Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.
In 1945, Truman issued an order to search out
any “infiltration of disloyal persons” in the United States government. [1:
Zinn, Howard, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, Harper Collins
Publishers, Inc., New York, 1980, p. 164]
This order was in response to the revolutions that were taking place on a global
scale. There was a growing dissatisfaction among Americans, who were moving
toward wanting disarmament, which would leave the United States bereft of its
war economy. A crisis had to be produced. “The revolutionary movements in Europe
and Asia were presented to the American public as examples of Soviet
expansionism.” [2: Ibid., p.160] It became our duty to defend the
people who wanted to be free of totalitarian governments, even if it required
decimating their countries in the process.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was the leader of the
hunt for Communists. He traveled around the country claiming various numbers of
Communists that had been located not only the State Department, but the military,
the arts, the labor movement and more. Just as in the 16th Century,
books were banned and burned, including The Selected Works of Thomas
Jefferson. [3: Ibid, p. 167]
The United States, wanting to rid the country
of anyone who might favor the kind of governments we were attempting to squelch,
entered into a frenzy of activity against the Communists in the early fifties.
Truman complained about the hysteria of it all, but in fact he had made it
possible. The witch-hunt of Joseph McCarthy and the House on Un-American
Activities Committee reached into every corner of our society, silencing a
public who had come to live in fear, lest they lose their livelihood, reputation,
Millions of copies of a book that featured a
Communist killer were sold. Readers were pleased to learn that the hero had
killed a number of Communist—people who had no right to live anyway.
The “loyalty oath” was required of teachers,
government workers, engineers designing new technology and more. Unitarian and
Universalist congregations were put in the position of signing, or taking the
risk of being shut down. The entire country moved in a state of fear while
supposedly being protected from the enemy. People were summoned to the House on
Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated with all the zeal and
disrespect for civil rights one might expect from a 16th Century
Inquisition. Guilty before tried. No explanation, no reasoning, no defense
seemed to fall on ears that were listening. McCarthy’s abuse of power knew no
bounds. How many men and women lost their jobs because their employers did not
want to risk having a “pinko” on the payroll? How many were sent to prison,
falsely accused? How many lived with deep depression, unable to support their
families? How many committed suicide, having done no wrong?
Professors, writers, artists, aerospace
workers, film producers—nobody was safe if they dared to voice views not in
keeping with the party line. When speaking one’s mind, a liberal learned to use
great caution. “The walls have ears” was a reminder to exercise caution when
speaking one’s true conscience.
The values Unitarian Universalists hold as our
covenant to the Principals and Purposes of our chosen faith were similar to the
values of many a suspect of communist activity. Thinking about what the leaders
of the movement against McCarthyism valued most, it was a firm conviction that
we all have the right to speak from conscience and not fear of punishment—we all
have the right to a voice in our government and we all have a right to speak out
against abuse of our constitutional rights.
As the power of McCarthy increased, fear of
loss could not trump the value of integrity among many of the liberals,
including the voices of ministers in our Unitarian and Universalist
I was a member of Liberal Religious Youth (LRY)
at the time of McCarthy’s interrogation of anyone who did not give up their
freedom of conscience in order to appear innocent of any anti-American
activities. I had done my time crawling under my desk at school, practicing for
the day I needed to protect myself from the enemy of our country. I went with
other young Unitarians to churches that were not Unitarian or Universalist, in
an idealistic and perhaps naive hope that if anyone viewed the film we featured
as the centerpiece of our presentation (Operation Abolition) they would see the
light, so to speak. On one of our visits to a congregation I lost a bit of my
innocence regarding a change of opinion or heart about the abuses and
persecution of the House on Un-American Activities. A woman came up to me after
LRY’s presentation and spit on me. I had never been spit upon before. I was
shocked by this response, just as I am now when I am searched when I set off the
alarm as I attempt to board a plane. Okay, I forgot to take of the bracelet that
I wear when I travel—one that belonged to my Unitarian mother who worked to stop
Senator Joseph McCarthy from his abusive activities.
I wonder sometimes what my mother would say or do now, just trying to board a plane. Now you hear people say as they go through security at the airport that it is better to be safe than risk the lives of everyone on a plane. Yes, I agree, but I also believe that “terrorists” do not put their means of destruction in places where a guard from Homeland Security is going to see it go through an x-ray machine. Has anybody but me noticed or experienced the abuse of some of the “security” areas in airports? My mother would have not allowed the Homeland Security guard to demand that I take my blouse off in front of every person waiting in the security check line, saying that my blouse was really a jacket. She would have ended up in jail before she would have let her daughter be humiliated.
Remembering my upbringing, I must ask myself
why I remain silent when I know my civil rights are being violated. I have
worked for change, but have gradually turned inward to my own work with a quiet
conviction that I cannot make a difference—I can only get in trouble and lose my
capacity to pursue the subjects that spark my intellectual passions. I see the
ghost of McCarthy more clearly with each passing day, but I have not managed to
change much of anything regarding our current situation. Lack of organization
and focus in the liberal response to elections, civil rights violations, crimes
against humanity and all sentient beings on a global scale, all too often set in
motion by the United States, illegal activities in the name of “security”—it is
overwhelming, and contributes to a sense that it is easier to stay quiet than to
go out on a limb alone and end up in jail, or out of a job, or with a ruined
How did our Unitarian and Universalist
congregations meet the challenge of Joseph McCarthy? Ministers like Stephen
Fritchman “embodied the concern for social change that has been an important
current of twentieth-century liberal religion.” [4: Robinson, David, The
Unitarians and the Universalists, Greenwood Press, Westport, Ct, 1985, p.261.]
Fritchman refused to give up his right to speak his own conscience. In the heat
of the McCarthy debate, several of the ministers from congregations with
endowment funds got together and decided which ones would sign the loyalty oath
and which would not. The resources of the ones who signed the oath could carry
those who might lose everything. [5: From a personal conversation with Rev.
Dr. Arnold Crompton, 1991.]
Thinking about this agreement takes me back to
our distant cousins in the Radical Reformation of the 16th Century,
the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were outlawed by both the Catholics and the
Protestants. They were the most numerous and the most radical of the reformers
of that time. Forced into hiding, they frequently lived in densely forested
areas. Their communication with other brothers and sisters of the faith was
through a “reader” who went from community to community in order to read and
discuss scripture. Since so many Anabaptist were not literate, this is how they
became familiar with the Bible, and how many memorized it by heart.
The reader would take the news and the needs of each group he visited on to the next, forming a thread of communication that kept each group appraised of what was taking place within the larger group. Items of use were sent with the reader to other communities, along with letters and general messages. Some scholars say that this is one of the first examples of Congregational Polity. Each group independent, yet working in collaboration with the other groups.
The Anabaptists were martyred more than any other group of radicals, but they had the courage to live by what they valued. Most Anabaptists would tell you, if you could travel back in time to the 16th Century, that they answered only to God. The gospels were their authority. The teachings of Jesus were their model for right living.
Most of us don’t share the theology of the
Anabaptists, but if we get things right, we will have organized the entire state
of California to claim our civil rights, to refuse to contribute to the demise
of our natural resources, to draw a clear line in unbreakable substance
regarding our stance on universal health care—and much more!
It is not often that a new organization comes
along that has the potential for helping to raise issues and then address them
in a way that reduces the sense of hopelessness of any one individual. It is not
often that I see real hope on the horizon for much of anything when it comes to
social change. I was surprised to feel a ray of hope when I was invited to
attend a gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry,
California, in December. Surprised and hopeful—not a bad combination. Reverend
Lindi Ramsden, a woman I have known and respected for many years, stood up in
front of about thirty five people and explained to us what the Unitarian
Universalist Legislative Ministry was taking on. It was not vague. It was not
just a vision. It was a visionary plan with an action component.
We need each other. Together we can keep our
civil rights from being eroded on a daily basis, our health care system from
becoming a luxury, not to be shared by the poor. We can protect our wise elders
and our innocent children. We can refuse to run our affairs according to the
bottom line of the dollar.
If we try and be as quite possible, flying
under the radar that will target each of us eventually, we are practicing
nothing more than a stop-gap measure which will offer us no peace.
We need each other. I hope you too find hope
for social change with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry,
California. This ministry will become a model for other states in the country.
We have our equivalents of McCarthy to battle, and the UU Legislative Ministry,
California, is a force and a voice to make that possible. We, like our 16th
Century forebears, will create a coalition between like-minded people by linking
our congregations in a common cause.
Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.
Pacific Unitarian Universalist