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Stalin as the Anti-Christ: The Catholic Roots of the Red Scare

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Philip Jenkins - published on 02/16/15 - updated on 06/08/17

Communism was viewed as pure evil among believers.

Historians of American politics tend to be a secular crowd, who leave religious matters to specialists in such areas. That is tragic, because if you do not understand religious motivations, you fail to grasp many of the most significant conflicts in the nation’s history, even in quite modern times.

As a case in point, I offer the great anti-Communist fervor that flourished between about 1946 and 1954, and which largely expelled Communists and their sympathizers from public life. Referring to this movement as McCarthyism is deeply misleading, as Joe McCarthy himself only joined the campaign when it had already raged for several years, and when it had already accomplished most of its chief victories. Also, identifying the movement with one demagogue ignores the vast grass roots support that the cause mobilized, much of which was religiously motivated.

Red Scare activists came from a variety of traditions. Some were Protestant, some Jews, others claimed no religion. In the forefront of most campaigns, though, we chiefly find Catholics, who were critical to the most important struggles of the era, against Communist power in organized labor, in urban political machines, and ethnic organizations. Throughout these struggles, moreover, Catholic clergy fought on the front lines. If the Red Scare was not entirely a Catholic movement, it cannot begin to be understood without knowing the specifically religious, and even apocalyptic, ideas underlying it.

The fact that the Catholic Church was profoundly anti-Communist is scarcely surprising, but we often forget that this was a theological and mystical belief, rather than just a political stance. The Church had viewed godless Communism as a deadly enemy long before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and that conflict made the menace acute. The papacy responded to the crisis with all the ideological tools at its disposal. Central to the new Marian devotion was the memory of Fátima, the Portuguese village in which the Virgin was said to have appeared to three peasant children from 1917 onwards. She was the woman crowned with the Sun, who stood endangered by the great Red Dragon. The fates of Russia and Communism became an apocalyptic sign, intimately connected to the future of the Church and the final conflict between Light and Darkness. The Red forces of Communism were at war with the Blue Army of the Virgin Mary.

Through the advocacy of Pope Pius XII, the Fátima mythology became the gospel of the global anti-Communist crusade. In 1950, the Pope’s proclamation of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin created a new and fervent wave of Marian piety.

Throughout the 1940s, the US Catholic press led the way in denouncing Soviet aggression, at a time when many secular newspapers were prepared to give the former ally some leeway. Across Eastern Europe, the Church suffered from land redistribution and confiscation of property, while the persecution of East European clergy began soon after the creation of Communist hegemony. A few weeks in early 1949 alone brought front-page headlines like “Plot to Destroy Church is Threatened in Poland”; “Commies Step Up Persecution Tempo”; “Church in Romania is Wiped Out” and “Reds Slay Abbot at Prison Camp”; “Priest Refuses to Break Seal of Confession, Gets Prison Term” [in Yugoslavia] ; and “Polish Clergy Suffering New Persecution for Their Faith.” 

Two men in particular symbolized these concerns, which soon reached exalted heights. In 1946, the Croat Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac was arrested in Yugoslavia, ostensibly for wartime collaboration. Cardinal-Archbishop Joszef Mindszenty was arrested in December 1948 for his opposition to the new Communist government of Hungary, and he remained a symbol of militant anti-Communism throughout the next two decades. Stories syndicated in Catholic diocesan newspapers described Stepinac as “Another Christ Before Pilate.” The Christ analogy recurred during Mindszenty’s trial in 1949, when a cartoon depicted Jesus “on trial again” before the courts of Eastern Europe. Soon, Stepinac and Mindszenty were being presented as the martyred Two Witnesses foretold in the Book of Revelation, whose sufferings portended the End Times.


That apocalyptic element demands attention, as it is virtually never mentioned in secular accounts of the anti-Communist era. Although the Church never officially made such a declaration, many ordinary believers simply viewed Stalin as the Antichrist. In 1949, Catholic diocesan newspapers published a syndicated cartoon that initially seems a characteristic warning against complacency in the face of Red expansionism. An American sleeps peacefully despite all the headlines on newspapers lying around him, which read “Communism sweeps Europe,” “Pope calls for militant action,” and “Antichrist Gains in USA.”

By the late 1940s, the secular news media were full of images which fitted extraordinarily well with supernatural and even mystical theories: the confrontation with absolute evil, the rise of an anti-Christian superstate, and the development of nuclear weapons (“hell-bombs”) capable of vast fiery destruction. All these grim aspects of the modern world appeared to be fulfilling the requirements for the disasters outlined in the Book of Revelation, and the vast body of written work erected upon that foundation. With the approach of the Holy Year of 1950, and the endless retellings of the Fátima story, Catholic papers found themselves responding to countless requests from readers for explanations of apocalyptic themes.

This point was elegantly made in a syndicated cartoon published shortly after the Bikini test in March 1954, in which the US exploded its 15-megaton fission/fusion bomb. Showing a map of the United States targeted by hell-bombs, the paper shows the location of the “only safe state,” namely “a state of grace.”  The individual believer faced a straightforward choice between heaven or hell, Light or Darkness, Stalin or the Pope.

For ordinary believers, Communism was not merely a political challenge, but an utter evil opposed to everything good and holy. Anti-Communism was as basic a component of the emerging civic religion of the period as it was of the political consensus. Historians who do not know their Book of Revelation have no business discussing the mainstream politics of the McCarthy era.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

Tags:
CatholicismChurch HistoryFatima
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