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Politics And Religion

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

WHAT is the true relation between religion and politics ? Is religion necessarily political ? Or is it, in the highest view, non-political ? Or can it be non-committal ? Or, looking from the other side, can politics, with any consistency or success, steer clear of the religious question ? Can the principles and the personalities represented by the two sides run on parallel lines without touching ?

These questions, be it noted, stand for opinions which have been actually held. There are, for instance, excellent people in England who would regard an interference in politics as compromising their Christian character. " Let the potsherds of the earth strive with the potsherds of the earth " was the reply made to an acquaintance of the writer when soliciting the vote of a devout religionist. And it is curious in this connection to note that the Anglican, whose Church is as to its external position an essentially political institution, which owes its status to an Act of Parliament, whose chief officers are chosen by the Government and sit in the Legislature, is of all others the person to endorse in certain directions the exclusive view of our devotee. Our good Churchman, who owes every-thing to politics, cannot endure politics in his Dissenting neighbour. The " religious Nonconformist " may be tolerated, but the " political Nonconformist " is anathema. There are other anomalies both of opinion and of feeling on this subject, which show how confused is the issue in the general mind, and how important it is we should get some clear thinking and some plain conclusions in regard to it.

As a start towards these conclusions, it may be well to glance at the history of the question. In the early world there was hardly any difference upon it. Everything then was tribal, and the new point introduced by individualism had not arisen. Politics and religion were one, because the primitive politics relied always upon a supernatural sanction. The early Judaic constitution, as the Bible shows us, was a theocracy, with a legislation promulgated as from heaven. But Moses was not the only law-giver who appealed in this way to the unseen. His method was, in fact, a commonplace amongst the statesmen of his time. Thus, we have the Egyptians referring their code to the God Thoth ; Minos in Crete receives his from Jupiter, Lycurgus in Sparta is inspired by Apollo, Zoroaster in Persia by Ahura Mazda, Numa Pompilius in Rome by the nymph Egeria. And as with the laws so with the other forms of the national life. Religion was a department and a function of the State. Our question as to politics and religion was, we say, not even in view.

We reach it, however, and in its acutest phase, when we come upon the history and the principles of Christianity. Was Jesus a politican ? In one sense, we may say the vulgar sense, assuredly He was not. He refuses the argument of force. He knows nothing of lobbying, of the bribe, of " the pull." " My Kingdom is not of this world," is one of His most decisive sentences. The masterly reply to the question of tribute to Caesar, the refusal to head a popular movement when the opportunity offered, as well as the whole tenor of His teaching, are the commentary upon that utterance. And yet, with reverence be it said, Jesus was the politician of His time. He was so in the sense in which Socrates, centuries before, declared he was the only politician in Athens, and that, because his object was to improve the State by improving the souls of the citizens. And it is that newer sense of the human solidarity, by which we realise the essential oneness of life, the intimate and inevitable relation of each part to all the rest, that enables us to-day to see this so clearly. Jesus, the eternal type of the spiritual man, has shown us for all time that religion is in the high sense necessarily political, and for the reason that, as a reality, it permeates every feature and aspect both of the individual and the communal life. Without aiming at what are called political results it achieves these on the greatest scale. Thus is it that the prophet is always a founder or a reformer of the State.

It is worth remembering here that this was precisely the view which those shrewd worldlings, the heads of the Jewish State, took of Jesus and His work. Whoever else failed to recognise it, they saw, with the clearness of self-interest, the political aspect of the matter. To them Christ was the most dangerous of revolutionaries. They would have accepted Camille Desmoulins' definition of Him as " le sansculotte Jésus." Annas and Caiaphas had no illusion on this subject. The teaching of the Galilaean, whatever else it meant, meant political death to them. It was an indictment of their methods which blood alone could avenge. And so they crucified Him.

We have here, then, a political action which from beginning to end was purely ethical and spiritual. But it would be easy to mistake the inference this carries. The whole of Christianity is not contained in its beginning. The first believers, the early missionaries of the Cross, had not the entire problem before them as their successors had. It is one thing to start a new spiritual movement in a country, leaving the whole business of administration to its existing holders. The situation is changed when the movement has reached the top, and is felt and accepted by the administrators them-selves. In the one case you can be entirely spiritual ; you are, in fact, shut up to that. In the other you have not the souls of men only, but the whole national and communal problem before you ; with the question : " How is the new religion to work upon that ? " And the history for long and troubled centuries is one of experiment after experiment in getting this question answered.

The beginning was when Constantine, master of the Roman world in 315 A.D., made Christianity the religion of the State. The faith which hitherto had worked from the bottom upwards was now to work from the top downwards. Politics were to become religious, and religion political in a new way—a bad way. For in both it meant the employment of force in a sphere where force is absurdly out of place. Emperors, by their civil authority, dictated to Church Councils what was to be pro-claimed as the true belief. As though the mind's belief can be compelled by anything that is not mental ! Augustine, following in this vicious track, found in the Scriptural admonition " compel them to come in " an argument for persecution as an aid to conversion. For ages kings and priests were allied in this conception of things. They both believed in force as the supreme religious agent ; their only quarrel, and it was a fierce one, was as to which should wield it. Charlemagne, when he conquered the Saxons, offered them the choice of baptism or the sword, and made them believers on those terms. But he dictated to the clergy, from the Pope downwards, as to their position and duties. On the other hand, as early as the fifth century, we have Pope Gelasius declaring the spiritual power superior to kings ; a doctrine which Hildebrand and Innocent III. at a later day carried to so supreme a height.

Early Protestantism had no clearer ideas on this subject than its rival. The Protestant Churches were, for the main part, frankly political. Lecky does not scruple to say that Anglicanism was " created in the first instance by a Court intrigue." Zwingli's ideas of a Christian State were avowedly Erastian, Calvin gave Geneva a constitution in which the spirituality ruled by political force. He had no scruples about persecution. He exhorted the Protector Somerset in England " to punish well by the sword heretics and fanatic gospellers." Knox fought for a similar system in Scotland, and advocated the execution of Gardiner and other Romaniste. Lutheranism had the same story. The religious peace of Augsberg in 1555, with its principle of " Cujus regio, ejus religio," in which Protestantism received from Charles V. a legal status, made a man's religion an affair of the country he lived in. The careful student of history has, in fact, to admit that the Reformation in England and Scot-land and, on the Continent, in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and some of the German States, in so far as it was carried into effect by the governing classes, was on their part more a scheme of plunder, of appropriation of the Church lands, than a religious movement.

This view of the relation of religion to politics, the view, that is, of making religion a department of the State, has in all the modern countries where it has been tried produced two curious results. One is the creation amongst the educated classes of a philosophic indifferentism, such as that of Montaigne in France, and Shaftesbury and Lord Melbourne in England, a view which regards religion as merely a useful instrument of government, and, on the other hand, of a Nonconformity which has been always a reaction from the State formalism towards a deeper and more genuine spiritual life. Nonconformity seems in religion the Hegelian opposite which is necessary to complete, its idea.

Protestantism was the Nonconformity of the sixteenth century, a Nonconformity which, be it remembered, produced not simply the moral reformation of the Protestant States, but the vast counter-Reformation in the Roman Church which transformed and renewed it. The Nonconformity of England has had the same twofold result. Not only has its influence been felt as an incalculable moral force among the classes it has directly influenced, but it has acted with a scarcely less intensity upon the Establishment to which it is a rival. Some of the best influences at work to-day in Anglicanism, as well as some of its most potent personalities, are easily traceable to Nonconformist sources.

We have not yet reached the final solution of the problem of religion and politics. The best minds are clear about the negative issues. They see that in the sphere of conviction force is no remedy. To apply force to compel belief is not only cruel, it is ridiculous. Force may produce fear, may compel submission, but never belief, which is an affair purely of the mind's answer to evidence. But the positive side of this relation is, we say, still in a formative stage, and that because our notion both of religion and politics is also in that stage. What we are reaching towards is a position in which all politics will be religion. But in a new sense. For in this later, and, we may say, final view, politics will be regarded as the form in which the common human life is to express itself ; while religion will be accepted as the inner spiritual force by which that life is developed, purified, and lifted to its highest term. But these two things are ono one as inner and outer, as the convex and concave of a circle, as the body and soul which make the one personality. In this sense, to be truly religious is to be truly political, and to be truly political is to be truly religious.



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