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On "Dupes" and the Religious Left

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with Paul Kengor, professor of political science and executive director of the Center, on his latest book, "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century." This series focuses on a dominant theme of the book: the Religious Left.


V&V: Dr. Kengor, why the title, “Dupes?” That’s a word that will make many religious people uncomfortable.

Dr. Paul Kengor: Yes, but they need to understand that the term has been around since at least George Washington’s Farewell Address. “Dupes” has a negative connotation, but, in reality, it’s descriptive and points to a very specific phenomenon that has long been a part of political parlance. The word was especially common during the Cold War, where even the duped regrettably referred to themselves as having been duped. “Yes, I was duped,” was a common refrain. This included even the likes of my political mentor, Ronald Reagan.

Until this book, no one had done a serious look at this phenomenon. I was motivated by the vast declassifications of former Soviet and Communist Party USA archives, where we see how duping was done quite deliberately.

V&V: Let’s get to the focus of this interview: Why is religion central to this book?

Kengor: First, the communists were, by their own definition, atheistic. More than that, they were proudly, militantly atheistic. Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” and said that, “Communism begins where atheism begins.” Lenin said far worse, comparing religion to everything from venereal disease to “a necrophilia.” “There’s nothing more abominable than religion,” declared Lenin.

This institutionalized atheism was true for communists everywhere, from Moscow to New York.


Beyond that, communists viciously persecuted believers of all stripes. (Click here for extended analysis, “The Communist War on Religion.”)

V&V: And these communists, who locked up and even executed Christians, Jews, and other believers, sang a different tune when speaking to liberal Christians in the United States?

Kengor: Yes. They cynically, contemptuously targeted the Religious Left. And it’s downright depressing to see the success they had. They knew these liberal Christians were trusting souls, who agreed with them on certain sympathies—workers rights, civil rights, wealth distribution. The communists exploited that trust.

The communists excelled at lying, as noted not only by conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers but by liberals and Democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, George Kennan, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. As Lenin infamously said, the only morality that communists recognized is that which furthered class interests. Vaclav Havel called it “the communist culture of the lie.”

So, the communists lied to liberals. And as the communists operated covertly, not openly admitting they were communists, they enlisted liberals in their petitions, marches, protests, publications. Without these duped liberals/progressives, the communists were dead in the water, exposed as the tiny fringe they were.

V&V: Where did they have their best success?


Kengor: The mainline denominations, particularly the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church USA.

When I started researching this book, I asked Herb Romerstein, the veteran investigator of the communist movement, and himself a former communist, which group of Americans were most manipulated. He unhesitatingly answered “liberal Protestant pastors.” He called them “the biggest suckers of them all.”

V&V: Are there certain pastors who stood out?

Kengor: It’s hard to pick just one, but as a symbol, starting very early, there was the Rev. Harry F. Ward, a liberal Methodist minister, a seminary professor, and founding member of the ACLU, along with atheist Roger Baldwin, who wrote a horrible 1928 book called Liberty Under the Soviets.

In my book, we publish a December 1920 list of liberal college professors targeted by the Soviet Comintern and American Communist Party. On the list is not only Ward, listed with Union Theological Seminary, but other professors from seminaries or religious colleges, from Mount Holyoke to Trinity College. The communists counted on the Religious Left to be duped—sheep led to the slaughter.

V&V: You say Ward was “easy prey.”

Kengor: Harry Ward gobbled up Soviet propaganda. Early on, he set the standard for much of the liberal left: that is, he exposed not the communists, but, instead, attacked the anti-communists. In Ward’s world, it was anti-communism that was the great menace to be resisted. Writing in Protestant Digest in January 1940, long before Senator McCarthy arrived on the scene, Ward admonished the faithful of the perils of “anti-communism,” which was being employed “under the leadership of [Congressman] Dies in a new red hunt” that promised to be even “more ruthless than that of Mitchell Palmer.”


Here, Ward warned about Congressman Martin Dies, Texas Democrat, the first head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general.

By the way, right there, in that sentence, were three Democrats—Dies, Mitchell, and Wilson—all Christians, who weren’t duped, and who were excellent anti-communists, with their faith informing their understanding of the dangers of Bolshevism. Certainly, not everyone on the Religious Left was duped.

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