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On August 12, 1994, Russian workers were digging the foundation for a new bear cage at the Moscow Zoo when they made an unexpected discovery: a mass grave of skeletons and skulls, some marked with a single bullet hole, the calling card of Stalin’s executioners. The cache was one of dozens found in recent years all over the former USSR.

At about the same time, the Washington Post carried an article by Daniel Southerland entitled “The Staggering Human Cost of Mao’s Vision.” Southerland estimates that the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and various man-made calamities such as famine claimed a total of eighty million lives, roughly the population of Mexico. Like Stalin, Mao knew that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths a statistic.

In the summer ‘94 issue of Dissent , Marxist historian Eugene Genovese acknowledged that Marxism-Leninism “broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three- quarters of a century,” and charged that the left knew it from the beginning but remained silent and was therefore guilty of abetting mass murder. Until the left owns up to its mistakes, Genovese argued, it will lack credibility in addressing current social ills.

One province of the left stands in particular need of repentance: the religious left. When the Chinese regime was at the nadir of its brutality, the religious left was hailing it as a bastion of social progress, if not the very kingdom of God on earth.

”While Liberation turned the whole society towards socialism, the Cultural Revolution deepened and continued that process. Mutant social growths were identified and unceremoniously uprooted. And, the Chinese conclude, there will be more cultural revolutions in the future as their society moves along a socialist direction.” A quote from a Party publication or a line from one of the regime’s tour guides? Actually it comes from China: People-Questions , published by the National Council of Churches (NCC) in 1975, while the Great Helmsman was still in power. The book was widely used among member communions during the 1970s and 1980s. The editor was Michael Chinoy, currently the China correspondent of the Cable News Network.

”China’s Communist revolution has propelled a backward, poverty- stricken, virtually medieval society into the modern world,” wrote Mr. Chinoy in his introduction, adding that starvation had been eliminated and that “serving the people is the dominant social value.”

Moreover, Chinoy added, “A violent revolution and bitter civil war were necessary to sweep away the decay, exploitation, and backwardness of old China.” Further, “With the Communist victory, the revolutionary process did not stop. Indeed, it was accelerated.” But, the editor conceded, problems remained. “The recent Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the present campaign against Confucius indicate that traditional values and attitudes still exist in China, even as the Chinese attempt to eliminate them.”

The Reverend Donald MacInnis, former director of the NCC’s China program, wrote the chapter on religion. He denied that communism had become the nation’s official creed, but a photo of the Great Leader is captioned, “Chairman Mao-his photo and his sayings-replace Confucius in this home altar setting.” In short, he writes, “Most Chinese today appear to believe that the new China can move forward very well without religion and that the new values, stressing ‘serve the people,’ are adequate substitutes for religious disciplines.” One gets the feeling that the Reverend MacInnis believed it, too.

The bit about “mutant social growths” being “unceremoniously uprooted” comes from Stuart Dowty, an American automobile worker who had visited China in 1972. “Layoffs and unemployment were no problem,” Dowty writes, “because China’s planned economy could handle such changes rationally.” He refers to Mao’s writings, cites various Happy Workers, and concludes: “There is no doubt that socialist motivations, as opposed to individualist perspectives, have produced an impressive record of social and economic growth during the past two decades.”

Rhea Whitehead, formerly a member of the NCC’s China research staff, opines that “the Chinese believe that the study and application of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought’ will provide the basis for change.” And so it did, as the death of eighty million attests.

Most of the mass atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist regime were already known when the NCC published its worshipful tract. But the Council has never issued an apology and the religious left in general has never been called to account for its spiritual lend-lease to totalitarian regimes.

But, the reader may protest, 1975 was a long time ago, and a lot of people were saying stupid things then. Yes, but the blindness to the evils of communism on the religious left was persistent, systematic, and unaltered by massive available evidence about the horrors being perpetrated. Does anyone suggest that we impose a moratorium on criticizing those who persisted in praising Hitler?

A little history seems pertinent in view of the fact that the church bureaucracies of the NCC’s member communions are again becoming politically active in the form of the Interfaith Alliance, formed to counteract what they perceive as the extremism of the “religious right.” Before anyone takes them seriously on the subject of political moderation, they might ask about those happy workers and mutant social growths in China.

K. L. Billingsley is a media fellow of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and the author of From Mainline to Sideline , published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.