Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 18]

On December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked by the Empire of Japan and the arguing was over.  Within days we had declared war on Japan and its allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. By default we had to join forces with the Soviet Union that had only months before been invaded by the German hoards.  There were still some in the US that felt joining forces with the communists was signing a pact with the Devil in spite of a common enemy. Methodist Federation for Social Service chief Harry Ward in 1942 derided the “anti-Soviet front” in America, which he declared to be the “ally of Hitler within our gates.” [“Dr. H.F. Ward Assails ‘Anti-Soviet Front'”, New York Times (April 23, 1942) Page 9].  A former Methodist missionary to Poland warned that Poland would be a “test tube” for communist experimentation after a Soviet occupation. [“Asserts Poland Is Test Tube of Red Experiment”, Chicago Daily Tribune (May 29, 1945) Page 5].  To the contrary California Bishop James Baker urged trusting the Soviet Union.  “To accuse Russia of insincerity in her desire to help establish and maintain peace…is a betrayal of the spirit and hopes of the peoples of all nations.”  [“Bishop Baker Assails Blasts at Soviet Union”, Los Angeles Times (June 16, 1945) Page A1].  The 1946 New York East Annual Conference similarly urged America and the Soviet Union to work “harmoniously together for world peace.” [“Methodists Back Free Worship Plea”, New York Times (May 17, 1946) Page 19].

     In 1946, New York Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam criticized religious leaders, clearly Roman Catholics, who “summon a ‘holy war’ on Communism but at the same time apparently believe in cooperation with Fascism,” citing Spain under Francisco Franco. He asked Christians to be more consistent to “condemn all forms of totalitarianism.” [“Soviet-Hating Spain-blessing Clerics Scored”, Washington Post (July 8, 1946) Page 14]. Oxnam later predicted communism would never win in a “democratic and just America.”  He insisted that Christians could not condone Soviet “methods and violence” and “purges wrought upon newly acquired peoples or the taking from these people of political, intellectual and religious liberty.” [“3d World War Not Necessary”, Washington Post (December 14, 1946) Page 9].

     In 1947, Oxnam urged the US to reach out to Stalin and criticized President Truman for not seeking more avenues to peace. “Appeasement of dictators is futile,” he admitted.  “Discovering a way in which conflicting ideologies can exist in the same world is good sense.” [“Oxnam Urges US to Invite Stalin”, New York Times (March 31, 1948) Page 8].  Dallas Bishop Charles Selecman wanted America to be more “firm” with Russia because “we are dealing not only with Russian political maneuvers but also with Communism, which is anti-Christian and antidemocratic.” [“Communism Evils Cited”, Los Angeles Times (August 9, 1946) Page A1].

    In 1946, the Methodist World Peace Commission hoping for a “true form of world government” emerging out of the United Nations, urged the US to renounce its atomic weaponry, opposed continued US bases in the Pacific, touted “atonement gifts” to Japan from the US for the “unpardonable injuries” of the atomic blasts, and declared that “neither state socialism nor free enterprise provides a perfect economic system, and each can learn from the experience of the other.” [World Peace Newsletter, Commission on World Peace of the Methodist Church (December 10, 1946) Page 1].

     Similarly, the 1948 Methodist General Conference did not criticize the Soviet Union or communism.  Instead, it declared: “Peace in the immediate future depends primarily on the establishment of better relationships between the Soviet Union and the United States.”  The delegates said they “rejoice” over the formation of the United Nations.  They commended “steps toward a federated form of world government,” lamenting that “national sovereignties” “inevitably” fuel “tension and conflict.”  Renowned scientist Albert Einstein wired the General Conference urging their support for world government to prevent war.  The Conference effusively insisted that “Christianity and war are utterly opposed,” and that the “methods of Jesus” contradict war and that the church must reject “nationalism” and instead be “universal”. God has “to us committed, not implements of destruction for the arrest of evil, but the word of reconciliation.” Delegates opposed the draft. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1948) Pages 594-599].  The “Church and War and Peace” resolution unanimously emerged from the “State of the Church” legislative committee, chaired by the prominent pacifist and Illinois pastor Ernest Fremont Tittle, who had unsuccessfully battled for a pacifist stance at the 1944 General Conference. [“Methodist Unit Asks End of War Mood”, Baltimore Sun (May 7, 1948) Page 3].

     Although not specifically denouncing communism, the 1948 General Conference did authorize training the church’s missionaries about communism with a hope to combat “non-Christian ideologies around the world.” [“Methodists Plan to Instruct Missionaries in Communism”, Baltimore Sun (May 6, 1948) Page 1].  While this talk was going on, communism was winning military victories in China, long a focus of Methodist missions, and long ruled by Chiang Kai-shek, himself a Methodist convert. “Only an educational system that follows the pattern of propaganda, systematic Communist propaganda, is tolerated” after a communist takeover, the mission board chief would warn later in 1948.” [“Chinese Reds Held Foes of Religion”, New York Times  (December 9, 1948) Page 9].

     Speaking for Methodism’s World Peace Commission, Ralph Sockman assured the 1948 General Conference that if war were averted, Christian democracy, contrasting with “atheistic Communism”, would persuade Western Europe to “look to us rather than Russia for leadership.”  A Methodist editor at this conference, warned delegates of “Pentagon penetration” and a “militarization process” in America, declaring:”Our American democracy must be made so effective and so hopeful that honest men will not be seduced by Communism.”  He said the US was “at least partly” responsible for war hysteria and urged “one, more honest, serious and forthright effort to negotiate with Russia.” [“Methodists Assail Hysteria for War”, New York Times (May 1, 1948) Page 6].

     An episcopal address to the 1948 General Conference was delivered by Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, who declared: “We reject Communism, its materialism, its methods of class war, its use of dictatorship, its fallacious economics and its false theory of social development; but we know that the only way to defeat it permanently is to use the freedom of our own democracy to establish economic justice and racial brotherhood.” He further noted,”We have enjoyed the privileges of freedom so long that we are in danger of forgetting that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  He admitted, “Invading armies must be met by defending armies…”  Communism was primarily an invading “ideology” that must be resisted by “dynamic democracy.” In closing he said Methodism should resist communism by “enthroning the faith of Christ in the practice of men.” [Journal of the General Conference,  Methodist Church (1948) Pages 179-190].

     Later in 1948, as Bishop Oxnam was returning from the founding of World Council of Churches gathering in Amsterdam, he told a reporter: “It is imperative that democratic resistance to and conquest of totalitarian ideology shall not become allied and identified with reactionary and passing regimes.” [“Clergymen Report on World Council”, New York Times (September 22, 1948) Page5].  In one of my future writings I will cover something I have uncovered on the World Council of Churches…it’s not what you might expect.  A short time later, in a Milwaukee speech, Oxnam insisted the US “must keep itself so strong that Russia will be convinced that attempts to impose Communism ideology by force cannot succeed, and if attempted will jeopardize the peace.”  [Oxnam Warns US on Helping Franco”, New York Times (November 17, 1948) Page 24].  

     Apparently it would take more than strength to convince the world’s next arising tyrant.  Soviet backed forces seized power in all of Eastern Europe after World War II, thus setting the stage for the next conflict.  Fortunately the church did not back away from trying to influence world politics.  More on this next week.

— Bob Munsey

“If we do not learn to live together in peace, we will all perish together as fools”  MLK Jr.

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