Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


For some time the Labor leaders have been assiduously courted by the Churches. It is reckoned good business to have one on exhibition at Congresses and Conferences. Ben Tillett is in frequent request as a preacher. Tom Mann, who was once heterodox, is now declared by the Christian Commonwealth to be a member of a Christian Church. "We are not aware," our contemporary says, "that John Burns is opposed to the religion of Jesus Christ."

This appropriation of the Labor leaders is an excellent piece of strategy. Churches have seldom had the harmlessness of doves, but they have generally had the cunning of serpents. They often stoop, but always to conquer. And this is precisely what they are doing in the present case.

A year or two ago a leading Socialist, who is also an Atheist, remarked to us how the clericals were creeping into the Socialist movement. "Yes," we observed, "and they will appropriate and stifle it. They will talk about the Socialism of Jesus Christ, bamboozle your followers, and get them out of your control. Then the Socialism will gradually disappear, and Jesus Christ will be left in sole possession of the field. The clericals, in fact, will trump your best cards, if you let them take part in the game."

We warn the Labor leaders, whether they listen to us or not, that they are coquetting with the historic enemy of the people. All religion is a consecration of the past, and every minister is at heart a priest. The social and political object of Churches is to keep things as they are; or, if they must be altered, to control the alteration in the interest of wealth and privilege. Fine words may be uttered and popular sentiments may be echoed; but history teaches us that when the leaders of religion talk in this way, they are serving their one great purpose as surely as when they curse and damn the rebellious multitude.

The course of events will show whether we are right or wrong. Meanwhile let us "return to our sheep." Not that Mr. Keir Hardie is a sheep. We don't mean that, though he is certainly being attended to by the wolves.

Mr. Keir Hardie has been interviewed by the Christian Commonwealth. "His father," we are informed, "is a very vigorous and militant Atheist, so that the son was brought up without any religious belief." To some extent we believe this is true. Mr. Hardie's brother, and another member of the family, attended our last lectures at Glasgow. But we do not understand that Mr. Keir Hardie was ever a professed Atheist, or a member of any Freethought society. The scepticism he was "weaned from" by the Evangelical Union Church could hardly have been of a very robust order. He seems to have imbibed a sentimental form of Christianity as easily and comfortably as a cat laps milk.

During his last election contest the statement was circulated that Mr. Keir Hardie was an Atheist. "Whereupon," we are told, "Dr. James Morison, the venerable founder of the Evangelical Union, and Dr. Fergus Ferguson, of Glasgow, both wrote in the most eulogistic terms to a local clergyman as to Mr. Hardie's moral character and religious work in Scotland." This is extremely affecting. It is good to see parliamentary candidates walking about with certificates of moral character—written out by a local minister. It is also reassuring to find that such a certificate is an absolute answer to the charge of Atheism, No doubt Mr. Keir Hardie will print the testimonial as a postscript to his next election address at West Ham.

Mr. Keir Hardie calls himself a Christian. He does not say, however, if he believes in the supernatural part of the Gospels. Does he accept the New Testament miracles? Does he embrace the Incarnation and Resurrection? If he does, he is a Christian. If he does not, he has no more right to call himself a Christian than we have to be designated a Buddhist or a Mohammedan.

The Christianity of the schools, Mr. Keir Hardie says, is dead or dying. By this he means "the old theological sects." But here we should like him to be more explicit. Does he think there can be a Christianity without "theology"? Or does he mean that the "sects" comprise all persons who have more theology than himself?

But if the Christianity of the schools is dead or dying, the "humanitarian Christianity of Christ is again coming to the front." Now what is this humanitarian Christianity of Christ? Upon this point Mr. Keir Hardie throws but a single ray of light. "The whole of Christ's teachings and conduct," he says, "proves that he was intensely interested in the bodily welfare of those with whom he came in contact as a preparative to their spiritual well-being." This is a clear statement; all we now want is the clear proof. Mr. Keir Hardie should give it. We believe he cannot; nay, we defy him to do so. It is idle to cite the so-called "miracles of healing." They were occasional and special; they had as much effect on the "bodily welfare" of the Jewish people as tickling has on the gait of an elephant; and as for their being a "preparative to spiritual well-being," we may ask the "humanitarian Christians of Christ" to tell us, if they can, how much of this quality was afterwards displayed by the ladies and gentlemen who were the lucky subjects (or objects) of Christ's miracles. Mr. Keir Hardie might also recollect that the said miracles, if they ever happened, are of no "bodily" importance to the present generation. Humanitarians of to-day are unable to work miracles; they have to sow the seed of progress, and await its natural harvest.

Mr. Keir Hardie is undoubtedly an earnest social reformer. We wish him all success in his efforts to raise the workers and procure for them a just share of the produce of their industry. Some of his methods may be questionable without affecting his sincerity. If we all saw eye to eye there would be no problems to settle. What we object to is the fond imagination that any light upon the labor question, or any actual social problem, can be found in the teachings of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth never taught industry, or forethought, or any of the robuster virtues of civilisation. On one occasion he said that his kingdom was not of this world. He might certainly have said so of his teaching. It is all very well for Mr. Keir Hardie to assert that our "industrial system is foreign to the spirit of Christianity." What is the spirit of Christianity? Twenty different things in as many different minds. Some industrial system is a necessity, and whatever it is you will never find its real principles in the Gospels. Christ's one social panacea was "giving to the poor," and this is the worst of all "reformations." It only disguises social evils. The world could do very well without "charity" if it only had justice and common sense.

Charles Bradlaugh, the Atheist, was laughed at for advocating the compulsory cultivation of waste lands. He wanted to see labor and capital employed upon them, even if they yielded no rent to landlords. Mr. Keir Hardie, the Christian, also desires to bring the people into "contact with nature and mother earth," though his recipe, of "open spaces laid down in grass" seems ludicrously inadequate. The loss of this contact, he told his interviewer, is "accountable for much of the Atheism which is a natural product of city life." This "tender thought" was spoken in a voice "which sank almost to a whisper." Very naturally it struck the interviewer as "the finest and most beautiful of Mr. Hardie's utterances."

Both the interviewer and Mr. Keir Hardie forgot a fact of Christian history. Christianity spread in the towns of the Roman Empire. The pagans were the villagers—paganus meaning a countryman or rustic. Possibly some of the pagans said to themselves, "Ah, this Christianity is a natural product of the towns."

The diagnosis is in both cases empirical. In a certain sense, however, Mr. Keir Hardie has touched a truth. Progressive ideas must always originate in the keen life of cities. But in another sense Mr. Keir Hardie is mistaken. He seems to regard Atheism as a city malady, like rickets and anemia. Now this is untrue. It is also absurd. Mr. Keir Hardie would find a good many of these "afflicted" Atheists able to make mincemeat of his "humanitarian Christianity of Christ." He would also find, if he cared to look, a great many of them in the Socialist camp. It would be rare sport to see Mr. Keir Hardie defending his "new school" Christianity against the young bloods of the Fabian Society, though it might necessitate the interference of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty.

But we do not wish to part from Mr. Keir Hardie in a spirit of sarcasm. If he is a hopeless sentimentalist there is no more to be said; but, if he is capable of reason in matters of religion, we appeal to him, in all sincerity, not to press the new wine of Humanitarianism into the old bottles of Christianity. He will only break the bottles and lose the wine. We also implore him to cease talking nonsense about Christianity being "a life, and not a doctrine." It never can be the one without the other. Finally, we beg him to consider what is the real value of Christianity if, after all these centuries, it is necessary to put "humanitarian" in front of it, in order to give it a chance in decent society.

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