A half-century ago, hysteria gripped the U.S. when the 1954 Presbyterian General Assembly met in Detroit. The General Assembly acts like our government’s legislative, executive and judicial branches rolled into one for Presbyterians.
Anti-communists warned that Communists infiltrated the Beltway, controlled Hollywood and roused sympathies among progressive-thinking preachers. In the 18th century, James Madison warned that free speech would be sacrificed when popular hysteria ran roughshod over “parchment barriers,” such as the Bill of Rights. An alleged Communist spy network growing in the U.S. terrified many Americans. They clamped down on free speech in order to capture sellers of national military secrets to Russia.
Led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, bullies churned up hysteria, claiming Communist agents infiltrated the U.S. government. They insinuated President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a member of the Presbyterian Church, had cold feet in battling Stalinists. McCarthy inferred that Ike allowed the Red Scare to grow. Did the president capitulate to the totalitarian threat by doing too little?
Princeton Theological Seminary’s president John Mackay stepped into this maelstrom of controversy. As moderator of the 1953 General Assembly, Mackay had enough of McCarthy’s character assassinations and witch hunts. He penned a “Letter to Presbyterians: Concerning the Present Situation in our Country and in the World,” sending it on Nov. 2, 1953, when McCarthy’s popularity surged.
Prior to his presidency at Princeton Theological Seminary, Mackay had served for 16 years as a missionary in Peru and Uruguay. He groomed indigenous leaders for these struggling Protestant churches, which roused suspicions among Roman Catholics who dominated these nations. Latin American strongmen often instructed peasants to surrender power to those in control. These totalitarian leaders restricted freedom of speech in order to preserve national security. Sound familiar today?
Mackay identified tactical similarities shared by Latin American dictators and Sen. McCarthy. He spoke his mind to protect free speech, labeling the senator’s anti-communist paranoia as “idolatrous.” He judged Sen. McCarthy had broken the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
In the “Letter to Presbyterians,” Mackay declared that Americans who sided with McCarthy failed to differentiate between legitimate dissent, which strengthens the U.S., and treason, which weakens it. They aren’t synonymous. He declared that “treason and dissent are being confused. The shrine of conscience and private judgment, which God alone has a right to enter, is being invaded. Attacks are being made upon citizens of integrity and social passion which are utterly alien to the Protestant religious tradition which has been a main source of the freedoms which people of the United States enjoy.”
In a rare instance of virtually unified conviction, the 1954 General Assembly in Detroit approved by an 880-1 margin Mackay’s freedom of speech manifesto.
Amid political passions, this Presbyterian leader didn’t stay mum. He wasn’t reticent. Many clergy did, however, lest some parishioners brand them communist sympathizers.
I grew up in these stormy times from 1947 through 1960 when the Cold War brought chilling fear to America. Even actor Ronald Reagan didn’t escape McCarthy’s scrutiny because he had headed the Screen Actors Guild, an alleged hideout for Communist subversives. Historian Howard K. Beale described Washington as a city crawling with “spying, suspicion, defamation by rumor,” with “democratic freedoms at risk” because “methods of a police state” dominated.
The Red Scare exposed clergy who the John Birch Society condemned as unpatriotic. In March 1953, California congressman Donald Jackson indirectly poked at John Mackay. He besmirched the reputation of Mackay’s friend, the Methodist bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, who had for years “served God on Sunday and the Communist front for the balance of the week.”
J.B. Matthews, McCarthy’s crony, wrote an article with the opening salvo, “The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States today is composed of Protestant clergy,” a prime example being John Mackay. Many clergy liberal in theology sealed their lips, hoping their names wouldn’t have “sympathetic association” with Communists.
Sen. McCarthy’s crusade against Stalinists concocted a bigger enemies’ list than those he suspected of treason. He detested both Stalin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and intensified the Red Scare to overturn the New Deal, which he smeared as socialistic.
McCarthy’s fabrications spread, inciting fear in other U.S. sectors. Columbia University historian Eric Foner describes the insidious toxin that poisoned American society: “For business, the anti-Communist crusade became part of a campaign to tar government intervention in the economy with the brush of socialism. Anticommunism became a tool wielded by white supremacists against black civil rights, employers against unions, and upholders of sexual morality and traditional gender roles against homosexuality, all allegedly responsible for eroding the country’s fighting spirit. Homosexuals and members of nudist colonies were among those now barred from government service” (“The Story of American Freedom”).
Today, vindictive political and religious slurs tarnish honorable people’s reputations. Where are the John Mackays who speak up to defend what’s true?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.