The Smear Terror - John T. Flynn

IV. Calumny Wholesale

The most curious of these private gestapos is that strange collection of snoopers and sneerers collected under the tent of a parson. He manages an outfit called The Friends of Democracy. It was set up in 1937 by Reverend Leon M. Birkhead in Kansas City to fight American subversive elements. Birkhead seemed especially aroused at the fascist threat to religion in America.

Dr. Joseph C. Cleveland, Unitarian minister of Kansas City, was President. Birkhead became Director. It still maintains an office in Kansas City but its work is conducted from a New York office at 137 East 57th Street. At times the organization has had on its board some widely known American citizens

From the beginning Reverend Birkhead has used the organization pretty much as he saw fit. For the last four years its President has been Rex Stout, an author of detective stories. The Friends of Democracy during that time has been an instrument of vilification in the hands of Birkhead and Stout. This being so we might well begin by having a look at these two men who have set up as the defenders of religion and democracy.

Birkhead was a Methodist minister who left that sect to become a Unitarian minister in 1914. The Unitarian Church takes its name from the fact that it accepts the unity of God rather than the Trinity. Its creed is summed up in the covenant used in many of its church services: "In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of man." It has numbered amongst its followers some of the most eminent names in American history, including at least four Presidents.

In 1937, Birkhead began to clamor for Hitler's head as the foe of religion. "Protestants! Catholics! Jews! Pull Together!" exhorted Birkhead in his earliest pamphlet, "Resist the Spreaders of Hatred and Intolerance!" In another Friends of Democracy folder he said in capital letters: "AN ATTACK ON ANY MAN'S RELIGION IS UN-AMERICAN." He continued: "If you join any movement which attacks beliefs of Protestants, Catholics or Jews, you are undermining the Bill of Rights." Another pamphlet bore in great black letters the terrible alternative: "HITLER OR CHRIST?"

In the midst of Birkhead's frantic defense of religion, I came upon a little booklet containing a debate on the subject: "Can We Follow Christ?" To my surprise I found Birkhead supporting the proposition that we cannot follow Christ. Thereupon I looked up more of his writings and I am bound to say he is the most singular Christian preacher I have ever encountered.

Birkhead had struck up a publishing relation With Emanuel Haldemann-Julius, the atheist publisher of the Haldemann-Julius Quarterly, Debunker and Militant Atheist. Haldemann-Julius was working the atheist side of the street. But we find Birkhead working both sides—operating as a preacher in 'All Souls' Unitarian Church in Kansas City while knocking hell out of religion in the Haldemann-Julius Little Blue Books and magazines.

Birkhead and Hitler

Birkhead's religious discourses take the form of savage attacks on those who disagree with him. He used these atheist publications to defame his fellow ministers. A few excerpts will prove edifying. "Everyone," he wrote in the Haldemann-Julius Quarterly, "familiar with the status of the clergy in America knows that vulgarity and coarseness are characteristics of a majority of the preachers." In another article Birkhead said: "Preachers as reformers are nearly always mountebanks and demagogues." He asked if anything could be done to save the preachers. He had several suggestions, one of them being to "destroy the theological summaries. They belong to another day." Another was that "Two-thirds of the preachers be demobilized."

I do not quarrel with Reverend Birkhead because he is an atheist or an agnostic. As an American he is entitled to these views and to print them. I merely call attention to the phenomenon of the Christian preacher who urges, in an atheist magazine, abolition of theological seminaries, mass demobilization of ministers, while at the same time practicing as the pastor of a Christian church; scoffing at religion and religious people, announcing that "we cannot follow Christ," while on another platform he calls on Americans to choose between Hitler and Christ. Why not between Birkhead and Christ? Hitler never got as far as Birkhead suggested for American Christians—the destruction of ALL the seminaries and the demobilization of two-thirds of the ministers. Only joe Stalin hit that ideal.

No religious group escaped Birkhead's stream of vilification as he turned out the Haldemann-Julius Little Blue Books and articles for his Militant Atheist. If there is any religions group which enjoys the sympathetic tolerance of the people it is the Quakers. However, in the election of Herbert Hoover the Quaker in 1928. Birkhead saw "an opportunity for the Quakers to exploit that election for all that it is worth." Then he proceeded, in a Haldemann-Julius Little Blue Book, to castigate the Quakers. "I wonder," he wrote, "if Quakerism with all its compromises, with its disparagement of intellect, with a psychopath for its founder and guide, is not out of place in the modern world."

To his church in Kansas City, Birkhead brought an ex-priest from England named Joseph McCabe, a notorious enemy of religion. A stranger apparition never appeared, in a Christian pulpit, McCabe had been a Franciscan monk in England, who left the church and has since poured out a flood of Little Blue Books chiefly upon the futilities and follies of God and the uses of sex. He was co-editor of one of Haldemann-Julius' atheist magazines and turned out numerous pieces attacking the Catholic Church. Birkhead, who proclaimed that whoever attacks any man's religion is an enemy of America, featured this ex-priest for three weeks, in his pulpit attacking the religion of Christians and Jews.

Birkhead scoffed not merely at religious groups, but at religion itself. Imagine this coming from a preacher—in an atheist magazine (Haldemann-Julius' Debunker):

"In rare cases religion has had a happy effect upon the habits of religious devotees but I am convinced that such effects of religion are the exception and not the rule. Religious people are ordinarily narrow, petty, trivial. How could they be otherwise when they are the victims of narrow and intolerant intellects. , . .

"Most people who make any pretense of being religious would be better off without any religion . . . . The little or much religion they possess makes them meaner than they would be as non-religious beings."

Birkhead did not stop at religious people. He had a peculiar aversion to "good people." He wrote; "My 25 years' experience as a preacher confirmed my growing conviction that the biggest problem of modern civilization is not the bad people but the good people." He lists the sins of good people as "grasping, self-righteousness, arrogance, tyranny, dogmatism and unkindness." In another place he wrote:

"Good people are notoriously bad company. The bad people are usually mellow, genial, and very frequently unselfish. The good people would be better off if they would COMMIT A DARK, PLEASANT, TERRIBLY WICKED DEED."

He added; "In fact I would suggest that one way of curing good people of their unpleasantness would be to persuade them into sinning a little."

Something may be said for the theory that bad people are sometimes more interesting than good people. People would much rather read about a murderer or gangster than about a law-abiding citizen, or about a glamorous prostitute rather than a devoted mother. But that these people are more unselfish and better than decent citizens is quite another doctrine. I had supposed it to be the function of the Christian minister to draw the wicked away from their sinning rather than to introduce the good people to sin in order to make them more interesting. I would like to know how Birkhead classifies himself—among the good or the bad people. Certainly there must have been an age of innocence for the Reverend, say when he was a young divinity student. He should write a Little Blue Book and tell us the sins he experimented with to cure himself of his goodness and which ones he recommends.

Why did Birkhead storm at Hitler? Because, he said, In Germany, if "a mother wants her son to join one of her church societies, her little boy is ridiculed." This, mind you, from Birkhead, who had spent years ridiculing not only little boys but anyone for joining those unscientific and ridiculous churches led by "coarse and vulgar mountebanks and demagogues" where religion was making the good men bad and the bad ones worse. Birkhead cries out in one of his pamphlets:

"The salvation of humanity everywhere now depends upon the loyally and devotion of men and women who believe in religion which has been the source of their hope and comfort and the power alone which can save mankind from despair."

Ah, Brother Birkhead! What about your good friends—the Bad People? Not a word about them saving mankind from despair. Here he is calling on the God-fearing people to unite to save the world from the bad and interesting people! On one side of the street he calls the good people to cut out their religion and to commit some dark and interesting deed to escape dullness. Then he crosses the street and urges the religious people to help him save the world from the wicked people on the other side* In the Friends of Democracy he wants the religious people to chip in with him to save their fellow religionists in Germany from a fate which Hitler has brought on them and which the Reverend recommended for America.

Birkhead has another grouch about Christians. They are meddlers, he says, in the affairs of others. Yet we see him through his Friends of Democracy hiring snoopers and informers to pry into other men's lives, ransack their offices and meddle in their affairs upon a scale no normal meddler ever dreams of using. For this is what the Friends of Democracy turned out to be. Behind its pious facade of love of freedom and tolerance and religion its chief activity, under the guise of warring on Hitler, was to smear upon a mass scale the reputations of everyone who dared to oppose the policies of Birkhead, Stout and their clients,

The Perfect Partnership

What he did we shall presently see. But first he had to get two things—money and the prestige of good names. First he raised a banner which attracts most Americans—religious tolerance. The beginning, however, left something to be desired. His first president was Dr. Joseph G. Cleveland, a fellow Kansas minister, who had achieved a dubious notoriety by introducing into his pulpit as a lay preacher Miss Sally Rand, the fan dancer. However, Birkhead after a while got a number of very well-known people to allow their names to appear on his Board. Many of them later forsook him but he managed to acquire a perfect partner for his adventures in calumny, namely Mr. Rex Stout, who became the chairman of his board.

Before the war Rex Stout was unknown save as a writer of "Who-Done-It" fiction. He describes himself as successively office boy, store clerk, bookkeeper, sailor, hotel manager and inventor of a school thrift system. He made a fortune in the last of these careers. At this point he turned his hand to writing. In 1926, Stout and a group of Reds began publishing the New Masses which became the weekly organ of the Communist Party. Ruth Stout, then his wife, was its business manager. He was one of its executive board. The leading editorial hailed the great Red Experiment in Russia. It read:

"In millions of proletarian hearts in every corner of the world the workers' republic is still enshrined as fresh and new and beautiful as first love."

Stout insists he is not a Communist. However, in 1944, he was before a Congressional committee. He was asked if he believed in the theories of either Communism or Fascism. He replied that he did not and never had, Yet the New Masses official organ of the Communist Party, when launched said:

"Hail, great artist nation, great scientist nation, great worker nation, . . . Hail, Red youthful giant, as you go marching and singing out of the tragic present into the glorious future! Our deepest hopes arc centered in you, our right arms are yours to command, our life is your life. You have killed the dogma of capitalism as surely as the French Revolution killed monarchism. Hail!"

And Stout's name appears as a member of the executive board that sponsored that statement. Yet he swore under oath not only that he is not a Communist now but that he was never a Communist. He remained as a contributing editor until 1930.

The man who assures you he is not a Communist, yet who in most instances plays the Communist Party line is a common specimen, particularly in New York. There are, of course, the very practical revolutionists of the writing profession who know precisely how to dilute their Red philosophy with the necessary escape clauses. They disclaim being Commies and under cover of this protective disclaimer they go to town with any Commie enterprise that tickles their fancy. You can hear them on the radio or in the magazines industriously plugging the Red line to the plaudits of the Daily Worker. Some, of course, like Stout, may be merely exploiting their social hatreds. Others are in revolt against mediocrity. Still others are merely conforming to the prevailing fashion in the profession. They are not Commies. Heavens, no! But generally they think Stalin is right and we are wrong in all the grave divisions between Soviet Russia and America. Let us not trouble ourselves about what they call themselves. Read them in the magazines, listen to them on the radio, look at them in the committees they join. You will find them planted on the Communist line nine times out of ten. You will hear them raving against the horrors of the fascist tyrannies, with never more than an occasionally feeble and qualified whisper against the tyrannies of Russia.

Those who know Stout know that the one spiritual urge which dominates him is hatred. It is interesting to note that the only listed contribution to periodical literature I can find outside of detective stories is an article in the New York Times entitled: "We Shall Hate or We Shall Fail." If ever a man had a golden opportunity to exploit his hatreds. Stout found it in his partnership with Birkhead, who had spent the preceding 15 years vilifying religion and its ministers—a magnificent preparation for the wide offensive of defamation he has directed for the last eight years.