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FreeThought in the 20th Century

This is the 3rd in a series of posts exploring the Past, Present and Future of FreeThought. In this installment I would like to discuss how poorly FreeThought faired in the early parts of the 20th century but I promise to end on a high note. The primary focus will be from the turn of the century to the about the 70’s.

Comstock Laws, Contraception and Catholics

To understand the problems that eventually overwhelmed FreeThought in the first half of the 20th century we must first start with the enacting of the Comstock Laws of 1870’s. These laws essentially allowed the federal government the right to inspect and seize anything moving through the U.S. Postal service deemed “obscene” as determined by the local postmaster. Those things that were deemed obscene were anything from “diatribes against marriage to advertisements for veneral disease remedies”. Ingersoll himself spoke against the government being in the business of censoring and ultimately defining what was obscene.

Until the early 20th century the Catholic church held very little sway and was still considered a suspicious minority religion. However despite their small numbers the Catholic church actively began to crusade against public (and therefore secular and godless) education and contraception. Margaret Sanger, the inventor of the term birth control and it’s biggest crusader was ultimately arrested in New York City at the prompting of the local Catholic clergy. While opposition of contraception didn’t seem to win the Catholics any Protestant fans their eventual embrace of some of the most virulent, anti-communism would finally assuage the mainstream Protestant fears.

Bolshevism and the Red Scare

As the dawn of the Great War approached many freethinkers were imprisoned for sedition (such as Eugene Debs, a socialist, vocal opponent of the America’s entry into the Great War and an Indiana State Representative). After the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution created a backlash against those that were perceived as godless and therefore un-American. Mainstream Protestantism began to link bolshevism and eventually communism with evolution much like the Catholic church linked communism and atheism. While true the Bolsheviks ostensibly embraced atheism it didn’t prevent them from replacing the State as the new religion. This of course didn’t stop the link from being made.

During the decades preceding the second World War, 2 Catholic personalities emerged on the national stage, Charles Coughlin and Fulton Sheen. Charles Coughlin was,

… dubbed “the father of hate radio” by a recent biographer, was destined to rise no higher in the church than the priesthood: his early populist message of Christian justice for the working man turned in the thirties into an anti-New Deal, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic – as well as anticommunist – platform. Coughlin’s diatribes were tolerated by Vatican officials and encouraged by his bishop for much of the thirties, but he was finally muzzled by an embarrassed hierarchy after Pearl Harbor.

Fulton Sheen on the other hand was an unblemished darling of the church hierarchy. His Catholic Hour radio show was broadcast by 106 radio stations throughout the 1940’s to eventually become a television star in the 1950’s with his show, Life is Worth Living, reach an estimated 5.5 million viewers. There is no doubt Sheen was virulently anticommunist as Coughlin even going so far as to advocate for spying on school teachers who might celebrate May Day (a socialist holiday, and one shared by labor unions). A close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, that bastion of free speech, Sheen would often get his personal friends appointed to what would ultimately become the FBI.

What does all of this mean for freethought in the first half of the 20th century? Nothing good. Freethinkers were more often labeled socialist (which many were) or communists. In general, an unpleasant period in freethought history.

Let the good times roll

I will end this section on a high note before I delve into my opinions on the Future of FreeThought. A number of important court cases would be decided in the mid-century. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Illinois (1948)  would all but prevent public funds (even indirectly) from being used for religious instruction. The McCollum case would directly challenge “released time” when students would be released during the school day to receive religious instruction from local religious groups. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which desegregated schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962) found that even non-denominational school prayer was unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade (1973) which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Within the political arena a Catholic would be elected president and give a speech clearly stating that, “I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me”. A clear difference that was lost on Mitt Romney. Of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would finally pass The Congress.

I won’t detail the activities of secularist involved in the struggle for civil rights, such as, Andrew Goodman Michael Schwerner and James Chaney (who were eventually killed by racist shitbags), Stanley Levison and W.E.B. Du Bois. And modern day feminism, such as, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. I will simply assume you know all about it 😉

More in this series:

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  1. […] FreeThought in the 20th Century […]

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