Doug Marlette knew that religion was really, really important -- especially in his beloved South. He knew that religion was very powerful and he respected that. He knew why people tend to get mad when you poke them in the soul. Thus, Marlette understood that religion can be really, really, really funny if you know what you're doing. That was hard to do, sometimes, because religion is so important, powerful, complex and, well, holy. He knew all of that.
But he was also a cartoonist and, well, sometimes a cartoonist has to do what a cartoonist has to do.
I worked with Doug during some of his wildest years in Charlotte, N.C., when the PTL scandal was just starting to boil and the Religious Right was hot, hot, hot. He was one of those wild Baptist guys who loved to rattle cages and, since I was the religion writer in the newsroom, he was a natural guy with whom to talk shop.
Right now, I really do not know what to say about his tragic death, because I can't imagine that this guy is gone. It doesn't matter if you agreed with him all the time or not.
Look at the image at the top of this post and try to tell me that it doesn't grab you. Tell me it is not the work of a man who wants to play with holy fire. Click through this collection posted by The Charlotte Observer. See any common themes?
Doug made me a nice print of that Good Friday cartoon and it hangs in my home office, along with a PTL-era original that he gave me as a goodbye present when I headed West to Denver. There's a print of a classic cartoon mocking Ronald Reagan on his love of praying in public, too. Marlette believed that religion can play a pivotal role in American public life, but he also was a strong believer in the separation of church and state.
In other words, he was a Baptist's Baptist. The man inside the head of Pastor Will B. Dunn knew what he was doing.
You can see signs of this in some of the coverage of his death early this week. The Observer story noted:
"He was such a lightning rod, and he was so willing to challenge conventional authority that it really made it easy for us to take on the establishment in our own way," said friend and former Observer Managing Editor Mark Ethridge. "He was kind of the point man on a wedge, just busting everything open."
Friends say Marlette was fueled by a genuine distaste for injustice -- "a frustration with the unrightness of things," said Ethridge. He took on the most intimate of topics for his readers, from the South's foibles to religion. One controversial Easter Sunday cartoon, a protest against the death penalty, showed Jesus carrying the electric chair up the hill at Calvary.
"He was a spiritual guy who read a great deal about religion and theology and sought to practice it in his daily life ...," said Observer writer Richard Maschal. "He didn't stand apart from the South and condemn it, but loved it, and anytime he criticized it, it was from the heart."
And lots of the people said, "Amen."
Marlette cared enough to take big, big risks and to make people mad. He was a journalist with a pen and he used it. As The Washington Post's tribute said:
In a 2003 Columbia Journalism Review article, he described how he slyly explained to angry callers that he couldn't be "a tool of Satan," as accused, because the newspaper's personnel office strictly prohibited hiring such people.
"Cartoons are the acid test of the First Amendment," he wrote in the winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports. "They push the boundaries of free speech by the very qualities that have endangered them: Cartoons are hard to defend. They strain reason and logic. They can't say 'on the other hand.' And for as long as cartoons exist, Americans can be assured that we still have the right and privilege to express controversial opinions and offend powerful interests."
One of his most contested works, published online only in December 2002, showed a man in Middle Eastern clothes driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear bomb hanging out of the back. The caption read: "What would Mohammed drive?"
More than 20,000 e-mailers protested, and it wasn't the first time readers took offense. He previously outraged fundamentalist Christians by skewering evangelist Jerry Falwell, enraged Roman Catholics by needling the pope and infuriated Jews by criticizing Israel.
"What I have learned from this experience is that those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar," he wrote. "No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance."
Memory eternal, Doug Marlette. I am planning to dig into my notes from old interviews with my friend and write my own tribute next week, in my column for the Scripps Howard News Service.