From the Archives: Christian Comix against Communism

In this century, it can be difficult to remember the way most Americans used to feel about communism. As I describe in my upcoming book, the campaign against communism had an enormous influence on American education, one that is hard to overemphasize. As I work this week in the abundant archives of Bob Jones University, doing research for my next book, I’ve come across reminders of the ways conservative Christians saw communism as an existential threat. This evening, I’d like to share a few snippets from just one of those historical artifacts, c. 1965.

As the comics below demonstrate, for many conservative evangelicals, this was not just a question of politics, but of religion. Communism represented an aggressive atheism, the apotheosis of perverted human pride.

Other conservatives, of course, did not worry as much about religious issues. As historian George Nash has argued, the many meanings of communism allowed conservative intellectuals to coalesce around a vibrant anti-communism. Libertarians could join with Burkeans, who could clasp hands with religious conservatives and free-market conservatives. All could agree that the fight against communism outweighed any differences they might have among themselves.


From the Archives: Saving Hearts and Minds in the 1930s and 1940s

What do we need to do to educate young people? Conservative activists, just like their progressive or leftist opponents, have long recognized that education goes far beyond school. Doing archival research for my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I found abundant evidence of conservative activism that ranged far beyond the classroom walls. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, much of that material did not make it into the final book draft.

Today, I’d like to share some of the gems from the conservative patriotic activism of the American Legion, things I couldn’t fit in the book. Throughout its long existence, the AL has made education one of its primary concerns. Only if young people learned to love America, generations of AL activists have argued, would the nation remain strong. As this 1941 cartoon makes clear, some Legion members believed education was the “unguarded gate” through which un-American and anti-American sentiments could sneak into America’s body politic.

"The Unguarded Gate," from a 1941 magazine.

“The Unguarded Gate,” from a 1941 magazine.

Other Legion activists emphasized the need to fill children’s minds, souls, and schedules. Only by matching the energetic activism of communist subversives, some Legion voices claimed, could patriotic education match anti-patriotic. As national AL leader Homer Chaillaux warned in 1934, the Legion must provide a full menu of educational opportunities for young people, including baseball leagues, military training, Boy Scout groups, citizenship classes, and school awards. “The average citizen,” Chaillaux warned,

has either never heard of or knows nothing of the background of the Young Pioneers (a youth Communist group), the International Economic Conference of Students (a radical and pacifist student group), the Industrial Unions (at least 42 Communist Unions), the National Students’ League, the Trade Union Unity League, the American Civil Liberties Union (supposedly an organization standing for free speech, but we find them rising in defense of every Communist when in trouble), and numerous others traveling under camouflaged nom de plumes.

With this sort of foe, the American Legion wanted to be sure young people had patriotic, traditionalist American alternatives. Across the nation, local posts organized a wide array of youth activities.  I found these relics of such organizing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As did posts around the nation, Legion adults set up youth chapters of the Sons of the American Legion, as well as marching bands, baseball leagues, essay contests, and a host of other activities meant to educate boys and girls into a firmly patriotic, socially conservative anti-communism.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

As one Legion writer put it in 1930, these efforts must range far beyond just exhortation. They must envelop young people into a profound spiritual web of learning and becoming. In this writer’s words:

While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing. Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please. Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work. While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home. While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope. While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people. While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense. … While the communist gathers up boys and girls and sends them to colleges and universities of his own endowment for the purpose of making teachers of communism and atheism out of them, let us make opportunity for patriotic and religious education more universal, in order that the schools and pulpits of tomorrow will be filled with right-thinking men and women.



Outlaw Colleges

Why do so many otherwise right-thinking Americans embrace leftist ideas?  For generations, conservative intellectuals have blamed the skewed perspective of American colleges and universities.

This morning in the pages of National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson offers a ten-point condemnation of the American higher educational system.

For those unfamiliar with the real history, it might be tempting to assume that conservatives turned against the higher-education system during the campus tumults of the 1960s and 1970s.  Free speech movements, hippies, sit-ins, campus radicals occupying dean’s offices…there was certainly enough reason for conservatives to look askance at campus culture in those years.  But conservative intellectuals and activists had worried about the state of higher education long before that.

In the 1920s, for example, religious conservatives worried that mainstream campuses converted faith-filled young people into atheists and skeptics.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalists realized that college determined culture.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, often trumpeted the findings of James H. Leuba.  Leuba had studied the beliefs of college students, and in his 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality, Leuba concluded that the number of self-identified religious believers declined during college years.  In speech after speech in the 1920s, Bryan used Leuba’s numbers as proof that college wrecked faith.

Bryan wasn’t the only one.  Throughout the 1920s, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. warned of the dangerous effects of typical college curricula on young people.  One of the reasons Jones founded his own uniquely religious school, he explained in sermons, was because too many young people became college “shipwrecks.”  He told the story of one hapless family who had scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

In the 1930s, too, conservatives fretted that college corrupted culture.  Beyond the ranks of religious conservatives, activists in patriotic organizations such as the American Legion warned that colleges had been subverted by anti-American socialist moles.  As I argue in my upcoming book, worries about the subversive state of higher education became a central tenet of their conservative ideology.  For instance, in 1935 New York Congressman, red-hunter, and American Legion co-founder Hamilton Fish attacked the state of higher ed.  He named names, including Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  These elite schools, Fish warned, and many others, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists, and Communists.”  A less prominent American Legion writer echoed this sentiment.  “Colleges all over the land” Legionnaire Phil Conley warned in a 1935 article, had begun teaching “the overthrow of our government . . . through subterfuge and through destroying faith and confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Long before “The Sixties,” then, conservatives concluded that colleges and universities threatened to shatter the cultural cohesion that had made America great.  These days, too, conservative intellectuals often condemn the state of higher education.  Of course, just as with earlier generations of conservatives, today’s conservatives may find many different reasons to worry about what goes on in America’s campuses.  Publications such as Minding the Campus and from the National Association of Scholars offer conservatives forums for sharing their complaints about the state of higher ed.

In the pages of National Review Online, we read one summary of conservative complaints about college today.  Victor Davis Hanson calls the state of higher education criminal.  He damns “virtual outlaw institutions” that take students’ money mainly to line their own pockets and fuel the narcissistic lifestyles of fat-and-happy professors and administrators.  “If the best sinecure in America,” Hanson concludes,

is a tenured full professorship, the worst fate may be that of a recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan. That the two are co-dependent is a national scandal.

In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.

Hanson offers a ten-point brief.  College can be saved, he argues, if these senseless traditions are subjected to radical reform.  First, abolish tenure.  Second, rationalize hiring.  Third, take ideological garbage out of the curriculum.  Fourth, add transparency to the admissions process.  Fifth, cut the fat out of administration.  Sixth, remove the useless teaching credential.  Seventh, add national competency tests for faculty.  Eighth, publish school budgets.  Ninth, eliminate expensive and unnecessary university presses.  Finally, open campuses to real free speech.

Taken together, Hanson suggests, these radical reforms promise to renew the promise of American higher education.  Without them, American students and their families will continue to be held at intellectual and financial knife-point by the highway robbers known as professors and administrators.

How bout it?  Have you experienced college strife?  For those readers who come from conservative religious backgrounds, did your college experience shatter your faith?  Or did college turn you from a patriotic youth into a skeptical adult?  And what about Hanson’s broader challenge?  Do colleges take students’ money and offer only a skewed ideological indoctrination in return?


I PROMISE Not to Pervert or Subvert

Good news: I just got a promotion!

But to do so, I had to promise not to subvert the constitution of the United States.


The answer can tell us something about the history of conservative educational activism in the US of A.

As part of my move to the rank of Associate Professor at the august Binghamton University, State University of New York, I had to reaffirm my pledge to support the constitution of the USA and of the State of New York.  I also had to promise to “faithfully discharge the duties” of my new position.

As I discuss in my current book, The Other School Reformers, conservative school activists throughout the twentieth century insisted on this sort of loyalty oath as an iron-clad requirement for all teachers in public schools.  It seems quaint these days to think of asking enemy agents to solemnly promise not to undermine the American way of life, but from the 1930s through the 1950s and beyond, many leading conservatives considered such oaths a primary means of combating alien influence in American society.

In 1950, for example, conservatives in Pasadena, California, fretted that their award-winning school superintendent had aligned himself too closely with communist-friendly “progressives.”  One of the fixes the conservatives insisted on was to put the Daughters of the American Revolution in charge of administering new teacher loyalty oaths.

The move made sense at the time.  Throughout the 1930s, the DAR had led the fight to pass mandatory loyalty-oath laws in several states.  By the 1950s, the DAR had established itself as the leading proponent of teacher loyalty oaths.  Therefore, it makes sense to think that if we want to understand the reasoning behind such oaths, we should start with the DAR.

At the tail end of the 1920s, for example, Grace Brosseau, national leader of the DAR, told the annual meeting that teachers’ loyalty oaths made up a key component of the DAR’s strategy to improve American education.  Such oaths, Brosseau insisted, could help America’s mothers be confident that “instructors in your communities are of the right calibre and are teaching sound Americanism instead of instilling pernicious doctrines into the minds of their pupils.”[1]

At that same national meeting, the assembled DAR representatives passed a resolution in favor of such teacher loyalty oaths.  Why?  Because, in their words, “anti-American elements are incessantly working to overthrow our constitutional form of government.”  Teacher loyalty oaths could help, they thought, along with “greater care in the selection of instructors for our schools, more widespread interest in curriculum and textbooks and a deeper understanding of methods of instruction.”[2]

In the mid-1930s, a successor to Grace Brosseau agreed that teacher loyalty oaths constituted a key element of right-thinking conservative school reform.  As President General Florence Becker argued in 1935,

A Teachers’ Oath of Allegiance law is but a tardy recognition of the fact that of all public servants holding positions of trust and receiving pay from public funds, the teacher holds the key position of importance.  The education system should be kept free from government control, and the American people should not commit suicide by failure to provide teachers who have faith in America.[3]

One DAR activist in Michigan thought that a teacher oath would at least give parents some legal recourse if they found a subversive teacher in their local school, “spreading his un-American doctrines among our children.”[4]

In sum, it seems that teacher loyalty oaths resulted from anti-communist political pressure in the 1930s and 1950s.  Even at the time, other anti-communists wondered if such oaths mattered.  Would a foreign agent dedicated to subversion be deterred by such an oath?

These days, the United States does not face the threat of a large body of communist agents.  Does it make any sense to continue these loyalty oaths?

[1] Grace L.H. Brosseau, “Annual Message of the President General,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, National Society of the DAR (1929), page 11.


[2] “Resolution No. 16, Teachers’ Oath,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, NSDAR (1929), 681-682.


[3] Mrs. William A. Becker, Tapestry Weavers: an Address of Mrs. William A. Becker, President General, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution at Fall State Conferences, 1935 (no publisher, no date, [likely DAR published, likely 1935.  Copy in the NSDAR archives, Washington, DC]), pages 6-7.


[4] Vivian Lyon Moore, “Michigan’s ‘Oath of Allegiance’ Bill,” DAR Magazine Volume 65 (July 1931), page 404.


From the Archives: Bobby Squirrel, Billy James Hargis, and the Counter-Subversive Imagination

Quick: What’s the most anti-communist animal?  The ass-kicking bald eagle?  The industrious ant?

Fifty years ago, prominent Mississippi conservative leader Edna Whitfield Alexander lamented the subversive communist takeover of another likely forest-dwelling Cold Warrior: the nut-hoarding squirrel.

At the time, Alexander chaired the Mississippi Daughters of the American Revolution’s Committee on National Defense.  She complained that a story in one of Mississippi’s first-grade textbooks subverted the naturally capitalistic image of the squirrel.  In “Ask for It,” Alexander charged, “socialistic” authors used a tale of Bobby Squirrel insidiously to undermine the idea of hard work and thrift among Mississippi’s impressionable young school children.

In a pitch-perfect example of what historian Ellen Schrecker has called the “counter-subversive imagination,” Alexander blasted the textbook The New Our New Friends.  Among the seemingly innocuous just-so stories, Alexander sniffed out the “socialistic” message this book included about Bobby Squirrel.


From “Ask for It,” The New Our New Friends, by William S. Gray, Marion Monroe, A. Sterl Artley, and May Hill Arbuthnot, (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1956). Adopted as a school textbook by the State of Mississippi, 1963.

As Alexander asked in the pages of the Monitor Herald (Calhoun City, MS), January 3, 1963, “Have you ever heard or read about a more subtle way of undermining the American system of work and profit and replacing it with a collective welfare system?”

From a twenty-first-century perspective, it is difficult to remember the prominent role anti-communism played in American conservatism throughout much of the twentieth century.  As historian George Nash has argued, anti-communism often served as the intellectual glue that held together a disparate conservative movement, linking free-market activists with libertarians, Catholic intellectuals, and Protestant social traditionalists.

I came across this story in the Billy James Hargis Papers at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  All historians interested in the history of conservatism in twentieth-century American education, religion, and culture should make this one of their first destinations.  Not only did the Reverend Hargis keep his own voluminous collection of small magazines, newsletters, and ephemera from various conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant and anti-communist sources, but he also apparently bought up other collections, such as Allen Zoll’s.  As a result, the Hargis Papers in Fayetteville provide a one-stop reading shop for a vast collection of rare archival gems.

Unfortunately, Hargis did not keep much personal material.  It is not easy to get a sense of Hargis’ own thinking.  But the many boxes of newsletters and clippings include a wide array of pieces like Mrs. Alexander’s attempt to purge Mississippi schoolbooks of creeping, hopping Squirrel socialism.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fundamentalism vs. Communism, c. 1949

In the twenty-first century, it can be difficult to remember the menace once posed to Fundamentalist America by communism.  Of course, it was not only Fundamentalist Americans, but most Americans, who shared a strong anti-communism, at least since the 1930s.  As historian Ellen Schrecker has argued, anti-communism WAS Americanism.

It is too easy to limit our understanding of anti-communism to a narrow campaign against one political group.  In Fundamentalist America, the fight against communism took on a broad array of meanings.  “Communism” itself came to include a vast spectrum of purportedly anti-American ideas, including anti-theism, progressive education, declining manners, anti-capitalism, disrespect for tradition, and so on.  Not surprisingly, the fight against communism came to include such notions as support for more public religion.  It often included support for traditional families and social relationships.  It also included a fight for more traditional teaching, both in content and in method.

To cite just one example, as President General Anne Minor of the staunchly anti-communist Daughters of the American Revolution insisted in 1923, Americans “want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question.”  Teachers must teach a strict patriotic traditionalism.  They must tell their students the correct answer, with the correct social values, every time.  Those “progressive” teachers who waffle and squirm, who infect their students with a crippling moral relativism, would eventually create a generation of insipid, unpatriotic Americans unable to defend against the menace of communism.

As always, a picture is worth a thousand words.  In this case, I’ll share some cartoons from an anti-communist pamphlet from 1949.  These cartoons demonstrate one common ideological thread in Cold War Fundamentalist America.  At the time, activists like the one who published this brochure felt that Communism threatened a two-pronged attack.  The danger included a military menace from Soviet Russia.  But it also meant internal subversion by dupes who did the work of the Red Army.  Intentionally or not, such subversive activity helped to weaken the resolve of America, making a communist takeover that much easier.

Further Reading: Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Jonathan Zimmerman, Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

This one shows the vast sweep of cultural ideology folded into the fight against communism. Not only must patriots fight communism, they must also fight to uphold traditional values.

Parents squeezing the “Red” out of textbooks.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has argued, the image of the “Little Red Schoolhouse” has long been a potent political symbol. In this cover image, the cartoonist makes a connection common in Cold-War anti-communism. “Reds” worked hard to subvert the Red Schoolhouse.

The scheming, bearded academic has long been an object of suspicion in Fundamentalist America. Here, he does the work of the Red Army.