Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared in American Spectator.
The ACLU seems unusually active right now. Maybe it’s the Christmas season, which seems to make the ACLU more miserable than usual.
I tried to ignore the latest round of ACLU legal challenges, but they became too much. The surge has been remarkably ecumenical, not singling out Protestant or Catholic interests, whether challenging a public school in Florida or trying to compel a Catholic hospital to do abortions. At least the ACLU finds a way to unite Protestants and Catholics.
In the interest of faith and charity, I’d like to add my own ecumenical offering—a history lesson. It concerns some fascinating material I recently discovered on the ACLU’s early founders, especially three core figures: Roger Baldwin, Harry Ward, and Corliss Lamont. I can only provide a snapshot here, but you’ll get the picture.
First, Roger Baldwin: Baldwin was the founder of the ACLU, so far to the left that he was hounded by the Justice Department of the progressive’s progressive, Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps it was a faith thing. Wilson was a progressive, but he was also a devout Christian, and Roger Baldwin was anything but that.
Baldwin was an atheist. He was also a pro-Soviet communist, though smart enough not to join Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Other early officials of the ACLU, which was founded almost exactly the same time as the American Communist Party, included major party members like William Z. Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Communists used the ACLU to deflect questions from the U.S. government over whether they were loyal to the USSR, were serving Joe Stalin in some capacity, and were committed to the overthrow of the American system.
That "overthrow-the-government" thing is something our universities insist is a bunch of anti-communist, McCarthyite tripe. In fact, it took me mere minutes of digging into the Comintern Archives on CPUSA to find fliers and formal proclamations from the American Communist Party publicly advocating precisely that objective. (Click here to view some of the documents.) I also found the ACLU rife throughout those archives.
So bad had been the ACLU in aiding and abetting American communists that various legislative committees, federal and state, considered whether it was a communist front. The 1943 California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities reported that the ACLU "may be definitely classed as a communist front." The committee added that "at least 90 percent of its [the ACLU’s] efforts are expended on behalf of communists who come into conflict with the law." That 90-percent figure was consistent with a major report produced by Congress a decade earlier, January 17, 1931.
In my research, I also found constant approving references to the ACLU in CPUSA’s flagship publication, the Daily Worker. The Daily Worker loved the ACLU. Moreover, I was struck by how early the ACLU had been challenging not just Christians but their most joyous holiday, with the Daily Worker’s eager approval.
To cite just one example, Christmas 1946, the ACLU sought to stop the singing of Christmas carols in California public schools. For that, the communists were most grateful to Baldwin and the boys.
Aside from Roger Baldwin, there were two other especially influential figures comprising this not-so-holy ACLU trinity: Corliss Lamont and the Rev. Harry Ward. Covering these two adequately here is impossible. I’ve devoted probably about 10,000 words to Lamont alone in my book, Dupes—both men were precisely that: dupes. For here, suffice to say that the ways in which Lamont and Ward were rolled by communists is astounding.
Alas, Christian charity compels me to concede a key fact, particularly at Christmas time. Among this not-so-holy trinity, there was a measure of redemption for Baldwin at least. Baldwin eventually, after the Red Terror, after the Great Purge, after the Ukrainian famine, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, after millions of rotting corpses, after the gulag, after the communists had violated every imaginable civil liberty, awakened to the stench of the Soviet system. He finally saw communism, and communists, as a genuine concern.
By the 1950s, Baldwin insisted that ACLU officers take a non-communist oath. Call Baldwin crazy, but he figured that any ACLU member who held allegiance to "totalitarian dictatorship" was not truly serious about civil liberties. Perhaps they were publicly exploiting American civil liberties to privately support a nation (the USSR) that had no civil liberties? Good thought.
So, yes, Roger Baldwin’s ACLU backed away from its communist leanings.
Sadly, however, Baldwin’s ACLU never seems to have shirked from its atheist leanings, which haunt us still today.
Could it be that the ACLU’s alleged onetime commitment to defending communism has shifted to an apparent commitment to defending atheism? It certainly seems like it, especially this time of year. And if the ACLU doesn’t like that perception, it should change it.
— Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and the newly released "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."