President Roosevelt creates a diversion over the religious issue
The only clashing noise in what was otherwise a symphony of effortless gliding on the part of the varied forces working in behalf of Stalinist Russia in the fall of 1941 across the United States grew out of the August 1941 Atlantic Charter and the consequences of Roosevelt adding the “point” dealing with freedom of religion. One of the first to capitalize on this was Soviet radio, commending this strategy, and joining to it the urging of the overthrow of the Germans at the earliest opportunity because Hitler was “menacing the very existence of Christianity.” This even cooled off ardently pro-Russian Time, which did not think it appropriate for the Marxist regime to be hailing a force which they systematically attacked on the domestic Russian scene.(106) Even if one wished to insist that Bolshevism was a form of religion itself,(107) the Russian people as a whole hardly had abandoned their old ways, no matter what the Soviet government’s League of the Militant Godless maintained. Almost twenty years after the Leninist revolution had taken over, about one half of the total population was still of the Russian Orthodox faith.(108) The dramatic decline was in the number of churches, estimated in August 1941 to be down to 8,338 from 70,000 in 1917.
Not much had been said at the time the so-called “Four Freedoms” had been launched from the deck of the British battle- ship Prince of Wales off Argentia, Newfoundland, which included the religious freedom concept. Even the noted Protestant layman John Foster Dulles, not a part of the Roosevelt regime, and mainly involved in labors in behalf of a group of prominent churchmen and laymen called the Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace, had nothing to say about it in particular when he drafted his famous negative dissection of the celebrated Eight Points of Churchill and Roosevelt. Dulles, a party to the American presence at Versailles in 1919, condemned the Churchill- Roosevelt vision of the postwar world as following “too closely the pattern of Versailles” and saw their August 1941 product as mainly a prop for a self-satisfied pro-status quo crowd, and a prelude to a new war when the one going on was over, not an outline for “the development of some international mechanism for effecting peaceful change,” which recalled the book he had published two years before, War, Peace and Change (Harper).(109) The mobilization of religion in the impending worldwide martial cataclysm was inevitable, but the maneuvering had been going on for years prior to 1941. Americans, with their separation-of- church-and-state tradition, knew nothing of the realities of the religious scene in Europe, and the propagandistic forces seeking to enroll their sentiments and sensibilities preferred to keep them that way. Few knew of the state relationships of the Russian Orthodox Catholic clergy, nor that the German congregations, roughly half Roman Catholic and half Lutheran, were the recipients of sizable subventions from the Hitler government, as they had been recipients from previous German regimes. For that matter, probably no more than a platoon of Americans realized that the clergy of the official state-supported church in northern Europe were actually public functionaries drawing the equivalent of civil service salaries, in American parlance. The emphasis in the propaganda war in the U.S. was entirely away from these facts and entirely upon emotional and denominational loyalties, with such overtones of general substance as were unavoidable, given the general knowledge of world affairs prevailing. One aspect of the latter involved the universal conviction in the U.S. that all organized religion was in a bad way in Soviet Russia, a regime with a formal policy of hostility to this and a corresponding policy of encouraging organized disbelief, in harmony with Marxist materialism, the Soviet state’s religion.
In the word war waged against Hitler and Mussolini, American liberals especially esteemed the descriptive epithet “clerico- fascist,” finding it useful also to apply to Franco Spain and to the breakaway Slovakian state headed by Monsignor Josef Tiso. This stands in strange contradiction to the simultaneous charge by the same propaganda voices that these hated dictators were trying to abolish religion. Though it was known that the Russian Orthodox Church leaders were fully behind Stalin, it struck them as painfully distasteful to have to apply the same criteria to their warmly esteemed Stalin, so one heard nothing about “clerico-fascist Russia.”
The relative detachment or apathy of most clergy in Europe was not a subject for much commentary after Russia joined the European war. The self-righteous militarism of the clergy everywhere in World War I was not repeated, most of such figures being found associating mainly with leftists in Europe and America, in the latter their numbers being also swelled by German and British expatriates. The likes of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich(110) and William Temple, Archbishop of York and Canterbury, typified the former, and the one-time Marxist enthusiast Reinhold Niebuhr standing out among church notables flourishing their verbal armament in the U.S.,(111) though the American warrior clergy in general were far more identified with secular ideological politics than with the pulpit.(112) It became obvious to the clerical friends of Stalin, however, that the most profitable tactics consisted of negative material, which was the very largest part of “anti-fascism” at all times, even at the peak period of ardent admiration of Communist Russia, in 1943. It was easier to crow and gloat over failure among the Soviet’s enemies than it was to attempt to sell the view that there were positive and affirmative things happening in the Workers' Fatherland, and which under the renewed patriotic pressure of the Stalinist machine, desperate for public support, was even becoming spoken of occasionally once more as “Mother Russia.” Such an occasion was the exultation, even in Time, when it was claimed that the new premier of Norway under the German occupation, Vidkun Quisling, was able to get only 27 of Norway’s 700 Lutheran pastors to support Germany’s “crusade against Russia."(113) A few days later, Roosevelt himself tossed a grenade into the middle of this essentially successful anti-Hitler and pro- Soviet campaign on the religious front by his casual remark during a press conference in the second week of October 1941 alleging the existence of religious freedom in Stalinist Russia.
Few remarks by Roosevelt before or after, during the war era, drew as much comment, including analyses, guesses and glosses as to its real intent, attacks, excuses and a rare defense. Walter Lippmann, one of FDR’s strongest journalistic supporters, delivered a harsh scolding, and Lippmann’s paper, the New York Herald Tribune, called it “whitewashing the Kremlin.” Time’s lead story was devoted to deep analysis of the act, ascribing political objectives to it all. Roosevelt was thought to have advanced this trial balloon, seeking to get the Russians to “guarantee religious liberty” in case they were not doing it in exchange for gaining a spot on the American Lend-Lease bandwagon. This in turn he was thought to exchange for the support of Pope Pius XII, thinking such a Russian concession might gain his endorsement of the “democracies” and Russian cause as “just,” soften up Eire to allow British and U.S. bases on its territory, create discomfiture among the Catholic populations of Italy and Germany, and get the support of U.S. Catholics behind the administration’s pro-Russian course. Thus, his motivation in their view had really nothing to do with religion at all.(114)
U.S. News gave lengthy attention to the brawl stirred up by the President, originally trying to make FDR look as good as possible and his critics as evil as possible,(115) but in its summary a week later, it was conceded that a presidential gaffe of substantial proportions had occurred. After a broad sampling of the nation’s press, David Lawrence’s weekly organ conceded that a consensus indicated Roosevelt “showed poor judgment in making his in cautious remark about the Russian constitution and religious liberty.”
The Protestant Christian Century scalded Roosevelt for his soothing pronouncement on religious freedom in Russia, and recalled his words before a Christian youth assembly in 1939 when he declared, how much he detested “the banishment of religion” from Russia. The editors also divined the intent of the statement as one of trying to woo Catholics in the U.S. to support his aid to Russia program, but insisted that “Instead of winning the Catholics, the President’s careless words have made them more than ever critical of his Russia policy.” Furthermore, the editors considered the presidential remark an adverse reflection upon his widely hailed “freedoms” in the Atlantic Charter: “The President gave the nation an opportunity to test his conception of one of these essential freedoms, and the test gave forth a hollow, empty sound.”
There was no doubt that the national mood, despite the stunning attack upon their sensibilities by a rising din of pro-war propaganda, was still quite alien to receptivity to puffs about another non-existent beauty supposedly existing in Soviet Russia. In this moment of disaster only the New Masses came up with a supporting strike, a long three-column editorial in which Roosevelt’s prominent Catholic critics, such as Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen and Rev. Edmund A. Walsh, vice president of Georgetown University, were subjected to personal abuse. The Communist editors cited in warm approval the vociferous criticism of veteran pro-Soviet divines such as Paul Tillich, Kenneth Leslie, Pierre van Paassen and James Luther Adams, deploring “the attempt to create a religious issue regarding the USSR.” The editors concluded by returning to the offense, emphasizing their charge that Hitler Germany was attacking religion, and that any suppression of clergy or religious persecution in the Soviet Union were just “police measures taken by the government against reactionary clerics who secretly conspired against the Soviet regime.”