert Mahon was even a baptized Christian, but I think of him and his faux-Catholicism a lot these days. Piety, of course, is a virtue, and so is non-denominational loyalty. Perhaps, at least in some circumstances, mischievousness is as well.

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.