“The Kind of a Religion” The American Sentinel 5, 8, pp. 57, 58.

February 20, 1890

IN view of the demand that the State shall teach religion in the public schools, it is a pertinent question to ask, What kind of a religion? This question is not always fairly answered by those who make the proposition. It is generally answered in a vague indeterminate way that leaves the question as much unanswered as before. It is sometimes answered “The Christian Religion.” But then the question still recurs, What kind of Christian religion? Shall it be the Presbyterian Christian religion? or the Methodist Christian religion? or the Lutheran Christian religion? or the Roman Catholic Christian religion? Which of these is it that shall be taught in the public schools?

Occasionally, however, there are those who undertake to define what they mean by religion, and what kind of religion it is that shall be adopted and inculcated by the State. Joseph Cook is one of these. His course of Monday Lectures last year dealt largely with this question, especially antagonizing the Roman Catholic view of religion and the public schools. In Lecture III, course of 1889, he said:—

It is very generally conceded that common morals, natural religion, the principles of ordinary utilitarian prudence may be taught without sectarianism in the public schools.

Here are three distinct phrases used to define what kind of religion it is which shall be taught in the public schools. To understand these phrases is to understand what is proposed to be taught as religion to the children of the United States.

1. “Common morals.” Common morals can be nothing else than that grade of morals which is common to the general mass of the people of the United Sates. And to teach that in the public schools, as the standard of right doing, would be only to teach the children that it is right to do as the mass of the people do. This is very properly defined by Mr. Cook as

2. “Natural religion.” Natural religion, in the abstract, is that which is discoverable from nature. With respect to individual character, natural religion is that which it is natural for each one to manifest—his natural disposition. With regard to the general mass of the people therefore, natural religion is the sum of those natural traits which are most manifest in the general character of a given people, or of all mankind; and is therefore synonymous with “common morals.”

But what in the world is the use of teaching such things as these in the public schools or anywhere else? It is easy enough for any person that ever was born to do without any particular instruction, that which it is natural for him to do. It is easy enough for the general mass of the people to manifest in character that which is natural to them. In other words, it is easy enough for every man to be just what he is. And to make such strenuous efforts as these men do, to have the State make of special moment this line of instruction, will hardly pay those who make the demand that it shall be done; and it is certain it would never pay the people of the United States.

Nevertheless Mr. Joseph Cook, and, if we may judge from the frequency of the “applause” that is carefully interspersed throughout the printed lecture, a large number of “the usual great audience” of Boston people who attend this lecture-course, actually propose that this shall be the “religion” that shall be taught in the public schools of this nation. In all [58] teaching touching upon religion or morals, it is essential that a motive be presented. In all instruction some principle or principles must be recognized, morals must have a sanction: religion, an incentive. What then are the principles which are to sustain, and what the motive which is to re-enforce this teaching of common morals, this teaching of natural religion? The distinguished lecturer leaves us not in the dark upon this important question. He declares it to be

3. “The principles of ordinary utilitarian prudence.” The briefest and easiest understood definition of utilitarianism is selfishness. In making this the sanction of common morals, and the incentive to natural religion, it must be confessed that Mr. Cook is strictly logical. As we have seen, common morals is that standard of morality which is common to the great mass of the people: and it being easier to do that which it is natural to do, the great mass of people will always be found to be doing thus. Therefore, it is perfectly proper to present the principles of ordinary selfishness as the sanction of common morals and the incentive to natural religion. For that is precisely what selfishness is. It is the root and the off-spring of every grade of common morals or natural religion.

And all this Mr. Cook and his “usual great” and applauding Boston audience, would have taught in the public schools! And to make sure that it shall be forever taught they demand that an amendment to the United States Constitution shall be adopted making it an essential part of the curriculum of the public schools throughout the Nation. This they insist must be a part of the public school system of the United States. At the same time they loudly complain of the Roman Catholic opposition to the public school system, and severely condemn them for not sending their children to the public schools! We do not assent to any Roman Catholic doctrine, nor do we agree with the Roman Catholic view of the public school question; but we are perfectly free to say that if the doctrine set forth by Joseph Cook on this question were a part of the public school system in any State, then not only the Roman Catholic but everybody else who has any respect for true religion or any care for his child, would not only be justified in keeping his child away from such schools, but would be also justified in denouncing the system everywhere as essentially evil and utterly unworthy of any recognition whatever. The only effect such teaching could ever have upon youth would be only for worse and worse. Whatever may be said of the Roman Catholic system, or the Roman Catholic practice, Roman Catholicism certainly has yet this to its credit, that at least in the theory it holds to a higher idea of morals and religion than that which is so confidently set forth by the Boston Monday lectureship.

That such views should be set forth as representing the Christian religion, is not by any means the least of the evils of Mr. Cook’s theory. Let it become generally understood, as Mr. Cook distinctly teaches, that the Christian religion is a “natural” production; that Christian morals is “purely natural;” that “the character of Christ” “contains the organizing principles” only of a “scheme of natural morals;” and nature worship and naturalism will come in, in such a flood as to sweep away the last vestige of genuine morals and true religion.

No avowed enemy of Christianity ever attributed to it a baser character than that which the Boston Monday lecturer gives it in the lectures of 1889.

Yet, says Mr. Cook, “it is very generally conceded,” that this view of morals and religion may be taught in the public schools. It is probably true that this is conceded to a much greater extent than is generally supposed; but that it is “very generally” so outside of Boston, is more than we are yet prepared to believe. However, to whatever extent it is conceded, it is only a startling evidence of the low level to which the popular idea of religion is descending.

It is but natural that those who hold such views of religion should expect to propagate it by the natural power—the State.

A. T. J.

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