Honest to Goodness Priest tells a nation beset with moral questioning that compassion, not truth, is always the best policy. Amen, say the Great American Think-Off judges.

June 23, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. -- It is the Little Town that Could. It is the Athens of the Prairie. It is the epicenter of serious, down-to-earth thinking in the upper Midwest.

To prove it, New York Mills awarded a gold medal to a Long Island Episcopal priest this weekend and declared him America's Greatest Thinker. They've been doing this for six years, and so far, nobody's challenged their right to do it. Harvard's attorneys have filed no writs.

Clark Berge also got $500 and enjoyed the hospitality of the people of New York Mills for a couple of days during the Sixth Annual Great American Think-Off. He was one of four finalists invited to present their arguments, pro or con, on this year's big question, put to all the amateur philosophers who entered the essay contest sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center: "Is Honesty ALWAYS the Best Policy?"

The question is one the people of this area are evidently interested in: More of them showed up for the debate than in the last five years -- over 300. It was also evident that the current scandal of morality and honesty in Washington is seen here, with some sadness, as reflecting the spirit of the times. One of the contestants, a sex therapist from California, used it as the leitmotif of her essay and presentation. She drew an enthusiastic response.

In fact, honesty must be a topic of interest to many Americans these days. The Cultural Center received more than 820 essays this year, the largest number since the contest was launched in 1993, the brainchild of John Davis, a local artist. Entries came from 45 states, from the East Coast and West Coast. A few even came all the way from Argentina.

Forty-two essays arrived from Maryland, more than half from Baltimore.

A panel consisting of a university philosopher, an accountant, a musician, a priest, a teacher and a disc jockey chose the final four, who came in for the debate.

Berge, a thin, ascetic-looking man with a milky smile, rust-colored beard and vague eyes, argued the No position before the crowd in the New York Mills High School gym. He is a community organizer among the poor of Long Island. He argued that compassion was a greater virtue than "rigorous honesty," when exercised without regard for consequences.

The soft-spoken priest tied his opponent in knots during the final round of the three-hour debate, with biblical citations supporting the necessity to occasionally shade the truth to effect more benign outcomes, especially at those times when society is in disarray and lunatics rule -- such as during the Holocaust and in the Balkans today.

The finalist Berge disposed of was a 19-year-old college student from Fargo, N.D., named Mac Schneider, a husky football lineman with a broad face brightened by a perpetual blush. Schneider argued that honesty was always the best policy, without exception. He confessed he would probably turn in his mother if it came to a question of his lying to the police to shield her -- and won the silver medal.

"So, you better watch out, Mom," he said, grinning into the cameras of the C-Span network, which broadcast the debate live.

There was one Dan Quayle moment. It came when, in response to a question, Schneider said he believed the U.S. government did not lie to the American people.

Berge allowed that remark to sink in. Then with exquisite enunciation and in a tone of exaggerated sadness, he said: "I believe the government lies to us."

The house came down.

Rounding out the debate

An 84-year-old retired surgeon from nearby Detroit Lakes, Minn., Charles Eginton, also argued for no compromise when it comes to honesty. He was lean and deliberate, and conveyed his points in a voice so low that everybody had to bend toward him to hear him. He made reference to the Ten Commandments, the rules of an honest life. These, he said, were not sent down to be obeyed only at one's convenience.

The other contestant holding up the No besides Berge was Susan Block, the sex therapist. New York Mills had probably never seen the likes of her. She wore gray platform boots, a wildly patterned floral dress, a white translucent picture hat. She had big teeth and lavish hair, and brought a theatricality to the whole affair that everybody appreciated.

Well, nearly. One member of the audience complained that during her first round debate with Berge she tried to upstage the priest as he spoke by fanning herself with a purple feather.

"I've done some amateur theater, and you'd get killed for that," said Jim Buchan.

Block's arguments, for the most part, had to do with the truth and consequences of sexual frankness. She counseled discretion, especially these days when people who demand the absolute truth are often the ones likely to abuse the information they receive. Her most pointed reference was to independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his "$40 million witch hunt."

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