by Dr. Paul Kengor
The ACLU seems unusually active right now. What gives? Maybe it’s the Christmas season, which always seems to spring the ACLU into high gear, making it more miserable than usual.
I tried to ignore the latest round of ACLU legal challenges against religious Americans, but they became too much. The surge has been remarkably ecumenical, not singling out Protestant or Catholic interests.
First, I got an email from Mat Staver’s group, Liberty Counsel, highlighting a bunch of ACLU lawsuits. Then I read a page-one, top-of-the-fold headline in the National Catholic Register, “Catholic Hospitals Under New Attack by ACLU,” regarding an ACLU request to compel Catholic hospitals to do abortions. Next was an email from a colleague at Coral Ridge Ministries, forwarding a Washington Times article. Then came another email from yet another Christian group on lawsuits somewhere in Florida. And on and on.
That was just a sampling of this year’s Christmas cheer, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union. At least the ACLU always finds a way to unite Protestants and Catholics.
In the interest of faith and charity, I’d like to add my own ecumenical offering—a history lesson. It concerns some fascinating material I recently published on the ACLU’s early founders, especially three core figures: Roger Baldwin, Harry Ward, and Corliss Lamont. I can only provide a snapshot here, but you’ll get the picture.
First, Roger Baldwin: Baldwin was the founder of the ACLU, so far to the Left that he was hounded by the Justice Department of the progressive’s progressive, Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps it was a faith thing. Wilson was a progressive, but he was also a devout Christian, and Roger Baldwin was anything but that.
Baldwin was an atheist. He was also a onetime Communist, who, among other ignoble gestures, wrote a horrible 1928 book called Liberty Under the Soviets. Notably, he was smart enough not to join Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Other early officials of the ACLU, which was founded almost exactly the same time as the American Communist Party, included major party members like William Z. Foster, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Louis Budenz (who later broke with the party). Communists used the ACLU to deflect questions from the U.S. government over whether they were loyal to the USSR, were serving Joe Stalin in some capacity, and were committed to the overthrow of the American system.
That whole “overthrow-the-government” thing is something our universities tell us is baloney, a bunch of anti-communist, McCarthyite tripe. In fact, it took me mere minutes of digging into the Comintern Archives on CPUSA to find actual fliers and formal proclamations from the American Communist Party publicly advocating precisely that objective. (Click here to view some of the documents.) I also found the ACLU rife throughout those archives.
So bad had been the ACLU in aiding and abetting American communists that various legislative committees, federal and state, considered whether it was a communist front. The 1943 California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities reported that the ACLU “may be definitely classed as a communist front.” The committee added that “at least 90 percent of its [the ACLU's] efforts are expended on behalf of communists who come into conflict with the law.” That 90-percent figure was consistent with a major report produced by Congress a decade earlier, January 17, 1931.
Note the consistency: Defending communists secretly committed to Stalin’s Russia had been a central component of the ACLU’s work since its inception.
In my research, I also found constant approving references to the ACLU in CPUSA’s flagship publication, the Daily Worker. The Daily Worker loved the ACLU. Moreover, I was struck by how early the ACLU had been challenging not just Christians but their most joyous holiday, with the Daily Worker‘s eager approval.
To cite just one example, Christmas 1946, one of the first for returning troops from World War II, the ACLU initiated legal action to stop the singing of Christmas carols in California public schools. For that, the communists were most grateful to Baldwin and the boys.
Aside from Roger Baldwin, there were two other especially influential figures comprising this not-so-holy ACLU trinity. They were Corliss Lamont and Harry F. Ward. Covering these two adequately here is impossible. I’ve devoted probably about 10,000 words to Lamont alone in my book, Dupes—both men were precisely that: dupes. The ways in which Lamont and Ward were rolled by communists is astounding, with Lamont granted a special Potemkin village tour of the USSR in 1932, guided by Soviet handlers, where he swallowed the most outrageous propaganda hook, line, and sinker.
Lamont was most inspired by the Bolsheviks’ militant atheism, especially the churches they converted into wicked atheist museums. Lamont had already written his atheist classic, The Illusion of Immortality, which had been his dissertation at Columbia University under John Dewey, godfather to American public education, who himself had made a Potemkin village tour of the USSR (1928).
Given his leftist atheism, Lamont was at home with the ACLU. Harry Ward, however, was a Methodist minister, and a professor at Union Theological Seminary. How could he possibly support the ACLU?
That’s what made Harry Ward an even bigger dupe. More than supporting the ACLU, Ward was chairman as Baldwin served as director.
Imagine: a Christian was a founder of the ACLU. That’s Harry Ward.
When it came to sheer manipulation by communists, Ward was arguably the single greatest dupe in the entire history of the American Religious Left. Tellingly, a major Congressional report (July 1953) on communist activities in the New York City area featured more references to Ward than any other figure—twice as many as the next most-cited figure, Earl Browder, longtime face of American communism.
I found documents in the Soviet archives where communist officials in Moscow and New York deliberately targeted Ward to help push their propaganda. In one, a December 1920 letter, Ward is listed by Comintern officials as a source to get their materials on the shelves at the seminary library.
It wasn’t atheistic communism that concerned the Rev. Ward. No, it was anti-communism. Writing in Protestant Digest in January 1940, long before Senator McCarthy arrived on the scene, Ward admonished the faithful of the perils of “anti-communism,” which was being employed “under the leadership of [Congressman Martin] Dies in a new red hunt,” one “more ruthless than that of [former Attorney General] Mitchell Palmer.” (Both Dies and Palmer were Democrats.)
Alas, Christian charity compels me to concede a key fact, particularly at Christmas time. Among this not-so-holy trinity of Baldwin-Lamont-Ward, there was a measure of redemption for Baldwin at least. Baldwin eventually, after the Red Terror, after the Great Purge, after the Ukrainian famine, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, after millions of rotting corpses, after the gulag, after the communists had violated every imaginable civil liberty, awakened to the stench of the Soviet system. He finally saw communism, and communists, as a genuine concern.
By the early 1950s, Baldwin began insisting that ACLU officers take a non-communist oath. Call Baldwin crazy, but he figured that any ACLU member who held allegiance to “totalitarian dictatorship” was not truly serious about civil liberties. Perhaps they were publicly exploiting American civil liberties to privately support a nation (the USSR) that had no civil liberties?
Good thought. Who could argue with that?
Well, Corliss Lamont could—as could I. F. Stone (who the latest evidence suggests was an actual Soviet agent), several editors at the Nation, several professors from Columbia, the New York Times, and other usual suspects. Finding a purge they could finally condemn, they objected to this ACLU “purge.” Lamont resigned.
So, yes, Roger Baldwin’s ACLU backed away from its communist leanings.
Sadly, however, Roger Baldwin’s ACLU never seems to have shirked from its atheist leanings, which haunt us still today.
Could it be that the ACLU’s alleged onetime commitment to defending communism has shifted to an apparent commitment to defending atheism? It certainly seems like it, especially this time of year. And if the ACLU doesn’t like that perception, it should do something to change it.