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


(Sept. 24, 1893.)

Whatever else may be thought about the present coal-strike, or lock-out, as it might be more accurately described, it will be admitted by many persons who do not rail at Political Economy that the miners are following a sound instinct in demanding that a decent wage shall be a fixed element in price. To dig coal out of the earth is worth a minimum of (say) thirty shillings a week, and if it will not yield that modest remuneration to the worker let it stay where it is, and let the community do without coal altogether. Morally speaking, society has no right to demand that an important industry shall be carried on under conditions involving the misery, and still less the degradation, of those employed in it. Nor is this a wild, revolutionary doctrine; it is eminently conservative, in the best sense of the word; and it will have to be admitted, and acted upon, in the interest of social order. Of course it means an inroad on rent and speculative profit, but that is not an immeasurable calamity.

So much, by way of introduction, on the moral and economic aspects of the matter. Our special object is rather theological. We desire to notice the part which religion plays in the struggle between capital and labor; or, more properly perhaps, between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

Everyone with an elementary knowledge of the social and political history of the last hundred years must be aware that the working classes, as such, have had no help whatever from Christian Churches. Here and there an individual clergyman has spoken a word on their behalf, but the great mass of the men of God have been on the side of "the powers that be," and have insulted and derided the advocates and leaders of Trade Unionism, whom they are still fond of calling "pestilent agitators." Yet the Gospel, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, is stuffed with platitudes about the blessings and virtues of poverty, and the curse and wickedness of wealth. Logically, therefore, judging by the letter of scripture, the clergy should have been on the side of the poor, the wretched, and the oppressed. But this is a case in which "the letter killeth," and with an eye to their own interests and privileges, to say nothing of their ease and comfort, the clergy found that "the spirit" of the Gospel meant the preservation of the existing conditions of society. It would be bad for the rich, and well for the poor, in the next life; but, in this life, they were to keep their relative places, and remain content in the positions which Providence had assigned them.

It is not surprising, then, that the Christian Churches—with all their wealth, power, and at least pretended influence—should be idle or unctuously hypocritical spectators of the struggles of labor to obtain a fair share of the blessings of civilisation. They extend just sufficient verbal patronage to labor to save themselves from being howled at, and throw all their real weight in the scale against it. And it is folly to expect any better of them. The religion and the training of the clergy make them what they are, and they can no more alter than the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots. Religion is always the consecration of the past; never the spirit of the future working in the present; and the clergy, who, as Sidney Smith said, are a third sex—neither male nor female, but effeminate—are instinctively conservative, thoroughly enamored of what is, and obstinately averse to all radical changes. Their timidity would be quite phenomenal, if they were not the third sex; and, like all timid people, they can shriek and yell and curse and foam at the mouth when they are well frightened.

Were it otherwise, were Christianity a real agency for social improvement, and the clergy the moral leaders of the people, we should have seen by this time a tremendous alteration in the condition, and the relations, of all classes of society. There might still be differences, but they would be on a higher plane, and less grievous and exasperating. As the case stands, all the best of the clergy can do is to preach harmless platitudes once a week. One Bishop has been actually harangueing the miners, and only provoking contemptuous remarks about his salary. The truth is, that Christian ministers are, in the main, only fit to preach kingdom-come. That is their proper work, ana they are exactly cut out for it.

We are not in love with all the details of the elaborate ecclesiasticism of Comte's Religion of Humanity, but we are bound to say that a philosophical priesthood, such as he planned, would be better fitted than a Christian priesthood for the work of moral control and social diplomacy. There is an ethical as well as an economical element in most of these disputes between labor and capital; and a philosophical priesthood, vowed to study and simplicity of life, would be able to intervene with some effect. It would be something, indeed, to have the deliberate judgment of a dispassionate though sympathetic tribunal, even though it had—and could and should have—no authority to enforce its decisions. At present, however, all this is Utopian, and perhaps it always will be so. We will return, therefore, to our immediate object, which is to point out the utter uselessness of Christianity in the midst of class antagonisms. It cannot control the rich, it cannot assist the poor. Its chief idea is to stand between the two, not as an ambassador of justice, but as a dispenser of charity. And this charity, instead of really helping the people, only serves to obscure the problems to be solved, and to perpetuate the evils it affects to relieve.

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