THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY
A Sermon by John J. Shaffer, Pastor Chugiak Methodist Church in Chugiak, Alaska, October 30, 1966 (Now know as the United Methodist Church of Chugiak.)
Background: The John Birch Society had become a player in Alaska politics. Some of my church members were even thinking of joining, but they made the mistake of asking me to check it out for them. I did and then scheduled a public report in a worship service. The worship area was packed. Two members of The John Birch Society were there with hidden tape recorders. At the end of the sermon I passed out printed copies of the sermon. The local Democrat Party requested permission to make copies for distribution and at least 2,000 copies were distributed. Indirectly, it led to my entrance into partisan politics as I ran for elected office (Alaska House of Representatives) in 1968 as a Republican, hoping to defeat a candidate that was a member of The John Birch Society who operated a gas station right next to the church. In 1966 he had made it through the primary. When I ran in 1968 he did not make it through the primary. Within our area, I was third out of 49 candidates, but over-all the Anchorage Area I was 35th. So in one sense we were both defeated, but at least I accomplished my original goal.
I spent an entire month in preparation for this sermon, reading many primary documents of the society. After a debate with a State Senator at our local high school, he paid me a compliment, indicated that I knew more about the society than he did and he was on the National Board of Directors.
This sermon made me an enemy of some right wing believers and their attacks on me in 1968 gave me more public notice for the election campaign. Since I only spent $2,000 on my campaign, their published attack ads on me helped with name recognition. My own mother, commenting on the attacks, said that if what they said about me was true, “she won’t vote for me.”
This sermon has lots of quotes (based on my research), so it isn’t easy to read. Since the family that helped finance the John Birch Society is now financing The Tea Party, there may be some relevancy to the document today. Good luck. (written in the year 2014)
THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY
We are thinking this morning about a controversial issue – The John Birch Society. However, we must be able to talk about such controversial issues, or we may lose the privilege to talk about anything meaningful to us.
To report to you on my study of the Society, I will give you a little historical background, then talk of the positive aspects, then follow with the negative aspects.
The John Birch Society is named after a Baptist missionary who was killed by Communists in their take-over of mainland China. The Society was founded by Robert Welch, a businessman in candy manufacturing (not in grape juice). He gave up most of his business activities in 1957 and devoted much time and energy to his anti-Communist activities. Included in this is his work as editor and publisher of a monthly magazine “American Opinion“, plus lecturing on the evils of socialism, and guiding the John Birch Society. The first few chapters of the John Birch Society were formed in February, 1959. The main beginning is traced to a meeting in Indianapolis, on December 9, 1959. Eleven men were invited to hear Welch present the lectures which constitute “The Blue Book” of The John Birch Society. Copies of this may be obtained by simply writing to Belmont, Massachusetts. All policies of the society are governed by Robert Welch, to assure efficiency. “The John Birch Society will operate under complete authoritative control at all levels”. (Page 159, “The Blue Book“). Part of the philosophy of the Society is that democracy is not the best system of government. Robert Welch feels that “government is always and inevitably an enemy of individual freedom”. (Page 130, “The Blue Book”) So he is working for as little government as possible. In its place he would call for more individual responsibility.
When a person joins the society he agrees “that my membership may be revoked at anytime, by a duly appointed officer of the Society, without the reason being stated…” (From the Application for Membership, “The Blue Book“)
Membership rolls are not public, but “By its own count, the Society has twenty-eight staff workers in its home office in Belmont, Massachusetts, thirty fully salaried and expense-paid traveling coordinators, and one hundred partially paid or volunteer coordinators.” (From “Commentary Report” on The John Birch Society by Alan F. Westin) They have a working fund now of approximately $1,600,000 a year.
In an article by Alan F. Westin in “Commentary” published by the American Jewish Committee, we learn some of the main emphases of the Society:
“1. Its image of world events and American politics is wholly conspiratorial.
2. The Birchers impugn the integrity and patriotism of those at the head of the major social and economic groups of the nation.
3. The Birchers are convinced that the Communists have gone so far in penetrating American politics that there is little hope in the existing political system.
4. Most of the Birch Society’s positive program consists of advocating the repeal of things or the removal of the nation from something or somewhere. A partial list of the things that the Society describes as wicked, Communist, and dangerous includes: U.S. membership in the United Nations and related organizations; the ‘useless and costly’ NATO; all foreign aid; diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and all other Communist nations; the graduated income tax; the Rural Electrification Administration; government wage and price controls; ‘deliberately fraudulent’ U.S. government bonds; urban renewal, fluoridation; the ‘mental health racket’; and federal aid to housing…
5. Finally, the Birch Society advocates both ‘direct action’ and ‘dirty tactics’ to ‘break the grip of the Communist conspiracy’.”
When one first approaches a group like the John Birch Society, the first reaction is often positive. We are in agreement with many of their principles. We are against communism. We are also for integrity in our government. We are also for honesty and individual responsibility.
Following is a summary of the means the John Birch Society would use to fight the Communists: (as taken from their own Blue Book)
1. Establish reading rooms in as many cities of the country as rapidly as they can.
2. Getting the truth about both recent history and current events into as many hands and heads as possible. To do this they would circulate conservative periodicals.
3. Support, maintain, increase the number of stations using radio programs as those of Fulton Lewis, Clarence Manion and others.
4. We would institute the organized planning and control to make full and effectively coordinated use of the powerful letter-writing weapon that lies so ready at hand.
To illustrate the effectiveness of this program: “In 1964, the John Birch Society declared war on the Xerox Corporation – after the company had announced its sponsorship of a projected series of television specials on the United Nations. Robert Welch immediately urged his members to send ‘a veritable flood’ of letters to the corporation.
Xerox received 29,500 pieces of adverse mail even before the first broadcast reached the screen. A tabulation revealed that the 29,500 letters had been sent by only 6,000 individuals! During the next six months, in which Welch wrote several reminders, the company received another 15,700 letters, analyzed as having come from only 5,500 individuals. (During the same period Xerox received 4,400 pro-UN letters from about 4,400 individuals.)” (Pages 40-41, “Report on the John Birch Society, 1966″ by Benjamin R. Epstein and Arnold Forster, a Vintage Book V-353)
5. We would organize fronts — little fronts, big fronts, temporary fronts, permanent fronts, all kinds of fronts. (Such as “A Petition to Impeach Earl Warren” and “Support Your Local Police“)
6. Start shocking the American People into a realization of how far Communist influences have crept right into communities, institutions, and activities where the general public does not have the slightest suspicion of such infiltration.
6. Expose Communists by the question and answer technique after speeches.
8. Line up speakers who would speak on specific subjects that would carry a strong anti-Communist message.
9. On the international front, help set up governments-in-exile from anti-Communist refugees.
10. Put our weight into the political scales in this country just as fast and far as we can. (From the Blue Book, pages 77 ff.)
So we see that the John Birch Society seeks to instruct persons about communism. In fact, it is called by both friend and foe, an anti-communist society. Unfortunately, many persons who have gone beyond the positive aspects of the society and/or stating the positions of the society without comment to name some negative aspects are immediately labeled as being pro-communist or communist sympathizers or communist dupes. If my remarks were publicized in certain quarters, I would be running the risk of being so labeled. I am willing to run this risk, although I have known of many fellow ministers being persecuted for just launching such a discussion as we are having this morning.
It is a favorite game of many persons – labeling everything black or white or in this case red or red, white and blue. Unfortunately, the leaders of the John Birch Society have again and again labeled those who disagree with them on political, economic or religious issues as being communists or tainted.
This helps us to understand why the radical right spends a great deal of time attacking the National Council of Churches. We are being exposed in Alaska to some of this smear tactic approach. A point of warning should be mentioned in this regard. The National Council of Churches does not seek to speak for the thirty religious groups affiliated with it: it does speak to the thirty religious groups. We do not have to agree or listen, but many of us do listen and evaluate their statements along with other statements. Only the most narrow refuse to read more than one viewpoint in trying to reach decisions.
One does not have to go very far to find that the definition of various terms in both the right and left spectrum of 1966 political groups is different from many other definitions. You are perhaps aware, for example, that the left wing group, the Communists, are for peace. Americans are also for peace. But peace does not mean the same for Communists and Americans. For Americans it means the right of self-determination for all people. For Communists it means the domination of all people by the Communist ideology. So we differ with the Communists at the very beginning.
An example of this same problem with the John Birch Society is found in the definition of the enemy. Birchers identify communists as including communists, socialists and liberals. “One fixed dogma, for examples, goes to the effect that liberalism leads to socialism, and socialism to Communism. It would go hard with any leaders who pointed out that no country to date has come under Communist control by this prescribed course; or that the term socialism does not mean the same thing to Communists and non-Communists.” (Page 58, “The Strange Tactics of Extremism” by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet.) By the Birch definition, they have publicized that America is nearly 80% gone over to the enemy. The F.B. I. identifies the enemy as the hard-core Communists who are devoted to the over-throw of our government by any means. The problem with Welch’s definition of liberals is that this includes liberals in every realm of our lives: political, economic, religious, educational, labor unions, you name it – no one is safe from attack if they disagree with the position or line of the John Birch Society. Thus, Robert Welch, the founder of this movement, has called Dwight Eisenhower a communist helper. One of the most radical of their writers said that President Kennedy was ordered killed by the Communists because “he was becoming American”.
Many Americans agree that the road to Communism lies down the path of liberalism to socialism thence on to communism. The truth of the matter is that no country has gone down the road to communism on this path. None! Not one! The general path has been one of revolution. One of the ways to weaken a country is to have everyone suspecting his neighbor of subversion. Then we become ripe for revolution. I would submit to you that groups who create fear, suspicion of liberals as subversive, and hate – are a greater danger to the future of our country than any other factor. We must guard against this with the same caution we would defend ourselves against the tyranny of Communism.
Right wing organizations are dedicated to destroying the influence of liberal Christianity. Thus, we hear attacks on the National Council of Churches, attacks on men who have promoted the social gospel of the twentieth century. To quote from the “Blue Book“: “The true fundamentalists in our midst, whether Catholics, Protestants or Jews, are the moral salt of the earth…” (Page 58, “The Blue Book“) “…fully one-third of the services in at least the Protestant churches of America are helping that trend. For the ministers themselves are not true believers in the Divine Names or the Divine History and Divine Teachings to which they give lip service, as they go through their conventional motions on Sunday mornings…Some have converted Christianity into a so-called ‘social gospel’, that bypasses all questions of dogma with an indifference which is comfortable to both themselves and their parishioners; and which ‘social gospel’ becomes in fact indistinguishable from advocacy of the welfare state by socialist politicians.” (Page 59, “The Blue Book“)
Robert Welch goes on to say that he does not want to see “Christianity denied, discarded, or even further weakened, in the slightest.” (Page 63, “The Blue Book“) I would submit that attempts to destroy the influence of liberal Christianity would have exactly that affect. But this clearly is a matter of opinion. Liberal Christians have said again and again that doing the Word is more important than saying the Word. If you love your neighbor – certain actions will follow. This is the kind of religion which ought to survive in both liberal and fundamentalist circles. Any effort to discredit whole groups of the Christian faith will only result in a church torn by suspicion and strife.
The record is clear on the point of division. There are many towns in the south 48 where right-wingers have gained control of churches, P.T.A.’s and political groups – only to create great divisions. Many of these problems are caused by personality conflicts, rather than real issues. In Iowa, a woman was not hired as a teacher, so she got elected to the school board and fired the principal – then attempted to control what was taught in the classroom by censorship and harassment.
The Communists follow the doctrine that the “ends justify the means”. They want to dominate the world, so revolution, murder, and deceit guide many of their known decisions.
The John Birch Society follows the doctrine that “the ends justify the means”. Suppose they want to ruin the reputation of some persons suspected of having liberal ideas or in Welch’s words “Whom at least some of us believe to be a Communist.” He suggests that this is the moral code to follow: “The question technique, when skillfully used in this way (he describes the way), is mean and dirty. But the Communists we are after are meaner and dirtier, and too slippery for you to get your fingers on them in the ordinary way…” (Page 96, “The Blue Book“)
America now follows the philosophy that the best way to achieve peace with the enemy is to have a strong defense. We do not suggest using this power except in defending ourselves. At the same time America is seeking to use its wealth and know-how to make a positive impact on many peoples in the world. We do not believe that the ends justify the means.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ states that we should bless our enemies, to good to those who misuse us and abide by an ethic of love, justice and mercy. Why? Because Jesus Christ knew that the best defense was a good offense. This is part of the motivation of America in the Peace Corps, an institution which the John Birch Society would like to destroy. It may be too late, but America can only survive if we present a united front of legitimate honesty in all our dealings and goals.
“The oddest feature of all, however, about the “Blue Book” and “The Politician” (another book written by Welch) is one that escapes the reader at first because it seems so improbable. this is the fact that these books, in spite of all pretensions to the contrary, are not really about Communism. One could, so to speak, read them till doomsday without gaining any specific, accurate knowledge about the ideology or its revision through the years; about the structure of the Soviet system; about the international apparatus; about the factors involved in the power-struggle after Stalin’s death; about relationships within the orbit; or even about the specifics of the current party line in this country.” (Page 76, Overstreet)
Welch’s task seems to be “exposing as Communists or pro-Communists those whose influence he wants to liquidate.” Rather than depend on accurate scholarship, he uses his “fairly sensitive and accurate nose.” Often he uses unnamed experts to support what he “knows” to be true already. (Page 76, Overstreet)
We might think for a minute how the conservative differs from the extremists talked about here. A conservative may be against federal aid to education; “but he will not brush off the problems…He will put his mind on how these can be effectively handled at the state and local level.” (Page 123, Overstreet) “The genuine American conservative, in short, like the genuine American liberal, puts his mind on problems. In both the material and the social areas, our country has, from the beginning, been a problem-focusing and problem solving country. The Birch Society is content to deal in stereotypes, oppose a …’conspiracy’, and let problems take care of themselves.” (Page 123, Overstreet)
William C. Sullivan, head of the F.B.I.’s Division of Domestic Intelligence, made a speech to a student audience in Salt Lake City, on August 15, 1963. In this speech he said, “It is not enough to be against Communism. What we must be for is freedom under law” – a concept which he amplified to cover “freedom of expression, of inquiry, of dissent, of experimentation and education.” He also suggested that one way to combat Communism is to make a constructive approach to the problems of ignorance, poverty, materialism, social injustice, and political corruption. He added that extremism, because it too often equates honest dissent with Communism, “tends to weaken, divide, and confuse us.” (Page 48, Overstreet)
One organ of the John Birch Society, “American Opinion“, had this to say about Mr. Sullivan in its issue of November, 1963: “Mr. Sullivan wanted to ‘remove’ such causes of Communism as ignorance, injustice, and poverty. But, asked “American Opinion“, how about just removing the Communist?” (Page 48, Overstreet) This is a fine goal for extremists, it ought not to be the goal of Christians who say they believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ. As I said in a recent sermon, “Once a group has removed or killed those they dislike, we still have to exist with the attitude of the removers or the killers”. We can always ask the question, who will be next? First the Jews, then the Negroes, then the Methodist! etc…
Many of you are familiar with the 1963 report of the California Senate Fact-Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities which found the Society to be neither “secret, subversive nor anti-Semitic”. The Society has not given as wide a circulation in quoting a report by the same committee in 1965. “We are more critical of the Society now than we were then for the reason that in has, in our opinion, merited such criticism by reason of its activities exemplified by the irresponsible articles by a members of its National Council, the re-publication of “The Politician,” the inexcusable actions of its minority of irresponsible members, and a dangerous increase of anti-Semitism among a minority of the membership”. (Page 6, Epstein and Forster)
The John Birch Society and other extremist groups have quite a record of attacking legitimate efforts to educate persons about the true dangers of Communism. This is partly true because they claim to possess absolute political truth. The Methodist Church has been a target of these attacks. The most slanted book I have read in this regard is John Stromer’s “None Dare Call it Treason“, in which he misquotes badly the “Adult Student” of our own adult curriculum. A recent article in the “Bible Lessons for Adults” will not help much: it is entitled “A Fact of Life: Right Wing Extremists Help Communism” by Arthur Larson. (Sept-Nov, 1966) (Note: While at Kenai, Alaska, I preached a sermon on Stromer’s book entitled “None Dare Call It Reason”. A warm up for this sermon?)
I would recommend that interested persons study this issue in the same way I have done. The only caution I would erect is to read carefully – both John Birch literature and anti-John Birch literature and some material you are convinced is objective in its approach.
This policy of reading carefully would seem recommend by Robert Welch’s record of proving what he wants to prove – by means of appeals to unnamed authorities, quotes for which no source is given, insinuations, and charges unsupported by evidence. It is fine to read carefully any book on this subject, but those who do should erect in their own minds a warning sign: “DANGER: SLIPPERY WRITING AHEAD.” (Page 65, Overstreet)
(Footnote: sadly, I closed the sermon with some extemporaneous comments. My John Birch Society friends had turned off their tape recorders. It is just as well. One should stick to the script in such situations. I reflected on whether or not a member of the John Birch Society could be a Christian. Obviously, I should not stand in judgment over that question. They certainly could be church members, but I had some serious questions about their value system, especially in their ethics, as well as their beliefs. We will leave final judgment in wiser hands. Most of the people who heard this sermon have gone to their final reward.)