Reformed ‘skinhead’ discusses influence of Catholicism, spiritual strength of literature

Joseph Pearce, writer- in-residence and professor of literature at Ave Maria College, spokeWednesday evening in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall about his transformation from a radical white supremacist to a successful scholar and writer. Through literature and Catholicism, Pearce was able to discard what he described as his “hateful and wretched” views.

The lecture, “From Skinhead to Scholar: The Transforming Power of Literature,” was co-sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office, the Newman Catholic Community and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). ISI, a national non-profit organization, “seeks to enhance the rising generation’s knowledge of our nation’s founding principles – limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise and Judeo-Christian moral standards,” according to its website.

Pearce began his lecture by discussing the environment into which he was born. He grew up in the 1960s in east London, an area which was flooded with immigrants as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act. Because of the poor economy, there was considerable resentment among the white working class, of which Pearce was a member, towards the immigrants.

“At the age of 15, I became involved with an organization called the National Front,” Pearce said. Although its stated goals were somewhat less offensive, Pearce said that its hidden agenda “was distinctly pro-Hitler and pro-Nazi.”

Much of his racism, Pearce said, stemmed from his lack of exposure to balanced opinions: “At 15, there’s not a lot in your head. If all you read thereafter is propaganda – it’s all you really know.”

Pearce went on to become the editor of the Bulldog, the youth newspaper of the National Front. He became involved with Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, who “believed in fighting fire with fire.” He also became a member of the Orange Order, “whose sole raison-d’être was Catholic hating.”

“We opposed the pope’s visit,” he said. “We’d kicked the pope out centuries before, and we didn’t want him back now, thank you very much.”

Pearce was later arrested for publishing “articles that incited racial hatred” in the Bulldog and spent his 21st birthday in prison. Upon his release, he began to read a number of books and periodicals that triggered “an arm wrestle in my heart and mind.”

Some of the most important books he read were J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. “It made me realize that good is real, that evil is real and that you have a duty to be on the good side and not the bad,” he said. “Christianity,” he added, “is the root and the key to understanding Lord of the Rings at its deepest level.”

He also read an essay by G.K. Chesterton that defended Catholicism against numerous attacks. When a Jehovah’s Witness came to his home to try to convert him, he pretended to be a Catholic. He was surprised by how effective his defense of Catholicism was.

By reading George Orwell, he began to feel that too much power in the hands of the government is extremely dangerous. By reading Edmund Burke, he recognized the importance of liberty and the steps necessary to protect it. By 1986, he was so unsure of his prior political convictions that he dropped out of politics entirely. “You cannot be too careful of the books you read,” he said.

In 1989, after a second prison sentence, he became a Catholic. He said that his conversion was in part influenced by several “miracles,” but that he preferred not to discuss them. Converting to Catholicism was “the one act in my life I’ve never regretted,” Pearce said.

He described his first book, a biography of Chesterton, as “an act of thanksgiving to God for helping to lead me out of that hell into which I had strayed.” He has gone on to write about Tolkien, Oscar Wilde and, most recently, Hilaire Belloc.

Pearce finished his talk by describing a meeting he had with an old National Front friend years after he had ceased to affiliate himself with the party. This friend had not abandoned any of the racist views that he had held decades before. “He didn’t seem to have had developed at all since his 15th birthday,” Pearce said.

What was clear through Pearce’s talk was that his conversion to Catholicism was as important to his transformation as was his exposure to literature. Asked why liberal secularism never held any appeal to him, he said he was troubled by secularists’ “we have all the answers” view of the world. He later added, “I’ve never understood atheism; it takes a great leap of faith to believe in nothing.”

Religion, then, is clearly central to Pearce’s story: “It shows the power of grace, that even a wretch like me can be saved,” he said.

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