The Church and Social Movements
THE church is becoming its own chief accuser. Self-criticism is a frequent note in pulpit, convention, and denominational periodical. “ Are we reaching the ‘masses’? Are we losing the working-man ? Are we becoming a select, middle-class institution ? Are we leading — are we even fairly abreast of the living problems and movements of the new time ? ”
It is a hopeful sign that the self-searching has become so active and earnest. Perhaps the surest proof of an institution’s permanent vitality is its capacity for discontent with anything short of the largest fulfillment of its possible mission; the ability, at least, to locate its own weak spots, whether able at once to strengthen them or not. This is the safeguard against that self-satisfaction which passes so readily into indifference, thence into dry-rot and decay.
In this present disquiet of the church, the object of chief concern is the seemingly elusive workingman. Now it is quite possible, in passing, that the workingman is not elusive, in any special or class sense, to the extent commonly supposed. He is present in large numbers in at least the Roman and Jewish folds, and it should not be forgotten that in every large American city there is a considerable population of foreign-born wageworkers who either do not find the services of their accustomed faiths within reach, do not understand the new, and eventually lose interest; or who have brought with them bitter remembrance of oppression under forms of government in which the church was an established part, held jointly responsible for their sufferings. Here is a peculiarly baffling situation, and it is not greatly surprising that immigration has rolled up the problem at a rate by far exceeding, as yet, the ability of the church to meet it. Bearing this in mind, it is reasonably probable that the remaining wage-earners without church affiliations of any sort do not greatly exceed the proportion of the similarly unconnected, or at any rate non-attendant, in other large groups in the community. This might be a literal fact, however, and highly important in any general view of the situation, yet contain little comfort for those sections of the church universal which do not have the workingman, know that they do not have him, and feel it a reproach that they do not.
Many have been the attempts to seek and find him. The institutional church was one of the earliest, and it is not by any means an abandoned experiment. Some of these centres of many-sided activity— physical, vocational, and mental, as well as moral and spiritual — enjoy a success indicating that at least they meet a need, whether realizing all that was hoped from them or not. Yet the suspicion has been growing, after several years of experience, that, after all, the gymnasium and the shower-bath, the trade-school, the boys’ club, the sewing and cooking classes, the kindergarten, the game-room, the circulating library, and the provident fund, may not be striking to the heart of this very tremendous and very terrifying Labor World. The women and children, clerks, young men new to the city and seeking a start in life, respond in great numbers; with them a few skilled craftsmen, it may be, a few others of alien tongue — but Tubal Cain remains unmoved. In all this varied offering, there seems to be little that the average grown mechanic, earner of daily wages and supporter of a family, individually feels the need of, or that he cannot obtain as easily in other and sometimes, to him, more congenial quarters.
Then the special meetings were tried, the “ open forums ” for free discussion of labor and social issues, and these are still with us. “ Let the people have a chance to ‘ get back ' at the preacher, and they will come.” They came: some of them earnest seekers after truth; but, outnumbering these and usually dominating the discussions, a large representation of insistent propagandists of social panaceas, chronic orators, excitable cranks with no following outside the range of their own populous imaginations, and radical extremists of the class with whom the rank and file of the wage-workers the trade-union men especially, have little part or sympathy. Indeed, for the most part the two elements are openly, even bitterly, hostile; perhaps nowhere to-day is the conflict with the socialist propaganda being waged so continuously, so actively, and at such close range, as within the ranks of the organized industrial crafts.
Other and still more formidable efforts have been directed to the same end. Episcopalians, for a number of years, have had their “ Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor.” The Presbyterians have organized a “ Department of Church and Labor,” and sought to supply the missing link between the two elements in the person of an earnest and able gentleman who has carried the sympathies of his wage-earning experience with him into the pulpit, and still retains his trade-union affiliations. Congregationalists, Methodists, nearly all the leading denominations, are canvassing and testing ways and means of meeting the situation. In a number of cases “ fraternal delegates ” have been appointed to sit in the meetings of labor organizations, and, while not allowed to vote, have been accorded the privileges of the floor. Joint meetings have been held in connection with several conventions of religious and labor bodies, in recent years, to further a better mutual understanding; and at some of these the attendance has been very large.
Here the seekers are obviously getting nearer the sought, but right at this point disagreement of a pronounced sort crops out among the seekers. Some very earnest and devoted clergymen, not by any means lacking in breadth of sympathy, feel strongly that, in the search for the workingman, no countenance should be given to his trade organizations, either by exchange of fraternal delegates or by any other arrangement which might imply approval of an institution to which, as they view it, the church cannot possibly give its sanction. On the contrary, workingmen should be warned against the union, they feel, and if possible drawn to other agencies of material and moral progress.
Facing this dilemma, it might appear at first sight that the church, before it can go much further in its quest, must officially pass upon the merits and demerits of trade-unionism. There is, however, a wide difference between express indorsement of a given institution or movement, and simple acknowledgment, in practical every-day relations, that it exists as a present fact in the community. The church does not necessarily become either advocate or judge in basing its procedure upon frank recognition of the actual social environment, in and out of and through which in every part it seeks to weave its own threads of ethical and spiritual influence. In reality, the problem here raised is fundamental, and as old as the history of organized religion.
What is the true attitude of the church toward the social, political, and industrial life surging about it? Going still deeper, what is the ultimate object of its mission ? Humanity, or systems ? Life, or things ? Institutions, or men ?
Must the church become the arbiter of institutions—the trade-union, for example, the employers’ association, the political party, systems of industry, forms of government — as a pre-condition of venturing outside its own safe portals to seek and to help men where they may be found ? Apparently it has so believed at many times, in many lands and ages, and has acted upon that belief, with results as varied as the verdicts rendered. For the most part, this has been wasted energy — a tournament with windmills! Institutions, social structures, are after all but names, forms of expression, lengthened shadows of their creators, not living things in themselves, to be either saved or damned. Society is no self-existent being whose parts draw their life from the whole and exist for the sake of the whole, and it is not, therefore, an organism; rather, it is an organization, an association of individual organisms, drawing its own life wholly from these units, existing for their sake and their welfare; not they for it. Before society, man was; and society might vanish but man would remain, however reduced in numbers or miserable his nomadic existence. No matter how complex human relations become in the process of time, the primary order remains — man the creator, social institutions the creation. The only living, thinking, acting factor in the community is the true startingpoint of whatever is to affect either him or his relations to others.
We are in some danger of concerning ourselves so much about the works of men that we lose sight of the man himself in our methods of social endeavor. We are much given to talking about the mission of the church, or of religion, to this or that social, political, or industrial institution. It has no mission to things — relations — forms; it has a mission to human lives, — one, of course, which should vitally affect every outworking of those lives; but the word of inspiration and help must strike through the institutional shell to the living germ.
If the merits of the shell are made the issue, the minister is likely to find a barrier of prejudice and misunderstanding raised between himself and his opportunities of influence among, and service to, multitudes of those who believe in and are working through all manner of institutions, framed by and for themselves, and which therefore express roughly their own ideals and character at the given time, reflect their accustomed habits of thought, and largely measure the quality and capacity of their understanding. Perhaps the minister does not approve some one of these. If, instead of passing judgment, he will adopt, for example, the method of the great apostle who was willing to look beyond externals and endure many things that he might deliver his message; if he will walk with those who will not walk with him, working with and among men of whatever affiliations, in sympathetic endeavor to realize ideals of larger life, of justice, of helpfulness,to inspire the spirit of brotherhood, his word will at least have a hearing. To the extent that it takes root it will unfold in human life, and in due time the social expressions of life will either reflect more and more of this influence or give way to others that do. The temptation to grasping misuse of economic or civic opportunity cannot be removed by damming up this or that institutional stream; it may leave old channels, but it will find new. Let the sun in, and dry up the poisoned springs!
Suppose, however, the church does consider it essential to become the inquisitor and appraiser of institutions and social movements, instructing the community as to which ought to be supported, which condemned and abandoned. Returning to the case of the trade-union, for example, it begins to apply its tests. But what are its tests ? Not that an institution, to command approval, must be perfect: by that standard none could escape the ban, possibly not even the church itself. Shall it be that the union must, on the whole, have in it more good than bad ? Clearly, there ought to be, then, some common agreement upon what constitutes the good and bad of its character and methods.
A specific case is taken. There has just been a great strike, with the usual accompaniments of bitterness, suffering, loss, possibly violence. The employers, let us assume, are generous and upright men who, nevertheless, are hard pressed and cannot see their way clear to grant the demands. Need there be any great difficulty in imagining fifty per cent of the clergymen interested reasoning that a labor body responsible for such a situation must be bad and worthy of condemnation, the other fifty per cent equally impressed with the fact that here is a notable sacrifice being made by a group of men and their families for the improvement of one another’s lives, homes, educational and other uplifting opportunities for their children, and for all who may hereafter work in the positions they seek to better; that while civilization is developing ways of adjusting labor differences with less and less of strife, even strife is better than injustice or stagnation ?
Shall we have a sociological pope to determine which view is right, and what the proper attitude of the church should be ? Suppose the decision, however reached, is in condemnation of the union on the ground that its ultimate weapon is some form of compulsion, and its very existence a provoker of discord. It is all settled, and the council draws a long breath of relief; but in the moment of adjournment some belated member arrives with the records of an important group of unions that very rarely call strikes, that have regular agreements with their employers, and work along from year to year quite as harmoniously as men engaged in various other commercial and industrial pursuits, both sides sufficiently satisfied that at least they are not crying for anybody to come into Macedonia and help them. Are these arrangements, these unions, to be included in the disapproval or not? If not, it then becomes the further task of the minister to adjust the balance of good and bad between this organization and that, with the further complication that the bad one this year may be very good next season, while some tried and true model union, sharing the vicissitudes and frailties of all things mortal, may later get into a tight place, show its teeth, yield to the passions or fears of the moment (even St. Peter fell!), make a huge mistake, and bring down the wrath of the community on its head.
Is it wise to invite these needless dilemmas by seeking to apply to complex and shifting institutions those generalizations which hold true only of simple and eternal principles ?
The general attitude suggested need not, of course, be carried to an extreme merely to save a theory intact; indeed, a theory without elasticity, like a rule without exceptions, cannot be saved intact, and is usually of small social value. There are, it is true, institutions and movements with objects so closely related to the church’s own that coöperation is natural, and sometimes of much practical advantage; and it is equally true that other institutions may and do arise, of such character as to neutralize, if not virtually prevent, that very access to individual lives which is our primary concern. But, in truth, the utterly hopeless social fabrics in the community, at least those that we can be sure are such, are exceedingly few. It is easy to label a thing on superficial evidence, or without having fully considered what the label itself signifies. For illustration: suppose the church declares the spirit and tendency of tradeunionism to be essentially selfish, and thus opposed to the ideal of brotherhood. Is not that a test which, unless we are very clear what we mean by selfishness, would equally set the church at war with nearly every existing human institution?
What is the motive of organized democracy ? In the broad sense, essentially self-interest; a joint method of a few thousands or millions of men for best securing their own happiness and prosperity. Does some one protest that the comparison fails because trade-unionism often gains its ends by duress, while democracy is the rule of all for all ? Are we so sure of that? Every political election means that a minority is constrained against its will to accept the ideas and wishes of a majority; and if the question of taxation is involved, it means the compulsory taking of the property of some citizens for objects the larger number think will be for the best good of all. But the trade-unionist is equally convinced that the higher wages he seeks will not in the long run prove a burden to the employer, but will so increase the consuming capacity of the population and stimulate improvement of productive methods that larger prosperity for all will be the net result; and he has much industrial history and good economics to support his view. He will insist, further, that compulsion by violence is but an occasional and diminishing incident of labor controversy, not in any sense a recognized element in trade-union philosophy or practice; on the contrary, discouraged and condemned by every reputable unionist leader; while the kind of compulsion involved in refusal to work upon unsatisfactory terms is immoral only if the right to maintain any form of liberty is immoral,—civil or religious as well as industrial. All progress involves some friction, some readjustment, temporary loss, perhaps; the labor advocate does not feel it a matter for specific or exceptional criticism that this universal social fact is true of the union and its activities.
What is the motive of the political party? Essentially self-interest: to win, and establish its policies. What is the motive of the Henry George single-tax programme ? — not of any particular advocates, but the inherent element of attraction the plan itself has for the average man? Again, essentially self-interest: to establish common rights in land by depriving the present owners of its economic rent. Ah, the objection comes, it is not selfish even for a landless wight who would benefit thereby to seek a thing like that, because he believes it is just. Indeed, then, your trade-union friend will reply, “ It is not selfish for me to seek higher wages, shorter hours, the uplift of my material circumstances; I have wrought out the right to this with my brain and muscle, and it is just that I should have it.” What is the motive of socialism ? To secure to many men greater abundance with less labor, by a method which necessarily involves for many other men less abundance with more labor. Very proper, its advocates may hold, as an object to accomplish, but struck through with a self-motive nevertheless, however glorified in sociological rhetoric.
Science, philosophy, religion itself — everything through which men seek a higher good for their kind, has its selfaspect in some degree. In truth, our common definitions of selfishness are too narrow. Civilization starves unless most men pay at least their own bills to nature; the tissue rots if the red blood turns white. The wisest charity teaches self-help. A race of martyrs would become extinct in one generation! Selfrelying, self-sustaining effort, just provision for one’s own, are not inconsistent with thought and care for others, — indeed, are nearly always the pre-conditions of being able to render effective help at all. Who wants to ride on your shoulders if your feet are in quicksand ? Behind the out-flowering of every Luther and every Lincoln were years of selfpreparation, however unconscious of the mighty service to come. Self and the other self each has its necessary place in the scheme of creation; both, in their proper relation, must be present in a true expression of the law of life. If we are to condemn either men or institutions, then, on the score of selfishness, we must know, not merely that self-interest is present, but that it excludes or is surely tending to exclude the altruistic aspect.
By this test, again, is the case of the trade-union such that the church, while it need not exalt, must inevitably condemn and ostracize? Undeniably the self-seeking side is in evidence, aggressively, sometimes brutally; but quite as certainly the brotherhood spirit is there also, not alone in germ, but much of its outgrowth, along with what still remains base. Many who have considered broadly the history of this movement during the last century, not overlooking the grave evils, nevertheless rank it the most effective educator in coöperation for common advancement, in mutual service and willing self-sacrifice, in discipline and self-government, that has ever emerged from a strictly laboring-class environment. True, the range of sympathies is narrow, extending as yet very little beyond the limits of the unions themselves. Such, however, is the natural history of human progress, which moves always in waves, now here, now there, never in universal tides. Altruism is a growth; it does not suddenly fire the individual heart with a zeal for all humanity. Normally it extends from small to larger groups, according to the broadening range of knowledge and interests and expansion of ideas. In the labor world we are to-day in one of these specialgroup stages; and those who are rightly troubled about many serious faults may regard the future possibilities more hopefully if they do not forget the antecedents and environments of the workers, who have come up thus far through uncounted centuries of conditions still cruder and narrower, still less altruistic, still less promising.
What has been said is not intended as a plea for the trade-union; rather, to show its common human heritage of complex characteristics, motives, and methods. A parallel may be found for its worst incidental aspects — ambition, greed, monopoly, even violence — in nearly every institution, at times in the Christian church itself. That it has brought forth good fruit in some measure is hardly to be denied; that it yields to gross temptations in the hour of prosperity and power is not peculiar to itself. It is but one in the long list of organized groups professing to work for human welfare, and submitting at least a reasonably debatable claim to a place and function in the community. Has the church the infallible wisdom to go down the line, setting one upon the right hand and one upon the left? Has it agreed upon the multiple test ? And what shall it profit, when the labors and discords of the process are weighed against the gain ? Sooner or later the old familiar cracks will appear in every new piece of social machinery devised to replace one discarded, until we get at the faulty metal in man himself. Then and then only the movement or system of actually superior possibilities may hope for just and adequate opportunity to demonstrate its worth.
In the course of its history, however exalted the motive, the church has suffered much through misdirection of effort from the man to the thing. Its Founder set up no external kingdom, promulgated no system of economics, no scheme of social reorganization, passed judgment upon neither Roman nor Jew, courts nor temples; rather, upon wrong, hypocrisy, and selfish materialism, in high places or low, proclaiming those clarifying and energizing principles of truth, duty, and brotherhood, which, though spoken by the wayside to a solitary man, are yet so vital that no social or political structure in which they do not find fertile soil can escape decadence and famine. But the church — how often! — has set the institution before the man, fought the battles of king and noble, crowned and excommunicated, pronounced its judgments, torn itself asunder in the partisanship of wars, politics and industrial uprisings, one faction challenging the other in the name of religion and hurling scriptural ammunition across the chasm. Even to-day, in the field of economic and social reforms, it is a poor panacea indeed that some one does not announce as the precise thing Jesus Christ came to teach. This, for example, was the dominant note in a recent convention of socialist clergymen in New York, in the course of which a prominent political figure in the socialist movement was declared to have a message to the present time similar to that of Moses and Christ in earlier epochs. On the other hand, the writer, a few years ago, sat in the congregation of a brilliant and influential minister who began an eloquent review of the saviors of mankind, with brief mention of Jesus, and concluded with an extended panegyric of Mr. Henry George, conveying the distinct idea that the mission of Christ on earth to-day would have been to preach the single tax.
It is by no means an unfamiliar experience to hear the petition, “ Thy Kingdom come,” followed by the glowing affirmation, “ Lo, here is that kingdom,” or, “ Lo, there it is;” but in neither case locating it where the Maker of the petition himself declared it was to be found. Men who seem to consider the Christian message inadequate as it stands, exhibit an exceeding proneness to paste heaven’s label on their own particular nostrums; to cut up parable, beatitude, and prophecy alike into advertising material for sundry partial and often conflicting social cure-alls. “ Come now, let us create God in our own image, and mankind will flock hither as it no longer does to the Original! The Word has been misunderstood by the human race, until I arrived with my private key to the locked treasures. Behold, here it is! ”
The church has no need to follow after strange gods in order to affect modern life and share in the world’s work of human betterment. Is it powerless to inspire practical sympathy for the oppressed, the destitute, the suffering, or to arouse interest in their economic problems, unless it can prescribe another infallible specific for poverty and misfortune ? Is it powerless to throw its weight in behalf of civic righteousness and stir men to action, unless it becomes an investigating bureau and prints the records of candidates, or proclaims the relative ethics of contending theories of taxation, finance, and administration ? Is it powerless to create active, intelligent interest in education, in the safeguarding of public morals, in the protection of child-life, unless it maps out school systems or conducts political and legislative campaigns ? Is it impotent to lead men to live in the spirit of good-will and brotherhood; and if it is thus impotent, can we believe it competent to frame any scheme or set of relations that will establish compulsory brotherhood by machinery ?
The church’s work of moral leadership and inspiration to larger life underlies, and is greater than, any particular reforms, however important. If it is true that its influence has declined in recent years, it may indeed be partly due to inadequate grasp of modern needs, but there is a deeper cause. Organized religion is suffering, in common with our entire social and civic life, from the wave of materialism following the enormous increase of wealth during the past century, and exceeding by far, in swiftness and magnitude, our ability to assimilate and devote wisely to the highest civilizing ends. So much the less, then, in seeking a new lease of influence, can the church afford any concession to that “ spirit of the time,” if such it be, which regards meat as more than the life, or holds it possible, after all, for man to live by bread alone. We must not get the commissary wagon ahead of the colors. To uphold the standard of moral and spiritual values, keep it to the fore, make its meaning known and its prior claim heeded, is the highest, broadest, and ultimately the most practical service of the church to humanity in all time, no matter what the hue and cry of this age or that, no matter what the new and startling forms of old, old problems. Let it adopt any lesser ideal, subordinate it, or allow its summons to be drowned in the roar of socio-economic machinery or political agitation, and civilization all along the line sinks to lower levels, as surely as armies retreat when the heights are abandoned.
Whatever of civic improvement has come in the last few years, in the struggle to uproot long-intrenched “ graft,” the setting of closer bounds to abuses of power, political or industrial, the raising of higher standards of public trust, the success in notable instances of a higher grade of public men, has not been the fruit of any “ new gospel ” of social salvation. Honor, faithfulness, justice, — iron strings, wrought long ago but struck with new vigor,— have given the keynote; yes, “ mere morality,” which, as Emerson remarks, is as if men should say, “Poor God, with nobody to help him.” Nothing in this is strange or revolutionary; no more so than in the life which creeps up into tree and bush and plant after a long winter and thereupon transforms the earth. It is there always, whether the passing season that at times conceals it be one of ice and snow or of materialism and indifference. And it is this — peculiarly the church’s supreme message — that present national tendencies are proving, not obsolete, but never more needed, never more practical.
If any criticism is to lie against the church, it is not that it has stood for these elemental things too much or too long; rather, that it may have too much neglected them, perhaps at times lacked courage to set them forth distinctly and boldly, or let them become too hackneyed, formalized, dogmatized, allowing the sacred fires to die down into the ashes of theological controversy or literary disquisition or rich ceremonial. If such indeed be the case, there may be those, justly alarmed, who call unawares upon the Baal of this ism or that ism for new embers; but unless the fire comes as to Elijah’s altar, we are not likely to see it rekindled.
The minister of wide-reaching activities and broad outlook will not shut his eyes to the collective achievements and experiments of a very real and practical world. He will frankly recognize that institutions react upon their creators, and, built by men, have much to do with the building of yet other men to come. The problem, however, is the method of approach, and the ultimate end, sought through whatever societary maze, is still the man. The church need not be halted or turned from its quest by the glaring labels of party, trade, or class affiliations. Its opportunity — shall we not say its high duty ? — is so to reach the lives, share the burdens, and stir the consciences of men, wherever found or under whatever banner, that their public and private undertakings alike shall give larger and finer expression to qualities of universal and enduring worth.
We cannot mould a body politic out of the dust blown about by every wind of controversy and breathe into it the breath of life. Only that really lives into which men voluntarily put themselves; and it will live to good or bad ends according to the character, sympathies, and ideals of its makers. Here are the vital contact points of the church with the complex social outworkings of modern life.