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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, or freedom.

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 congregations.

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 reputation.

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.
        Spring, 2005

Copyright 20062012 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Sunday 22 April 2012.

Michael Servetus: A Radical for All Times • A Mind of Her Own • McCarthy's Ghost • Lyn Cox • James Leach • Paul McLain • Barbara Meyers
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