Some things improve with age. Fundamentalist pastor and controversialist Peter Ruckman is not one of them.
I debated Ruckman — now 79 and living in Pensacola, Fla. — in 1987 and have not seen him since. The debate was held at a Baptist church in Long Beach, Calif. I forget the topic, but I remember Ruckman. I particularly remember that he refused to shake my hand at the conclusion of the event. Perhaps I did better than he expected, or maybe he just was afraid of catching Catholic cooties.
I also remember one of his front-row supporters. When Ruckman was at the lectern, his backer held up a hand-lettered sign that read, “Amen, brother!” When I was at the lectern, the sign was flipped over. It then read, “Repent, sinner!” I figured right off that the fellow was not an unbiased observer.
Throughout the debate Ruckman worked the crowd as though he were giving a tent revival in the rural South of yesteryear. In his good-ol'-boy language and anti-intellectualism he was — and is — a walking stereotype. Over the years I have caught glimpses of him, usually defending himself from complaints lodged by other Fundamentalists. Even for them Ruckman is too extreme.
Among other things, he holds that the King James Version is a translation produced under a divine impulse. Any Fundamentalist who declines to use the KJV exclusively is not to be thought of as a real Christian. It is all the worse for other Protestants; Catholics, of course, are far beyond the pale.
Recently I was sent a copy of the Bible Believer's Bulletin, Ruckman's newsletter. In it he devotes a long article to excoriating my most recent book, The Usual Suspects. He begins by asserting that I have been “elected by his peers as the official voice of the Roman Catholic Church in America to act as its official ‘apologist.’” This is an honor I did not know I had received.
Perhaps Ruckman is mixing me up with someone else, just as, in the next paragraph, he confuses two saints. My book is published by Ignatius Press, but Ruckman thinks the Ignatius for whom the publisher is named was Ignatius of Antioch rather than Ignatius of Loyola. This is an odd mistake coming from someone who complains repeatedly about Jesuitical intrigues in the Catholic Church.
Among many other things, in The Usual Suspects I recount the story of Emile Zola's visit to Lourdes in 1892. The French novelist, who prided himself on his anticlericalism and atheism, was witness to one of the few miraculous cures certified by the Church. Marie Lemarchand was described by Zola as having “a case of lupus which had preyed on the unhappy woman's nose and mouth. ... The cartilage of the nose was almost eaten away, the mouth was drawn up all on one side by the swollen condition of the upper lip. The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.”
The 18-year-old was taken to the baths and came out healed, yet Zola told the director of the medical bureau, “Were I to see all of the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.” He was a fine example of blind faith in the impossibility of miracles.
Peter Ruckman has his own kind of blind faith. “I don't fool with Lourdes because I figure any dead, Jewish woman who spends 15 centuries visiting Bible-rejecting pagans while she is trying to hear and answer the prayers of 900,000,000 ‘elect’ members of the ‘Church that Christ founded’ must be a careless, heartless, publicity-seeking female.”
The argument may be different, but the result is the same: Miracles do not happen — at least to Catholics.
To say that Ruckman is a curmudgeon is to understate the matter. For some reason he has maintained a loyal following for decades, even though he has reduced his ideology to what his Protestant opponents called “Ruckmanism,” sort of a oneman religion. I am not aware of his ever having said a civil word about a Catholic or, for that matter, about any living Protestant who is not his follower. In his newsletter he calls me “stupid, illiterate, and confounded.” My book is “anti-biblical claptrap.” My thinking is “inadequate and muddled.” I am an “old, crafty, cunning, lying lawyer.” (I find this last remark a little insulting: Compared to Ruckman, I am not old.)
Peter Ruckman is nearly the last of his breed: a self-styled evangelist of the Gospel who is crude without being profane, suspicious of reason, loudmouthed even in print. It may come as no surprise to learn that his newsletter hawks a booklet defending racial segregation as biblical and that he condemns other anti-Catholic writers for being insufficiently anti-Catholic. When he goes, the Florida panhandle will have lost a character — not an attractive one, perhaps, and certainly not one who ever induced anyone toward Christianity through the use of sweetness and light, but a character nonetheless.
If nothing else, he has served, for Catholics and Protestants alike, as a good bad example.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers in El Cajon, California.