Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter XI. The Commercialized Church in the Commercialized State

On the morning of January 30, 1905, the mayor of the city of Rochester, in the state of New York, read an able paper on municipal government before the ministerial association of that city. The mayor opened his discussion with the statement that the church and state have now no organic relation. The only survival of the bond of union which once united these two institutions is the formal acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God which is expressed in the oath of office that the state requires of its officers as they enter upon their duties. This oath of office is a solemn religious act, giving divine sanction to the functions of the legal officer. When the mayor takes this oath he is bound, not simply to the service of the people, but also and more solemnly to the service of God. He is in the highest sense of the word an ordained, consecrated man. Like the King of Israel, he is the Lord's annointed, and to the Lord he must give an account. When an officer of the state takes his oath of office seriously he [256/257] makes of the state a religious institution, it rests, not only in the consent of the people, but also upon the will of God. Mr. Lincoln in his first inaugural address declared his intention of maintaining the Constitution and enforcing the laws throughout the length and breadth of the land, and then, pleading with the men of the south, he said: "You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it." [Lincoln, 1st Inaugural.] Then the great, gaunt man lifted up his hand and called God to witness that in all he did or said he was the servant, not simply of human law, but also of divine justice, and from that day the man went as one who was set apart to the service of God.

So, the mayor of Rochester, in calling the attention of the ministers to the fact that he "had registered an oath in heaven" to enforce the laws of the city and protect its interests against all comers, certified to his hearers that he, like Melchizedek, King of Salem, was a priest of the most high God and a minister about holy things. I do not think that either the mayor or the ministers recognized the full significance of this passing allusion to the [257/258] oath of office. I fear both minister and mayor failed to see that the oath of office, if other than an idle form or a bit of blasphemy, gives divine sanction to civil life, and makes of the mayor, a minister of religion. [The oath of office is simply a declaration of the sacred character of the mayor's office. The oath is nothing; the sacredness everything.]

This inattention to an important fact and a great underlying principle arose from an inveterate habit on the part of both mayor and minister of inclosing human life into two compartments which have no opening into each other. These compartments are the secular and the sacred. The secular incloses the mayor and all that belongs to him; the sacred incloses the ministers and all that belongs to them. The mayor came to the ministers, as a messenger might come from Mars, to let these inhabitants of another sphere into the secrets of his own planetary existence. With a naivete that was charming, the mayor took for granted that the ministers would not be interested in anything that lay outside their own circle of being. The only function of the city government which he explained at any length was that which has to do with the closing of the saloons [258/259] on Sunday. Again, I fear that neither the mayor nor the ministers were conscious of the latent sarcasm that thus, by implication, limited the interests of the ministers. It was nothing to them whether the homes of the people of their city were wholesome or unwholesome; nothing to them whether the officers of their city were honest or corrupt; nothing to them whether the children of their city were being trained to wisdom or to folly; nothing to them whether the streets of their city were hideous or beautiful; nothing to them that the merchants of the city turned girls and women by the thousand out into the streets of the city in the middle of the night, these girls and women exhausted by sixteen hours of toil, left, so far as the merchants were concerned, to become the prey of any passerby. All this was secular, and did not concern the minister. It was the opening of the saloon on Sunday that roused his interest, because Sunday is the little bit of time which he has tried to enclose in his sacred compartment, and claims as his own. The Sunday saloon encroaches upon the territory of the Sunday church, and if the Sunday saloon be opened the ministers fear that the Sunday church may have to be closed, and the occupation of the minister be gone. [259/260] I have seen many strange sights in this strange world in which I find myself a sojourner, but never a stranger,--sadder sight than to see four-score men sitting, not only silent, but contented, under an implication that proclaimed their own utter impotence and the impotence of their God. For, if the minister, with God on his side, cannot win out against the barkeeper in a fair and open competition, then what is the use of the minister, and where is the power of his God.

The mayor did say that, if the ministers could get out of their compartment and get into his they could, if they would, help him in the exercise of the functions of his sacred office. The mayor confessed, that with the best will in the world he was not free to do what he thought for the highest interests of the city. Because of a certain evil power which was strong and rampant in his compartment, he was sore let and hindered in doing the work that was set before him, and he prayed the ministers for help. But, as he mentioned the name of this power, every minister that heard that name shuddered; for he knew that the self-same power was in his compartment, keeping him from the full performance of his duty. The name of the power that checked the mayor and throttled the minister was "money."

[261] The church and state might be separate worlds, their orbits intersecting only at the Sunday laws, but they were both revolving in the atmosphere of a corrupt commercialism. [Commerce should be the servant, not the master, of church and state. As a servant, it is ennobling; as a master, a depraving influence in human life.]

This power which has silenced the voice of the church and paralyzed the Constitution of the state began to dominateboth church and state immediately after the close of the Civil War. In the first or constitutional period of American history, which ended with the administration of John Quincy Adams, the American people were engaged in the work of establishing a stable government which should secure to themselves and to their children the liberties for which they had struggled in the Revolutionary era. In that period the will of the people was supreme in the choice of the officers of the government and the affairs of state were in the hands of men who were consecrated to their task by a sense of obligation to their conscience and their God. Webster in the Senate, Marshall and Story on the Bench, and Quincy Adams in the Presidential chair, were the kind of men found in public life in the first period [261/262] of our history. At this time our country was mainly agricultural, and the industrial life centered in the farm. Commerce or trading was in the hands of individual merchants, who were known by name, and were directly responsible to the people of their vicinage for their actions. The press was used for the expression of personal opinion, and centered in the editor. The church exercised the office of moral and spiritual guidance; it was mainly Protestant and Puritan, and the minister was a highly respected member of the community. This primitive period of American history was, of course, not perfect, but it was healthy; the state and the church, commerce and agriculture, were each exercising their normal functions. The English race was still fairly pure and immensely prolific, and the family was the seat of a stern domestic government. Divorce was rare, and barrenness uncommon.

The next period of national history, beginning with the election of Andrew Jackson and ending with the close of the Mexican War, was marked by the rise of party politics and the great Irish and German migrations. In this period Americans began to consciously seek office for the sake of the emolument connected therewith. The powerful politician [262/263] whose business it was to manipulate conventions and carry elections made his appearance in the persons of Amos Kendall and Thurlow Weed. Our elections from that period have been not simply the contest of two differing policies for supremacy, but a battle of the ins and outs for the offices. During this period the common man of the country became conscious of his power: the old Federal aristocracy gave place to the new democracy, of which Jackson was the type. The vast emigration from Ireland and Germany brought the Catholic church into immediate juxtaposition to the native Protestant bodies and the spiritual force of the country was drawn more and more from the direction of civil and social affairs into the channels of ecclesiastical warfare and theological discussion. The use of steam and machinery stilled the hum of the spinning wheel in the farm house, destroyed in a measure the independence of the farmer, and centered industrial life in the factory and the city. Commerce was still, in this period, in the hands mainly of individual merchants directly responsible to the people. It was a period strongly individualistic and competitive. The leaders of the mercantile world were such men as A. A. Low, George Peabody, and Moses Taylor, [263/264] men of high character and strong religious conviction who looked upon their wealth as a trust which they held from God for the use of the people.

With the close of the Mexican War the struggle of the slave power for supremacy reached its acute stage. For the next twenty-five years the people of the United States were absorbed in a contest which was to determine whether this country were to be all slave or all free. The spiritual forces of the country escaping the control of the formal religions, were occupied in the warfare of freedom against slavery. The abolitionist found himself excommunicate. When Thomas Morris, the leader of abolitionism in Ohio, made his famous speech against Clay in the United States Senate, ending with the words: "The negro shall yet be free," he was read out of the Democratic party, and became a political outcast, and when he died he was denied burial by the Methodist church. [Life of Thomas Morris, B. F. Morris.] The failure of the church to grasp the moral significance of the slavery agitation lowered its prestige, and gave its power into the hands of men of the people. [The last defense of slavery was written by the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church.] The highest type of man in that age was everywhere [264/265] alienated from the churches. Whittier, the saintly poet; Emerson, the seer; Garrison and Phillips, the prophets; Brown, the martyr; Sumner, the tribune, and Lincoln, the far-seeing moral statesman, were all of them outside and some of them under the ban of the Orthodox churches. The fall of Puritanism as a theological system controlling American thought, which was the consequence of this failure of the ministry as a class to see the moral question involved in the slavery agitation and which was precipitated by the Unitarian secession, left the American people without any formal theological system in which to center their thought and life, and the result is the theological chaos and the religious paralysis in the midst of which we are now living.

The close of the Civil War was followed by moral exhaustion. The prophets and the priests, the martyrs and the soldiers, of the slavery crusade had lost their lives in gaining their cause. Lincoln was dead, Sumner was dead, Whittier was dead, Phillips was dead, Emerson was dead, Beecher was decadent, and over the dead and dying bodies of these heroes a new power arose to claim supremacy in the land, and this power was the power of the merchant. The man of the purse assumed the leadership which had [265/266] until then been held by the man of the pen and the man of the sword. Before the people were aware, within ten years of the war, American life was commercialized, and both church and state were in the power of the mercantile class. It was this class, and this class only, that profited by the war. When the war closed the mercantile class were in possession of the bonded debt of the country, which amounted to $2,400, 000,000, with an annual interest charge of $150,000,000. [Channing, History United States, p. 559.] The mercantile class had paid about 33 1/3 cents in gold on a dollar for these bonds, and had purchased them for the most part, not in money, but in army supplies sold at a fabulous profit. While the soldier was dying on the battlefield, and the people were sacrificing every comfort, the army contractor was growing rich by taking advantage of the necessities of his country. As soon as the war was over the people set to work to pay off every dollar of this debt in gold coin. This determination of the people made the bonds which had been purchased for 33 1/3 cents on the dollar, worth from no to 130 cents on the par value. And all this immense accretion of value went to enrich the mercantile class. And it was this war debt which was [266/267] the source of their power over the political, social, and religious life of the country.

The era of industrial organization and concentration in which we now live dates with the close of the Civil War. Before the war there had been signs of the coming time. Rochester was the headquarters of one of the earliest of those vast corporations which are now so common in the industrial world. Certain merchants formed a corporation and purchased the stock of the various telegraph companies which were operating in the Western States, and the economies incident upon consolidation and reorganization made these profitless properties profitable, and made the stock which had been purchased at a low rate worth more than its face value. About the same time the railroads of New York and Pennsylvania were consolidated into trunk lines and the New York Central, and Pennsylvania , railroad stock became a part of the current wealth of the country. This immense increase of available wealth added to the inflated currency of the country, gave rise to an era of speculative railroad building. Two transcontinental roads were projected and brought to completion, and thousands of miles of rails were laid in the wilderness. Then it was that the money [267/268] power began to make itself felt in the political life of the country. For a consideration Congress was persuaded to give millions of acres of the public lands to private corporations, and to loan these corporations millions of money.

The sound of the guns of the Civil War had hardly died away before this foe of civil purity, corrupt commercialism, began to threaten the liberties of the country. In the last Congress of the Johnson administration and the first Congress of the Grant administration the railroad companies had their paid agent in the House of Representatives in the person of Oaks Ames, and the stock of the Credit Mobilier was freely used to secure desired legislation. The name of the Vice-President of the United States was tainted with corruption. The reputation of the most popular politician and statesman of the day was smirched, and his political career arrested. But the main field in which the railroad exploiter evinced his skill was not in the United States Congress with its limited power; it was in the legislatures of the states, and in the common councils of the cities, with their power to grant charters and privileges. I need not rehearse the shameful history of the Gould-Fisk outrage upon the [268/269] rights of the people in New York and adjacent states. These men bought legislatures, common councils, and judges of court as they would buy cattle in the market. They entrenched themselves like banditti, and defied the process of law. They made common cause with the Tweed ring in New York, and were as brazen as a harlot in their work of corruption. They bought everything they wanted from judicial integrity to woman's honor, and they paraded their purchase in the sight of the world. They made no secret of the ownership of Judge Car-doza, and Fisk paraded Jessie Mansfield in an open carriage drawn by four horses through the streets of New York. What these men did openly was done secretly on a far more extensive scale by men whose reputation remained untarnished, and who attended divine service with the regularity of a devotee. During his palmy days the anteroom of William Tweed was crowded with leading merchants seeking special privileges and exemptions from the common council of which Tweed was the owner. It was proved in the Lexow investigation that it was really the merchants of New York who employed Croker and gave him his power.

It was at this time that corrupt commercialism [269/270] subverted representative government, and substituted personal and semi-imperial government in its room. It did this by laying hold of and manipulating the party organizations in its own interests. This corrupt commercial class had no political, as it has no religious, convictions. It was Republican or Democratic as suited its purposes. Its stronghold was the party primary, which it used to establish and maintain its control of the political life of the country. It left to the people the forms of liberty, but all real power was in the hands of one man, who was the agent of the commercial class in its dealing with the politicians. This system of government has fastened itself as a fungus upon the formal governments of the country, and is slowly but surely sapping their strength and taking away their life. I need not go into detail; the matter is notorious, and the mayor confessed that he, the elected magistrate of the people, was more or less in subjection to this power which the people did not set up, but which was an alliance between the commercial and political classes for the purpose of controlling the official government and making it subservient to their private and personal ends. And what is a mild case of varioloid in Rochester is virulent smallpox [270/271] in other and richer cities; and as for the states, the ordinary citizen has quite given them up in despair. He goes through the form of voting for governor, but he knows that he has no more voice in the choice of the governor of the state than the Roman people had in the choice of their consul in the days of the Roman Empire.

It was the commercialization of industry that made possible the commercialization of the state. Before the present organization of industry, in the days of the individual shop and factory, the man who owned the shop or the factory had risen from the ranks of labor in his line of life; his business was the product of his savings and his skill; he was in touch with his workmen as being himself one of them. But immediately before, during, and since the Civil War the owners of the great shops and factories are not skilled workmen; they are simply merchants. They buy and sell human skill and human labor as they buy and sell raw cotton and sugar. This system places the worker entirely at the mercy of the buyer and seller; and the conflict which is now going on between these two classes, is a conflict, not only to determine the relative status of these two classes, but it is to determine the character of [271/272] the government of the country for ages to come. The issue of this contest will decide whether America is to be a Democracy of the English type or an Empire of the Roman type; whether the people as a whole are to rule, or be ruled. At present the commercial class rules. It is in possession of the government and makes the laws; it is the employer of the professional and industrial classes, and holds them in subjection; it is in possession of the public utilities, and can levy taxes upon the people without their consent.

It rules in social life as well as in the state, and makes money the measure of the man. "See, there is the great Schwab," said a business man of New York to me one day. "Why the great Schwab?" said I. "Because he is under forty years old, and he is worth so many millions of dollars." "So," said I, "did he earn it by honest toil?" "Oh, no!" "Did he inherit it?" "Oh, no!" "Did he steal it?" "Well, no!" "How did he get it?" "He made it." Then I looked at Mr. Schwab with interest. He was greater than the United States, which cannot make a dollar of money, while Mr. Schwab could make it by the million.

It is this doctrine that money can be made that is [272/273] the source of our present distress. The old doctrine that money must be earned, inherited, or stolen gives place to the new doctrine that money can be made; and there are thousands of men who are making it as easily as they light a cigar, and are passing it out to the people. How they do it you can learn from the current literature of the day. This rating of man in terms of money is the mark of Anti-Christ, for a man's life does not consist in the amount of money he has made.

Corrupt commercialism has subsidized the press, centered its control in the counting room, and made its most highly paid functionary the advertising agent. It has taken possession of our streets and made them hideous with poles and wires. It has vulgarized travel, and made the name of America a byword for puerile extravagance on the continent of Europe. It builds churches and gladly listens to the preaching of the gospel and insists on the orthodoxy of its doctrine, but it is careful to keep the minister with his gospel in that closed compartment over the door of which it writes the mystic word "sacred," and in which it does not permit the common affairs of every-day life to be so much as [273/274] mentioned, lest they should disturb the holy quiet of the place.

It goes without saying that there are high-minded men in the commercial class, who deplore present conditions as sadly as the sternest moralist in the land. But what can they do? Such a merchant was once speaking to me of the evil effects which came from the employment of women in certain departments of commercial enterprise. "Why do you not stop it in your establishment?" said I. "Blank, Blank, & Company cannot regulate the commercial life of the United States," was the answer. And that is the substance of the whole matter. You and I, together with Blank, Blank, & Company are in the power of a state-church whose god is gain, whose heaven is commercial success, whose hell is commercial failure. This commercial state-church is the keeper of the keys of its heaven and hell. It can admit to the heavenly light of commercial prosperity, or it can shut out into the darkness of commercial adversity. In matters of religion it is lordly tolerant. You can believe anyone of the one hundred and forty creeds of Christendom that you please. You can belong to this or that political party; but there is one thing you must do or die. [274/275] You must go to the plain of Dura and at the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the golden image which this modern Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And the question now confronting the American people, and especially the people who profess and call themselves Christians, is, What are you going to do about it? Dare you, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, trust your God and brave the fire, or are you ready at the very first note of the cornet to fall down and worship the golden image which Nebuchadnezzar has set up?

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