All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1955

Religion In American Life

A layman re-examines and appraises the meaning of two vital facets of the traditional American way of life

Since our subject is religion and its place in American life, we must start with these questions: What is religion? What is American life? There are many concepts of each, with wide divergences of meaning and emphasis.

“Religion,” Webster says, “is the service and adoration of God . . . in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.”

St. James said, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

And Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the people.”

These and other definitions have failed to satisfy my desire for a guide for my personal conduct. So I have prepared this one for my own use: Religion is the search for a satisfying way of life so conducted that, with faith and by His grace, I can approach closer to God and learn what He wants me to do. This concept is based on my belief that man yearns for truth, goodness, and beauty. He wants to see them expressed in the specific issues of his daily living. He has learned, by trial and error, that this can be achieved only by moving toward God. Thus, he can obtain better understanding of the laws which govern a good life.

What is “American life”? Or better—What is “American life” as it was intended by those who established our Republic?

I believe that this kind of “life” began long before the American Revolution of 1776. However, it was defined in certain statements of fundamental principles which were set forth at that time.

The American Revolutionary idea was founded on a new application of certain concepts which were part of the religion of Christendom.

Basic to all others was the concept that God rules the universe, with its corollary, that all men are creatures of God. It follows that if men are creatures of God, each man is sovereign in his relations with his fellow men, and, therefore, has worth and dignity. The concept of individual sovereignty gave birth to the idea of limited government. That is, the concept of limited government may be likened to the bottom rung of a ladder, the rung above is the concept of individual sovereignty and above all is the God concept.

Those who launched this American experiment believed that each of us has an inalienable right to life, which includes the right to protect and sustain that life. The sustenance of life requires the right to control the fruits of one’s labor, that is, one’s honestly acquired property. Without these corollary rights, the right to life has no meaning. To make those rights secure, an agent was to be established whose function would be to do for all of them, collectively but equally, that, and only that, which each one had a right to do for himself individually.

This agent, which they called “government,” was to defend the lives, the liberties, and the livelihoods of the nation’s citizens; to invoke a common justice; and to keep the records incidental thereto. Other than this, the people would be free to pursue their own interests; provided such pursuit would not lead them to trespass upon the rights of others.

What was so revolutionary about those ideas? It was this: Never before in history had any people succeeded in establishing themselves as completely sovereign. Never before had any people succeeded in relegating the political agency of force to the position of a servant. Never before had the idea been put into practice that the fruits of one’s labor are one’s own to keep, to trade, or even to give away, as he chooses. Always before it was the agency of force—government—that was sovereign; and any right to one’s product, even to one’s life, was a right granted to the people by the government.

As an example, I cite the Magna Carta, wherein King John stated: “Wherefore our will is, and we firmly command . . . that the men in our kingdom have and hold the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions . . . to them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and places forever . . .”

It appears that even the barons thought of “rights” not as something which comes from God, but as something to be taken from the King when they had enough power to do so.

But in the original American vision the powers of government were to be confined within narrow limits. This vision was derived from the concepts that the rights of man come from God; that they are inalienable; that it is the function of government to make them secure; and that when any form of government fails to serve this end, it is the right and duty of the people to alter or abolish it.

In effect, the Founding Fathers were trying to set up a secular order based on their idea of the pattern laid down by God for man’s conduct in society. This was in strict conformity with the basic truth that every social order derives its sanctions from the prevailing conception of the cosmic order. As evidence of faith in the sanction of “Divine Providence” for their actions, they pledged to each other “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.”

They believed there could be no divorcement of religious principle from government. They held that individual liberty must be subjected to the restraints of God’s laws; that liberty without a religious foundation quickly becomes license; that license breeds immorality, which calls forth the police power of government to restrain it. Power is insatiable; ii feeds upon itself and soon becomes corrupt. The further loosening of moral law calls for more power in government. Then liberty is in mortal danger!

We have ample evidence of the unity of religion and government which guided the actions of our political forebears. There is the statement, attributed to William Penn: “If you are not governed by God, you will be ruled by tyrants.”

George Washington in his farewell address said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

And further evidence is found in the statements of a neutral observer—Alexis de Tocqueville the gifted French scholar, who, after an extended visit to America in 1831, wrote: “. . . whilst the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust . . .

“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions . . .”

Thus, we see that religion is the cornerstone of our heritage. This is attested by the Constitutions of 47 of our 48 States, in which it is recognized that religious principle forms the base of political and social doctrine. It is confirmed, also, by an historic decision of our Supreme Court in 1892, in the case of the Church of the Holy Trinity against the United States, in which the Court stated: “This [the United States] is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of America to this hour there is a single Voice making this affirmation.”

Upon this rock, the conviction that God must be in all things, our people built a great and free nation. This was the ideal of “American life” as it was conceived by those who established this Republic.

What is our current situation? I believe there are many thoughtful persons, devoted to the traditions of our country and our spiritual heritage, who are profoundly disturbed by what appears to be a growing secularism throughout our body politic, including our churches. They are disturbed by what appears to be a disposition on the part of official church bodies to add the weight of the churches to the efforts of those who are trying to reform society solely by political means.

Much as I am opposed to such efforts, which have the ultimate effect of using the church as an instrument to achieve partisan secular ends, I cannot be too sympathetic to criticisms which come from those laymen who are responsible, at least in part, for this state of affairs.

For, just as the people get the kind of government they demand, so do we laymen get the kind of church we demand. One must admit that, over the years, we have been demanding from our ministers many services which are largely secular. We have burdened them with endless odd jobs, instead of doing those jobs ourselves so they can concentrate on the work which they alone can do—studying, meditating, praying, searching out ways to best meet the deep needs of man’s inner life, teaching us by spoken and written word to understand the moral code which should govern our relationships with God and with our neighbors, and the techniques and disciplines for coming to know more of God.

The situation is described in a letter from a father to his son, in which he says: “What does a minister do, my son? Well, his time is his own, which means that he is always on the job. The minister teaches, though he must solicit his own classes. He heals, though without pills or knife. He is sometimes a lawyer, often a social worker, something of an editor, a bit of a philosopher and entertainer, a salesman, a decorative piece for public functions; and he is supposed to be a scholar. He visits the sick, marries people, buries the dead, labors to console those who sorrow and to admonish those who sin, and tries to stay sweet when chided for not doing his duty. He plans programs, appoints committees When he can get them, spends considerable time in keeping people out of each other’s hair; between times he prepares a sermon and preaches it on Sunday to those who don’t happen to have any other engagement. Then on Monday he smiles when some jovial chap roars, ‘What a job—one hour a week!’”

The church does have important secular and social duties in a community; and, as an institution, it does have to manage its property, hire labor, and perform many business functions. But some of us have permitted this secular work to supersede the strictly religious functions for which the church exists. So much so that our ministers are warranted in assuming that this is about all we want of our churches. God be thanked that some ministers have not yielded to our demands! There is important work here for laymen. It is to take over many of such business and social functions so that our clergy will be free to minister to our souls!

This raises certain vital questions—Does man have a soul? Is he a spiritual being? Does the cosmic order really sanction his traditional ethical values? Many influential thinkers during the past century have raised doubts. So long as there is such doubt, it paralyzes religious effort in certain directions and has serious political consequences. If it be true, as I maintain, that the idea of liberty and limited government written into our Declaration of Independence and Constitution is founded on religious concepts, then it follows that a decay of this foundation will bring down the political structure erected on it.

In order to see more clearly this relationship between religion and liberty, let us trace the changes in the concepts of the nature of man over the past two centuries. For upon each of these concepts there have been erected corollary political and social doctrines. These, in turn, have influenced the thoughts and actions of those to whom we look for spiritual guidance.

We can divide this era roughly into three periods, the first of which is the classic-liberal period.

Some 200 years ago, classic-liberalism gave us a picture of man as a static creature who had arrived on this planet with fully developed faculties and powers. Among other things, he was endowed with a set of natural rights. On this concept of man there was erected a plan for the ordering of society. There is much to be commended in the answers to social problems which were derived from this concept. But unfortunately, with the passage of time the advocates of this doctrine failed to give adequate weight to the idea that there must be a religious foundation for political liberty. They were willing to accept the fruits without fully accepting the spiritual source from which they sprang. It appears they did not realize that, cut off from its natural roots in religion, liberty by itself is too fragile a thing to survive very long in this kind of a world.

About the middle of the 19th century the classic-liberal picture of man, which resulted in a large measure of individual freedom and consequent increase in material goods, began to fade. There was evolved a new concept of man. The picture of man as a full-blown static late-comer on earth gave way to the idea that he had developed his faculties by interaction with his physical environment over a very long period of time. The 19th century embraced the materialistic theory of evolution which was attributed to Darwin. The idea of man with inherent rights derived from his Creator had no place in this concept, so it was discarded.

The typical 19th century view of the world was mechanistic. It held that only matter and motion are real; that there was significance only in physical events, that is, events observable by the senses or measurable by physical instruments. It seemed as though an honest reading of the facts pointed to nature with nothing beyond it, and within nature only things prevailed.

This view, the proponents said, was supported by the most eminent scientists of the time. Professor Tyndall, in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874, predicted that science would eventually be able to explain everything that had happened and everything that will happen in terms of what he called “the ultimately purely natural and inevitable march of evolution, from the atoms of the primeval nebulae to the proceedings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” T. H. Huxley, lecturing before the same association, said, “The thoughts to which I am now giving utterance and your thoughts regarding them are expressions of the molecular changes in the matter of life.”

But even after men had become materialists, they tried to cling to their traditional ethics, although they began to realize that their science and their ethics were in conflict. In 1893 Huxley said, “Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another which may be called the ethical process . . .”

Huxley urged an ethic that was opposed to the cosmic order, but his critics said that this was pure sentimentalism and that Huxley was too timid to abandon ethics as he had abandoned the religion from which they had sprung. His ethics, they said, had both feet planted firmly in mid-air, because the ethical process cannot survive without cosmic sanction.

This 19th century concept of man and the universe was not congenial to the idea of human liberty. The political idea of liberty or limited government springs from the religious idea of the character of man. So, when men came to be regarded as mere particles of matter, fragments of the natural landscape, the idea of limited government made little sense.

The real exploiter of this new concept of man and the universe was Marxism. The Marxist dogma that all history is the history of class struggle fits in perfectly with the theory that struggle for existence and natural selection are the only forces that have molded all living forms, including man. Socialism became the bold and virile new doctrine which has had such strong attraction for many intellectuals from that time until recently.

Wherever this belief took hold, that only matter and motion are real, serious interest in religion reached a low ebb. What effect did these new and “progressive” ideas have on the church?

In mid-19th century two Church of England clergymen, F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, men of highest character, founded the Christian Socialist Movement. In America, the Social Gospel Movement was inaugurated shortly after the Civil War. What should churchmen do if they wanted to be effective among a people who were coming more and more to believe that the spiritual world and the human soul were unreal? It seemed at least to some of them that religion’s new function was to reform the social order and thus provide currently useful channels for religious energies which formerly had been directed toward man’s search for God. They seemed to agree with the thesis that one can change man all of man, including his soul merely by changing his physical environment. Certainly no one would contend that man’s environment did not need improvement. It still does. But the denial of spiritual reality would appear not to be the way to improve material conditions.

Such, in brief outline, was the period of theoretical materialism—the age of the grand plans for revolutionary social action!

But something happened to the scientific foundations of this 19th century concept of nature and man. A new generation of scientists was coming along. New knowledge of the composition of matter was being obtained. Many eminent scientists were beginning to doubt the thesis that only matter and motion are real. They were taking a new look and were reaching new conclusions.

Let me quote from four contemporary scientists to illustrate this point. Sir James Jeans said in 1930, “Thirty years ago we thought, or assumed, that we were heading toward an ultimate reality of a mechanical kind. It seemed to consist of a fortuitous jumble of atoms which was destined to perform meaningless dances for a time under the action of blind, purposeless forces and then fall back to form a dead world. Into this wholly mechanical world, through the play of the same blind forces, life had stumbled by accident.

“Today there is a wide measure of agreement which, on the physical side of science, approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine . . .

“We discover that the universe shows evidence of a designing or controlling power that has something in common with our own individual minds . . .”

Robert A. Millikan stated at about the same time, “The idea that God . . . is not a being of caprice and whim, as had been the case in all the main body of thinking of the ancient world, but is instead a God who rules through law . . . . That idea has made modern science and it is unquestionably the foundation of modern civilization . . .”

Arthur H. Compton said in 1946, “In their essence there can be no conflict between science and religion. Science is a reliable method of finding truth. Religion is the search for a satisfying basis for life . . . . Science is growing. Yet a world that has science needs, as never before, the inspiration that religion has to offer . . . . Beyond the nature taught by science is the spirit that gives meaning to life.”

And Albert Einstein said, “God is not playing dice with the universe.”

From these and other noted students of the physical universe we learn that matter is not ultimately real; that it is composed of atoms which, in turn, are formed of electrons and protons, i.e., particles of electricity, plus non-charged particles called neutrons, all of which can be transformed into energy which is itself ethereal. It now appears that the ultimate reality is the Spiritual—that something which is both inherent in nature and beyond nature. The supernatural has been reinstated! This new scientific world view is of great significance for religion. It reinforces the traditional religious concept of reality and of man. And this new status of religion, in turn, vitally affects social thought.

I have pointed out that the typical social thought of the 19th century was the socialism erected on the foundation of theoretical materialism. We have noted how Huxley clung to a code of ethics after the religious foundation of that code had been removed. In like manner, those who wish to turn men’s idealism into socialistic channels still cling to their socializing efforts after the world picture from which their socialism sprang has been erased by the scientists. Professor Wilhelm Roepke, the noted Swiss economist, has stated, “While politics today noisily thrash the sheaves of the 19th century, the soil has already been planted with new seeds.” The socializers have now become those with both feet planted firmly in mid-air! With the disappearance of its materialistic foundation, socialism as a consistent theoretical system is in its death throes, although the dismembered body is still thrashing about and doing great damage. The heirs to this defunct philosophy are now using it solely as a means to achieve political power.

We are now living in the third or post-materialistic period, the period of the emergent-spiritual man. The new concept of man pictures him neither as a static, fully-developed creature, nor as solely the product of material forces. He has developed in response to a nonmaterial, as well as a material environment. He can rise to much higher grades of consciousness, if only he is free to seek his destiny. To do this he must have understanding of his interdependent relationship to his fellow men, a relationship based on his personal awareness of moral responsibility, and not achieved, as the socialists would have it, by group coercion. This concept of the emergent-spiritual man is founded on religion because it pictures individual life as a grand adventure in destiny.

As opposed to the thesis of the socialist partisans that man can be molded completely by his environment, we, who believe that all power comes from God, hold that man can be changed only if he re-orients himself toward God. The late Dean Inge said, “In direct opposition to Marxian socialism, we are taught that from within, out of the heart of man, comes all that can exalt or defile him.”

Where lies the duty of the church in this new age of man?

I do not agree with those who say that the church should have no interest in political or economic problems; for God is everywhere, and where God is, there belongs His church. But there is a vast difference between the church going into politics and the church exerting its great moral influence in the solution of the economic and social problems of mankind. I have support for this view from eminent churchmen. The late Dean Inge declared: “No church ever goes into politics without coming out badly smirched . . . . We have seen the English church in the 18th and part of the 19th centuries identifying itself too much with the landed interest and showing small sympathy with the efforts of landworkers to secure conditions of civilized life. And now, when power has definitely passed into the hands of the masses, we see large numbers of churchmen repeating the same mistake under color of rectifying it . . . . It is notorious that political christianity excites bitter hatred against the church . . . . The choice for the church is between political power and moral influence.”

And the late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, an outstanding leader of the social gospel forces and friendly to Britain’s Labor Party said: “It is of crucial importance that the church, acting corporately, should not commit itself to any particular policy . . . . The church is committed to the everlasting Gospel and to the creeds which formulate it; it must never commit itself to an ephemeral program of detailed action.”

I have no quarrel with the stated ends of modern “liberals” of the left, nor with those of “conservatives” of the right. My concern is with the means advocated, or used, to achieve those ends. For I believe that the moral content of the ends is inherent in the means used to attain them. My quarrel is with those who would use force, applied through their agent—government to achieve social, or any other, objectives. Here, I believe, lies the great mission of the church—to teach man that by God’s power all worthy objectives can be achieved; that to know God—to know His will—should be the highest purpose of man’s life! And that man can be oriented toward God only by conversion, which gains the consent of his will—not by coercion, which overrides his will!

We are now locked in the grip of Armageddon—the death struggle between conversion and coercion, which will determine whether man can learn to obey God’s laws in time to avoid destruction; whether an emergent individual morality, buttressed by strength derived from God, with resultant power to establish a true religious community, shall be the victor over a decadent group morality, imposed on mankind by the force of secular law. Men are yearning for the things which only a dynamic, militant, creative church can give them-they know now that “Man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things that he hath,” that, if they would preserve those precious things which they would hand down as a heritage to their children, freedom and faith, they must “seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then, all other things “shall be added unto” them.

My plea is that we so direct our efforts that all men will know when we cry out, “Back to church,” we are proclaiming also “Forward to God.” []

Admiral Ben Moreell is Chairman of the Board of Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation.


Religion at work

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of productive power at work, and not a kingdom of aesthetic self-indulgence or emotional happiness, much less a kingdom of mere talk. It therefore requires no mystical interpretation to give credence to the promise of prosperity to those who seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. Neither does it require any miracle to bring about the literal fulfillment of the promise that other things will be added unto them, for that result would come about through the normal working of economic law. When all the latent energy of a people is made active, when it is directed in the most intelligent manner toward the satisfaction of real human needs, when none of it is wasted or dissipated in injurious, antagonistic or destructive effort, such a people will attain to a degree of real prosperity hitherto unknown.

The greatest resource of any country is its fund of human energy. Nations have grown rich in the midst of poor surroundings by economizing and utilizing their funds of human energy. New England, for example, has poor soil, a harsh climate and no minerals. In spite of these handicaps, the Puritans built a prosperous community. The Mormons in Utah made the desert bloom and blossom. These results were achieved by the development of human resources. Other peoples have grown or remained poor in the midst of rich natural resources because they have not developed their human resources. Russia and China are examples . . . .

The church that discovers and develops all the talent that exists among its young people will be a powerful factor in national prosperity. It will not only help those young people whom it speeds on their way to success, but the rest of the country besides. If it could develop a few great captains of industry, it would help industry to expand, to create more goods and services for more people and more jobs for workers.

Thomas Nixon Carver

  • Admiral Ben Moreell (1892 – 1978) was the chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks and of the Civil Engineer Corps. Best known to the American public as the Father of the Navy's Seabees, Moreell's life spanned eight decades, two world wars, a great depression and the evolution of the United States as a superpower. He was a distinguished Naval Officer, a brilliant engineer, an industrial giant and articulate national spokesman.