January-February 2015

Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love.  By Joseph Pearce. Saint Benedict Press. 264 pages. $22.95.

Long before I became a believing Catholic, my first religion was American nationalism. I grew up happily in the long shadow of the Reagan revolution and idolized the man who restored the pride of being American. I despised the post-Vietnam War-era liberals’ carping about the U.S., and found something seditious in their seeming hatred of the American way of life. But the 25-year gulf that separates me from that 17-year-old “nationalist” is wide. Far from seeing the U.S. Constitution as divinely ordained, I now see it as an Enlightenment-inspired document that ignores the social kingship of Jesus Christ and is embedded with suspect assumptions about man. Instead of seeing U.S. military intervention as a good, I see a bankrupt and ossifying empire in its death throes. Instead of vilifying liberal carpers, I have turned into a critic of the very idea of American exceptionalism. Nonetheless, I still believe that I am a patriot in the rightly ordered sense. Catholicism replaced my Americanist religion, and that has made all the difference.

Joseph Pearce’s autobiography, Race with the Devil, which chronicles his conversion from British nationalist to Catholic, piques the interest of anyone who, while perhaps never of a nationalist or racist bent, is embarrassed to recall his own excessive nativism and hopes to find, at least in some respects, a kindred soul in his journey. Pearce, known for his writings on J.R.R. Tolkien and other literary Catholic converts, recounts an eventful life. Born in England in the early 1960s to an unchurched Anglican family, Pearce became heavily involved with the hardcore nationalist and anti-immigration political movement while in high school. He played a prominent role at an early age by taking part in sometimes violent nationalist protests and producing racist literature. He cemented his xenophobic bona fides with his two-time incarceration for violating the U.K.’s “thoughtcrime” statute, the Race Relations Act of 1976, by publishing material deemed likely to incite racial violence.

Pearce vividly recounts a turbulent decade of his life: the protests, the interaction with racist and nationalist thugs of all types (including virulent Ulster Protestants), and what it was like to be young, racist, and hip. Pearce was keenly aware that the movement’s success depended on its attractiveness to young people. In order to convert his contemporaries to British nationalism, he engaged with soccer hooligans and punk rockers during the era in which the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were giving voice to a lost generation of youth born into a nihilistic and hedonistic culture. While the young British Left was organizing “Rock Against Racism,” Pearce and his cohorts were organizing “Rock Against Communism,” which headlined punk bands amenable to anti-immigration views.

Pearce’s sojourn into racist politics ended during his second prison sentence. The proud, triumphant political prisoner of his first sentence was now, in his mid-20s, an unsure and beaten man. His confusion stemmed from growing misgivings about the racist assumptions he had long accepted. Repudiation and his eventual conversion came by way of good books. Pearce charts a list of authors who contributed to his growth, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in particular. Pearce at first read these authors for political content and their emphasis on distributism and subsidiarity, themes that continue to play prominent roles in the author’s worldview. But because it is impossible to separate Chesterton and Belloc’s religion from their political views, Pearce eventually identified himself more and more as a Catholic thinker — ironic given that so much of British nationalism was venomously opposed to all things Catholic.

Pearce also identifies instances of kindness or understanding expressed by his social and political foes that challenged his racist ideology. It is a reminder that the kindness we show to others incubates over time, and later (often much later) can assist them along the road to conversion. Eventually, Pearce met an American graduate student, identified as a Steubenville Catholic, who would become his wife and who played a big part in his continuing conversion.

While Pearce’s autobiographical journey is enjoyable, I found it wanting in certain respects. To write an autobiographical conversion story is to take on a genre populated by giants like St. Augustine and St. Thérèse. Pearce’s story inspires but imparts the feeling that something is missing. A book of this genre that stands out is Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. While Chambers did not become a Catholic, his journey from communism to belief in God is an apt comparative work to Pearce’s journey away from racism. In Witness there are no straw men. Chambers is a deep thinker — no dilettante — and part of his story is explaining in detail the appeal of his life prior to his relationship with God. Moreover, his conversion was bittersweet — as if he had to die to self in order to live again.

I don’t doubt that Pearce is sincere, but his conversion story lacks a certain depth. First, he never satisfactorily explains his attraction and dedication to the British Nationalist movement. He never explains what, despite their foundational mistakes, its members got right. It is almost as if he woke up one day and said, “I want to be a racist Nationalist.” In Witness Chambers explains in great detail the appeal of communism and how he ultimately joined its ranks as an act of justice. He says that, in the end, the choice was either God or communism. A rationale for Pearce’s actions and beliefs, which I am sure he could give, would be more interesting than a description of his past life with the occasional after-the-fact mea culpa thrown in for good measure. This is not to suggest that he justify his racist past, but rather that he plumb the depths of his attraction to it. Perhaps he doesn’t want to dwell on it lest someone accuse him of not fully relinquishing racism, but I still want to understand it.

Moreover, Pearce’s description of his current life comes off in an almost affected, “piously correct” mode of writing. I would describe it as akin to how American evangelicals talk about their faith in rosy, automatous terms without a scintilla of doubt or strain. One hates to reduce Pearce’s story to “bad racist becomes good Catholic,” but there is an element of truth in that description. This is not to say that I find moving descriptions of our Lord, His Church, His saints, or His liturgy to be trite, but if they feel even slightly contrived I am very much put off. Put another way, Pearce’s descriptions strike me almost as saying what he thinks he ought to be saying as a practicing Catholic, as opposed to what he actually thinks. As a fellow convert who also is “working out his faith in fear and trembling,” I sense that there is more to Joseph Pearce than he is letting on.

- Christopher Gawley



Star Crossed: A Hollywood Love Story in Three Acts.  By Ron Austin. Eerdmans. 225 pages. $24.

Ron Austin is a child of Hollywood. He spent most of his formative years there, met his wife at the Young Actors Company there, and for much of his adult life earned a living as a writer and producer in the field of movies and television. You may recognize some of his projects: Charlie’s Angels, Mission Impossible, Matlock, and The Exiles — now considered an American classic. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America and is a member of the Directors Guild; he’s also a founding member of Catholics in Media and spent years on the infamous communist blacklist. Blessed with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and profound empathy with the underdog, Austin has traveled many roads.

His story’s first act, so called in the book’s subtitle, features his wife, Ruth, the “star” and center of his life. She was Jewish, artistic — and she saved him more than once from the excesses of political zeal and career ambition. They did not share a religious faith, but once Austin became a Catholic, she saw a kinder, better man and could be happy with that, even if the tenets of the faith were and would remain alien to her.

Other stars in Austin’s milieu were of the Hollywood variety: Charles Chaplin, Loretta Young, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Sam Waterston, and all the characters that came his way over a career that spanned decades. Yet nowhere does Austin drop a name just to do it. In each case, his acquaintance left him with a particular memory that adds to the story. He saw plenty of misbehavior and is critical of Tinseltown, but when it comes to naming names, Austin’s memoir is discreet. This reluctance to name names is perennial and got him into plenty of trouble during the worst years of anti-communism. About those years he is honest: He was a communist in his youth and knew of efforts by communists to subvert Hollywood unions, but he refused to name the people involved. The consequences of reticence were swift and total — no more work, no matter how good he was.

Austin spent the next years as a social worker in the poorest barrios of Los Angeles. It was heartbreaking work, often futile, but work more grounded in reality than movieland. Eventually, Austin returned to a Hollywood that had changed. He had a new chance at “success” but with many, many compromises — “living a life of bad faith,” in his words.

Austin’s second act is his conversion to Christianity and, many years later, his baptism as a Catholic. Ruth, a lifelong secular Jew whose love bore faith and trust, ultimately led Austin to his own belief in God and the Church. Having made that leap, he knew he had to give up the fantasy world of show business. What to do next?

Thanks to years of generous salaries and wise investments, Austin was able to volunteer at a Catholic Charities office in the heart of the seedier part of — you guessed it — Hollywood. His special project was a halfway house for men who would become self-sustaining, responsible members of the community. (The hitch in the theory being the results of original sin.) About half of the men were able to make the transition, but many others broke Austin’s heart. When funding evaporated, Austin’s volunteer career took him to prison ministry — another hard population. With God’s help, Austin found beauty and grace even in that most unlikely place.

Austin’s third act is about reconciliation between Christians and Jews. Having worked in a largely Jewish town, and having been married to a Jewish woman, Austin has sustained interest in the nature of interfaith dialogue, the reciprocal antipathies and, well, yes, the grudges. His love of both Judaism and Christianity, and his understanding of their histories, are significant. Although he provides some background to the current state of the relationship, he mainly seeks a way forward. For this, his primary prescription is respectful regard and understanding. Each side has erred and each must give a little — not in doctrinal matters but in recognition of the worthiness of the other, the Chosen People and the People of God’s established Church.

It’s a tall order but one Austin believes in because he saw such respectful understanding at work in his marriage with Ruth. It’s also a heavy burden for Austin if he proposes — and he seems to — that a relationship between a believing Christian and a secular, non-religious Jew could serve as a model for interfaith dialogue. In personal matters, and in happy marriages, participants might subsume doctrinal issues, but in ecumenical affairs, it will not do to obscure, overlook, or give short shrift to any. Can Jews and Christians truly see each other as beloved spouses, or is it enough if we can see each other as affectionate in-laws? Christ did come and there is the message of the Gospel: He is Lord of all.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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