Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: democracy and religion - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER IX: democracy and religion - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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democracy and religion
Whoever tries to describe popular government as it is now and has been in the past, cannot pass over in silence the strongest of all the forces by which governments have been affected. The influence of religion springs from the deepest sources in man's nature. It is always present. It tells upon the multitude even more than it does upon the ruling, or the most educated, class. When roused, it can overpower considerations of personal interest, and triumph over the fear of death itself.
A history of the relations of the spiritual power to the secular during the last eighteen centuries would distinguish two things, essentially different, but apt to be confused in thought because generally intertwined in fact. One is Religion, i.e. the religious sentiment as it exists in the mind, disposing those who think and feel alike about man's relation to the Unseen Powers to the recognition of a special tie of sympathy, but not taking concrete form in association for any purpose save that of common worship. The other is Ecclesiasticism, that is to say, some form of religious doctrine solidified in institutions and practices, and especially in the organization in one body of those who hold the same faith, in order that they may not only worship together but act together. This action may be for various purposes, some of which are connected with the secular life, though helping to subserve the spiritual life also. Ecclesiasticism has appeared in divers forms. A caste system, such as existed in ancient Egypt and still exists in India, is one.1 Another is a religious order, such as those which have been so powerful in the Roman Church. But the most important form is that we call a Church, a body of persons organized and disciplined as a community, on the basis of a common belief, whose officials constitute a government obeyed within the community and able to make itself felt by those without.
Infinitely varying have been the relations between the Church and the State, nor has any really satisfactory solution of the difficulties created by their rival claims been ever discovered. Wherever contractual relations or questions of property are involved, there is contact and there may be conflict. We are here concerned only with one small branch of this vast subject, viz. the force which religions or churches have exerted either in aiding and developing and colouring, or in condemning and opposing, the democratic spirit in general or any particular democratic governments.
In the ancient world religions did not embody themselves in churches, though there were priests and sometimes priestly castes, and the priest could be a potent figure. A profound difference between that ancient world and ours lay in the fact that in it all religions were mutually compatible, so that a polytheist, while primarily bound to worship the gods of his own country, might worship those of other countries also. All alike were deemed able to help their worshippers and defend against its enemies the nation that worshipped them, thus requiring its devotion. The first people that claimed exclusive reality and wide-stretching power for its own Deity was Israel, though no particular time can be fixed as that when it attained to the conception of Jehovah as the one and only true God. The first rulers who tried to enforce by persecution conformity to their own religious usages were the Sassanid kings of Persia, who, being fire-worshippers, forbade their Christian subjects, and doubtless other non-Zoroastrian subjects also, either to bury or to burn the bodies of the dead, these modes of interment being to them a desecration of Fire or of Earth. The first form of worship prescribed by law and enforced by penalties was the worship of the Roman Emperor, or rather of his “Genius “or protecting spirit. Having begun as a voluntary manifestation of loyal devotion to the reigning sovereign, this worship became general in the Eastern provinces, and was used as a test to be applied to persons suspected of being Christians, whenever the emperor, or some local governor, chose to put in force the laws which forbade Christianity as an “illicit superstition.”1 Impartial between religious beliefs, the Emperors feared the Christians partly because they were a secret society, partly because, “looking to another kingdom, that is, a heavenly,” they stood apart from the general body of Rome's subjects. They did not, however, even when persecuted, attempt to resist or overthrow the temporal sovereign, continuing to protest their civil loyalty to him who was, albeit a pagan, the Power ordained of God.
The ancient polytheisms need not further concern us, though religious passion often played a part in Greek politics; and a few sentences may suffice for the faiths which bear the names of Buddha (Sakyamuni) and Mohammed, since in no people professing either has the rule of the people ever been established. Buddhism is compatible with any form of government, and though it has (contrary to its essential principles), given rise to wars, it has not favoured any particular form. In Tibet it developed a strong hierarchy, and became practically a State as well as a Church, presenting singular resemblances to the Catholic hierarchy as it stood in the days of Popes Gregory VII. and Innocent III. Islam, specially interesting to the lawyer as Buddhism is to the student of philosophy, is a State no less than a Church. The Sacred Law (like that of the Pentateuch) regulates civil relations as well as those we should call religious; and ancient Muslim custom assumes a Commander of the Faithful, or Khalif, a leader, not a sacred person, nor invested with spiritual author ity, but entitled to respect and to some undefined and un-definable measure of obedience as the successor of the Prophet, so long as he himself observes the Faith and enforces the Sacred Law.2 All who hold that faith are equal in civil rights, and in a sense socially equal. Political rights are a different matter, but there seems to be nothing (unless it be the conception of the Khalifate) to prevent Muslims from trying the experiment of a republic.
We return to Christianity as the religion which, claiming to be universal, necessarily addressed itself to the conversion of all mankind, though at first only by methods of pacific persuasion. When it became the official religion of the Roman world it received the support of the State, and recognized the authority of the Emperor, by whom the first six great General Councils were convoked. It had of course nothing to do with approving or disapproving any form of government, nor was popular government so much as dreamt of.
After a thousand years there came in the eleventh century that great controversy between the secular and the spiritual power in which modern political thought had its beginnings. The Emperors Henry IV., Henry V., and Frederick I. in Italy and Germany, and the Kings of England, William the Conqueror, his two sons and his great-grandson Henry II. found their authority disputed by the Popes from Gregory VII. onwards. The question at issue was not one of popular rights, but between two kinds of monarchy, the ecclesiastical power and the civil power, the former claiming an authority higher, because exercised over the immortal soul and so reaching forward into the future state, whereas the power of the temporal monarch was only over the body and ended with this life. The Popes claimed, and sometimes put in force, the right to absolve subjects from allegiance to heretical or schismatic or disobedient sovereigns. Archbishops, like the pious and gentle Anselm and the haughty Thomas of Canterbury, both received the halo of sainthood for defending the spiritual against the secular power. In this controversy, although the kings and most of the feudal nobility stood on one side while most of the Italian republics stood on the other, maintaining, with the blessing of the Pope, their rights of practical self-government, no distinctively democratic principles were involved, yet the institution of the priesthood was an assertion of human equality, for every ordained priest was, as a duly commissioned minister of God, the equal of any temporal potentate, and in one respect his superior, since able to dispense sacraments necessary to salvation. As the rule of celibacy saved the priesthood from becoming a hereditary caste, it was not, like the hereditary priestly and warrior castes in Egypt and India, an oligarchic institution; and less than ever so after the creation in the thirteenth century of the two great mendicant Orders, Dominicans and Franciscans, which sprang from and had great power with the masses of the people.
When in the sixteenth century the Reformers claimed for all Christians freedom of opinion and worship, the revolt became one against both temporal and spiritual monarchy. “Call no man master,” neither the king nor the Pope, nor even the whole Church, speaking through a General Council. To meet this protest against authority, and to prop up kingship, the doctrine of Divine Right was invented, partly as a device for transferring to the secular monarch that sort of headship of a National Church which Henry VIII. assumed in England, partly by thinkers who, feeling the need for some sanction to civil authority, argued that whoever is allowed by God to rule de facto should, at least after a time, be recognized as ruling de jure. This theory, challenged both by the Jesuits, who asserted the right of subjects to overthrow or kill heretical princes condemned by the Pope, and by those Protestants who carried to their logical development the principles of the Reformation, became at last ridiculous. Its dying echoes were heard in the coronation speeches of William I. of Prussia and his unfortunate grandson.
Calvin, the most constructive mind among the Reformers, set himself to replace the Papal and hierarchical system by erecting in Geneva a theocratic scheme of government in close alliance with the State. Each Christian community was to elect its ministers and elders, who were to rule through a Consistory, exercising certain powers in civil matters. His disciples developed this into a frame of representative church government, the locally elected ministers and elders choosing others to represent them in larger governing assemblies. This system, which spread to, and has maintained itself in Presbyterian churches all over the world, became a political force in England and still more effectively in Scotland. It was, however, republican rather than democratic, nor was Calvin himself disposed to trust the multitude.1
The first proclamation of democratic theories in modern countries, if we omit occasional outbursts in the Italian cities and in Germany during the Reformation excitements, the most notable among which was that of the Westphalian Anabaptists, came with the Independents (themselves partly influenced by Anabaptist notions) during the English Civil War. How the ideas of the English Puritans were carried to New England, how they were developed among the American insurgents at the time of the Revolutionary War, how from America they affected the French mind, already stirred by the writings of Rousseau, all these things are too familiar to need description. Christianity itself, however, either in its Roman or its Protestant form, was never involved. That anti-religious, or at least anti-Christian, character which has marked revolutionary movements on the European Continent is due to the enmity felt towards highly secularized State Churches as a part of the established political order which had become odious. Men remembered the persecutions they had prompted, and contrasted the lives of not a few prelates, holders of richly endowed offices, with the precepts they were supposed to teach. The intellectual reawakening and moral reformation of the Roman Church in France have not removed this antagonism, because that Church was long the supporter of monarchy and still exerts a power outside the State which advanced Republicans denounce as Clericalism. The same thing has happened in Italy and Spain, in Spanish and Portuguese America, and to some slight extent even in some Protestant countries. Everywhere in proportion as the Church, more or less completely secularized, was despotic and persecuting, just in that proportion was dislike of it more bitter. Spanish and Italian anarchists show a specially ferocious hostility to Catholicism as well as to the established order of society. Identifying Christianity with capitalism, the Russian and German disciples of Karl Marx display a similarly aggressive antagonism, while in France the alliance between the Roman Church and Louis Napoleon served to exacerbate the old anti-clerical sentiment of the Republicans. In English-speaking countries there has been no such hostility. Democrats and Socialists are there no less and no more Christians than other citizens. The associations, at one time or another, of Christian Churches with monarchies or oligarchies or popular republics have been due to what some have called “the accidents of history,” to external causes rather than to essential principles, and they need not affect our view of the true relations, whatever these may be, between forms of faith and forms of government.
As in our own time, however, parties have arisen which call themselves Christian Socialists, while some who do not use that name have argued that Socialism is a legitimate development from the teaching of the Gospels, it is worth while to examine whether any such connection exists.
If the aims of Socialism and Communism be defined as being the establishment of a greater equality of economic conditions and the extinction of suffering due to poverty, these are ends which Christianity also seeks. But the means by which it would attain these ends are different from those which any political party has advocated. The renunciation or abolition of private property is not inculcated in the New Testament, although some of the first believers, in the passionate exaltation of their new sense of brotherhood, had all things in common.1 Communist politicians propose to carry out their programmes (whatever form these may take) by law, i.e. by the compulsive power of the State using physical force. The Gospel contemplates quite other means of bettering human society. It appeals to the sympathy and conscience of the individual, bidding him love his neighbour as himself, and, since he is bound to rejoice in his neighbour's happiness equally with his own, to treat his neighbour, not as a competitor, but as a partner or a brother, giving to him freely all he needs. In a Christian society regulated by these principles there would be no need for the various organs of State action, for an army, or a navy, or courts of law, or police, nor would there be any State relief of poverty, because relief would already have been voluntarily effected by private benevolence. Under the conditions of such a society the State would in fact be superfluous, except as an organization for devising and carrying out a variety of purposes beneficial to all, such as the construction of public works and the preservation of public health. It need hardly be added, for this follows from what has been said already, that there is nothing in the New Testament to require a Christian to be or not to be a political Socialist, nothing either to dissuade or to recommend the use of State power to effect social or economic reforms. If it is sought to effect those reforms by legal compulsion methods, that is a matter for the State which has its own means and methods.
Some have complained that in the Gospel precepts for the conduct of life there is no reference to public or civic duties, unless it be in the saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” But the answer or explanation seems to be, not only that any such precepts would have been inapplicable (if indeed intelligible) to men living in the political conditions of those to whom the Gospel was first preached, but also that they would have been superfluous. Had Christianity been put in practice, forms of government would have mattered little.
But Christianity never has been put in practice. Even that precept which it might have seemed comparatively easy to observe — the avoidance of war between Christians — was entirely disregarded. Whatever was the original meaning of the saying “I am come to send not peace but a sword,” one of those many dicta in the Gospels whose true sense remains doubtful, the prophecy was fatally fulfilled, for many wars have sprung from religion, and wars have been as frequent between so-called Christian States as ever they were between those heathen States which Augustine held to be the offspring of sin.
This brief survey may suffice to show that the relation of the Christian Church or Churches to the State has varied from people to people and from age to age according to local circumstances and transitory issues. Many were the attempts from time to time to represent Christianity as the natural bulwark of some set of political doctrines, or to draw the Church into an alliance with the party that professed them. Monarchy and Democracy alternately, or both at the same moment, made bids for ecclesiastical support. Theologians or statesmen appealed to the Bible as favouring the views they propounded. Monarchists and democrats could equally well do so, for there were plenty of texts for both to cite. In England High Churchmen like Laud and Sheldon maintained the divine right of kings by quoting the passages in the book of Samuel which refer to Saul the king of Israel as the Lord's anointed, but the Puritans and the Jesuits alike could counter them by references to the deposition of Saul by the prophet acting under the direction of Jehovah. Every one can find in the Christian Scriptures what he seeks, because those books are not, like the Koran, the product of any one mind or time but of eight centuries, and record not only events and the words of men, but also the emergence and growth of ideas and beliefs slowly developed in the long life of a people which has contributed more than any other to the religious thought of mankind. The habit of trying to apply to current politics isolated dicta meant for other conditions has now passed away. No party resorts to an arsenal which provides weapons equally available for all.
But though, as we have seen, none of the great religions has any natural or necessary affinity to any particular form of government, there are still ways in which religion, or an ecclesiastical body, can affect the course of political events. Such an organization can unite with and intensify racial or national or party passion. When strong enough to command the obedience of its own members, it can strengthen by its alliance a secular government or a political party. A glance at the world of to-day shows that although ecclesiastical influences on politics are slighter than formerly, they still exist.1 In Russia the Orthodox Church of the East may, though she failed to stem the Bolshevik tide in 1917, prove to have retained part of that power over the peasantry and the middle class which seemed immense ten years ago. In Canada, Australia, and Ireland, in Belgium and Holland and Switzerland, the support of Roman bishops and priests counts for something in elections. In France the Church is the pillar of the conservative Right; in Germany it has furnished the foundation of a considerable political party. It is in English-speaking countries only that the Roman Church has frankly embraced democratic principles, declaring that she has no complaint against popular government, and confining her action to educational questions.
What, then, is the relation to democracy of the fundamental ideas of the Gospel? Four ideas are of special significance.
The worth of the individual man is enhanced as a being to whom the Creator has given an immortal soul, and who is the object of His continuing care.
In that Creator's sight the souls of all His human creatures are of like worth. All alike need redemption and are to be redeemed. “In Christ there is neither barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free.”
Supremely valuable is the inner life of the soul in its relation to the Deity. “The kingdom of Heaven is within you.”
It is the duty of all God's creatures to love one another, and form thereby a brotherhood of worshippers.
The first of these ideas implies spiritual liberty, the obligation to obey God (who speaks directly to the believer's heart) rather than man. It is freedom of conscience.
The second implies human equality, in respect not of intellectual or moral capacity but of ultimate worth in the eyes of the Creator, and it points to the equal “right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The third idea, expressed in those precepts which bid the Christian to live, with a pure heart, in close communion with God, and the fourth which implies the creation of a Christian community, cannot but affect a man's attitude to life in the world, and may innuence it in one of two ways. Absorption in the inner life may tend to individualism, engendering a Quietism or isolated mysticism. On the other hand, the idea of a Christian brotherhood of worship points to the value of the collective life and may dispose men to submission in matters of faith and a merging of their own wills in the will of the community.
Either of these principles, taken alone, may be pushed to an extreme. He who regards the welfare of his own soul may neglect his social and political duties, may passively endure tyranny, or may withdraw, like the early Christian hermits, into the desert. On the other hand, the gathering of the individual worshippers into a community which almost inevitably passes into an organization, may build up a hierarchy which will sacrifice liberty to orthodoxy and become a worldly power. Each of these tendencies was pushed very far, and each has exposed Christianity to censure. Voltaire attacked it as an aggressive and persecuting force, inimical to freedom, yet also a troublesome rival to well-ordered civil government. Rousseau attacked it as an anti-social influence which, in detaching men from the life of this world and turning their hopes to another, made them neglectful of civic duty. The one thought it dangerous as a stimulant, the other as a narcotic.
If we regard the essential quality of Christianity rather than the errors and corruptions which led men to neglect or pervert its teachings, if we fix our minds not so much on its direct action upon events in history as upon the ideas it contained which affected the course of events, we shall find its influence to have been operative in two respects chiefly. It implanted the conception of a spiritual freedom prepared when necessary to defy physical force. The sentence, “We must obey God rather than men,”1 went echoing down the ages, strengthening the heart of many a man accused for his opinions. It created a sentiment of equality between men — all alike sinful beings, yet also all worth saving from the power of sin — which restrained the degrading idolatry of power which had existed under Asiatic despotisms. The greatest king was a sinner no less than the humblest subject, and might, as a sinner, be resisted and, if the need arose, deposed. These ideas, which from time to time broke through the crust of monarchical tradition in the Middle Ages, became potent factors among the Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wherever monarchs stood opposed to the principles of the Reformers.
In the political as in the moral sphere the fundamental ideas of the Gospel have effected much, yet how much less than was expected by those who first felt their purifying and vitalizing power. That power sank lowest just when it had secular authority most fully at its disposal. The more the Church identified itself with the world, the further did it depart from its own best self. The Church expected or professed to Christianize the world, but in effect the world secularized the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven became an Ecclesiastical State. Such victories as Christian principles have from time to time won in the unending strife of good and evil have been won by their inherent moral force, never through earthly weapons. Neither Voltaire nor Rousseau saw that the belief in “life and immortality brought to light through the Gospel “may vivify a man's higher impulses and give a new worth and force to all the work he can do under the sun.
The teachings of the Gospel live and move and have their being in a plane of their own. The values they reveal and exalt are values for the soul, not to be measured by earthly standards. Their influence is not institutional but spiritual. It has nothing to do with governments, but looks forward to a society in which law and compulsion will have been replaced by goodwill and the sense of human brotherhood. However remote the prospect that such a society can be established on earth, the principles which that teaching inculcates are sufficient to guide conduct in every walk of life. He who does justice and loves mercy and seeks the good of others no less than his own will bring the right spirit to his public as well as his own private duties. If ever that spirit pervades a whole nation, it will be a Christian nation as none has ever yet been.
There are Dervish fraternities among the Muslims, and organized sects such as the Senussi of North-East Africa have sometimes risen to importance.
The interdiction of human sacrifices among the Celts of Gaul was due not to hostility to Druidical beliefs but to motives of humanity.
The word means “successor or representative.” According to the old orthodox doctrine, the Khalif must belong to the tribe of the Koreish, and must be in control of the sacred cities, Mecca and Medina. Since the fall of the Abbasside Khalifate at Bagdad, the office possessed scarcely any political importance till Abdul Hamid II., whose predecessor Selim I. had obtained it from the helpless Fatimite Khalif of Egypt, began to employ it as a means of increasing his influence outside Turkey.
Calvin observed that it was a vain thing to dispute as to the best form of political institutions; circumstances must determine that. His own preference was for a well-tempered liberty under a wise oligarchy. I quote from Hasbach, p. 2 and note.
Acts of the Apostles, iv. 32.
In Japan an attempt was recently made to revive, as against foreign influences, the declining power of Buddhist worship. In India there are agitators who appeal to Muslim sentiment or Hindu sentiment for the purposes of their political propaganda.
Acts of the Apostles, v. 29.