WASHINGTON. — Washington -- One of the main reasons communism maintained its grip on so many for so long was, to use the phrase of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the willing suspension of disbelief afforded it by liberal clergy and denominational organizations throughout the world.
Few modernists were more evangelical in their zeal for things socialist and communist than Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the former chaplain at Yale University and later the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York.
Mr. Coffin believed in a liberation theology whose god was Marxist. Defending his relationship with the Hanoi government while American soldiers were dying at the hands of North Vietnamese troops, he declared that revolutionary movements were ''the essence of Christian faith'' and that ''communism is a page torn out of the Bible.'' He added that ''the social justice that's been achieved in . . . North Vietnam [is] an achievement no Christian society on that scale has ever achieved.''
Concerning the Marxist government of Nicaragua's then-president Daniel Ortega, Mr. Coffin told the New York Times that the Nicaraguan regime could not possibly be Marxist-Leninist because it included some Roman Catholic priests. Those priests had equated Marxism with Christianity, a symmetry common among apologists for atheistic communism.
Paul Hollander chronicles some of this apostasy in his book ''Political Pilgrims.'' A reporter for the Catholic Worker sensed ''an atmosphere of youth, vitality and hope throughout Nicaragua.'' Father Richard Preston of Lansing, Michigan, concluded that ''the reign of God has arrived in Nicaragua'' as well as ''the reign of truth, hope and justice.''
In 1981, the United Methodist Church said that Cuba still represented ''a vision of the future.''
None of this is new. The one thing religious apologists for Marxism-Leninism had going for them was their consistency.
In 1928, an English Quaker named D.F. Buxton wrote of the Soviet Union: ''In the emphasis they place on the spirit of service, the Communists have taken to heart some of the most important maxims of the New Testament . . . . Their society is more Christian than ours.''
An American Quaker, Henry Hodgkin, proposed in 1932: ''As we look at Russia's great experiment in brotherhood, it may seem to us that some dim perception of Jesus' way, all unbeknown, is inspiring it.''
The archbishop of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, was a Stalin apologist, believing that Stalin's Russia was ''singularly Christian and civilized.'' And about Mao's China, he told a group of Christian theologians, ''[it] has come to exert some particular impact on our understanding and experience of God's saving love.''
Those still living who said similar things should be hauled before ecclesiastical courts and the court of public opinion and offered the chance to recant. If they refuse they should be stripped of their credibility (if not their ecclesiastical robes) and sent into another line of work where their influence will be diluted.
There were many conservative religious leaders, denounced as ''fundamentalists,'' ''zealots'' and ''civil religionists,'' who steadfastly held to the view that communism was antithetical to God and everything the Bible teaches. In the Soviet Union and in other countries where communism held sway, many religious Jews, Christians and Muslims suffered in prison or were murdered for their faith. Why didn't liberal theologians in America speak out in their defense? Today, those American clergy who uncompromisingly took a stand against communism have been vindicated by the events of the past two years.
Religion can be a powerful force for good or for evil in people's lives. In their defense of communism in this century, so many liberal Christians have fraudulently robbed people of a kingdom not of this world and assisted communism in making the lives of those imprisoned in a wretched system a hell on earth.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.