January 30, 1890
LAMST week we printed the offer of the American Secular Union of a $1,000 prize for the best essay embodying “the purest principles of morality without inculcating religious doctrines.” Personally, we are considerably interested in this thing. Our interest, however, is one of curiosity rather than of practice; because such a manual as the Union desires, will be a curiosity in itself, if such a thing can be created at all; and it will also be a curiosity to see how it is done when it is done.
The circular announcing the prize says:—
It is desired that the manual for which this premium is offered shall not be a reading book for schools nor a mere code of morals, much less a system of ethical philosophy, but rather a concise yet comprehensive and suggestive exhibit, with familiar and practical illustrations of those universal foundation principles and axiomatic truths which underlie all sound morality and rightfulness, thus developing and educating that inherent moral sense which is more or less common to all rational beings. In short, to show how to teach children the natural and essential difference between right and wrong, and the reasons therefor.
It is perfectly proper to teach children, as well as older people, the essential difference between right and wrong; and every reasoning creature, not only desires, but absolutely demands to know the reasons therefor. But in moral things, in inculcating the principles of moral right or wrong, it is impossible to give reasons for it without inculcating a religious doctrine. The reason for that which is right or wrong must be based upon authority. But to leave out of these reasons all idea of any authority, except the authority of man, is to have in fact no basis for morality. The human conscience refuses to recognize the authority of man in the realm of morals. If it rests upon the authority of man, one man has just as much authority as another. Each man’s idea of that which is morally right is, to him, more authoritative than any other man’s idea of right can be.
Therefore, to carry into effect the intent of this prize offer, there must be established an aristocracy of ideas in regard to what is morally right or wrong. Not only that, this aristocracy of ideas might be established; those ideas might be embodied in a manual; but how shall the children and the people at large be caused to receive them as authoritative? Every person will assert his right to reject the whole thing, reasons and all. If it be said that the State shall adopt this for the public schools, and enforce it, then there is at once established a despotism of ideas in morals, and freedom of thought is no more. It is impossible to escape this if once there is a step taken in that direction. But we understand that the Secular Union recognizes the absolute equality of mankind, and the absolute freedom of thought. These being the principles of the Union, it never can set forth any system of morals with any authority at all, according to the plan suggested in this announcement.
In the realm of morals, the mind and the conscience of man require reasons resting upon authority, and that authority must be superior to man’s. That authority is the authority of God; the conscience of man will recognize no other; and the logic of the question will admit of no other. That authority is expressed either  by the Lord, through his word, to the individual conscience, or by man assuming the place of God and by despotic power forcing its dictates upon men, crushing out individuality and freedom of thought.
The authority of man in the place of God, is expressed in two ways and only two. One of these ways is exemplified in the Papacy and its history. With this, the American Secular Union is well acquainted, and justly abhors it. With the other form, we are persuaded the Union is not so well acquainted, or it would never have made the offer it has on the basis upon which it has made it. According to the idea of the Union, and in fact according to the abstract idea, somebody’s view of what is right or wrong must be taken as the authority; and as the Union requires that the reasons for right or wrong shall be kept strictly upon the basis of the natural within the realm of the secular, in this case it must be the view of the majority. What the majority shall say is right or wrong, that is right or wrong. But while it is only the views of men the mind and conscience of man will refuse to receive it as authoritative in the realm of morals. Therefore, as we have seen, if it is to be made effective, it must be so by the assertion of power, and in this case the power of the State, which, in the government of the people, is simply the power of the majority. But even though it be a majority, when it embodies the views of the majority upon questions of right and wrong, and makes those views authoritative, and compels everybody to accept those views, that is a despotism crushing out freedom of thought, no less than is the ether, though it be not under the name of Papacy. And no less than the other also, this is simply man putting himself and his authority in the place of God and his authority. This is paganism.
The proposition of the American Secular Union, in this matter of its $1,000 prize, is the very philosophy of Roman paganism in particular. In the Roman system, the idea of the State, that is, of the majority, was the highest idea of the science of right and wrong. What “the Senate and people of Rome” said was right, that was right. What they said was wrong, that was wrong. The Senate and people expressed their voice and their will, in this matter, in law, therefore, a maxim of the Roman law was “What the law says is right”” But the Roman State was the supreme deity; and thus originated the maxim, “Vox populi vox Dei—the voice of the people is the voice of God.” This is the philosophy of the circular of the American Secular Union calling for a manual of morals based upon the authority of man. It is true, the Union does not, in set terms, propose to make the State openly a deity. Nevertheless the result is the same, and by such a system, the majority is put in the place of God, and asserts the power and authority of God upon the mind and conscience of man.
These are the two means by which morality, and the reasons and the authority for it, are discovered and asserted by man. One is the Papacy, the other is paganism. Both are false. The truth lies above them both in genuine Christianity. Real Christianity takes the moral code as it came from the hand of God asserting the eternal principles of right and wrong, resting upon the authority of God—Christianity takes these principles and, depending alone upon the power and the gracious influences of the Spirit of God, it seeks by persuasive argument and sound reason to impress them upon the individual conscience, and enables men, through faith in Christ, to attain to the perfect manifestation of “the purest principles of morality.” It is both logically and practically impossible to inculcate the purest principles of morality without inculcating religious doctrine, because, as we have seen, in the realm of morals the mind and conscience of man uncompromisingly requires authority above the authority of man—that is, above the natural and the secular. But just as soon as we get above the natural and the secular, we are at once in the realm of religion, in the realm of the recognition of God, and that is religion. Thus it is demonstrated by the experience of man, that, in the very nature of things, it is impossible to give instruction in the purest principles of morality without inculcating the purest religious doctrine, and that the religious doctrine of Christianity. Because in Jesus Christ God is revealed; and in the will of God there is announced, and in the faith of Jesus Christ there is secured the practice of, the purest principles of morality that ever can be known to the mind of man.
The trouble is that the American Secular Union makes a mistake in this and aims at too much. It requires that which it is impossible to secure by the means which the Secular Union is disposed only to employ. The object of the Union, “the complete separation of Church and State in practice as well as in profession,” is a laudable object. It is worthy of the sympathy, the support, and the co-operation of every Christian as well as every other man. In this, it has the hearty sympathy and co-operation of the AMERICAN SENTINEL. But in its effort to assure this, the Secular Union undertakes too much. In its opposition to the encroachments of the religious upon the civil authority it allows the pendulum to swing too far and would cause the civil authority to encroach upon the realm of the religious. In its attempt to keep separate the spiritual and the secular powers, the Secular Union attempts to do, by the secular power that which can be done only by the spiritual. It attempts to do by the civil power that which can be done only by the religious power. It attempts to inculcate and secure the practice of the purest principles of morality without inculcating religious doctrine, while it is absolutely impossible to instruct in the principles of morality, whether pure or impure, without inculcating religious doctrine; and while it is absolutely impossible to separate morality from religion.
We say it kindly: Let the Secular Union revise its position. Let it draw its lines more clearly. Let its object be indeed a complete separation of Church and State in practice as well as in profession. Let it confine itself to the secular, to the maintenance of which it is pledged and for which it in fact exists. And while doing this, let it leave to the Church matters pertaining to things spiritual. While opposing the encroachment of the Church upon the power of the State, let the Secular Union see to it that, so far as in it lies, the power of the State shall be kept within its proper jurisdiction, and that it shall not invade the realm of the Church. Let the Union see to it that the State shall have to do only with things civil, while it leaves to the individual conscience that which pertains to religion and morality.
Let the Secular Union draw here its lines here and it will be relieved of the heavy burden of trying to do that which it is impossible to do with the means which the Union would only employ. It will also thus be relieved of the inconsistency of contradicting itself by even unintentionally attempting to do the very thing which it exists for the sole purpose of preventing.
What the American Secular Union wants in the prize manual for which it has advertised, is a manual clearly defining the principles in which the State may give instruction without trenching upon the domain of the religious: the principles which the State may inculcate within the proper limits of the civil jurisdiction. And, in fact, we are inclined to believe that this is what the Union intended to secure; but the Union makes the unfortunate mistake of confounding morality with civility, and asking for a manual upon the purest principles of morality without inculcating religious doctrine while it means only civility. The State is secular and exists in the realm of the natural and has only to do with that which is civil. It can never have anything to do with that which is spiritual, moral, or religious. The Secular Union and its work belong in the realm of the State and cannot, under its title, have anything to do with things spiritual, moral, or religious. Let the Secular Union confine itself within the limits of its proper jurisdiction and it will do well.
We have now favored the Union with printing its announcement, and with our comments upon it, and we sincerely hope that the Union will favor us with the earliest copy of the prize manual that it can possibly send to our table.
A. T. J.