Religion and the Show Trials

For many, the story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist political witch-hunt is little known or little remembered. After all, the infamous hearings ended over sixty years ago! But recent events show an uncanny resemblance to those times. At the nadir of McCarthy’s purge there was a conflation of false morality, Christianity and anti-Communism. Accusations were made viciously and lives were destroyed; all under cover of patriotism. The Communist Soviet Union is gone, but efforts to come to grips with a newly aggressive Russia are reawakening a certain paranoia in American life. As the article following this one further explains; without a properly applied morality, statecraft can lead in decidedly troublesome directions. —Editor.


In one of his last novels, The Redhunter, chronicling the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy, William F. Buckley revealed that he had never jettisoned his contemporary support for the senator. For Buckley the senator’s investigations into Communist “influence” within the government continued to validate McCarthy’s “thuggish” tactics.

Senator Joseph Mccarthy (center) at the 1954 Army hearings with Private G. David Schine (left) and Roy M. Cohn (right). © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com
J. B. Matthews giving testimony before the Dies Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, August 22, 1938. Library of Congress

Although Buckley supported the conservative thesis that McCarthy was undone by “anti-anti-Communists” in the media, Congress, and presidential administrations (Buckley evenly distributed his anger toward not only the Roosevelt and Truman administrations but also the Republican Dwight Eisenhower administration for failing to detect and roust Communists supposedly in the government), he located the true cause of the senator’s downfall to staff member Roy Cohn, who was a mercenary in all senses of the word.

McCarthy’s Achilles heel would be the exposure of Cohn’s romantic love for costaffer G. David Schine; made obvious by Cohn’s feverish attempts to get the recently drafted Schine considerable leave from the Army.

When the Army did not comply, at least not totally enough, Cohn made a doomed attempt to accuse the Army, sacrosanct because of World War II, of harboring Communists.With popular support waning, McCarthy/Cohn was vulnerable to the killing blow administered by the canny lawyer representing the Army, Joseph Welch (“Have you left no sense of decency”).

But McCarthy was made vulnerable a year before the Army/McCarthy hearings by an equally reckless staffer, J. B. Matthews, a former missionary who attacked another sacrosanct institution: the churches.

Born to a fervent Methodist father, who beat his son once for laughing at a visiting Methodist preacher’s white suit, Matthews lived in the revivalist atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Kentucky. From this he absorbed a religious Manichaeism, which would serve him well later on as a researcher for McCarthy. As he wrote: “Everything dark was as simple as sin, and men needed only to repent and be saved in order to set everything right.”

Matthews took his enthusiasm into missionary work in Java, where, according to one of his chroniclers, the liberal journalist Murray Kempton, he translated “102 Protestant hymns into the Malay language.”

Describing himself in this period as “terribly in earnest about the Christian social doctrine,” he demonstrated this by championing equal rights for Blacks, a fervent pacifism, and free speech rights. He began his attempts to politicize the churches by taking to the church podium and urging congregational support for the progressive 1924 presidential campaign of Robert La Follette; this earned him condemnation from a Tennessee Methodist organization.

Five years later he merged his politicized Christianity with “atheistic” socialism, and subscribed to their secular Manichean belief that only the destruction of capitalism would end war.Although never a formal member of the American Communist Party, Matthews nevertheless parroted their blind worship of Stalinist Russia. He made five trips to the Soviet Union from 1927 to 1935, one of which was to Ukraine, where citizens were starved and murdered by the KGB during the regime’s “collectivization” policies.He didn’t need a party card to dutifully follow the methods of Western Communists, as when he consciously ignored what he saw in this policy that resulted in the deaths of 6 to 13 million Russians.

And he fit what Edmund Wilson, America’s premier man of letters and a brief fellow traveler, accused party members of being:political lightweights who never bothered to actually read Marx. Matthews, who later admitted he never actually read the Daily Worker, nevertheless used it as a venue to attack Socialists who told the truth about Stalin’s government-directed famine.

Always able to turn a phrase, Matthews bequeathed to the party, who in the early 1930s equated capitalism with fascism, the quotable description “fascism is capitalism turned nudist.” But somewhere along the way this figure who belonged to at least six Communist fronts (journalist Richard Rovere, who opposed Matthews during the latter’s tenure with McCarthy, called Matthews “the world’s champion fellow traveler, joining Communist fronts as compulsively as a pie-eating champion eats pies”) became disillusioned with Communism.

By 1938 he was directing his energies toward compiling a seven-volume list of Communists and the front organizations he once labored as researcher for the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated Communists in the government and in the entertainment industry.With the latter, Matthews went the committee one better in their reckless accusations by declaring the preteen Shirley Temple of being a Communist “stooge.”

Such recklessness made it inevitable that a decade later he would find employment with Joseph McCarthy.But this was short-lived.A mere month after his appointment as a researcher for the senator, Matthews was embroiled in a controversy that assured his ouster.In a decade in which church had all but merged with the state (then-President Dwight Eisenhower told the populace that it was their “patriotic duty” to attend church), Matthews accused “Protestant clergymen” of being the “largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States today.”

This alienated and enraged Democrats initially supportive of McCarthy such as Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.When Jackson, along with other Democratic senators who served on McCarthy’s investigative committee, demanded that McCarthy get rid of Matthews, McCarthy refused.

The senators reflected the anger of religious organizations.Many Democratic legislators were Southern Baptists, and thus supported the demands of their religious organization, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, that McCarthy fire Matthews.

This internal civil war within McCarthy’s committee over who had the authority to fire Matthews—the Democrats argued they could, rather than McCarthy—actually gained McCarthy more power.Vice President Richard Nixon stepped in and in exchange for McCarthy firing Matthews gave McCarthy the sole power for hiring and firing members of his staff.

But it must be said that Matthews was honest about the self-serving nature of his anti-Communist labors for HUAC and McCarthy.In moments of frankness he repudiated those who, on both sides of the aisle, asserted he was sincere in his endeavors, and declared his motives as simply lining his pockets:

“I have been misunderstood as a crusader.I don’t consider myself a crusader.To me the letterhead of a Communist front is a nugget.And I make a good living at it.”

And he also admitted “confusion” in this period comparable to the time he was feverishly joining Communist fronts.

The cold war had a legitimate side; in the post-war period, Stalin displayed imperialistic appetites, and one must not forget that his regime was pointing nuclear missiles at the U.S.

But it also had a cash-rich side, in which such cynics as Roy Cohn lined their pockets with domestic “red scares.” However, Cohn never merged church with state in the manner Matthews did.


Article Author: ​Ron Capshaw

Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.