Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 22]

Having largely won his confrontation with congressional critics, Bishop Oxnam continued to speak in defense of civil liberties and against communism.  “In my view, the Communist Party is a conspiracy.  And I believe the conspirators should be discovered, subjected to due process of law and punished.”  However, he warned against punishment for beliefs as opposed to acts. [“Oxnam Decries Abuse of Liberty in War on Reds”, Los Angeles Times (December 18, 1953) Page A6].  Bishop Oxnam, not fearful of being involved with politics, implored President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 to declare: “We want no more McCarthyism.” [“Oxnam Asks End to McCarthyism”, Baltimore Sun (November 11, 1953) Page 38].  In 1954, Bishop Oxnam celebrated that “people are getting fed up” with Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was discredited after televised hearings in which he charged the US Army with communist infiltration. [“McCarthy’s Popularity on Wane, Oxnam Says”, New York Times (April 28, 1954)].  The bishop rejoiced that Protestism’s “emphasis on individualism and upon freedom” protected us against the “virus”  of communism. [“Church Repels Reds, Oxnam Says”, Los Angeles Times (November 1, 1954) Page 26].  Addressing the 1954 Baltimore Annual Conference, Bishop Oxnam emphasized supporting the United Nations and disarmament, while stressing that disarmament could not be unilateral by the United States.  He urge recognition of Red China unless we were prepared  for “endless war.”  Afterwards, Maryland Methodists voted to oppose US military aid for Pakistan and to outlaw nuclear weapons. [“Methodists Set Peace Emphasis”, Baltimore Sun (June 5, 1954) Page 26].  This sounds like politics to me.

     Not to be removed from the politics of the time, Baltimore Bishop Edgar Love declared in 1952: “I believe it is time for the church to become militant in its fight against the evils of Communism.”  He warned that “suppressed” people seeking freedom were being guided by the communists to “disaster”.   [“Communists Not Cause of Social Ills”, Pittsburgh Courier (December 20, 1952)].  Further, in 1952 Bishop Fred Corson, as newly elected Council of Bishops president, complained that if America had “followed the harder line policies enunciated by General Douglas MacArthur in 1948,” the Korean War could have been avoided and China saved from communism. [“Bishop Corson Lauds M’Arthur”, New York Times (April 17, 1952) Page 19].

     Bishop Gerald Kennedy in 1952, returning from an Asian visit, praised the just fired General MacArthur.  He also praised MacArthur’s successor, General Matthew Ridgeway.  Indiana Bishop Richard Raines, who had travelled to Asia with Kennedy, commended Ridgeway before the Methodist Board of Missions as a “friendly, inwardly tranquil, democratic man” who was “carrying on a consummate skill and wisdom.” [“Ridgeway Praised as Churchly Man”, New York Times (January 18, 1952) Page 48].

     Methodist Church leadership finally started taking communism seriously.  In 1953, the Council of Bishops heard reports from bishops returned from overseas about the communist threat.  Arthur Moore told of Protestant pastors arrested in East Germany.  A bishop returned from Africa to report of potential communist threat in South Africa due to racial friction. [ “State of the Church”, Christian Advocate (May 21, 1953)].  Boston Bishop John Wesley Lord even felt an obligation to publicly deny charges of communist infiltration into Methodism. [“Six Clergymen Deny Communist Activity”, Washington Post (September 15, 1953) Page 11].

     The Methodist Board of Missions in 1954 heard its chief declare: “Communism is an organized, disciplined, international conspiracy,” and a “vicious imperialism” that “degrades man,” and is the “deadly enemy of Christianity.”  A missionary from Malaysia warned of “trained Communist agents coming in to stir the broth.”  Another missionary from India reported that communism and Christianity were vying for loyalty from the people.  While still another missionary from Latin America warned:”Communism is stretching every nerve to create distrust and sow seeds of discord,” pointing at “so-called ‘American imperialism.'” [“Communism Complicates”, Christian Advocate (February 11, 1954)].  Does this sound somewhat familiar with what we are hearing in today’s society?

     In 1955 Bishop Oxnam challenged Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev to allow theism to “meet atheism in the free market of ideas” and “guarantee the civil liberties essential to the proclamation of the Christian faith.”  The bishop was confident that the “superstitions of the Communist faith will vanish before the realities of the Christian faith in any fair competition for the minds of men.” [“Oxnam Challenges Red Boss”, Washington Post (September 24, 1955)].  This sounds to me like politics deep in the church leadership as the bishop sounds more like a representative of the US government.

     In 1956, the Council of Bishops denounced the Soviet Union’s invasion to suppress an anti-communist rebellion in Hungary.    The bishops declared that the Soviets were “destitute of moral principle”, as they urged moral support for Hungary. They endorsed the United Nations as the only “agency legally empowered to maintain peace.” [“Council of Bishops Back United Nations”, Atlanta Daily World (December 16, 1956) Page 5].  Further, at the 1956 General Conference, the Bishops’ episcopal address warned that before world peace could becomes reality there must be a “common language” that includes “freedom”, “democracy”, and “liberation” with the same definition for all people.  He cited the church’s role in strengthening public support for the United Nations.  They urged “multilateral” and “realistic” disarmament as a “necessary safeguard against a third world war.” [Journal of the General Conference,  Methodist Church (1956) Pages 223-224]. The General Conference reaffirmed the “Christian’s undying interest in freedom and self-government for all people.” Delegates denounced war, opposed “universal military training” and universal abolition of peacetime conscription. [Ibid., Pages 717-721].  What a different focus from today’s General Conferences where the concern is on same sex marriage, transgenderism, abortion, gay rights, etc!

     But then being involved with world politics was not enough, because even in the Cold War, many Methodists remained concerned about global Roman Catholic influence.  Methodism’s Board of Missions chief in 1957 condemned both communism and Catholicism, surmising,”Communism treats all religions in the same way, but the Roman Catholic Church is committed to the destruction of all religions except its own.”  Another speaker complained to the missions board that Roman Catholicism can “wield its mailed fist of totalitarianism and arrogance through good deeds,” while another speakers lamented Catholicism’s “tremendous, political influence” in Latin America. [“Methodists Hear Opposition Rises”, New York Times (January 17, 1957) Page 12].  Fortunately, more focus remained on communism.  In a 1959 radio broadcast, Bishop Richard Raines recalled his recent Far East trip, observing the impact of communist China, North Korea, and North Vietnam.  “Communism has no moral code of respect for persons or regard of truth or the keeping of its alleged word”, he warned.  “Communists are convinced that everything that furthers Communism is right and good and anything that opposes it is bad.”  They have “broken up homes, separating children from parents and husbands from wives, thinking it will make people more pliable.” (Sounds somewhat like policies in the US today.)  Raines noted that communists, who know Christianity’s “power” had sought to discredit it. (Once again sounds like what we are experiencing in the US today.)  He noted that “democracy exists only when certain moral and spiritual habits exist in society.” [Audio of “Bishop Richard C. Raines Far East Report, 1959”, DePauw University Archives].

     As the 1950’s came to an end the church was finally seeing communism for what it was.  Next we will see how the Methodist Church decided to enter the fray in a stand against communism.  The church was not about to exclude politics from its stance against what it considered a global threat.

– Bob Munsey

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Martin Luther King Jr.

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