Shall We Do Away with the Church? (by Theodore Roosevelt)

In the latest issue of the Quarterly, we discuss some things that were taken from an article by Theodore Roosevelt, published in the Ladies Home Journal of October 1917. Because some will undoubtedly want to see the article itself, we are including it here for reference. We do not agree with everything he wrote here, but nevertheless we believe there are important and noteworthy things stated in this article (which some have said was his most important writing ever).

So, enjoy!

Shall We Do Away with the Church?

Theodore Roosevelt

RELIGIOUS formalism has been the enemy of religion from the days of the Pharisees to the days of those ultra-sabbatarian formalists who would turn the Christian Sunday into what they imagine the day was when the formalist priests of the Temple at Jerusalem revised the Mosaic law, in sharp antagonism to the prophets. Nevertheless, in this actual world a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid down grade.

It is perfectly true that occasionally individuals or families may have nothing to do with church or with religious practices and observances and yet maintain the highest standard of spirituality and of ethical obligation.

But this does not affect the case in the world as it now is, any more than that exceptional men and women under exceptional conditions have disregarded the marriage tie without moral harm to themselves interferes with the larger fact that such disregard if at all common means the complete moral disintegration of the body politic.

In the pioneer days of the West we found it an unfailing rule that after a community had existed for a certain length of time either a church was built or else the community began to go downhill. In these old communities in the Eastern States which have gone backward, it is noticeable that the retrogression has been marked and accentuated by a rapid decline in church membership and work: the two facts being so interrelated that each stands to the other partly as a cause and partly as an effect.

This has occurred not only in the “poor white” sections of the South, but in the small hamlets of the “abandoned farm” regions of New England and New York. As the people grow slack and dispirited they slip from all effective interest in church activities; and the building up of a strong country church or Young Men’s Christian Association in such a community often has an astonishing effect in putting such virile life into them that their moral betterment stimulates a marked physical betterment in their homes and farms.

FOR all those whose lives are led on a plane above the grimmest and barest struggle for existence church attendance and church work of some kind mean both the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength which prevents a relaxation of one’s own fiber.

The household in which Sunday is treated merely as a day for easy self-indulgence does not on that day offer an attractive spectacle. Nor in such a household is what occurs on that day a healthy stimulus toward right living for the children. In such a household the master of the house generally rises late. That is all right if his staying in bed means rest for him without meaning added work for somebody else. But, having risen, he merely dawdles half-dressed, smokes and reads the Sunday papers, lounges around the place if nothing more attractive offers itself, and finally goes off to the club or other lounging place.

The mistress of the household meanwhile, if like her spouse, stays in bed, too, with the Sunday paper, or with a cheap magazine or a cheap novel; then also lounges around the house before fully dressing, and finally visits or receives visits from some other women who also regard slipshod absence of effort as the proper characteristic of the day.

The case is not bettered if the heads of the family possess more energy but use it merely for their own selfish enjoyment, as, for instance, if they habitually spend the entire day in the motor, or take part in some form of dress parade, or visit brightly lighted restaurants.

I SERIOUSLY doubt whether people such as these even achieve their purpose. I doubt whether the frank pursuit of nothing but amusement has really brought as much happiness as if it had been alloyed with and supplemented by some minimum meeting of obligation toward others. There are enough holidays for most of us which can quite properly be devoted to pure holiday making, and there are plenty of men and women whose week-day work is, on occasion, so exhausting that Sunday should then only be a day of rest and recreation for them; and we need have scant sympathy with the sour-hearted people who deny the former truth or do not understand the latter. But, as with all general laws of conduct, we are not primarily concerned with the exceptions: we are concerned with the ordinary cases.

In ordinary cases, as regards most men and women, the performance of their duties to the church, to themselves and to others, on Sunday, represents merely such “toning up” of their systems as will enable them to profit more by rest and amusement during the remainder of the day. Sundays differ from other holidays—among other ways—in the fact that there are fifty-two of them every year! The proper conduct for other holidays may be treated in itself as an exception. For Sunday it must be treated as a rule—a rule properly subject to exceptions, and perhaps to numerous exceptions— but a rule, nevertheless.

THEREFORE, on Sunday go to church. Yes—I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know that as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he stays away from church he does not spend his time in good works or in lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper; he yawns; and he finally seeks relief from the mental vacuity of isolation by going where the combined mental vacuity of many partially relieves the mental vacuity of each particular individual.

If toil is not exceptionally but habitually exhausting, so that the man when released from it at nightfall of each day or at the end of the week can do nothing but sink exhausted into a kind of lethargy from which he rouses himself only to meet the task of the new day or the new week, then there is something wrong in the social system so far as he is concerned; and the churches should take the lead in the effort to diagnose and remedy the wrong.

But if he has merely worked healthily hard, and is healthily tired, it will be from every standpoint an excellent thing for him to begin his Sunday by going to church. This means that he and all his family will have been up for breakfast—later than usual, very possibly, and quite properly, but in time to avoid that feeling of slackness and of being at loose ends which will demoralize anyone who habitually begins the day by spending a couple of hours more than he needs in bed, and then by lounging around the house half-dressed and doing nothing.

HE MAY not hear a good sermon at church. But unless he is very unfortunate he will hear a sermon by a good man who, with his good wife, is engaged all the week long in a series of wearing and humdrum and important tasks for making hard lives a little easier; and both this man and this wife are in the vast majority of cases showing much self-denial and doing much for humble folks of whom few others think, and keeping up a brave show on narrow means. Surely the average man ought to sympathize with the work done by such a couple, and ought to help them; and he can’t help them unless he is a reasonably regular church attendant. Otherwise he is an outsider, and is felt to be such, and the part he plays in useful church activities, in service by the church to its members and to the community at large, is only the part which an outsider can play.

BESIDES, even if he doesn’t hear a good sermon, the probabilities are that he will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. And if he is not familiar with the Bible he has suffered a loss which he had better make all possible haste to correct. Moreover, he will probably take part in singing some good hymns. He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good, quiet neighbors.

If he does not think about himself too much he will benefit himself very much, especially as he begins to think chiefly of others. And he will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world—even toward those excessively foolish young men who regard churchgoing as rather a soft performance, and feel superior and cynical when they utter, at the expense of some among the churchgoers, jeers and gibes which may be true, but which with even more truth can be applied to at least as large a percentage of any other groups of poor, erring human beings.

I ADVOCATE a man’s joining in church work for the sake of showing his faith by his works: I leave to professed theologians the settlement of the question whether he is to achieve his salvation by his works or by a faith which is only genuine if it expresses itself in works. Micah’s insistence upon loving mercy and doing justice and walking humbly with the Lord will suffice if lived up to; and Amos and Isaiah and the Psalms, and the Gospels and Paul and James will furnish sufficient instruction for both the men who are simple enough and the men who are wise enough. Let the man not think overmuch of saving his own soul; that will come of itself, if he tries in good earnest to look after his neighbor, both in soul and in body —remembering always that he had better leave his neighbor alone rather than show arrogance or tactlessness in the effort to help him.

The church, on the other hand, must fit itself for the practical betterment of mankind if it is to attract and retain the fealty of the men best worth holding and using. The betterment may come in many ways. The great exhorter or preacher, the Billy Sunday or Phillips Brooks, the priest or clergyman or rabbi, the cardinal or bishop or revivalist or Salvation Army commander, may, by sheer fervor and intensity, and by kindling some flame of the spirit which mystics have long known to be real and which scientists now admit to be real, rouse numbed consciences to life and free seared souls from sin; and then the roused conscience and the freed soul will teach the bodies in which they dwell how to practice the great law of service.

Such stormy awakening of the spirit, though often of high usefulness, loses all savor unless, in the times of calm which follow, the workaday body makes good in its round of life and labor the promise given by the spirit in its hour of stress.

FAR more often the betterment must come through work which does not depend on the gift of tongues, but on persistent labor conducted with wary wisdom no less than with broad humanity. This may take the old form of individual service to the individual; of visiting and comforting the widow and the fatherless and the sore-stricken. It may take the form of organized charity—a form not merely beneficial but absolutely essential where a dense population increases the mass of suffering and also the mass of imposture and of that weakness of will which, if permitted, becomes parasitic helplessness; but a form which needs incessant supervision lest it lose all vitality and become empty and stereotyped so as finally to amount to little except a method of giving salaries to those administering the charity.

Under the tense activity of modern social and industrial conditions the church, if it is to give real leadership, must grapple zealously, fearlessly and cool-headedly with these problems. Unless it is the poor man’s church it is not a Christian church at all in any real sense. The rich man needs it, heaven knows, and is needed by it. But unless in the church he can work with all his toiling brothers for a common end, for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of those without its walls, the church has come short of its mission and its possibilities. Unless the church in a mining town or factory town or railway center is a leading force in the effort to secure cleaner and more wholesome surroundings, moral and physical, for the people, unless it concerns itself with the people’s living and working conditions, with their workshops and houses and playgrounds, it has forfeited its right to the foremost place in the regard of men

By their fruits shall ye know them! We judge a man nowadays by his conduct rather than by his dogma. And, to keep its hold on mankind, the church must, as in its early flays, obey the great law of service; for the church shall not live by ceremonial and by dogmatic theology alone.

There are plenty of clergymen of all denominations who do obey this law; they rentier inestimable service. Yet these men can do but little unless keen, able, zealous laymen give them aid; anti this aid is beyond comparison most effective when rendered by men who are themselves active participants in the work of the church. Therefore every man who is a Christian at all should join some church organization—whether his orthodoxy is of the old-fashioned kind or whether his intellectual needs can best be met by Bade’s “Old Testament in the Light of To-day,” or his desire to work met by connection with such a body as Charles Stelzle’s Labor Temple.

INSISTENCE upon the new work imposed by the new conditions does not in the least mean abandonment of the old work —any more than in a public school the creation of a Boy Scout company means the abandonment of baseball. The Sunday-school class, the Men’s Bible Class and the like should be as prominent as ever.

Only, they must not represent the only activities, and membership in them should be accepter) not as excusing the participants from square treatment of others, but as grounds for believing that they will take the lead in and set the standard for disinterested, upright and earnest labor for their fellows. They create a fine feeling of fellowship.

Surely if our churches are not democratic the root of the matter is not in us; and therefore the church is beyond all other places that in which men of every social grade and degree of wealth should come together on a footing of brotherhood and of equality of rights and obligations.

In that place arrogance and envy are equally out of place; in that place every sincere man should feel stirred to exceptional effort to see questions at issue as his brother sees them, and to act toward that brother as he would wish, under reversed conditions, the brother to act toward him.

Surely half of our labor troubles would disappear if a sufficient number of the leaders on both sides had worked for common ends in the same churches, Young Men’s Christian Associations or other like organizations, and approached one another s positions with an earnest desire to understand them and, understanding, respect them.

One important thing for the layman interested in church work to do is to make the church an instrument for securing the healthy happiness of young people. The influence of the Puritan has been most potent for strength and for virtue in our national life. But its somber austerity left one evil: the tendency to confuse pleasure and vice, a tendency which, in the end, is much more certain to encourage vice than to discourage pleasure.

Let every layman interested in church work battle against this tendency. Let him proceed on the assumption that innocent pleasure which does not interfere with things even more desirable is in itself a good; that this is as true of one day of the week as of another; and that one function of the church should be the encouragement of happiness in small things as well as in large.

NO GENERAL rules can be laid down in such a matter; the customs and feelings and peculiar conditions of each community must be taken into account and so far as possible respected. I have known a village baseball nine which, after church on Sunday afternoons, held games in a field a mile away and was a potent help in keeping young men out of the “blind pig” saloons; and, on the other hand, I have seen Sunday professional baseball in a big city become a source of demoralization. Personally I believe that dancing, like all other healthy and proper pastimes, should be encouraged in the parish house; and this because 1 dread the professional dance hall, where liquor can be obtained and where foolish young girls go with foolish or vicious young men, while there are no older men and women to look after them.

If the natural desire of young people for pleasure is not given a healthy outlet it is only too apt to find an unhealthy outlet.

The man who does not in some way, active or not, connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.

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