Religious McCarthyism

On February 9, 1950, a United States senator from Wisconsin delivered a routine speech that ultimately attracted the attention of the nation and the world. On that date, senator Joseph McCarthy launched his infamous tirade against the U.S. government, alleging Communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department.

McCarthy single-handedly succeeded in arousing the American population to an unprecedented state of panic and alarm. For two years, he sustained an enormous following of supporters by exploiting the legitimate mood of apprehension that had permeated the nation. This vulnerability to fear—which caused many Americans to believe McCarthy’s charges—was due to a number of circumstances: the genuine threat of Soviet atomic power; the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and Communist takeover of mainland China; the arrest and conviction of several Americans as Soviet spies; and the onset of the Korean War.

McCarthy exploited these fears, and in the process focused attention on himself. By accusing his opponents and critics of Communist sympathies, he gradually bullied them into silence. When questions were raised relative to the substance of his charges, McCarthy would respond, not with evidence, but with even stronger accusations—accusations that overwhelmed his opponents and kept his name in the headlines.

In 1951, on the Senate floor, he announced “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” When it came down to actually verifying his viewpoint, the allegations were without substance. He was a master at marshalling a shrewd blend of innuendo, half-truth, distortion, and theory that he then promoted with a brash, reckless, even unscrupulous manner that created an atmosphere of intimidation and “forced comformity.” An apparent opportunist with an enormous ego, McCarthy was not dissuaded by either persuasion or confrontation. His brashness, bullying tactics, and lack of meaningful evidence to support his charges, nevertheless, came across convincingly.

More than fifty years have passed since the McCarthy era. Looking back on it all, at least two observations are apparent: First, his charges were essentially without substance. Make no mistake: the problems he addressed were real enough—the threat of Communism was a fact. But the issues were so exaggerated, contorted, and misrepresented by the McCarthy approach to resolving the problem that, for all practical purposes, he succeeded only in compounding and aggravating the situation. In the process, an entire nation went through anguished soul-searching, bitter suspicion, and animosity. Second, there is absolutely no justification for publicly accusing people of disloyalty without sufficient evidence. McCarthy did not succeed in identifying any Communists employed by the government. Even if he had identified five, ten, or fifty, his soiling of the reputations of the innocent was inexcusable. Such reckless disregard for other people is both callous and despicable.

How does God view these two matters? In Deuteronomy 19:15-20, God underscored the fact that a single witness was insufficient to convict a person of sin. Two or three were necessary to confirm the factuality of a matter. By “witnesses,” God meant independent witnesses—not one who then relates his observations to two or three others who, in turn, take his word for it and become official members of a group of putative “witnesses.” Rather, each of the witnesses must be independent, firsthand observers. God wanted thorough investigation—not hearsay—before any action was to be taken against a person. If an accusing brother’s charges were found to be false, the false witness was to receive the punishment that he hoped to inflict on his brother.

If every person who accused another person had to verify and substantiate his claims or suffer severe consequences, far less gossip and innuendo would be generated and perpetuated. If a person had to prove a clear-cut, solid charge against a brother, or else be punished himself, he likely would keep his suspicions to himself until he could prove his point conclusively. That is precisely what God desires!

Yet someone retorts: “But if you wait to remove all doubt, it may be too late to prevent damage!” This mindset is not only an indefensible perspective, but also betrays an attitude of presumptuousness in questioning the wisdom of God’s own directives. Indeed, the human tendency is to spread one’s premature assessment of a situation and, when pressed to be more specific and to verify the assessment, to magnify, amplify, embellish, and “beef up” the charges so that they will sound more credible than they actually are.

In Deuteronomy 13:12-14, God made provision for the eradication of “liberalism” among the Israelites. But He enjoined a threefold prerequisite to such purging: “investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly” (NASB). How easy it is to pride oneself in the ability to sniff out supposed “error” and to color one’s perceptions to see what one is predisposed to see, and then to compound this sin of the heart by going public with one’s half-baked conjurings. What motivates a person who seems to want to find error? If he fails to “investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly,” the evidence suggests his motives are, at best, questionable, and at worst, impure.

In Joshua 22, the Israelites heard that the two-and-a-half trans-Jordanic tribal groups were apostatizing—going “liberal” (i.e., loosing where God had bound). The whole nation was so upset that they prepared to go to war. One cannot question their zeal for faithfulness to God. But, according to the Bible, enthusiasm for adherence to doctrinal purity must be tempered with a love for truth, justice, and fellowman—lest one’s zest for conformity cause one also to disobey. Fortunately, some within the western tribes had enough sense, discretion, and wisdom not to “jump the gun,” but first to send a delegation headed by Phinehas to investigate and ascertain the facts.

Some members of the church seem to have been born into the kingdom in an “attack mode.” Their propensity for running roughshod over others, under the pious guise of loyalty to Truth, is painfully evident in the host of congregations that have been rent asunder without genuine justification. They seem disinterested in acquiring all the facts or making certain they have not embraced a slanted, inaccurate perspective. Rather, they seem more interested in simply “striking while the iron is hot.” They are actually situation ethicists who believe “the end justifies the means,” as long as the “end” is purported to be doctrinal purity. They seem to think that as long as they are upholding Bible doctrines, they can be as brutal, unscrupulous, and careless as they choose. Do they believe their obvious lack of love for their neighbor is hidden from view? Are they honestly convinced that such behavior is excusable on the basis of their self-righteous love for straining gnats (Matthew 23:24)?

How ironic that those who think they are dedicated to righteousness and doctrinal purity are, in fact, conducting themselves in an unChristlike manner. Jesus wants every fact confirmed (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). Christians are not even to consider a charge made against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). These passages are attempting to head off the very thing that occurs so frequently among Christians. The passages are not intended to shield the guilty. But they do demonstrate that it is extremely important to God that fellow Christians not be prematurely accused or condemned.

God wants every individual Christian to possess a genuine love for fellowman (Romans 12:9-21). If we had that kind of devotion for each other, we still would oppose error, still covet doctrinal purity, and still ardently defend the faith. But we would engage in all of these actions with a kind and gentle spirit, giving each other every benefit of the doubt, approaching each other out of an attitude of humility and lowliness, harboring no animosity or envy in our hearts. We would patiently hope, think, and believe the best about one another (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Such a mental posture would put an end to the “shoot first, ask questions later” temperament with which some seem to be obsessed. It would replace the panic and hysteria being generated in our perilous times with a sensible, rational, mature appraisal of each individual—in or out of the church—on his own merits. We would couple that appraisal with genuine attempts to assist him in coming to a correct understanding of God’s will—before we go public.

While Jesus was on Earth, His strongest denunciations and severest criticisms were leveled against those who were guilty of this accusing mentality. If anyone in the church today deserves to receive similar condemnation, it is those who manifest this attitude. On the other hand, it is easy to allow one’s heart to be infected with feelings of resentment, animosity, and contempt for such individuals. Satan is constantly on the alert to lure a person into a heart condition that places his soul in jeopardy. Therefore, each one must rise above and transcend the personalities, the pettiness, and the inflamed emotions that only serve to sidetrack one from the single-sighted commitment to God’s will for people. Neither emotional attachment nor detachment must be allowed to derail one from the course of clear thinking that God expects in light of His written revelation.

Joseph McCarthy’s erratic and truculent behavior eventually discredited him in the public eye and, in December, 1954, the Senate formally censured him for his unconscionable conduct. He lost interest in public affairs at this point, neglecting his Senate duties, and drinking heavily. His health suffered accordingly. He died on May 2, 1957, at the age of only forty-eight.

Are there “liberals” in the church? Absolutely. One need not rely on hearsay or what someone thought they overheard. Books, tapes, and articles that promote doctrinal laxity within our ranks are abundant. We must not allow the over-reaction of some to cause us to under-react to a very real problem. However, we must learn from God’s Book and from history. We must be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). We must be certain that our own consciences are clear, unmotivated by pride, popularity, or pettiness (James 3:13-18; 4:1-12). We must not allow ourselves to be swept into the whirlpool of hysteria and thereby neutralize our ability to wage war with Satan intelligently and effectively. We must not be guilty of prematurely accusing our brothers, or lacking substance in verifying our viewpoint. The cause of Christ is not helped by such erratic, reckless displays of zeal. In fact, such tactics aid Satan’s assault on the church. They “cloud the water” and obscure the true issues, making Satan’s ploys more difficult to identify and address.

In order to prepare ourselves for the conflicts that face the church in our generation, we need a healthy dose of Peter’s inspired instruction: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).


Allswang, John M. (1987), “Joseph R. McCarthy,” Great Lives from History, ed. Frank N. Magill (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press), 3:1432-1436.

McLellen, David (1987), “McCarthy, Joseph Raymond,” Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, CT: Grolier Inc.), 18:557.

Bartlett, Charles (1989), “McCarthy, Joseph Raymond,” The World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: World Book, Inc.), 13:331.

Griffith, Robert (1987), The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press).

Oshinsky, David M. (1983), A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: Free Press).

Rovere, Richard H. (1996 reprint), Senator Joe McCarthy (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press).

Thomas, Lately (1973), When Even Angels Wept (New York: William Morrow).


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