October 9, 1890
SOME time ago, Rev. E. H. Ashmun, of Denver, Colorado, preached to the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America, a sermon on what he intended to be, “National Education,” but if his views should be carried out, it would be national mis-education. He declared that the education furnished by the public schools “must be to a degree, Christian” and non-sectarian. He did not tell how the State is to find out what Christianity is, without recognizing and establishing a particular religion, nor did he seem to care how the thing should be brought about, only so that his views of Christianity and non-sectarianism should be taught in the schools. And that is all that the argument means about religion and non-sectarianism in the public schools. It means simply some man’s particular views of what constitutes religion and non-sectarianism, and in the end this is simply sectarianism in religion.
This is fully demonstrated in Mr. Ashmun’s speech, because the whole thing was a continuous onslaught upon the Roman Catholic Church, and its practices, and its opposition to the Protestant Bible in the public schools, all of which he denounces as sectarian. When any man claims that opposition to the Bible in the public schools is sectarian, his claim is in itself sectarian; because the claim is always in favor of some particular version of the Bible, and in the discussion that is now going on it is in behalf of the King James version, in other words, of the Protestant Bible, but Protestantism is no less sectarian than Catholicism, Judaism, Mohammedanism or anything else. Again, not all of those who are taxed to support the public school believe in the Bible, and would not even if there were but one version of it in the world, and even if it were of all books the only one recognized as the Bible; and to compel men who do not believe in the Bible to submit to the dictation of those who do, is wrong; to compel men who do not believe the Bible to receive it as others believe it, and because others believe it, is persecution and sectarianism too.
Mr. Ashmun says that “to make good citizens, you must make good men.” That depends upon the sense in which the word “good” is used. If it is used in the sense of civilly good, then it is only to say that in order to make good citizens you must make good citizens, which is altogether likely. But in the sense in which Mr. Ashmun uses it, that is, if you would make good citizens you must make morally good men, then it is not true. A man may be morally bad, and yet he may be a good citizen. It is very doubtful whether either at the time in which he lived, or now, there could be found a man who would say that Benjamin Franklin was not a good citizen. But it would certainly be difficult to find a man, who is acquainted with Franklin’s character as a man, who would say that Franklin was a good man. Franklin himself would not say it. Alexander Hamilton is another instance, and there are many others. The truth is that morally speaking, a person may be a bad man, and yet he may be a good citizen. But even though it were the actual truth, as Mr. Ashmun means it, that to be a good man is essential to being a good citizen, and that the State must make men good, there never could be any such thing as a good citizen,  because the State cannot make good men. The State is a natural thing. It springs from men in the natural state, and there is no power in nature, or in any natural process, or thing, to make men good. Nothing but the power of God as revealed in Jesus Christ can ever make men good. But that is a supernatural thing. It was supernaturally manifested in Jesus Christ, and is now supernaturally impressed upon men and cultivated in them. Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit of God; and the promise of the Spirit of God is received only through faith, of which Jesus Christ is “the author and finisher.” The State knows nothing of faith, and has nothing to do with faith. It is impossible, therefore, for the State to make good men, and any professed minister of the gospel of Christ who attributes such power to the State as is here attributed by Mr. Ashmun, virtually denies the purpose and the power of Christianity. If the State can make men good, then assuredly there is no need of any other power. If the State can make men good, there is no need of Christianity to make them good, and there was no need of Christ’s coming down to this earth to make them good.
But it may be urged that Mr. Ashmun did not mean morally good but only civilly good. This, however, is not true. He means morally good, for he says:—
The State has a right to see that the education is such as to make safe citizens. The education must be moral. This is the most important part. The State has a right to educate in what it most needs. When men of ability prostitute their power to basest evil; when money will corrupt thoroughly educated men; when political leaders are so often unsafe, and when men of no mean intellectual parts are found supporting and advocating the saloon, vile literature and anarchy, it is time for us to awake to the fact that what we want is not so much power as its proper control. That character is first, and not as a work of supererogation. Not as a patch on the garment but as the very warp, the fiber of its being. It is said it belongs to the family and the Church. Yes, but the child is in school during a greater part of its most impressible years, and its character is formed whether you will or not. And with many children the only good moral training they ever receive is in school.
I go still farther and say that the education must be to a degree Christian. I know this is disputed ground, but I am confident of the correctness of my position. Otherwise you leave no real distinction between right and wrong. The only ground of responsibility is the divine law. Expediency changes with public sentiment which fluctuates with desire. You cannot teach good morals successfully, without touching their root. Responsibility roots in the divine law. The object of education is the prime end of man himself. To make good citizens you must make good men.
That shows plainly enough that what he means is moral good, and indeed such moral good as only Christianity contemplates. Then there comes another consideration upon this, which is, that if the State even through the use of the Christian religion in the public schools, can make men good, then what is the use of the Church, and what was the Church instituted for? When men who belong to the Church, who profess to speak for the Church, and who profess to be ministers of the gospel of Christ, thus put their dependence in the power of the State to make effectual the purposes of Christianity, it is a sorry condition of things.
Mr. Ashmun attempts to have the State make a distinction between right and wrong. This is as wide of the truth as any other of his statements. The State knows no such thing, nor can it know any such thing, as a “real distinction between right and wrong.” The State only knows rights and wrongs, and the distinction between these. Men have rights—in the State they have equal rights. For one to infringe the rights of another is to commit a wrong, and the State deals with it only as this kind of a wrong. The State cannot make of it any question of real right or wrong in a moral point of view.
The prime defect in this whole system is that those who talk thus, and expect the State to accomplish those things, hold the view that the State is a person, and in fact, a moral person; that it is an individual, distinct from the citizens who compose it, as one individual is distinct from another. But the State is no such thing. The State is no more of a personality than the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America is a personality. The State as an individual cannot do anything. The action of the State is only the action of the majority of the individuals that compose it, or of their representatives. It becomes their action, theirs is the responsibility; and the morality or the immorality, the real right or wrong of what is done attaches to the individual men who are concerned in it. The State is not an end; it is only a means by which to accomplish an end. It is an organization formed by men by which to protect themselves and the rights which they possess, and that is all that it is.
Again he says:—
It is not safe to give men liberty unless you make them responsible. You dare not let untamed beasts roam at will.
Here again appears the same blemish that exists throughout the whole sermon. That is, that the State is all and in all, and it gives the people all things, even liberty. The State does not give the people liberty. The people have liberty. It is an inalienable right. “Men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Despotism may invade this right, but justice still maintains it. The State is not first; the people are first. The State does not make the people what they are; God or the people make people what they are, and the people make the State what it is.
Mr. Ashmun’s idea that men are a set of untamed beasts is strictly compatible with his view of what the State is. If men are untamed beasts, of course, it is necessary to have some power to hold them fast, and if they are ever to be anything more than that, to train them and instruct them so that they may be so. But so long as men are men, and not untamed beasts, there is no need of any such theoretical paternalism as was set forth to the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America, by the Rev. E. H. Ashmun.
A. T. J.