Young McGovern: Christians, and maybe even Republicans, benefit from fear of the devil

George McGovern during his college professor days at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. (Image courtesy of DWU Archives)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column, published Aug. 21, 1952, was part of a series written that year by 30-year-old Dakota Wesleyan University college professor George McGovern for The Daily Republic.


In last week’s article I set forth a personal analysis of the contemporary political situation. The article contended that the major portion of the Democratic Party was still riding a historic trend that may well mean victory this fall. I have been somewhat concerned about the reception of that opinion by a few readers. Their reaction raises an issue that is important to us all.

Those persons have expressed amazement that a college professor would dare to publicly advocate a political opinion, especially one that was in disagreement with the prevailing view of many influential people of this area. They have insisted that to do so was to jeopardize both the fine college that employs me and my own professional career. They have further urged that all such public expression should cease and that the proposed series of articles be abandoned.

This reaction is, indeed, an unhealthy one and is certainly not within the spirit of American democracy. The basic tenet of our national faith is that every citizen shall be perfectly free to act and speak according to the dictates of his own conscience. That is the birthright of all Americans, including college professors.

It is not only the right of Americans to express their political views without fear of intimidation, but it is their duty. It seems to me that teachers who have been educated largely at the expense of the people have a special obligation to speak out on the great social and political issues of the day. Some of us will be Democrats, most of us in South Dakota schools and colleges will be Republicans, and others may belong to minor political persuasions. But all of us, if democracy is to flourish to the greatest degree, must be active in the political affairs of the nation.

I am confident that the freedom of discussion and opinion which is the real strength of both our political and educational life need not be surrendered to those pressures which are ever eager to stifle independent thought and criticism. It will certainly be a dark day for democracy if teachers, ministers, journalists and others yield any more ground to the current drive to crush the spirit of the Bill of Rights.

The tendency of many educated people to shy away from politics and political discussion is a really significant threat to our national strength. Many fine persons seem to have the idea that politics is now a forbidden subject or a dirty game not suited for nice people. The logical result of that kind of thinking is to turn our national affairs over to racketeers, opportunists and mediocrities while the rest of us sit idly by like the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. When we merely ridicule the lost state of American politics or by our silence indicate that we are cynical and indifferent toward the political process, we are really passing judgment on ourselves. In a democracy the government is seldom better or worse than the whole body of the people, for in a sense we are the government.

When the individual voter shakes off his lethargy and comes to life, he can make a difference in the political tone of his community and nation. I am, of course, aware that for non-Republicans to do that in South Dakota is to convince some people that the devil himself is on the loose, but even Christians behave a little better when they have some fear of the devil, and the same thing might hold true with Republicans.

During World War II, Adlai Stevenson noted a public opinion poll indicating that most American parents did not want their sons to enter politics. Stevenson was impressed by the fact that millions of parents had contributed their sons to fight for a government in which they were unwilling to have those sons participate as civilians. He resolved never to take such a scornful attitude toward the business of the republic if he were given the opportunity for service. I believe that Gen. Eisenhower is motivated by much the same sense of responsibility to the nation. It is to be hoped that neither the general nor the Illinois governor will be forced to embrace too closely the machine politicians or the more shabby wings of their respective parties.

Both parties have a right to be enthusiastic about their nominees this year. Unlike men such as Truman and Taft, neither of the 1952 candidates is a typical politician. That is a rather rare occurrence and should inspire us all to participate freely in making this one of the most significant elections in the history of the nation.

Next week I am going to begin an analysis of the historic conditions that called the major parties into being and have since shaped their development. Such an attempt to understand the political past may aid us in our efforts to understand the current political scene.

There is no such creature as a completely objective writer, but I am going to be fair and reasonable in this brief survey of our political parties, knowing full well that both parties have blundered at times and both have made invaluable contributions to our national life.