Christianity, Socialism, and the First Red Scare

The 1920s and 30s produced many “red lists” documenting real and imagined communist influence and subversion in America.  Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network was the most famous (just ask Glenn Beck), and certainly the most amusing in hindsight, but the interwar years also had the American Legion’s ISMs, Blair Coán’s The Red Web, and R. M. Whitney’s Reds in America.  One of the most dire predictions of all of these works was the fear that American churches would fail in their duty to prevent socialism from gaining a grasp on the nation.

The grandfather of all of them was the report of the Joint Legislative Committee of the State of New York Investigating Seditious Activities, published in 1920 as Revolutionary Radicalism.  The four-volume, 4,450-page Lusk Report (named after Senator Clayton Lusk)

not only included a chapter that gave a general history of “Socialism and the Churches,” but also dedicated hundreds of pages to evaluations of various church denominations and their levels of resilience to communist attack or infiltration.  The conclusion was that unless the expansion of communism in America was stopped, “and unless the constructive movement of church leaders leads to a revival of religious belief, the necessary foundations for a permanent social reconstruction will be wanting.”

The Lusk Report, like many other critical views of communism, treated its subject as an anti-religious religion, applying the rhetoric of Christianity to an ideology in a refusal or inability to discern the differences between the two.  When the authors of the report described the Communist Manifesto as Socialism’s “Ten Commandments,” they asserted that the godless communists possessed doctrinal adherence to ultimate and unchanging principles.  This assertion of cognitive equivalency between membership in Christianity and in the Communist Party transformed the conflict between the two into a fight of Christendom against infidels.  Not only were socialist economic ideals flawed, they claimed, but the entire worldview was a danger to Christian American society because it rested upon radically different beliefs regarding the nature of existence.  Communism threatened to upend traditional Christian culture with a worldview bereft of a transcendent source of morality.

The only cure for this disease—which was not simply an alien introduction, but rather an integral symptom of modern society—was for the government to “adopt as our guides the great religious and ethical standards that have been almost by everyone thrown into the discard in any but purely personal relations. …It is time we awoke to the fact that the lack of religious and moral training which distinguishes this generation has given full swing to the baser instincts.”

Not all were as pessimistic about the modern condition; The New York Times editorial staff, presaging Paul Goodman’s arguments in Christianity, , disagreed on the source of the nation’s systemic societal degradation, preferring to point to “a lowering of intellectual standards” stemming from insufficient salaries for teachers and clergy, causing men to “hesitate to enter a profession that makes impossible the full, manly life.”   But then as now, such a diagnosis failed to convince many, as it implies a need to reassess the American condition, rather than excise a foreign body.

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