Democracy and the Church

ONE would suppose that the Christian church would find itself at home for the first time in the democratic state. The religion which liberated love from the narrow confines of family or personal friends ought to have welcomed with ardent joy the social theory which is merely a secular name for “love in widest commonalty spread.” Yet so subtly is a disguising veil woven by the forces of bewilderment that play through history, that when democracy appeared as a political force, the church did not welcome it at all. On the contrary, she turned reproachfully away from the vehement and disturbing newcomer, while extending hands of benediction over those graceful and dignified institutions, a, monarchy and an aristocracy. From that precursor of modern democracy, the struggle for political freedom in seventeenth-century England, the organized church stood apart, fervently loyal to the lost cause of the Stuarts. Again, during the revolutionary period in France, she allied herself so thoroughly with the conservative forces that in the minds of friends and foes alike she and the ancien régime were one, and the victory of the people meant the overthrow of faith. All through the heaving unrest of the last century in Europe, the same unnatural fellowship has prevailed. Until to-day, despite the Christian Socialist movements that have never been wholly lacking, the wanderer in Europe finds the church everywhere regarded as the bulwark of the privileged classes, and the forces of social revolt opposed to organized Christianity as a matter of course. So long and strong has been the alliance of the church with the aristocratic principle, that any approach on the part of her children to a radical position is greeted on all sides with distrust.

That the situation is paradoxical, who can deny? It is not, however, mysterious. Dante’s great cry,so nobly echoed by Milton, is the key to the paradox:

“ Ahi. Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre,
Nun la tua conversion, mu quella dote
Che da te prese il primo ricco patre ! ”
“Ah, Constantine, of how much ill was cause,
Not thy conversion, but those rich domains
That the first wealthy Pope received of thee ! ”

The periods of persecution over, the church, in the first glow of her triumph, believing that the world was won for Christ, accepted the protection of the state. It was a natural and noble delusion whereby she trusted that in a world redeemed the spiritual could govern the temporal, not realizing that such nominal control would be a mask under which the temporal would govern the spiritual. Yet ever since that time her relation to society has changed. So long indeed as she is in any sense true to her Master, she must to a certain degree remain the exponent of democratic principles; and during all the Middle Ages she offered, especially through the religious orders, a home to democratic practice. But the services which, half unconsciously, she rendered to democracy were neither consistent nor complete. Recognized, honored, all but enthroned by the world, she constantly assumed more or less of the world’s aspect; till, when her time of test arrived, she ranged herself, to the amazement even then of many among her children, on the side of authority and privilege, rather than on that of liberty and the poor.

No student of history can wholly regret the long connection of spiritual and temporal; one may almost say that it was necessary for the training of the infant nations. Even to this day a national church is undoubtedly in a special and valuable sense a true guardian of national morals. Nevertheless, it is difficult for any one born on American soil to believe in the management of religious affairs by the government. A church which exists on the patronage of the state has given too many hostages to fortune. Dependent, so far as her outward being is concerned, on the stability of things as they are, she will in times of stress have half unconsciously an invincible bias in favor of the established order. A church ought indeed, now and again, to exercise a noble restraint over the restless passions of men, — to stand for law when the neverceasing pendulum is swinging too far toward license, and the clock of the universe is running out of gear. But her true power, as champion of order no less than as champion of freedom, is forfeited the moment she is open to suspicion of interested motives. If the union between the church and the ancien régime was too strong to be shaken when democracy first appeared; if the movement toward freedom in modern Europe proceeds with little or no help from the restraining and deepening power of Christianity; if the names of Christ and of Humanity are the watchwords of opposing camps, — we may lament, but we cannot be surprised. This is the Nemesis of the church, this the price she has paid for her alliance, so tempting but so dangerous, with the Powers that Be.

Meanwhile, with us in the United States, the religious situation is less unnatural than in Europe. We have the free church in the free state, and that is much; moreover, no one or two forms of the manifold divisions of Christendom are given artificial advantage. American Christianity, furthermore, was founded in a tradition, which it has not forgotten, of liberty both spiritual and social; and however strongly the forces of irreligion are at work among us, it may well seem to the observer that we are still a more religious people than can easily be found among the leading Continental nations. For reasons also deeper than any of these, the church in our country should escape the dangers of the church in Europe. A long strain is over. The antagonism between her principles of equal fellowship among men and the principles of the aristocratic state whereon she depended need trouble her no longer. In the very theory in which our nation was founded she finds her most powerful ally. The complex interplay of forces shown us in history, wherein friends so often wounded friends in the dark, yields to a blessed simplicity, for the ideal of democracy and that of Christianity on its human side are one.

Under these favoring circumstances, how pure, how triumphant, of how universal an appeal, should be the church in America! Liberated from hampering temporal control, yet strengthened by the secular ideas that encompass her, she might assuredly approach more nearly than ever before to the apostolic conception. One beholds her in vision, a church not only rich in works of mercy, — this Christianity, even when most trammeled, has always been, — but in the fullest sense the exponent of a spiritual democracy, the champion of the oppressed and the outcast, the natural home of rich and poor meeting in one fellowship of love, and striving all together in earnest harmony toward that society wherein the Beatitudes shall be the rule of life, and the mind of Christ be revealed.

Turning now to the actual, what do we see ? Nothing to make us despair, much to make us hope; but much also to make us question and fear. The church in America — and for the present we mean by the church all forms of organized religion that acknowledge Christ as the Master of men — is on a far better footing than in Europe; but it were folly to pretend that she is as yet adequately conformed to a democratic type. Free from dependence on the state, she illustrates an almost more insidious form of subordination to the powers of this world. For a voluntary church almost inevitably enters into dependence upon the classes of privilege. It leans on them for its support, ministers with primary energy to their spiritual needs, — our millionaires, even when their business methods are open to criticism, are often sincerely pious, — puts up the larger number of its buildings in the quarters inhabited by them, provides the type of worship and preaching most grateful to them, and only as an afterthought establishes those numerous mission chapels, Sunday-schools for the poor, etc., whose very existence marks most clearly the tenacity of the aristocratic principle.

It is hard to see how all this could be avoided; and in one sense nobody is to blame for it. Yet so long as this state of things continues, the working people will instinctively regard the church as an appendage of the privileged classes. Religion, to their minds, will too often appear a luxury of the rich, who, not content with the goods of this world, seek to establish a lien on those of the world to come. As a matter of fact, the alienation of the working classes from organized Christianity is a truism discussed ad nauseam. Even the Roman Catholic communion — the most democratic among us, with the possible exception of the Methodists — has its hold mainly on the women ; the more intellectualized forms of Christianity, such as Unitarianism, are helpless to reach the poor except on lines of practical benevolence; and the Protestant bodies at large, though of course with many noble and striking exceptions, are struggling more or less ineffectively against odds which they do not understand.

It would be an exaggeration to say that all working people feel antagonistic toward the church. Their general attitude is rather that of indifference. The thinking poor are well enough aware that there is nothing unnatural in the situation, and that if the tables were so turned that worldly advantage shifted to their side, it would probably remain unchanged. At times their feeling, especially toward the clergy, is curiously sympathetic. “Say,” remarked a labor leader of vivid mind to the writer, “say, I ’m awfully sorry for ministers. Most of them are real good men. They know well enough what Christ meant, and they ’d like first rate to preach it, — if they dared. But, Lord, how can they? They’ve got to draw their salaries; they ’ve got families to support.” All this quite without a touch of irony.

Many a misapprehension is involved in those remarks, but how salutary for us to dwell on the picture they suggest, of our institutional Christianity as seen from the angle of the working classes! It is the fashion to ascribe the alienation of these classes from religion to the spread of infidelity, and doubtless the advance of scientific thought and the sapping of Biblical authority are responsible for much. But we should be quite mistaken to look here for the primary cause of popular irreligion. Simple folk are far less affected by the demonstration of dogma in the abstract — could dogma ever be so demonstrated — than by the revelation of a supernatural power in the life. Here indeed we have the only efficient proof that ever was or will be to the existence of supernatural power at all, — and to this proof people are as sensitive as they were a thousand years ago. Granted a man in whose actions Christian faith has borne its perfect fruit of holiness, and it is extraordinary to note how the phantoms of Doubt flee from his presence. Why not face the truth ? It is not the defects of an abstract creed that hold our laboring poor out of sympathy with the religious life of the nation; it is rather the absence of any evidence, accessible and satisfying to them, that Christianity is a vital force in the lives of its adherents; it is their failure to perceive any apparent difference in the methods of business, the standards of luxury, the social practice, of those within and without the churches.

Of course there is nothing new in this contrast of the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount taken at face value with the Christianity of the church. Wherever we tap history we find it. The only disappointing fact is that it should continue to be as strongly marked in the church developed under the fostering care of a democratic civilization as it was in the church of old, forced to hold her own more or less valiantly against an opposing theory in society and the state. One is tempted to say, indeed, that never was the contrast so striking, never the distinction between the church and the world so nearly invisible as to-day. “The torpor of assurance,” which Browning so deprecated, no longer presses on Christian belief; but it rests with heavier weight than ever before upon average Christian conduct. “We are suffering,” writes that honest and searching thinker, Bishop Gore, “from a diffusion of Christianity at the cost of its intensity. ” Probably a faith in the brotherhood of man, living enough to effect a radical alteration in the standards and mode of life, found more obvious and widespread expression under distinctively Christian auspices in the thirteenth century than it does, so far, in the twentieth.

What will convince the working people that Christianity is a vital force in the world, making for brotherhood ? Not the faithful lives of the many believers whose characters are apostolic in unworldly beauty; owing to the alienation of classes, these lives with few exceptions are lived out of the range of vision of the poor. Not the multiplication of works of mercy; owing to mistakes in the past, these works may be, and, alas, often are, misconstrued, as sops to Cerberus, — opiates thrown with interested motives to lull into inglorious stupor a righteous discontent. We must look elsewhere for the means of making unmistakably evident to our disinherited and to our social sufferers the spiritual devotion and unworldliness, the earnest faith, that beyond a shadow of doubt exist among us. This manifestation we shall not find short of the true socializing of the church; the revelation on her part and the part of her children of that spiritual democracy toward which, in the midst of growing materialism and greed, our people stretch their yearning hands of prayer.

It is a pure intellectual process, free from sentimentality, that has led us to this conclusion. In one way, and only in one, will the working people at large be convinced that our Christianity is genuine, — by the practice, on the part of rich and prosperous folk who claim to live under the Holy Name, of a simplicity of life evidently greater than that of their compeers, and of a social fellowship visibly independent of class divisions. The one practice implies the other. We of the modern world have experienced a healthy and thorough reaction from that asceticism pursued to the end of personal holiness that marked the Middle Ages. But the true alternative to asceticism is not the enjoyment of as many comforts as one can honestly afford, nor the obliteration of a visible difference between the mode of life of the man of this world and of him whose treasures are elsewhere. Rather, as democracy effects more and more completely its inward transformation, we shall find an irresistible motive impelling us to deliberate simplicity in that love of our fellows which cannot rejoice in abundance while others go hungry. Ours will be, perhaps, a simplicity fine as that which marked private life in the best days of Greece, — no foe to Beauty, but a friend, giving her a larger scope, dedicating her ministry of joy to the common life, not to individual indulgence. Mediæval asceticism drove men into the desert; modern simplicity should be a social impulse, opening the way to widest fellowship. Surely, this ideal needs only to be seen to be followed, so lovely is it, so alluring, so near an approach does it offer to that art of perfect living which blundering humanity seeks in devious experiments through the ages, and which it has never yet attained. That the ideal is difficult is no reason against its acceptance, — when was difficulty a barrier to religious zeal ? Always, ardent souls exist who yearn for sacrifice ; they exist to-day; they yearn to find clear cause of division between church and world. The cause is here, did they but see; the Christian ideal, now as ever, separates its votaries, outwardly as inwardly, from the votaries of this world, calls on them for sacrifice of comfort, — harder far, of conventionality, — and shapes their lives to a new likeness.

The Christian ideal has always borne to the civilizations in which it found itself a double relation. It has modified them, it has also set them at defiance. Slowly, subtly, invisibly, it has transformed the life it found, — softening manners, altering institutions, gently raising the standard of purity, mercy, and honor. To achieve its end it has eagerly, and presumably wisely, accepted the sanction of the state and of the public. But, in this process of accommodation, Christianity has itself suffered; it has been driven to present, not so much an image of absolute holiness as a compromise adapted to the approval of the majority ; gradually entering the shadows of earth, the radiance of its virtues has suffered a twilight change. Therefore it is well and necessary that every civilization, while undergoing this unconscious influence, should also behold perforce in the lives of actual men and women an example of that uncompromising Christian type which must always find itself more or less out of harmony with the ethical standards accepted by the world at large.

So, in the far-away days when Christianity was first making its way into the noble barbarian hearts of our forefathers, it expressed itself serenely if paradoxically in fiercest fighting terms, and the twelve Apostles, those men of peace, became “heroes under heaven, warriors gloriously blessed.” At the same time a Columba, an Aidan, a Cuthbert, suddenly, and as it were by miracle, revealed to the world living images of the Beatitudes. A little later, in feudal times, we find the militant ideal so native to humanity, so unknown to the Gospels, still in control of the world. Christianity, in its heavenly wisdom, utters no useless denunciations, but adopts, modifies, introduces new elements of courtesy and mercy, and produces that most alluring of figures, fascinating by an inward contradiction unknown to the heroes of antiquity, the Christian knight, who lifts an angry sword in the Name of the Sufferer, and slays his foes, often for the mere joy of the slaying, with a prayer to the Victim of men upon his lips. At the same time, the Middle Ages never forget the Counsel of Perfection; and monk, nun, and friar, especially before the degradation of the religious orders, manifest before men the mystery “that the child is the leader of lions, that forgiveness is force at the height.”

The centuries march onward ; and wherever we look we see Christianity unconsciously raising the moral standard, eliminating the cruder sins, producing a civilization more and more merciful and just. Yet we see it also never for an instant tolerating a final compromise; ever summoning the children of the spirit to follow an absolute ideal. In our own day the emphasis of the Powers of Evil has changed from sins of violence to sins of greed; the world, that is to say, has become commercial rather than militant. Religion does not falter. She accepts the typical modern leader of men — the merchant — as she accepted the fighter of old. Restrained, modified, the fine type results, so frequent in America during the days of our fathers, and still, one is glad to say, familiar, — the Christian employer, true and fair in all his dealings, albeit chiefly inspired by the wish to make a business success and accumulate large wealth for his children. Meanwhile, it is probable that the level of obvious ethics in the community at large has become higher than ever before. This we note with satisfaction, but can we pause here ? Assuredly not. Still we hear the ringing summons, “Be ye perfect; ” still there shines beyond us that vision of absolute holiness, which, though one and the same forever, yet varies in emphasis from age to age. The moment is crucial. A more generous theology leads us to turn away from the rigors and terrors of the religion of our fathers, and to replace the image of the awful God they feared by that of a deity, less holy, one is tempted to say, than good-natured. The Protestant bodies, which still hold the balance of influence among us, have always set the level of general moral compromise higher than has the Roman Catholic communion ; at the same time, they have with few exceptions laid less stress on the Counsel of Perfection. The very fact that obvious infractions of the Decalogue are now at a discount leads to an insidious selfsatisfaction. For all these reasons the need of those who shall demonstrate the uncompromising nature of the demands of Christianity is not over; rather, it was never more profound. The special aspect assumed by these demands is determined by the special inconsistencies and errors of the democratic and mercantile civilization under which we live. As, in the days when sins of violence were rampant, meekness and non-resistance carried to an extreme were the ideal qualities on which the church laid most stress, so to-day, in these times of peace, when the desire for luxury or at least for material goods all but dominates our common life, and renders fellowship impossible, the chief call of the church invisible is to an unworldliness manifest to all men. And as, in mediæval times, it was probably well and essential that the Christian virtues should be dramatically displayed by religious orders made prominent through separation from ordinary society, so in a democracy our need is not for an order, nor for an individual here or there, set apart by peculiar marks to a special holiness, but for simple folk who in the normal walks of daily life live out to its completion the Christian law.

The Christian church started in an “upper chamber, ” and Christian homes, consecrated by religious awe, were long its only abiding place. As time went on, the young religion, if theory once current speaks true, adopted for its own the pagan Halls of Justice. The House of Justice and the House of Christ should be indeed forever one and the same; but the more primitive and more certain connection strikes yet deeper. The Christian homes of the land must be the shrines of that social practice which is but Christianity translated into terms of human relation. Democracy in its advance has liberated sinister forces never foreseen by the earlier apostles of liberty, and that common life which freedom was to have won and the democratic state to have realized is not yet seen. Now in the time of stress, when these separating forces, which the new society, to our surprise, permits if it does not engender, are driving the classes so far apart that they cannot hear each other speak, where if not to the church of Christ shall we look for those other forces that make for unity ? We are confronted by a new opposition; no longer that between democracy and aristocracy, but that between democracy the creed of the lover and democracy the creed of the egotist. So great are the demands which the higher conception makes on poor human nature, that only the tremendous reinforcement to social idealism afforded by Christianity can, one is inclined to say, enable us to satisfy them.1 “It is by the religious life that the nations subsist,” and the church is the soul of the nation. It is not enough to-day for her children to exercise private virtues in the domestic circle, or to conform to the strictest standard of honor that the public demands. They have a great misapprehension, for which the church of the past is responsible, to overcome; they have a special task to fulfill. If on all citizens it is incumbent to promote, so far as they may, the higher aims of our civilization, how much more is this the duty of those who hear the double summons to democratic fellowship uttered by their country and by their Lord! Among those who follow the Carpenter of Nazareth should be found the common life we seek. To the church at least, though all else should fail us, we may look with hope unfaltering for the slow but sure realization of that spiritual democracy of which our fathers dreamed, and in the faith of which our republic was founded.

Vida D. Scudder.

  1. Bryce : Holy Roman Empire.