by Dr. Paul Kengor
No, that’s not “Clarence the Angel” of It’s a Wonderful Life fame. The Clarence in this article is much less inspiring—a humbug, really. I’m thinking of Clarence Darrow, dogmatic defender of atheists.
As Christians this time of year absorb another spate of snipes at their revered holy day, they might pause to remember Darrow. Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was the wise-cracking, aggressive lawyer who took on William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trials,” an epic battle over faith in the public square. Bryan was a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee. He was old-school, when Democrats were much more conservative. Darrow’s courtroom denunciation of Bryan is immortalized in the awful movie, Inherit the Wind, which portrays Bryan as an idiot and Darrow as brilliant defender of civil liberties, “tolerance,” and “reason.”
These are reasons why modern secular liberals uphold Clarence Darrow as conquering hero. These liberals are a sharp departure from religious progressive forebears like Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Dorothy Day, and Jane Addams, among many others. Today’s progressives love Darrow.
That’s all well-established. What was new to me, however, was the discovery that the farthest extreme of the political left—namely, American Communists—likewise loved Darrow. This was a shock, absolutely unexpected, as I encountered Darrow’s name repeatedly in the Soviet Comintern Archives on Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
Why did communists adore Darrow? For one, they greatly appreciated his work in the Scopes Trials. There were no angrier foes of faith than communists. Darrow was the toast of the movement for his yeoman’s work countering the silly “superstitions” of Bryan and his merry band of “mindless” fundamentalists.
But there’s more to it. Another reason for the communist reverence of Darrow is a fact not taught in schools: Before Darrow defended monkeys, he defended Communists, and their leader Ben Gitlow, beginning with a series of dramatic incidents and cases that ran from 1919 into the 1920s, when they were being pursued for advocating armed revolution and the overthrow of the American system, which they wanted to replace with a “Soviet American republic.” (To view some of these documents click here.) They were being challenged by President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, for their blatantly subversive, anti-American, pro-Bolshevik activities.
Significantly, Darrow was an early ACLU member, founded in 1920 by fellow atheist, Roger Baldwin, who, at that point, was a pro-Soviet Communist. As I wrote here previously, a huge component of the ACLU’s initial work was defending American Communists. ACLU members and Communist Party members flocked to one another, with atheism a common bond.
As for Darrow, he unflinchingly adopted the party line of the ACLU and American Communist Party, arguing that America was being consumed by hysterical anti-communism. This was decades before Joe McCarthy.
But Clarence Darrow’s courtroom defense of American communists was cruder than that. Not only were American Communists not loyal to the USSR, insisted Darrow, in the face of fliers posted on buildings by the Communist Party (click here), but were the embodiment of the American Revolution and Founding Fathers. “For a man to be afraid of revolution in America,” argued Darrow, “would be to be ashamed of his own mother!”