“Marshall on Democracy,” by James C. Baker
April 28, 1947

On arrival in Moscow, Secretary of State Marshall told the Council of Foreign Ministers: “To us a society is not democratic if men are not free to express their beliefs and convictions without fear that they may be snatched away from their homes,” and without fear “of being denied the right to work or deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is good doctrine and we must remember that within our own land men have been made to suffer in mind and body because of their free expression of beliefs and convictions.

Article 17 of the Social Creed of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America reads: “The churches should stand for the recognition and maintenance of the rights and responsibilities of free speech, free assembly, and a free press, the encouragement of free communication of mind with mind as essential to the discovery of truth.” That is of the very heart of our American heritage. Jefferson, Webster, Lincoln gave memorable expression to these ideals as “the rights preservative of all rights.” They are moreover written into the Constitution of the United States. No one can possibly overestimate the value of these civil liberties, nor the importance of maintaining them. When they are in jeopardy the human spirit is in jeopardy.

Following the First World War there was a campaign for the intimidation of free social thinking. We said it was a hangover of the war psychology of fear and suspicion. In many communities there was a mental reign of terror. The minds of the timid were shriveled with panic and even able men whose sympathies were with liberty kept silent.

This mood far from disappearing has continued to the present time and has been renewed in appalling fashion by the unspeakable Dies and Rankin Committees and their parallels in many State Legislatures. Now the so-called Truman doctrine is in danger of whipping up many forms of psychological terrorism—which may even move over into physical terrorism. This constitutes a sharp danger to democracy against which we must vigilantly guard in times like these.

We would be foolish indeed if we forget the witch hunt of the early twenties and in the time of the depression of the thirties. In the heat of that bitter time a thoughtful Los Angeles pastor wrote an editorial in his church paper on “The Libel of Labels,” saying in part: “A very great injustice can sometimes be done honest and sincere people by labeling them. Such words as ‘red,’ ‘radical,’ ‘modernist,’ ‘communist,’ ‘pacifist,’ etc., are commonly used to fight with rather than to think with… In a day like ours it is extremely dangerous to be careless of labels.”

“The Libel of Labels” is a favorite method of attack, as we have seen in the case of Mr. Lilienthal. Often the attack descends to criminal vilification. It spares neither individuals nor institutions.

The uncritical mind is often befuddled by such methods and even well meaning people are carried away and hunt with the mob in persecution. It should be remembered that a super-patriotic organization opposed the entrance into this country of the great scientist Einstein. “He is a communist,” these women said. When asked why they thought him a communist, they replied that he was opposed to war and to “imperialism.” At about the same time a widely read California daily newspaper accused certain Methodist preachers of communism. Why? Because these ministers had said, “We must rethink our racial attitudes.”

While it is disturbing to have the older generation confused and intimidated, it is nothing short of tragic and alarming when pressure invades the ranks of youth. Not long ago a well known university president complained that “the majority of our sons and daughters coming out of our schools are regrettably incurious about the fundamental policies that underlie the civilization whose insecurity today threatens their future.” Why shouldn’t they be incurious when schools seek to regiment their thinking? It has not only been in Japan that school authorities were disturbed at the appearance of “dangerous thoughts” among students. Many American colleges and universities have been alarmed beyond measure at any discussion of live economic or political issues within the campus precincts, because they fear the criticism of the ever alert and zealous defenders of the status quo.

The lethargy and indifference of good citizens is hard to understand. Can it be true that the “noble democracy of liberty” is a waning passion among us? Are we blindly on our way to some form of fascism? Socially minded citizens may well recall the warning of John Stuart Mill: “The future of mankind will be greatly impaired if great questions are left to be fought out by ignorant change and ignorant opposition to change.” Full, open-minded and fair discussion is of primary importance in our democracy.

In Lord Bryce’s “Modern Democracies” there is an attractive picture of the Athenian Assembly, after which the voters walked away in groups talking over speeches. “They had been made to feel that there were two sides to every question and they argued these with one another. Socrates, or some eager youth who had been listening to Protagoras or Georgias, overtook them on the way, and started fresh points of discussion. This was political education.” (Italics mine.)

Now what is here symbolized has been the most fundamental idea in our American democracy. Ours is a government by discussion. Our political and civil liberty depended and still depends for its integrity on vitality of conviction among its citizens. But this can only be achieved by a fair and full opportunity for considering all sides of the question each generation has to meet. New ideas and the cleansing and healing influence of criticism thus have a chance. It is the method of an intelligent people.

Free trade in ideas is the only way to political and economic prosperity and health.

“Repression is the seed of revolution,” said Woodrow Wilson. For this reason real revolutionaries always welcome every form of repression. They deliberately seek to provoke it for they know full well that their cause is advanced thereby. As John Dewey has remarked “the cheap and easy road” to avoid social disturbance is to allow freedom of speech. It is a safety-valve—“a cheap safety-valve.” “Shooting off the mouth is an easy way in which to dissipate force.” Dewey goes on to say that the reactionary cannot see this and can therefore be trusted always to give assistance to the radical by using methods of repression. The men most dangerous to democracy today are those who resort in terrorism in any form to prevent the curative power of the free discussion of our social ills and difficulties.

James Chamberlain Baker (1879 – 1969) was a bishop of the of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church.