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On "Dupes" and the Religious Left

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On "Dupes" and the Religious Left

Paul Kengor

This article is republished from V&V Q&A, an e-publication of the Center for Vision & Values, at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center. The topic of this article is taken from his latest book, Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
Editor's note: If you'd like to reach Dr. Kengor to discuss this book, contact him directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

V&V: Dr. Kengor, why the title, "Dupes"? That's a word that will make many religious people uncomfortable.

Paul Kengor: Yes, but they need to understand that the term has been around since at least George Washington's Farewell Address. "Dupes" has a negative connotation, but, in reality, it's descriptive and points to a very specific phenomenon that has long been a part of political parlance. The word was especially common during the Cold War, where even the duped regrettably referred to themselves as having been duped. "Yes, I was duped," was a common refrain. This included even the likes of my political mentor, Ronald Reagan.

Until this book, no one had done a serious look at this phenomenon. I was motivated by the vast declassifications of former Soviet and Communist Party USA archives, where we see how duping was done quite deliberately.

V&V: Let's get to the focus of this interview: Why is religion central to this book?

Kengor: First, the Communists were, by their own definition, atheistic. More than that, they were proudly, militantly atheistic. Marx called religion the "opiate of the masses," and said that, "Communism begins where atheism begins." Lenin said far worse, comparing religion to everything from venereal disease to "a necrophilia." "There's nothing more abominable than religion," declared Lenin.

This institutionalized atheism was true for Communists everywhere, from Moscow to New York.

Beyond that, Communists viciously persecuted believers of all stripes.

V&V: And these Communists, who locked up and even executed Christians, Jews, and other believers, sang a different tune when speaking to liberal Christians in the United States?

Kengor: Yes. They cynically, contemptuously, targeted the Religious Left. And it's downright depressing to see the success they had. They knew these liberal Christians were trusting souls, who agreed with them on certain sympathies -- workers rights, civil rights, wealth distribution. The Communists exploited that trust.

The Communists excelled at lying, as noted not only by conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, but also by liberals and Democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, George Kennan, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. As Lenin infamously said, the only morality that Communists recognized is that which furthered class interests. Vaclav Havel called it "the Communist culture of the lie."

So, the Communists lied to liberals. And as the Communists operated covertly, not openly admitting they were Communists, they enlisted liberals in their petitions, marches, protests, publications. Without these duped liberals/progressives, the Communists were dead in the water, exposed as the tiny fringe they were.

V&V: Where did they have their best success?

Kengor: The mainline denominations, particularly the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church USA.

When I started researching this book, I asked Herb Romerstein, the veteran investigator of the Communist movement, and himself a former Communist, which group of Americans were most manipulated. He unhesitatingly answered "liberal Protestant pastors." He called them "the biggest suckers of them all."

V&V: Are there certain pastors who stood out?

Kengor: It's hard to pick just one, but as a symbol, starting very early, there was the Rev. Harry F. Ward, a liberal Methodist minister, a seminary professor, and founding member of the ACLU, along with atheist Roger Baldwin, who wrote a horrible 1928 book called Liberty Under the Soviets.

In my book, we publish a December 1920 list of liberal college professors targeted by the Soviet Comintern and American Communist Party. On the list is not only Ward, listed with Union Theological Seminary, but other professors from seminaries or religious colleges, from Mount Holyoke to Trinity College. The Communists counted on the Religious Left to be duped -- sheep led to the slaughter.

V&V: You say Ward was "easy prey."

Kengor: Harry Ward gobbled up Soviet propaganda. Early on, he set the standard for much of the liberal left: that is, he exposed not the Communists, but, instead, attacked the anti-Communists. In Ward's world, it was anti-Communism that was the great menace to be resisted. 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] Dies in a new red hunt" that promised to be even "more ruthless than that of Mitchell Palmer."

Here, Ward warned about Congressman Martin Dies, Texas Democrat, the first head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson's attorney general.

By the way, right there, in that sentence, were three Democrats -- Dies, Mitchell, and Wilson -- all Christians, who weren't duped, and who were excellent anti-Communists, with their faith informing their understanding of the dangers of Bolshevism. Certainly, not everyone on the Religious Left was duped.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, you note that many liberal/progressive Christians were duped by Communists, whereas many others, fortunately, were not duped. Let's break it down.

Dr. Paul Kengor: On the plus side, some were never duped in large part because of their faith-based understanding of the godlessness of Marxism-Leninism. These included liberal Democrats like President Woodrow Wilson -- big surprise to modern ears -- Wilson's attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and more. Wilson called the Bolsheviks "barbarians," "tyrants," and "terrorists." JFK alerted America to its "atheistic foe" and the "godless" "Communist conspiracy."

V&V: And then, you say, there were duped liberals/progressives who eventually "came to see the light," and switched and repented in part because they saw the evil of the Soviet war on religion.

Kengor: Yes, this included William Bullitt, our first ambassador to the USSR, who once literally planted a kiss on Stalin's cheek. Another was Paul Douglas, a later U.S. senator, who had been wined and dined by Stalin. Another was a Hollywood liberal named Ronald Reagan, whose pastor alerted him to the menace of atheistic Communism. All three, Reagan, Douglas, Bullitt, saw the light and made reparation.

V&V: You also describe lifelong liberals who, either agnostic or not notably religious, were appalled by the faith-like structure of Soviet Communism.

Kengor: Yes, these liberals were repulsed by the Soviet promise of an earthly utopia. The Bolsheviks created their own gods in their own image, repeating that first sin: Ye shall be as gods.

This included John Dewey, father of modern American public education. Interestingly, Dewey was initially duped by the Soviets, who adored his educational work, rapidly translating it into Russian, one book after another. The totalitarian Bolsheviks saw Dewey's work as perfect for their state; they quickly implemented the precise Dewey books that America's teachers' colleges and educational departments have used to train a century of public-school educators. In Dupes, I list these books, their years of translation, and the Bolsheviks' glowing appraisals. They loved Dewey.

The Bolsheviks invited John Dewey to the USSR for a 1928 trip, where they rolled out the red carpet. There, this public-school icon was manipulated badly. When he returned home, he did exactly what Stalin hoped, proclaiming the "new world" he discovered in the USSR. In one especially outrageous account, Dewey hailed the "restoration" of Russia's churches, when, in fact, as everyone knew, the Bolsheviks were demolishing churches.

To his credit, the professor eventually saw the light, becoming a staunch critic of Stalin. It took Dewey a few years, but he came around. I think Dewey's own earlier departure from the faith numbed his awareness of the evil staring him in the face. Dewey's mother had been very devout, and he had once taught Sunday school, but by the time he got to Columbia, he had fled the faith.

V&V: And then there were lifelong atheists who you said "never learned," and were duped into "stumping for the Soviet state until their final days."

Kengor: Yes, spiritually speaking, one might see these folks as victimized by the continued lack of light in their lives, of wallowing in darkness. That would be spiritual speculation, which I avoid in the book. Here I have in mind the famous humanist/atheist Corliss Lamont, one of Dewey's star pupils at Columbia.

V&V: Corliss Lamont also made a sojourn to Moscow, where he, too, was manipulated. Tell us about that.

Kengor: What Lamont recorded about that visit, which he turned into a book, is breathtaking. It was embodied in his reaction to Lenin's dead body encased in glass, which caused Lamont to swoon in delight. He was also inspired by his visit to Moscow churches that had been converted into atheist museums. Unlike Dewey, who was so nave that he allowed himself to be convinced that these were "restoration" projects, Lamont knew precisely what they were, and heartily approved.

In some of these churches, the Bolsheviks displayed the corpses of saints, which Lamont ridiculed. In Lenin's corpse, Lamont perceived not rot but a "resolute and beautiful face." In the case of the saints, however, he eagerly reported worm holes, "smelly" odors, and mockingly asserted that it looked as if the Lord wasn't taking very good care of these "holy" people.

V&V: It was very disrespectful.

Kengor: It was classic Corliss Lamont, who was a dupe for the Communists and their worst sins for seven decades until his death in the 1990s.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, what were some of the Communist campaigns that successfully duped liberal Christians?

Dr. Paul Kengor: The most tragic example was the World War II front-group, the American Peace Mobilization, which -- led by secret Communists -- publicly pushed President Franklin Roosevelt to accommodate Hitler, because Hitler had signed an August 1939 non-aggression pact with Stalin. This group angrily demanded no Lend-Lease money to the British, as the Brits were being savaged by Hitler's Blitzkrieg. How could the American Peace Mobilization -- or at least its Communist ringleaders -- take this position? They did so because it was Stalin's position, at least from August 1939 until June 22, 1941, when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the USSR.

Once that betrayal took place, the American Peace Mobilization became, literally overnight, the American People's Mobilization, and suddenly became fanatically pro-war, pro-British, pro-Lend-Lease, you name it. This group took its orders from Moscow.

V&V: The switch was that blatant?

Kengor: Yes, and Congress certainly noticed. Congress later dubbed the American Peace Mobilization "one of the most seditious organizations which ever operated in the United States," "one of the most notorious and blatantly Communist fronts ever organized in this country," and an "instrument of the Communist Party line."

And yet, the American Peace Mobilization had more success with peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek Christians than any other group. Some did learn, but many did not.

By the way, also taken for a ride here, as usual, was The New York Times. In one 1940 article on the American Peace Mobilization, the Times described the group not as a Communist front -- the word "Communist" never appeared in the article -- but as a "group of clergymen."

V&V: Fast-forwarding to another war, tell us about the Communist campaign regarding the Vietnam War.

Kengor: Moscow, of course, wanted U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, because it wanted a Communist Vietnam. So, this was ideal for another Soviet-led "peace campaign." The Communists again, from the USSR to those operating in the United States, looked to anti-war Christians to enlist in marches, petitions, and whatever else.

Most striking, Communists within leadership positions of groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) never dared express their true sympathies and intentions to the liberals in their ranks. That was especially true for the Marxist radicals who set fire to cities like Chicago.

As these folks descended on Chicago in 1968-69, for instance, with no money but lots of drugs and other things -- including arrest warrants -- where would they be housed? The answer came from clergy in the liberal mainline denominations in the Chicago and Evanston areas. A special clergy group was established for the purpose of finding housing for the young folks. Or, as put by Mark Rudd, a dedicated Communist and the face of SDS, who shut down Columbia University in the spring of 1968, they found "churches loaned to us by sympathetic clergy."

According to the official Congressional investigator -- by the way, the congressional committees who held hearings were run by Democrats -- the revolutionaries were accommodated in Evanston at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Covenant Methodist Church, and Garrett Theological Seminary. It was at Garrett that a police officer was beaten. In Chicago, they stayed at University Disciple Church in Hyde Park.

V&V: Couldn't the clergy see the chaos this would cause?

Kengor: You would think so. Interestingly, the liberal clergy had laid down one condition for the dope-smoking, weapons-toting militants: no dope or weapons in the churches. That simple rule, naturally, obviously, was violated. Much like how the Vietcong had used "sanctuaries" in Cambodia to launch attacks on American troops inside Vietnam, the radicals used these literal sanctuaries to stage assaults on their domestic enemies: the "pigs," as they called the police, that had always protected these churches and their congregations.

V&V: What did the folks in the pews think about all this?

Kengor: They weren't exactly thrilled when they caught the news. In no time, members of the congregations and people from the surrounding community were demanding that the liberal preachers expel the extremists from their houses of worship. Fighting the fight for "social justice," some of the good reverends sided with the marijuana-smokers.

In one case, the police were forced to enter a church with warrants to arrest those who had engaged in violent action. There, the minister complained that the police broke down the door. Quite the contrary, as the Congressional investigator calmly explained during hearings, "They broke the door down because the Weathermen had barricaded the door of the church and had refused to let the police serve the warrants."

The pastor was shocked at what was happening in his church -- shocked, that is, by the behavior of . . . the police.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, you noted disturbing examples of Communists manipulating liberal/progressive Christians through phony peace campaigns, including the case of the Communist front-group, the American Peace Mobilization, which accommodated Hitler because Hitler signed a pact with Stalin. Who were other manipulators of the Religious Left?

Kengor: One was Stalin himself. I give a bunch of examples in the book. Most troubling is how Stalin hoodwinked President Roosevelt. For the record, I probably defend FDR in Dupes more than I criticize him. FDR was targeted by Communists, who tried not only to dupe him and his administration, but penetrated his administration with spies and Soviet sympathizers. Worse, Communists demonized FDR in their literature and campaigns.

That said, FDR was terribly naive toward Stalin, whom he called "Uncle Joe" as a term of endearment. FDR openly mused that Stalin had taught him, Churchill, and all various officials something about "the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave." Where did Stalin gain this alleged virtue that FDR somehow saw radiating from this man who slaughtered millions? The Episcopalian elder from Hyde Park looked upward for an answer: Perhaps, pondered FDR, it had been Stalin's youthful training for the "priesthood."

V&V: You say that FDR really felt this way, and wasn't simply saying such things to "get along" with a difficult ally during wartime?

Kengor: That's correct. Most observations like this were made in private by FDR. I footnote them carefully. I know their seriousness.

V&V: From roughly this same era, what about Frank Marshall Davis?

Kengor: Another manipulator of liberal/progressive Christians was Frank Marshall Davis, mentor to a young man in Hawaii named Barack Obama. I have photo exhibits of Davis's weekly columns for the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) organ in Hawaii, the Honolulu Record, plus pages from his declassified 600-page FBI file listing his actual Communist Party membership number, which was 47544.

V&V: Share some examples from Davis's weekly columns.

Kengor: In one Davis column, titled, "Challenge to the Church," September 29, 1949, Davis framed Communism as friendly to Christianity, and anti-Communism as un-Christian. He painted an image of Judgment Day, where hypocritical anti-Communist Christians would be judged for opposing alleged Christ-loving Communists. "The Christian churches," asserted Davis, "are making a grievous error in their shortsighted belief that the major enemy of Christianity is Communism." Not only was Soviet Russia not anti-religious, maintained Davis, but Stalin had spared the planet of Hitler's "anti-Christian paganism." Christians ought to thank Stalin.

V&V: In another column you cite, Davis called anti-Communists "Pontius Pilates."

Kengor: Yes, Davis wrote that in July 1949, as Stalin was approaching his third decade of literally blowing up churches and jailing and executing religious believers. The good Communists were, said a stoic Davis, "ready to face crucifixion, if need be, for what they believe in. They have no fear of the Pontius Pilates of 1949."

In Frank Marshall Davis's world, the anti-Communists were the Pontius Pilates, not the Communists conducting show trials of priests and bishops sentenced to execution or dispatched to prison camps in Russia.

Obviously, this was blatant Soviet propaganda. But, here again, Davis was making a bid for the support of the Religious Left. The way that Frank Marshall Davis manipulated "social justice" pastors is quite cynical but also quite impressive.

V&V: You also write that Davis was reflective of how atheistic Communists often quoted Christ or cited Scripture when looking to dupe liberal Christians.

Kengor: They did that all the time, from the pages of Pravda to the Daily Worker. One example was FDR's former vice president, Henry Wallace.

The Daily Worker adored Wallace. He was a go-to guy for a quick quote blasting not Stalin and the Soviets but American anti-Communists. Speaking of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Daily Worker quoted Wallace: "Has America gone crazy?" He asked, "Is the Un-American Activities Committee evidence that America is travelling the road to fascism?" The former vice president urged his fellow Americans that they "must destroy" the committee -- at the ballot box. If they did not, the committee "will destroy many of the foundations of democracy and Christianity." The former veep, a fond admirer of the Soviet experiment, was worried about threats to democracy and Christianity -- in America, that is.

The Daily Worker, in turn, thrust quotes like this directly onto the front cover. The comrades appreciated Henry Wallace dearly.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, we looked at FDR, Stalin, and the pro-Stalin propaganda work of Obama mentor Frank Marshall Davis. Concluding this interview on the Religious Left being duped by the Communist movement, let's end where you start: The cover of your book features arguably the most famous "born again" president, Jimmy Carter, kissing Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev.

Kengor: That occurred at the Vienna Summit in June 1979. It's a metaphor for how sincere, well-intentioned, liberal Christians were fooled by Communists. In this case, an American president betrayed with a kiss. Mere months later, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. President Carter was celebrating Christmas with his family when he got the news.

V&V: Carter was surprised by the invasion?

Kengor: Yes, completely. "My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically," Carter told ABC's Frank Reynolds:

[T]his action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office.

Carter was trusting to a fault. There he was, kissing the leader of the world's atheist empire -- an "Evil Empire," as Carter's successor described it. Carter suffered from a terribly nave faith in the Soviets. The quotes to this effect, listed at length in Dupes, pulled from the official Presidential Papers, need to be seen to be believed.

V&V: You say Carter persisted in such naivete after the presidency, when he supposedly redeemed himself as a great ex-president.

Kengor: The examples are numerous, unrivaled by any president, Democrat or Republican, from the Cold War to War on Terror. To cite one example, Carter's statements about Kim Jong-Il after a 1994 trip to North Korea defy imagination. Each time I read them, I stare in disbelief.

Carter was impressed by what he somehow perceived as a pleasant, unique "interest" in Christianity by Kim. Kim, of course, spearheaded a militantly atheistic regime; yet, Carter, a born-again Baptist, found Kim "very friendly toward Christianity." In truth, as anyone with any knowledge of North Korea knows, North Korea is the world's most repressive nation, and has been for decades. Christians there are in prison. How could Carter say that?

With Carter, there's this inexplicable gullibility. It's an extraordinary thing that I can't explain.

V&V: Changing gears, tell us how Communists sought to divide Protestants and Catholics. You give several examples.

Kengor: Bear in mind that Communists were enraged at the institutional Roman Catholic Church, which issued scathing indictments of Communism immediately after the publication of Marx's Communist Manifesto. In a 1937 encyclical, the Catholic Church called Communism a "satanic scourge."

Here's one example of a closet American Communist trying to pit Protestants against Catholics:

Anna Louise Strong was an editor of the flagship publication of the Communist front-group, Friends of the Soviet Union, which manipulated "progressives" like Upton Sinclair. In the book, I have photos of Strong and Sinclair from the Friends editorial page. A stoic Sinclair vows to "expose the lies and slander" against Joe Stalin.

Anna Louise Strong was a loyal Bolshevik. Later, Congress described her as "one of the most active agents for the Communist International." She did hideous propaganda work, shamelessly arguing that Stalin had "conquered wheat," when, in fact, he launched a famine that killed millions. Only the most naive couldn't detect her sympathies.

Among the groups Strong targeted were Protestant clergy. One egregious example was a letter-to-the-editor she placed in the October-November 1941 issue of The Protestant. There, she claimed the Vatican was calling for religious freedom in the USSR not because the Soviets were blowing up churches, killing priests, and jailing nuns with prostitutes in special sections of the gulag -- the nuns were deemed "whores to Christ" -- but because the Church was (allegedly) seeking control of Russia. She claimed the Roman Catholic Church was looking to supplant the Russian Orthodox Church, a perfect parroting of the Kremlin line.

Of course, this was what some anti-Catholics wanted to hear. Not surprisingly, some swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

That letter from Strong was so deceptive and blatant that it was republished by Congress in a July 1953 report.

V&V: There's much more in Dupes on the Religious Left, but we need to stop.

Kengor: Yes, the duping of liberal Christians by Communists is a sad, troubling saga. *

"A universal peace, it is to be feared, is in the catalogue of events, which will never exist but in the imaginations of visionary philosophers, or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts." --James Madison

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