U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Little Religious Orgs: The Schlaflys and The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation

Little magazines, especially those on the Left, have received some attention here at the blog and at our conference, but little organizations, especially religious ones, fade in and out of view. High-profile think tanks and groups like the John Birch Society have been addressed. But think tanks are a special case for intellectual historians by nature of their work, and have been discussed many times at the blog. And the John Birch Society doesn’t qualify as little, given the number members (60-100,000) and local chapters that existed by the early 1960s.

Since religious history is intellectual history—“without qualification,” in Eran Zelnik’s words (with which I agree)—then perhaps we should pay more attention to little religious organizations that mobilize to effect momentous outcomes, or that symbolize a nexus of key issues.

One such organization has come up in discussions of Phyllis Schlafly’s passing: The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation. And it just so happens that this one intersects with the activities of Birchers. The NYT obituary for Schlafly provided the following basics:

In 1958, [Phyllis Schlafly] and her husband started the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation — named for the Roman Catholic leader who was tortured and imprisoned by Hungarian Communists — to educate Catholics on the dangers of Communism. Beginning in 1962, she hosted a 15-minute radio show on national security called “America Wake Up.” It was carried by 25 Illinois stations.

Jozsef Mindszentry, 1974, courtesy of Wikipedia

Jozsef Mindszentry, 1974, courtesy of Wikipedia

The Schlaflys’ politics were concentrated on the external threat posed by Communism, not the crusade against domestic Communist infiltration led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. They opposed summit meetings and limits on nuclear testing and favored a constitutional amendment to prevent the president from negotiating international treaties.

Many members of the Mindszenty Foundation were also members of the ultraright John Birch Society, and its founder, Robert Welch, once called Mrs. Schlafly “one of our most loyal members.” The Schlaflys denied they were members.[1]

S-USIH friend, historian, and Past Present podcaster extraordinaire Neil J. Young also covered The Mindszenty Foundation in his reflection on Schlafly’s passing, which appeared yesterday in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Focusing on Schlafly’s savvy regarding interfaith politics, Young wrote:

Schlafly’s sensitivity to the challenges inherent in building her religious conservative coalition grew out of not only her deep understanding of the divisive history of America’s different religious faiths, but also the anti-Catholic responses she had endured in some of her early political organizing. In the 1950s, for example, Schlafly and her husband had wanted to draw their fellow Catholics into the anticommunist movement. The Schlaflys contacted Dr. Fred Schwarz, founder of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, proposing they create a Protestant-Catholic anticommunist organization, but they were quickly rebuffed. An evangelical Christian from a Jewish background, Schwarz saw no possibility of an interfaith political effort and knew, as he explained to the Schlaflys, that the conservative evangelicals who made up his organization would not welcome Catholic members.

Turned back by Schwarz, the Schlaflys had launched an exclusively Catholic anticommunist organization, the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, in 1958, but Schlafly retained her belief that religious conservatives might come together for a political cause. Still, the experience with Schwarz and a lingering, if diminished, anti-Catholicism shaped Schlafly’s strategies in building STOP ERA as an ecumenical organization.

In Young’s narrative, the formation of the very Catholic Mindszenty Foundation is somewhat anomalous in relation to Schlafly’s later ecumenical work in the STOP ERA group (formed in 1972) and with the Eagle Forum.

So what do we make of The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation? Is it an experiment, or a necessary precursor to larger things, in Schlafly’s life? Is it a highly limited or specific phenomenon grounded in its founding and 1950s-1960s context? Or is there something bigger there? My hunch is the latter.

The feeling that something more consequential is in play with The Mindszenty Foundation comes, in part, from the fact that it is still in existence. Headquartered in Saint Louis, the organization’s “About Us” page does not claim Phyllis or Fred Schlafly as founders, though Eleanor Schlafly (Fred’s younger sister, below right) is listed as its president. Here are the relevant passages from that page:

The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation is a worldwide, non-profit educational organization which offers reliable information on the nature, propaganda and goals of atheistic Communism.

Eleanor Schlafly, undated, from CMF website

Eleanor Schlafly, undated, from CMF website

Founded in 1958 by Rev. C. Stephen Dunker, C.M., a missionary expelled from China by the Communists, the Foundation provides reliable information on the secular attacks on faith and family values; upholds the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church, and exposes persecutions and abuses of human rights around the globe.

The Foundation’s name honors the late Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary, a saintly hero, who refused to compromise with the evils of Communism and endured 23 years of imprisonment and isolation.

Pope Pius XI’s famous encyclical “Divini Redemptoris” remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church on Communism and it remains the Foundation’s valuable guide for education, action and prayer.

While all “about us” page information should be viewed skeptically, I think this one contains some keywords, ideas, and topics that might explain the persistence of The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation: atheism, China, internationalism, dissent, education, family values, human rights, and last but not least, “authentic teaching” (read: Catholic traditionalism). On that last point, one of the only links on the CMF site sends the reader to a Saint Louis parish that offers a weekly “traditional Latin Mass.” But the crucial point for me, as it was when I thought about JBS, is the self-conception as an educational organization.

What of the numbers? How big is the CMF? What were its numbers in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, etc.? One of the few peer-reviewed professional articles on the CMF, written by David L. O’Connor and published in American Communist History, reports nothing on membership numbers. He did find a CMF claim that that its June 1977 newsletter on communist influences in the Catholic Church sold over 24,000 copies. Otherwise O’Connor documented few to no sales numbers of CMF publications.[2]

While the general lack of hard numbers on membership and distribution of materials might dissuade some from exploring CMF, I think of little religious orgs, such as CMF, in the same way that I think of little magazines: their educational and political symbolism are not proportional to their small sizes. For instance, despite the lack of numbers, the Catholic hierarchy paid attention to CMF. The hierarchy, O’Connor claims, had a “contentious relationship” with the org. Indeed, most of O’Connor’s article (13 of its 30 pages) is dedicated narrating and explaining fights between CMF members and the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC). [3]

Per that poor relationship, the CMF provided a Cold War space for marginalized conservative Catholics to think and critique. To paraphrase Irving Howe, as quoted by Dissent’s David Marcus in his 2015 S-USIH conference presentation on little magazines, I think that CMF saw their effort in similar terms: “To be a [traditionalist anti-communist Catholic] in America means to exist precariously on the margin of our politics, as a critic . . . struggling constantly for a bit of space.” In the case of CMF, that space for critique was directed at both the Church itself and the American political context that helped in its creation. For much of the 1970s, as O’Connor relayed, Eleanor Schlafly and the CMF “rejected the conciliatory approach of the Vatican and the NCWC [to communism], and maintained its uncompromising anti-communist ideology. …[The CMF] vigorously assailed many of the Church’s social teachings and all attempts by the United States to improve relations with the Soviet Union”—and China too. [4]

I think that seemingly obscure and numerically inconsequential religious organizations, such as the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, might hold rich materials for historians of thought as they seek to fill out the educational and intellectual landscape of American history. Indeed, a bit more attention to those small orgs might have prevented a notable error from circulating in Phyllis Schlafly’s obituaries, and even more thoughtful reflections on her life and activities. – TL


[1] This October 2005 New Republic review, authored by Alan Wolfe, of Donald Critchlow’s biography of Schlafly, confirms the Bircher-Mindszenty connection—that members of JBS were welcomed into the Foundation.

[2] David L. O’Connor, “The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation: American Catholic Anti-Communism and Its Limits,” American Communist History 5, no. 1 (June 1, 2006): 37–66. Page 41 on the 1977 newsletter claim. O’Connor confirms that CMF was founded by Eleanor Schlafly and Rev. Steven Dunker (p. 38).

[3] Ibid., 38, 44-57.

[4] Ibid., 59. O’Connor gets to China in the 1970s on pages 60-61.