From the time of the October Revolution in 1917, the United States had a tense relationship with the Soviet Union. The United States was, after all, one of those “bourgeois” nations that Soviet ideology taught were bound for termination. Considering the importance of religion to American political culture, the iconoclastic nature of Soviet atheism could have only further tarnished the situation. Other complications arose from the change and turmoil in the Soviet Union stemming from Joseph Stalin’s rise to power and governance, which included, in an apparent retreat from the Soviet government’s official atheism during the 1920s and 1930s, Stalin re-establishing the patriarchate of Moscow in 1943. Interestingly, this re-establishment occurred against the backdrop of the USSR’s wartime alliance with the US.
How did the Soviet government’s changing policy on religion, as well as its alliance with the United States during the Second World War, affect Americans’ perceptions of the USSR? To explore this issue, this paper will provide a literature review of two religiously affiliated US magazines with some analysis of what their contributors had to say about the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.
Two Publications, Two Approaches
The publications examined are the Paulist Press’s Catholic World and the “undenominational” Protestant Christian Century. These magazines printed a wide array of views from editorial staff and contributors who increasingly wrote about the United States’ wartime alliance and postwar relationship with the USSR. Most writers in both magazines found the Soviet system of government at best morally reprehensible, or at worst downright evil, but while the Catholic World expressed views on America’s alliance that ranged from negative to condemnation, the Christian Century gradually moved from a moralistic tone to one more accepting of practicality and published a wider range of views than did its Catholic counterpart.
Interestingly, neither magazine had much to say about the Soviet Union during the 1930s. On the rare occasion that the Catholic World contained a relevant editorial, for instance, it was usually concerned with some aspect of the state of religion and religious persecution under Stalin. At the start of the Second World War, when more articles began appearing in both magazines, their opinions expressed about the Soviet Union were similar and generally negative. After the US became involved in the war, the two magazines’ editorial styles diverged, and after the war ended, that divergence reached its most pronounced point.
Although the Christian Century never came to approve of the Soviet experiment, and the Catholic World never came to favor a war against the USSR, their opinions about how to handle postwar diplomatic relations were very different. As religious periodicals, the Catholic World and the Christian Century were not particularly unique. However, a comparison of their content shows that a wide variety of sentiment existed in American religious society.
The Catholic World was founded in 1865 by Father Isaac Hecker, a convert to the Roman Church. It is often credited with combing traditional Roman Catholic values of piety with a distinctly American emphasis on self-sufficiency and forging, for the first time, a distinctively American Catholic identity. From 1922 until 1948, its chief editor was James M. Gillis, a fiercely anti-Communist priest with a gift for wit and scathing criticism, particularly of the US government’s liberal consensus, and this gift is visible in nearly all his writings. Yet, it is difficult to paint Gillis with a completely conservative brush, for he was also a champion of social justice issues like civil rights.
When writing about the US’s alliance with Soviet Russia, however, he pulled no punches. To him, Soviet Communism was evil because of both its atheism and its human rights abuses, and absolutely nothing good could come of a US alliance with the USSR. Those articles that appeared between 1930 and 1940 more often took the form of news-briefs than the long, literary editorials Gillis would later write. The earliest articles of interest came from a section of the magazine entitled “Potpourri: The Opinions of our Contemporaries,” in which selections of articles from other sources were reproduced. The earliest pointed to Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan as “the greatest gamble in history” but leveled no condemnation of the Soviet system. Another, by political commentator and journalist Walter Lippman, criticized recent comments by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Lippman’s words were followed by pro-Soviet comments from Shaw interspersed with dismal contradictions from Izvestia (spelled “Investia” by Gillis’ publication) and speeches by Soviet politicians.
The United States government had no diplomatic ties with the Soviet government until 1933, and this likely explains in part the relative silence in both the Catholic World and Christian Century. A news brief in the former from late 1933 reported on the proposed diplomatic recognition. It was written with an unusual amount of disinterest, and with enough explanation to indicate that whoever wrote it did not expect readers to be very informed about the subject. In terms of reactions, it reported only that the National Council of Catholic Men had resolved that “obligations by any government were meaningless if that government denied the existence of Almighty God and was actively hostile to the teaching and practice of religion.”
The first full editorial appeared in 1937 and dealt with religion. Father Joseph F. Thorning was a lecturer at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland. A frequent resident of Europe before the outbreak of the war, he was an early supporter of Franco’s regime in Spain. In his guest editorial, he described Soviet Communism as an institution that would “cease to be Communism before it gives up or even diminishes its attack on God.” Thorning characterized Soviet ideology as having “the earmarks of a religious manifestation rather than that of a political or economic philosophy,” involving “the apotheosis of Lenin; the glorification of Stalin; the substitution of these two leaders for the old religious ikons [sic] and images.”Though the new Soviet constitution ostensibly guaranteed freedom of religious expression, Thorning contended that the clergy found itself under constant surveillance and persecution, often accused of counterrevolutionary action and sent to prison or death. Despite the persecution about which he wrote, Thorning believed the Russian people in general were still highly religious.
By writing in this way, Thorning anticipated the theories of historians such as Lynne Viola, who based their work on the way peasants characterized the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious mission.Donald Attwater echoed this belief in 1938 when he wrote about the history of Russian icons in another Catholic World article. “To destroy these objects, as did the Bolsheviks, was to attack the soul of the nation and the intimate sentiments of the Russian people. This work of destruction was judged by the Russian Orthodox peasants as being the work of Satan.”Thorning and Attwater wrote of a people held captive and silent by their corrupt government. While both authors were likely to write of a Communist or Bolshevik mentality, Gillis would later write of “Russian” qualities, as if Soviet ideology had pervaded everyone living in its grasp.
In 1939, with the Second World War about to erupt, editorials in the Catholic World became critical of the US government for its flirtations with the Soviets. Benjamin DeCaseres, in a letter to the magazine, mentioned that President Roosevelt had “gratuitously” sent “a telegram of congratulation to President Kalinin…on the 21st anniversary of the founding of the most anti-democratic state in all history, a state that is a synonym for terror and torture.”Thomas F. Woodlock wrote in his 1939 article that “nothing, perhaps, could more strikingly illustrate the demoralization that has overtaken the Western civilization than does the eleventh-hour pathetically slavish attempt of the so-called ‘ democracies’ to enlist [Soviet Russia’s] support against the so-called ‘ dictatorships.'” This critical tone continued through the next decade.
Gillis’s first contribution came in May 1941, just after the German invasion of the USSR. Noting an increase in American propaganda praising the Soviet government, Gillis declared a belief to which he would hold firm in all his writings, that “to defend democracy with the help of Stalin would be like calling in Jesse James and John Dillinger to maintain law and order.” He spent the bulk of this first editorial criticizing those who had positive things to say about the Soviet Union, and reserved special criticism for The Soviet Power, a recently-published book by the Dean of Canterbury, writing that “He actually believes [italics original] that fear has been abolished in a nation where everyone spies on everyone else…where purges and mass arrests and rigid censorships are everyday routines.” Gillis’s opposition to cooperating with the Soviets would always lay in two concerns: Soviet Russia was a cruel dictatorship that spread fear and animosity among its people, and it actively persecuted and blasphemed Christianity.
For reasons difficult to discern, Gillis did not publish another article dealing directly with Russia until 1944, after which such articles appeared frequently until he retired from his editorship in 1948. Perhaps even Gillis, opinionated and outspoken as he was, felt uncomfortable criticizing an ally in a war whose result was far from certain. Gillis later tacitly attributed his silence to a belief that the United States had been justified in going to war because it had been unjustly attacked. “After Pearl Harbor, neither in speech nor in writing, in public or in private, have I objected to our fighting either Germany or Japan,” he wrote in 1945.Either the Catholic World‘s guest editorialists followed Gillis’s lead, or Gillis himself decided not to publish articles about the USSR during the early war years. At any rate not a single editorial about Soviet Russia appeared on the pages of the Catholic World in 1942 or 1943.
In October 1944, after an Allied victory was considered certain, Gillis declared Soviet Russia “the greatest potential menace to permanent peace…Fascism is not and never was as dangerous as Communism.” Fascism might have been an oppressive system of government, but it had never sought to destroy religion. Besides this, Gillis believed that Fascism was in its death throes. “The battle from now on is not between Democracy and Fascism, but between Democracy and any and every form of Dictatorship. The only surviving dictatorship is Communist dictatorship.”
As a longtime member of the America First league, Gillis increasingly made known his isolationist beliefs in his later articles. Isolationists, he believed, had become anathema after Pearl Harbor; the term was “almost as offensive as ‘ Nazi’ or ‘ Quisling’ or ‘ Fifth Columnist’,” even though nearly everyone influential, including President Roosevelt, had publicly been an isolationist before Pearl Harbor. True isolationists, Gillis insisted, were those “who don’t believe in going in unless we go in all the way, and unless we do what we go in to do, before we come out.” The United States shouldn’t have gone to war against one form of totalitarianism only to tolerate and support another. Therefore, Gillis reserved heated ire for those government officials who he believed had conceded far too much to Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill had humiliated themselves and the cause of democracy with their “unconditional surrender” at Yalta.
Gillis mocked Winston Churchill’s famous assertion that Soviet Russia was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” There was no mystery, Gillis insisted; Stalin was unabashedly trying to build himself an empire, and worse, the United States continued to send him materials even as he fought Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in Manchuria. Though Gillis insisted that he did not support a war with the Soviets, he found it intolerable that American politicians and the UN Security Council were telling what he saw as lies about Stalin’s ambitions.
Gillis’s attitude, though not frequently expressed, remained essentially unchanged from 1941. In an address to the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council Meeting in August 1946, he warned that “Russian atheistic Communism threatens to dominate the world… In a word, Russia aims to replace our Western civilization with an Oriental despotism.” In rare racist language and bizarre inaccuracy he declared: “Stalin is largely Mongol, and for unscrupulous cunning the Mongol is superior even to the ‘ Chinee.’ The cards were marked and the dice loaded when Mr. Roosevelt gambled with that slick Oriental at Teheran, Yalta and Moscow.”
Gillis said nothing directly about the 1943 re-establishment of the Moscow patriarchate. However, in a 1945 editorial, he noted that religious icons had begun to appear among the trappings of Italian Communists, “the crucifix and the picture of the Blessed Virgin with portraits of Stalin.” This was not surprising because of “the basic Communist ethic: whatever serves its purpose is ‘ good’.” Gillis’s descriptions of Communism were often replete with religious language, because like Joseph Thorning, he believed that Communism was a religion of anti-religion. “In the Communist sect it is a matter of religion to sacrifice one’s native land for the sake of the Communist Utopia,” he wrote. “People who are infected with this disease will not hesitate for a moment to sacrifice their country or its secrets.”Despite his characterization of Communism as a religious cult or communicable disease, Gillis did not seem extremely concerned about the presence of Communist sympathizers in the United States. He once wrote that Soviet Russia “encourages and financially supports—with our money—a fifth column of thousands of operatives in the United States…,” but he did not elaborate on his accusation. Gillis’s chief concern lay with the support America continued to send the USSR. He did not see Communism as an imminent threat as did his fellow Catholic, Joseph McCarthy.
The same cannot be said of John Earle Uhler. A professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Uhler wrote anti-Communist tracts in the late 1940s for the Catholic World that rivaled Gillis’s eloquence. Like Gillis, Uhler accused leaders of the Western powers of hypocrisy for having gone to war over the imperialist aggressions of Germany, while having ignored those of the Soviet Union. However, Uhler based his argument not on the evil nature of Soviet Communism, but on Russia’s long history of animosity toward Britain, which the United States was ostensibly trying to defend. “In saving England from Germany, we have strengthened Russia, which has been a constant threat to the British Empire for over a century,” he wrote. Two years later, Uhler wrote of the Communist threat he believed existed within the United States. His warnings of Communist infiltration greatly exceeded any Gillis had made and foreshadowed the hysteria that would come with the McCarthy era. Uhler blamed “Russia’s advance” in this country first and foremost on “concessions that America has unwittingly made, not only abroad, but here at home.” “For the past fifteen years our government in Washington has been shot through with Communism,” he wrote, and went on to assert that it was through the work of these Communist agitators that the United States had conceded so much after the war; its propaganda had even infiltrated the ranks of the army. He warned that some of the most fanatical American Communists were educators, resentful of their low pay and prestige, and that a culturally heterogeneous nation like the United States, with its marginalized minorities, was particularly susceptible to Communist agitation.
Of the Catholic World’s postwar guest editorials, two merit special consideration for their uniqueness. One came from Hermann Borchardt, a German who had been living in the Soviet Union as a “foreign specialist.” Like the Stakhanovites, he had been privileged with access to special shops and a high salary. In 1936, his reluctance to apply for Soviet citizenship set him under suspicion, and he was forced to leave the country immediately with his family and belongings in tow. Borchardt’s editorial is distinctive in the Catholic World because of its first-person narration and because Borchardt’s oppression apparently had nothing to do with his religious faith. Indeed, the implication was that he had simply done nothing to deserve his punishment, and thus his article, more than others, resembled later memoirs about Stalinism such as Evgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind. Communism under Stalin, he wrote, was not merely an evil political system; it was senseless and unpredictable, and those living under it lived in constant fear. “They served their country with an unswerving devotion to the best of their ability…and they had no opinions to be listened to,” wrote Borchardt of his compatriots. “But one pleasure they had, and I with them. That was to open our hearts to each other deep in the night, in a closed room, and exchange our sad and comical experiences.”
Perhaps the most unusual editorial to appear during this period was Thomas F. Doyle’s “The Catholic Church in Russia.” One unusual feature of this article was the subject itself. Most people who wrote about religion in the Catholic World were interested in the Soviet suppression of religion in general, not the status of the Catholic Church in particular. Unlike Gillis, Doyle seems to have had positive feelings about Stalin’s new Soviet Orthodox Church, for he believed its presence would make an agreement between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism more likely. He wrote of the Russicum in Rome, a school founded in 1929 “to prepare a future apostolate in Russia” in the hope that “one day Russia will be converted from schismatic Orthodoxy.” That Doyle could write thus about a nation in which both “schismatic Orthodoxy” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) and Roman Catholicism had been uprooted in favor of state atheism seems remarkable. Like Uhler, Doyle was more interested in Russia’s historical animosity with the West than he was with the Bolshevik revolution.
The Catholic World contained no staff editorials in the traditional sense. James Gillis wrote all staff editorials himself and signed them with his own name. Shortly after his accession to the editorship in 1922, he dispensed with the “editorial ‘ we’,” calling this convention “awkward, clumsy, stilted, pompous, frequently misleading and altogether absurd.” It is reasonable to suppose that, even when he was not writing about the USSR himself, he had a say in what was published about it. Therefore, the opinion expressed from 1930 to 1950 in the Catholic World was basically consistent among all contributors. The Soviet system was evil and corrupt, and Stalin’s re-establishment of the Orthodox Church did not change this fact. While no one, not even Gillis, was willing to question the wisdom of a military alliance with the Soviet Union after Pearl Harbor, the complete editorial silence of 1942 and 1943 suggests that, to put it tritely, since Gillis was unable to write anything nice about America’s strange bedfellow, he was content to publish nothing at all—for a time. After the war, Gillis and others anticipated the Cold War that would take hold in the following decade. They effectively criticized executive and congressional Democrats for being “soft on Communism.”
In 1884, the Christian Century began publication in Des Moines as the Christian Oracle, but changed its name at the turn of the twentieth century. Charles Clayton Morrison purchased it in 1908 and served as editor for the next 40 years, retiring in 1947, the year before James Gillis retired from his position as editor of the Catholic World. Though the magazine was originally affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, Morrison turned it into a leading intellectual journal of mainline Protestantism and labeled every issue “undenominational” on the front cover. Historian Michele Rosenthal wrote of the magazine that, “Despite its relatively small circulation [of about 40,000], the editors wrote with an assurance that they were the rightful and historical guardians of American culture.” Of course, one barrier to their gaining this cultural hegemony was the mainstreaming of Roman Catholicism, making the Christian Century an interesting magazine to analyze alongside the Catholic World.
The editorial layout was very similar to that of the Catholic World. Issues contained news briefs and advertisements, but were mostly devoted to guest and staff editorials. Editor Morrison, unlike Gillis, did not take credit for—and perhaps did not even write—his own columns. Staff editorials were always unsigned and used the editorial “we.” They were invariably brief and usually written with a great deal of poise and restraint, as opposed to Gillis’s often scathing and nearly always witty contributions. During the 1930s, the Christian Century was even more profoundly silent about the USSR than its Catholic counterpart; very few, if any, articles appeared before 1940. However, there was no dearth of coverage during the war. The Christian Century maintained a high level of interest in the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s, producing over 100 guest columns, staff editorials, and news briefs. That pertinent editorials suddenly began appearing in 1940 is not arbitrary, for all these concerned what role the Soviet Union would play in the newly started European war.
The first staff editorials from 1940 concerned the Soviet invasion of Finland. One of these described a “setback” the Soviets had received and noted that “France and Great Britain appear to be playing with the idea that a war with Russia and Germany combined might not present as formidable difficulties” as they had earlier feared. The Soviet Union was clearly a potential enemy at this point. Hitler had, after all, not yet broken his pact with Stalin, and both the Soviet and German governments seemed bent on imperialistic forays. Nearly a year later, but still before the “Russian bear” had sided with the Allies, the United States decided to lift its “moral embargo” against the Soviets and began to send war materials nearly four months before Hitler broke his pact with Stalin. The editors of Christian Century responded with an even-tempered, but obviously perturbed, article pondering why the government would do such a thing, particularly when even Britain found these weapons deals unwelcome.
With the USSR’s entry into the war on the Allied side came the first guest editorial, written by a Unitarian minister named John Haynes Holmes. Holmes was a pacifist and a proponent of ecumenism. He was concerned about German Fascism and in 1938 published a short book on modern anti-Semitism, Through Gentile Eyes. In a contribution to the Christian Century, Holmes predicted—with surprising accuracy—that if Russia proved victorious, it would be granted an influential place in world politics and with this power and influence would annex Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland, dominate the Balkans and East Prussia, and set its imperialist sights on the Far East. Holmes wrote with no blatant political agenda and made sure to note that he did not favor a German victory, but his article was clearly prophetic.
Shortly afterwards, Henry Nelson Wieman became the Christian Century‘s first contributor to suggest that the United States should join the Allied Powers in the war. Wieman was a Presbyterian minister who would later become a Unitarian, and is known for his academic work in trying to reconcile Christianity with the modernizing world.
Wieman’s stated purpose in proposing interventionism was neither to defeat German fascism nor to protect Britain from conquest. Through a rather convoluted chain of logic, Wieman asserted that the root cause of the war had been the animosity between Western democracy and Soviet Communism. After all, the Nazis had only risen to power in Germany because of their outspoken stance against Communism. The USSR had only entered the war as a result of a “trap” that the Western powers had set, “[using] Czechoslovakia as bait.”
To Wieman’s mind, a Russian victory was inevitable, and this victory would soon result in an ideological war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Only a military alliance could heal the rift between the two powers and prevent the otherwise inevitable war of democracy against Communism. In contradiction to Holmes’s editorial, Wieman stated that the Soviet Union had no imperialist aims. This belief he based on the tenet that Communism was supposed to spread by natural means, not military conquest (although the USSR had already shown that it could and would invade other counties). Essentially, Wieman asserted that, though the USSR was totalitarian, it did not pose the imperialist threat that Germany did. James Gillis, and no doubt Holmes as well, would have vociferously disagreed. The Christian Century‘s editors disagreed as well. “With all of its achievements, the dictatorship which rules Russia is still the oldest and bloodiest of the modern state tyrannies,” the editors wrote in reply to Wieman. They continued by saying that, in the same year that the United States had extended diplomatic recognition to Russia, that nation’s government had deliberately starved over 3000 peasants, to “break their resistance to collectivization.” Besides, to join Russia would be to tacitly approve of the Soviet campaign to exterminate religion. The Christian Century‘s editors further stated, in agreement with Gillis, that the Soviets had set up an alternative faith, a “religion of nationalism.” It would be morally offensive, the editors asserted, to make a military alliance with a nation like the Soviet Union.
After Pearl Harbor, editorial opinions in the Catholic World and the Christian Century diverged. While in 1942 and 1943, the Catholic World was silent concerning the USSR, the Christian Century published several interesting articles. Just over half a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor launched the US into war, William Henry Chamberlin contributed to the Christian Century. While living in Russia during collectivization he had written a book, Russia’s Iron Age, asserting that “of the historic responsibility of the Soviet government for the famine of 1932-33, there can be no reasonable doubt.” Like Gillis, Chamberlin was disturbed by the recent “whitewashing of Stalin’s regime” in American war propaganda.
Unlike Wieman, who had highlighted the ways in which the Soviet government was very different from that of the Third Reich, Chamberlin emphasized similarities, such as the disregard for individual rights and a one-party system headed by an officially infallible leader. Chamberlin believed that the war made it necessary to cooperate with the Soviet regime, but that propagandists should not falsify the regime’s true character.
By early 1943, the editors of the Christian Century were writing with a very different tone from that of 1941. Being involved in the war had increased the necessity for postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union, and the editors apparently agreed with Vice President Wallace’s assertion that “unless the Western democracies and Russia come to a satisfactory understanding before the war ends…World War III will be inevitable.” Later that year, with Germany’s defeat evidently a foregone conclusion, the editors predicted that the USSR would come to dominate postwar Europe. This they did in a very practical style, without the moralism that had pervaded their prewar editorials. “Without lifting a finger, the Soviet Union will influence the politics and policy of every nation on the continent after the war,” they wrote. In order to deal with this reality, “Europe must have a far-reaching social and economic revolution before it can hope for a durable peace.” There was no hope in trying to restore “legitimacies” (no doubt referring to Winston Churchill’s proposal to restore the Balkan monarchies). The editorial ended with a prophetic prediction of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two remaining world powers at the war’s end.
This changed attitude on how the United States should relate to the Soviet Union evidently had everything to do with the war and almost nothing to do with Stalin’s restoration of the Patriarchate, which was mentioned only in a news brief about the Archbishop of York’s return from Moscow. According to the archbishop’s report, “The government recognizes that religion is inherent in man and that the churches no longer support the old regime.” He also mentioned that the days of anti-religious propaganda had come to an end. Nearly a year later, the Christian Century‘s editors expressed confusion that provisions circumscribing religious freedom in the Soviet Union had been changed, but that the Constitution evidently remained unaltered. In 1945, R.H. Markham wrote a long article about the purpose of the new Soviet Orthodox Church. In it, he proposed that Stalin was using the revived Church as a political tool for his imperialistic ambitions in Eastern Europe. The Orthodox Church had gone through centuries of animosity with the Western Church, he argued, and Stalin would use this fact to woo Eastern Europeans and that it was a feature of the Soviet government’s increasing tendency towards nationalism. To Markham, four “mighty currents” had swept Stalin to his position of absolute power. These were nationalism, “a flaming secular religion of apocalyptic social reform,” pan-Slavism, and the revival of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which Markham claimed encouraged “a Russian messianism as natural and dynamic as America’s own ‘ manifest destiny’.”
As the war drew to a close, nearly all editorials concerned the coming postwar tension. William Henry Chamberlin offered his opinion in a series he called “Preview of the Postwar World.” The Soviet Union had become a truly imperialistic nation-state, Chamberlin asserted, and Stalin was “a shrewd, realistic man.” To Chamberlin, even the self-liquidation of the American Communist party seemed tied to Stalin’s political shrewdness. “The Soviet dictator wants Mr. Roosevelt in office for a fourth time. An American Communist party flying its old red flag and urging the President’s re-election would be a liability rather than an asset.” Also at about this time, Oswald Garrison Villard, who had been chief editor of the Nation until that magazine ended its pacifist stance in 1940, wrote of his concern that a war with the Soviets would be “the final disaster for Europe and for us.”
After 1945, most editorials were concerned with how to prevent a war with the Soviet Union. It was at this time that the material in the Christian Century was most at odds with that in the Catholic World, for while James Gillis in particular accused American and European politicians of telling lies about the Soviet Union for the sake of diplomacy, writers in the Christian Century often criticized politicians for being too belligerent. One of the first of these editorials came as a reaction to a speech by the US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. The Christian Century’s editors criticized Byrnes and other politicians who believed that “tough talk” was effective diplomacy. “How’s that for an enlightened foreign policy—threaten the next most powerful nation on earth, while at the same time admitting you would rather not face the consequences if he doesn’t back down at your threats!” Unlike Gillis, the editors emphasized the importance of trying to understand the Soviet Union, though they questioned whether this was possible, considering “the concealments practiced by the Soviet government.”
Although it had nothing to say about the USSR during the 1930s, the Christian Century frequently published relevant opinion articles throughout and after the Second World War. It seems that editor Morrison and his co-workers were more relaxed than Gillis when it came to publishing editorials with opinions that differed from their own. Still, following the trend of at least the staff editorials, the general opinion of the Christian Century changed from a moralistic anti-Soviet stance before the war to one of political practicality afterwards. Letters from the 1940s predicted—with an oft-surprising level of accuracy—the political divide that would develop between East and West after the Allied victory. It was the fear of the ensuing conflict between Communism and democracy that led the Christian Century’s editors and other writers to insist that friendly postwar relations with the Soviets must be maintained. Gillis and Morrison, while never directly advocating war, seemed to consider war a more moral option than continuing what Gillis called America’s “covenant with Satan.”
To reach a general conclusion about the opinions expressed in these editorials is no easy task. Nearly all were written by obviously highly educated, religious people, and thus perhaps were removed from the bulk of American Christians, as a university education would not become commonplace in America until after the war. However, they were written and/or read by the ministers and leaders who would speak to these Christians regularly. Most of the articles came from the 1940s and most concerned wartime politics.
Stalin was generally characterized by both publications as a totalitarian ruler and an imperialist. In the magazines examined for this study, only Harry F. Ward, a liberal Methodist minister who promoted what he called “Labor-Religion” and was notorious in some circles as a Communist sympathizer, directly disputed this image, in an editorial in Christian Century.
However, many writers, particularly in the early articles of the Catholic World, were unwilling to believe that the Russian people had passively accepted the Stalinist affront on their religious culture. Writers like Gillis and Borchardt, as well as the editorial staff of the Christian Century, wrote of resistance to Stalinism, a subject that historians like Lynne Viola and others would take up in later decades. However, accusations that Stalin was plagued by neurosis or megalomania, which other historians, notably Robert Tucker, seriously explored, are nowhere to be found. Certainly, many considered Stalin an evil man, but no one considered him insane.
Indeed, several contributors highlighted Stalin’s political acumen, particularly his skill at turning the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution upside-down. Finally, writers in both magazines asserted that Stalin had created a new Soviet religion in place of the one he had spent years repressing, and his re-establishment of the patriarchate, when it was mentioned at all, was explained as an act of political opportunism. Politically speaking, the manner in which the two magazines’ editorials diverged showed a divide among religious intellectuals — between those who wished to maintain relations so as to prevent another and potentially worse conflict, and those who wished to actively and aggressively contain the Soviet menace.
The author of this analysis, Colin Reynolds graduated from Grinnell College in May, 2007 with a degree in history. He plans to pursue graduate studies in history after working for City Year in Chicago for one year.
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