Our Tradition: Religion and Politics

The crypto-religious character of Communism is sufficient to explain the sympathy that it evokes among many genuinely religious people, especially in England and America, and this is more or less true of the other new political movements of which I have spoken. In Germany National Socialism, in spite of its clash with the Churches, has found some of its most enthusiastic adherents among religious people and especially among the Lutherans. In England, any programme of revolutionary social reform, whether in the sphere of politics or in the more limited field of credit and currency, is certain to rally a considerable body of religious opinion to its support; while in America the success of President Roosevelt and his New Deal rests very largely on the appeal that they make to the forces of socio-religious idealism that have temporarily submerged and confused the old party divisions. The fact is that the same spiritual forces that have manifested themselves in the sphere of politics are also at work in the religious world. Just as the new State, for all its apparent secularism, represents a reaction against the soullessness and practical materialism of bourgeois society, so also among the religious there is a parallel movement of revolt against the existing social order and a demand for a civilization and an economic system that shall be really Christian.

If one compares the religion of today with the religion of a century ago, one cannot fail to notice a remarkable change of social attitude shown by the increasing preoccupation of religious minds with economic and political problems. In the last century religion was generally regarded as a private matter for the individual conscience. It was concerned with the salvation of men’s souls and not with their economic relations or their social or political ideals. Today most people feel that religion must affect social life: that it is not enough to feel religious or even to be religious in private life so long as social and economic life as a whole is based on non-religious principles. In short, we feel that the province of Christianity is not a part of life but the whole, and that what we need is a Christian civilization.

Now the social complacency of Victorian religion was largely due to the fact that men believed that their civilization was in its broad lines a Christian one. Even so unworldly a man as Dean Church, perhaps the best representative of nineteenth century Anglicanism, accepted this as a fundamental principle. “It seems impossible,” he writes,

to conceive three things more opposite at first sight to The Sermon on the Mount than War, Law and Trade; yet Christian society has long since made up its mind about them, and we all accept them as among the necessities or occupations of human society. Christ has sanctified, He has in many ways transformed that society which is only for this time and life; and while calling and guiding souls one by one to the Father, He has made His gracious influence felt where it could least be expected. Even war and riches, even the Babel life of our great cities, even the high places of ambition and earthly honour have been touched by His spirit, have found how to be Christian (The Gifts of Civilization).

But we do not feel like this any longer. The War and the revolutionary challenge of Communism have killed this point of view. There is a general feeling today that the Victorian compromise was wrong—that war is unchristian, that business is unchristian and that even the State is to a great extent unchristian also. We have lost both the optimism of the Victorian Liberals and the old Conservative acceptance of the State and the social hierarchy as a God-given order. We find it much easier to understand the attitude of the early Church with its uncompromising hostility to the world and to the power of Mammon. To the self-satisfied prosperous society of Victorian England that attitude was something of a stumbling block; indeed Dr. Abbott, a well-known writer in his day, who wrote a very long and very disagreeable work on the Anglican career of Cardinal Newman, blames Newman severely for not having realised that this attitude was entirely out of date and was only relevant to the special circumstances of the Church in relation to the Roman Empire. Actually, however, this attitude is so deeply rooted in Christianity—in the Bible and the Fathers and the tradition of the Church—that Christianity would be an entirely different religion without it. The whole Christian tradition, and the prophetic tradition which lies behind it, are a standing protest against the injustice and falsehood of that which is commonly called civilization. The world which is the natural enemy of the Church is not a moral abstraction, it is an historical reality which finds its embodiment in the empires and world cities of history—in Babylon and Tyre and Rome. Wherever the city of man sets itself up as an end in itself and becomes the centre of a self-contained and self-regulating order, it becomes the natural enemy of the city of God.

The Roman Empire was antichristian not so much because of its official worship of Jupiter and Mars and the rest, but because it made its own power and greatness the supreme law and the only measure of its social action. Judged from this point of view, modern civilization is no less contrary to Christian principles than was that of antiquity. We have abolished idolatry and slavery, and some of the grosser forms of public immortality, but the essential idolatry—the worship of material power and wealth—is as strong as ever.

Never before in the history of the world has a civilization been so completely secularised, so confident in its own powers and so sufficient to itself as is our own. The crude and aggressive atheism of the Soviet State is but the logical culmination of a tendency that has characterised the general development of European civilization for the last century and a half. Indeed we may well ask if the toleration which is still shown to Christianity by the States of Western Europe is not due to the fact that religion is regarded by them as something politically negligible, and consequently whether it is not really more insulting to Christianity than the open hostility of the Bolsheviks.

We have to face the prospect of a growing pressure on individual thought and behaviour making for the complete secularisation of social life. The State will be less tolerant of criticism and of differences of opinion in so far as they affect, not only politics, but social conduct of any kind. It aspires more and more to govern the life of the individual, to mould his thought by education and propaganda, and to make him the obedient instrument of its will. The old individualist ideal of the State as a policeman whose business it is to clear the field for individual initiative is a thing of the past. The State of the future will be not a policeman, but a nurse, and a schoolmaster and an employer and an officer in short an earthly providence, an all-powerful, omnipotent human god—and a very jealous god at that. We see one form of this ideal in Russia and another in Germany. It may be that we shall see yet a third in England and America.

As I have already pointed out it is not likely that the Western democracies will ever become either Communist or Fascist. But I think it is very probable that they will follow a parallel line of development and evolve a kind of democratic etatisme which, while being less arbitrary and inhumane than the other two forms of government, will make just as large a claim on the life of the individual as they do and will demand an equally whole-hearted spiritual allegiance. We can already discern the beginnings of this paternal-democratic regime in England and can see how all the apparatus of the social services—universal secondary education, birth-control clinics, ante-natal clinics, welfare centres and the rest—may become instruments of a collective despotism which destroys human liberty and spiritual initiative as effectively as any Communist or Nazi terrorism.

What should be the attitude of Christians towards this situation? Can we hope to reverse the present tendency of Western society and to restore a Christian civilization? Or must we withdraw from the world and resign ourselves to a subterranean persecuted existence like that of the early Christians?

This is a serious dilemma, for it is much easier to state the objections to either course than to find a solution. The history of our civilization is so bound up with Christian traditions and ideals that it seems wrong to acquiesce in the victory of secularism without a struggle. Yet on the other hand any attempt to associate Christianity with a definite programme of political or economic reform is fraught with difficulties and dangers. As we have seen, modern secularism is not a single united force; it appears in the modern world under three separate forms which are not only different from one another but mutually antagonistic. Consequently it is no use attacking one of them, if the defeat of one merely leads to the victory of another. Religious people are not always very clear-sighted in political matters and nothing is easier than for them to mistake the real danger and to waste their time attacking that form of secularism which happens to be the most unpopular in their own society, and consequently the least likely to succeed, while they close their eyes to the real source of danger. And thus we find Christian Nationalists, like the Deutsche Christen, attacking Marxism as the embodiment of antichristian secularism, while they appear to be entirely oblivious of the dangers to spiritual freedom and to Christian moral ideals involved in the Nazi cult of the racial state. And in the same way we find Christian Socialists in this country who are determined to destroy Militarism and Capitalism and Nationalism as the enemies of the Kingdom of God, but who do not realise that Socialism itself is capable of becoming just as dangerous to spiritual freedom. It is easy for us to denounce the unchristian behaviour of the Nazis, because we have no temptation to behave as they do. Nobody supposes that the Y.M.C.A. or Toc H are likely to start hunting down pacifists or trying to beat up Lord Melchett or Mr. Lansbury. Our temptations are more subtle, but no less real. It may be harder to resist a Totalitarian State which relies on free milk and birth-control clinics than one which relies on castor oil and concentration camps. The latter offends all our humanitarian instincts and traditions, the former appeals to those very instincts and allies itself with the movement for social reform which is so intimately connected with modern English religion.

There is a real danger that English religion, at least English Protestantism, may allow itself to be identified with an enthusiasm for social justice and reform which is hardly distinguishable from the creed of secular humanitarianism. In the past Protestantism failed by its excessive and exclusive other-worldliness which turned its eyes away altogether from social injustice. And now by a natural reaction it has gone to the other extreme and tends to become exclusively this-worldly. Social reform, social credit, or socialism pure and simple, are treated not merely as the indispensable preparation for the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom of God itself. We find masses of well-meaning people who have never even begun to think announcing their intention of never ceasing from mental strife till they have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. We must, however, recognize that this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order. There are it is true quite a number of different Jerusalems: there is the Muscovite Jerusalem which has no Temple, there is Herr Hitler’s Jerusalem which has no Jews, and there is the Jerusalem of the social reformers which is all suburbs: but none of these is Blake’s Jerusalem, still less that city which the Apostle saw “descending out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.” All these New Jerusalems are earthly cities established by the will and power of man. And if we believe that the Kingdom of Heaven can be established by political or economic measures—that it can be an earthly state—then we can hardly object to the claims of such a State to embrace the whole of life and to demand the total submission of the individual will and conscience.

No one can dispute the genuine value of the practical aims which social reformers set before themselves—the destruction of slums, the abolition of poverty, the abolition of war, secondary education for all, higher pay for shorter hours, and so forth. Nevertheless all these aims may be realized and yet civilization may be none the more Christian for all that. They could be realized just as completely in a purely secular order which entirely rejects every kind of religion—as for example in the proletarian order of Communism, in the capitalist Utopia of Mr. H. B. Wells and even in the scientific nightmare of Mr. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

From the Catholic point of view there is a fundamental error in all this. That error is the ignoring of Original Sin and its consequences or rather the identification of the Fall with some defective political or economic arrangement. If we could destroy the Capitalist system or the power of the bankers or that of the Jews, everything in the garden would be lovely.

But as Leo XIII points out in Rerum Novarum all these hopes are built on an illusion, for they ignore the primal curse under which humanity has laboured.

“Cursed be the earth in thy work; in thy labour thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life.” In like manner, the other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man as long as life lasts. To suffer and endure therefore is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If there are any who pretend differently—who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose and constant enjoyment—they delude and impose upon the people, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is and at the same time to look elsewhere for a solace for its troubles.

No doubt it will be said that we have changed all this. Science and machinery have at last destroyed the ancient curse and made possible an age of plenty, which we could all enjoy if only the capitalists or the bankers would let us. Unfortunately it is not quite as simple as all that, for science and machinery can serve the cause of death as well as of life, and whereas the vital possibilities of science are limited by the nature of life itself, its lethal possibilities are practically unlimited. We see that in the machine-gun, that grim symbol of the age of plenty which has made a thousand bullets fly where one flew before.

The application of science and machinery to life may make living easier, but it is equally possible that it may destroy life altogether by sterilizing and controlling it in the fashion that Mr. Aldous Huxley describes so convincingly. The great problem of the present age is not to be found in the defects in our social and economic machinery, but rather in the increasing pressure that this complicated mechanism exerts on the life of the individual and much of the unrest of the time is due to the revolt of life against this unnatural pressure. We see this not only in art and literature, but also in the cult of violence that is so marked a feature of the new politics. This is the explanation of the German reaction against the abstract rationalism of liberalism in favour of a racial mysticism. It is an attempt to vitalize the State by making it the organ of deeper non-rational forces.

It is, however, useless to look for help to the State, for the State is not concerned with life but with the ordering of life and will always be on the side of law and order, of organization and control. The real ally of life and the only true source of spiritual power is to be found in religion. All genuine forms of religious experience and religious action—repentance, asceticism, sacrifice; prayer, contemplation, communion, ecstasy—are vital acts and experiences. They are a turning away from external centrifugal non-vital activity to the heart of life and the source of spiritual power. This is the case with primitive religion which is essentially a cult of the forces of life in nature and man and a consecration of the social order and the work by which men live to the divine powers that rule the world. But it is still more the case with Christianity, which transcends the sphere of nature and brings human life into immediate contact and communion with the divine source of supernatural life. Christianity is at once the revelation of the inadequacy of human knowledge and human civilization and the communication of the Divine life by which alone human nature can be healed and restored. Thus when Christianity came it did not attempt to reform the world in the sense of the social idealist. It did not try to destroy the Roman Empire, or to abolish slavery. It simply brought a new principle of life to the human race. As Robert Wilberforce, one of the ablest, if the least remembered, of the converts of the Oxford Movement puts it:

It was as when the seeds of plants, which have lain dormant during the cold of winter, are quickened into life by the warmth of spring. For the long winter of heathenism had passed away; the Sun of Righteousness had arisen; it was the springtime of the new creation: “Ver illud erat, ver magnus agebat ordis.” Just as plants, then, at this season, have a power of assimilating to themselves the inert materials of the earth, and of moulding them into organic shapes, so had a Spirit gone forth among the nations, which was everywhere displaying itself in the forms of social life….in nothing was the effect of this Spirit more remarkable, than in the manner in which it united many wills into a sacred unity, and absorbed all other ties in the fellowship of the Church. The martyr Sanctus, write the Christians of Gaul, withstood his torturers “so manfully, that he would neither tell his name nor his nation, nor of what city he was, nor whether bond or free, but to every question he replied, ‘I am a Christian.’ This stood in place of name and city and race.” And this forgetfulness of all other ties, was accompanied by that intense attachment to those with whom their new relationship connected them, which attracted the attention even of the heathen.

Thus, he goes on to point out, the new life found organic expression in a new society:

The Church was not a mere democratic confederacy, having its principle of union in the consent of mankind; but it was the infusing into the world of a supernatural life….The Church did not derive its existence from the consent or necessities of mankind, but from the Incarnation of the Son of God (The Principles of Church Authority).

Now this society is the only Kingdom of God on earth that we have any right to look for, and it is only in our membership of this society that we shall find an answer to the claims of the Totalitarian State. For if the state has become too totalitarian, that is because the average Christian has not been totalitarian enough. He has acquiesced in the secularization of life, he has allowed his own aims to be divided and his religion to become a sectarian affair, cut off from his real interests and from his real life. The attempt on the part of the new States to unify life and to tolerate no division of allegiance ought to lead Catholics to unify life in the power of the spirit and to tolerate no division in their allegiance to Christ the King. No doubt this will involve conflict, but conflict is not a bad thing: It is the condition of life. For as one of our own poets has written in words curiously applicable to the present situation,

Envy not, little band,

Your brothers under the Hohenzollern hoof

Put to the splendid proof.

Your hour is near!

The spectre-haunted time of idle Night,

Your only fear,

Thank God, is done,

And Day and War, Man’s work-time and




From Religion and the Modern State by Christopher Dawson. Copyright 1936 Sheed and Ward, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Andrews, McMeel and Parker. All rights reserved.



  • Christopher Dawson

    Christopher Henry Dawson (1889 – 1970) was a British independent scholar, who wrote many books on cultural history and Christendom. Christopher H. Dawson has been called "the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century".

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