A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a cult. Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, I picked up R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and, remembering a vague resolution to read it one day, took it to the counter. The fresh-faced student at the cash register was delighted. “It’s . . . amazing,” he said reverently. A few days later, finding myself in full agreement, I emailed a writer in whose work I perceived some Tawney-like themes to ask whether he knew the book. “I read it fifty years ago,” he replied, “and it changed my life.”
In recent decades, membership of his fan club has declined—too Christian for the socialists, too socialist for the Christians—but at one time Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962) towered over British intellectual life. To his contemporaries he was a legend, “the greatest living Englishman,” according to the historian Sir Michael Postan. The Guardian declared in 1960 that his writings “will be read with delight as long as the English language is spoken.” Surveying Tawney’s contributions, not just as a historian, but as a writer, activist, teacher, and mentor, someone suggested to Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple that what Britain needed was “more men like Tawney.” The archbishop replied: “There are no men like Tawney.” To a generation that had run out of faith in free-market capitalism, he appeared to be that unusual thing, a prophet who actually knew what he was talking about.
Deeply earnest, prematurely bald, self-deprecating to the point of masochism, Tawney nevertheless exuded an unmistakable charisma that can still be experienced today in the texture of his prose—its beautiful cadences, smash-and-grab satirical raids, elegiac melancholy, pin-sharp analysis, metaphorical exuberance, and spiritual clarity. The supreme example is Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, based on the Holland Memorial Lectures he delivered at King’s College, London in 1922. The bestselling history book in interwar Britain, it owed its success partly to a widespread feeling that the reigning economic system had failed, partly to the national weakness for nostalgia: Tawney was one of those writers who located his ideals in a consciously romanticized past, and the book is above all a lament for a lost moral order.
From the twelfth through the sixteenth century, in Tawney’s telling, money was, at least to an extent, governed by Christian moral norms. Feudal lords might be merciless, guilds might be monopolistic, the papacy might be corrupt, but late-medieval society still shone out with, in Tawney’s characteristically memorable phrase, “a certain tarnished splendour.” Widespread cruelty and oppression could not wholly extinguish the idea of social solidarity, of a world that made eternal salvation its ultimate goal and thus put money-worship in its place. Peasant and lord, craftsman and merchant knew their duties to each other, and the strong were regularly prevented from exploiting the weak. In the institutions that fed the hungry and provided credit to the financially insecure; in the ecclesiastical or civil courts where usurers were excommunicated and fined; in the pulpits where avarice was denounced as a deadly sin, and in the confessionals where middlemen would have to repent of overcharging customers or not sharing their goods with the poor, medieval man was prevented from destroying his own soul and his neighbor’s livelihood.
For Tawney—a member of the Church of England with no taste for Catholic historical apologetics—it was the Reformation that broke this world apart. The Reformers believed in the old moral norms, but undermined them—whether (like Luther) by emphasizing the individual conscience over rigidly defined rules, or (like the Puritans) by too readily identifying middle-class virtues with the gospel. Quite accidentally, they created a world that did not know how to restrain the desire for wealth.
Wasn’t there, I began to think as I digested Tawney’s argument, a curious parallel with the sexual revolution? There, too, an imperfect ethical order had been destroyed—not by overt amorality, but by often well-intentioned people who did not realize they were eroding the foundations of society. And wasn’t it the case that social conservatives failed for the same reasons that, on Tawney’s account, the economic conservatives had lost—because we had never properly understood what we were up against?
Just as the sixteenth-century traditionalists struggled to grasp the profound changes sweeping across Europe—the rise of foreign trade, of financial speculation, of novel methods for maximizing the profitability of land—so the twentieth-century moralists had often ignored their era’s new conceptions of love and of the body, its new technologies and socioeconomic pressures. And as we faced the successive triumphs of divorce, contraception, extramarital sex, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism, didn’t our responses to these disasters chime all too harmoniously with Tawney’s account? “A reassertion of the traditional doctrines with an almost tragic intensity of emotion, their gradual retreat before the advance of new conceptions . . . and their final decline from a militant creed into a kind of pious antiquarianism.” Wasn’t the lesson very much what Tawney concluded of another era—that we had been right to battle the forces of transformation, but, having failed to understand them at the deepest level, we were doomed to defeat?
Or, as Religion and the Rise of Capitalism puts it:
The Prince of Darkness has a right to a courteous hearing and a fair trial, and those who will not give him his due are wont to find that, in the long run, he turns the tables by taking his due and something over. Common sense and a respect for realities are not less graces of the spirit than moral zeal. The paroxysms of virtuous fury, with which the children of light denounced each new victory of economic enterprise as yet another stratagem of Mammon, disabled them for the staff-work of their campaign, which needs a cool head as well as a stout heart.
Well, maybe. While I was writing this article, Tawney made an appearance in one of my dreams: I can’t recall what happened, but I do remember an awkwardness between us which his Edwardian manners couldn’t quite gloss over, and a guilty feeling on my part that I had made him “come so far.” Perhaps this was a repressed feeling that, in drawing such a parallel, I was stretching Tawney’s narrative further than it could bear. Yet he is the kind of author who invites such sweeping extrapolations—a thinker who, by making his case on a thrillingly grand historical scale, forces open the reader’s imagination. And whatever his message for social conservatives, his central challenge is not to them. It is to the post-Christian world, which has lost sight of human dignity and freedom, and, having forgotten the true God, has put money in his place.
Like so many of the British Establishment’s deadliest critics, Tawney was brought up in it, entering the world in Calcutta on November 30, 1880, the son of a Sanskrit scholar whose altruism had taken him across the Empire to teach in the Indian Educational Service. Previous Tawney ancestors had done well out of the Industrial Revolution—banking, brewing, property—and young Richard Henry was sent, as custom dictated, to Rugby School, where he befriended the future archbishop William Temple. From there he went to Balliol College, Oxford, perennial nursery of high-minded, public-spirited young men; among Tawney’s contemporaries was William Beveridge, later the architect of the postwar welfare state, whose sister, Jeanette, Tawney married in 1909. It seems to have been an unsatisfying union, as a cynical observer might have predicted from one early love letter expressing Tawney’s image of marriage: “We belong to a cause and are members of an army.”
Such political idealism may have been an inadequate basis for a happy home, but in the classroom it changed lives, for by then Tawney had found a calling as a teacher for the Workers’ Educational Association. In the Lancashire town of Rochdale, and farther south in Longton, Tawney instructed classes of iron workers, housepainters, carpet weavers, printers, dressmakers, housewives, and schoolteachers in political and social history. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more humble but yet at the same time a more noble creature,” recalled one student. “Tawney made me,” said A. P. Wadsworth, then a budding seventeen-year-old journalist, later editor of The Guardian. Another sketched a portrait of the bright-eyed Balliol graduate sharing the fruits of knowledge with his enraptured students:
The class meeting is over, and we sit at ease, taking tea and biscuits. . . . Talk ranges free and wide—problems of philosophy, politics, literature. Then R. H. T. reads to us Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; this moves a student to give us his favourite passage from the same source: “Pioneers, O, Pioneers!” Another follows, quoting a poem from Matthew Arnold that evidently has bitten him. . . .And for some of us as we sit listening, a new door opens.
Tawney soon began to publish serious historical research, including the full-length study The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912). World War I interrupted his academic career, though it also intensified his anger at capitalist modernity: The same forces that suppressed the workers—aggressive selfishness and a defiance of common humanity—were now leading to mass slaughter.
At the Somme, he felt complicit in this dehumanization.
Every man I fired at dropped, except one. Him, the boldest of the lot, I missed more than once. I was puzzled and angry. . . . Not that I wanted to hurt him or anyone else. It was missing I hated. That’s the beastliest thing in war, the damnable frivolity. One’s like a merry, mischievous ape tearing up the image of God.
Moments later Tawney himself was shot through the chest.
Where other writers saw their ideals blown to bits in the trenches, Tawney’s were only confirmed. Life was communion with one’s fellow man, whom one encountered as a creature of God. As death wrapped itself around him, what he felt above all was loneliness, and when the doctor arrived with bandages, morphine, and a few gentle words, Tawney sensed a touch of divine compassion. From now on human fellowship would be his theme. As he had written in a pre-war notebook: “Every human being is of infinite importance and therefore . . . no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. But to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.” Capitalism was before anything else a spiritual disaster, which “stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.”
In the major works that followed—The Acquisitive Society (1920), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and Equality (1931)—he denounced modern Britain as religiously bankrupt, denying in practice the Christian teachings it pretended to revere. And until his death he worked steadily to build a more humane society—serving on the postwar commission to reorganize the coal industry, heading up the the Workers’ Education Association, writing two Labour manifestos, and advising the party for decades on education policy.
In a striking contrast with all this moving and shaking, he was also the archetypical absent-minded professor, working from 1931 to 1949 at the London School of Economics, where his oddities were enjoyed by a wide circle of students, friends, and acolytes. One visitor to Tawney’s London apartment recalled a minor emergency when the great man could not find his tie before a social engagement; a search discovered it in a vase on the mantelpiece. He once set fire to himself while giving a lecture, and his fashion sense was so bad it put a not inconsiderable strain on his marriage.
Like G. K. Chesterton’s, Tawney’s profound respect for ordinary life was not matched by an ability to live out its demands. Not that he was incurious about the real world—his writing is built upon close observation, most impressively in a widely admired study of the Chinese economy based on months of travel. Even so, he believed that seemingly abstract principles were the hidden machinery that drove historical change; and like Chesterton, he was most at home in the realm of ideas. “Tawney inhabits a world beyond mere professorial untidiness,” remarked a 1953 Observer profile:
His room, insofar as it is comparable with other rooms, bears most resemblance to a small, though generously stocked, second-hand bookshop. A large table may be assumed to lie beneath a central pile of miscellaneous debris. To one side of this compost-heap sits Professor Tawney, furry and benign, filling his pipe with herb tobacco and lighting it with innumerable boxes of matches. For several years after World War I Tawney wore his sergeant’s tunic, not through pride but for convenience. Out of doors, he nowadays wears a black hat so full of holes that he presents the appearance of an itinerant musician who has passed through an ambush.
His manner is at once self-contained and courteous. His conversation, which runs to long, perfectly punctuated sentences, reproduces that sustained irony which is the chief feature of his written prose. His way of life is humble; for years one of his chief joys was a walking-tour—an eminent fellow-historian, when they were walking together on the South Downs, was surprised to find that Tawney knew the names of all the butterflies. There is a special seam of academic lore about his generosity to down-and-outs.
Tawney possessed the rare ability to make social justice into the stuff of literary art. Unflinching in their righteous anger, his books are remarkably free from bitterness or pomposity. They handle explosive material with panache: Tawney will plant an idea through understatement, irony, or metaphor, then stroll off in the opposite direction. On economic deregulation, he famously observed that “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” On the Labour Party’s incoherent policy platforms during the 1920s: “a glittering forest of Christmas trees, with presents for everyone.” On the Church’s making accommodations with the ideology of the day: “[It has] too little faith in its own creed to call a spade a spade in the vulgar manner of the New Testament.”
Though he always described himself as a socialist, Tawney would have received a frosty welcome at any Corbynite or DSA meeting. He had his doubts about big government, noting how easily “state management deadens spiritual life.” Free speech he considered an important part of that mystical English attitude of “decency,” which also encompassed a basic courtesy toward one’s opponents; thus he loathed how the Soviet Union’s “police collectivism” trampled on “the supreme political good of liberty,” and shook his head at leftists who admired faraway tyrannies. While many of his generation were tempted by pacifism, Tawney urged American entry into World War II—from 1941 to 1942 he worked for the British Foreign Office in Washington—and later gave his support to NATO.
As a historian, he respected but firmly distanced himself from Marxist theory; in his writings on property, he briskly dismissed the idea that it was necessarily a bad thing. Class warfare did not appeal to him (after all, it was the habit of the rich): Unlike his more radical friend G. D. H. Cole, Tawney declined to see the 1926 General Strike as the beginning of a longed-for “revolution,” and he hated the occasional communist habit of calling social services “palliatives” that delayed a working-class uprising. The Bloomsbury Group’s rejection of conventional morality Tawney described, in one of his knife-plunging asides, as a “mental disease.” Indeed, modern society was “sick through the absence of a moral ideal”; and that moral ideal—here Tawney really would have alarmed the present-day socialist—was a specifically Christian one. Cheerfully identifying himself as “a slave of superstition,” he dreamed of a world where people would treat each other as children of God, and where the institutions of society would reflect the natural law.
Again one thinks of Chesterton’s remark, apropos of Tennyson, that “He is only a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of the Conservative.” “All decent people,” Tawney proposed, “are at heart conservatives,”
in the sense of desiring to conserve the human associations, loyalties, affections, pious bonds between man and man which express a man’s personality and become at once a sheltering nest for his spirit and a kind of watch-tower from which he may see visions of a more spacious and bountiful land. All decent people are against a creed which tries such things by the standard of “utility” as though there were any end of life except life itself. What makes the working classes revolutionary is that modern economic conditions are constantly passing a steam roller over these immaterial graces and pieties, breaking up homes, casting venerable men on to the scrap heap because they are “no good,” using up children “for their immediate commercial utility,” and all in the name of material progress, that cotton may be cheap! They want the state to step in and put down these lawless vandals who judge human affection[s] by their effect on the money-market. They want to “conserve” the home, the property, the family of the worker.
Yet Tawney’s target was far broader than the employers and landlords who made the lives of the poor a misery. He extended his denunciation to the whole of society, which was under the spell of a false god: “It is this demon—the idolatry of money and success—with whom, not in one sphere alone but in all, including our own hearts and minds, Socialists have to grapple.” It wasn’t just the big businessmen, bankers, and Tory MPs, but also Tawney’s socialist allies and—yes—even the men in the mines and factories, who had contributed to the present disaster by reducing politics to a matter of redistributing cash. The real problem with capitalism was that you could not love your fellow man as a child of God while using him as a tool for gain; and such a spiritual and moral outrage was not to be solved merely by raising wages.
To live in some kind of peace with one’s employer or landlord, to have leisure to sit at ease reciting Whitman, to “enter more fully into the riches of civilization,” to find time for prayer, to be a good father or mother, to join sports teams or local clubs, to bring one’s expertise to bear in the running of one’s company, or town, or country: That fuller life was what politics should enable, and hence it was right to aim for. There was no path to this general flourishing that did not involve political reform: better workers’ rights, a more democratic economy, broader education, greater redistribution of wealth, more generous social services; yet each of these changes risked becoming an end in itself. A better-fed, better-housed population was a worthy goal, but it was not enough.
Tawney saw progress as something of a Victorian fairytale, and skepticism of it was among his most consistent themes. As early as his first book in 1912, he had toyed with the idea that the late-medieval peasant with his small plot of land had been better off than his twentieth-century successor: “The sixteenth century was poor with a poverty which no industrial community can understand. . . . It lived in terror of floods and bad harvests and disease, of plague, pestilence, and famine.” Nevertheless,
it was possible for men who by our standards would be called poor to exercise that control over the conditions of their lives which is of the essence of freedom, and which in most modern communities is too expensive a privilege to be enjoyed by more than comparatively few.
Later he would diagnose the illness that, over the centuries, had done away with freedom—namely, an overemphasis on individual rights. Once, work had been defined in terms of duties. It was judged by what service it performed—as a handful of professions still are. Doctors and others might grow rich, but the meaning of their work, “both for themselves and for the public, is not that they make money but that they make health, or safety, or knowledge, or good government or good law.” After the sixteenth-century breakdown, a different view gradually prevailed: that people should be able to pursue their economic self-interest without fussing over questions of right and wrong, and that the good society depends, not on a common ethic binding every citizen, but on securing the rights of the individual.
Such a culture, Tawney believed, has few defenses against the love of money. When individual rights are all, a certain kind of figure rises to the top: not the saint or the wise man or the artist—since becoming any of those things requires “the acceptance of limitations”—but the man able to seize on his “right” to pursue as much wealth and power as he can get. The image of Jeff Bezos rising at rocket-speed towards the stratosphere while his warehouse workers race against the clock and his delivery drivers urinate in bottles would have struck Tawney as a ghastly but not illogical extension of individualist doctrine. The present system was set up to thwart human dignity: The concentration of economic power meant that “a dozen gentlemen, who are not conspicuously wiser than their neighbours, determine the conditions of life and work for several thousand families,” and decisions made by “a handful of bankers” could disrupt “a whole community.”
However radical some of his proposals were—abolishing the major private schools, a dramatic hike in inheritance tax for the super-rich—Tawney’s goal was creation, not destruction. Everyone, he believed, ought to be “a citizen of his industry, his political group, of a variety of other organizations within society which claim his interest, of his nation, and of the wider civilization of which he is a member, and a citizen of the kingdom of the spirit.” What stood in the way was the distorted notion of “rights.”
The doctrine of inviolable property rights, for instance, made sense in a world of small landowners: To possess property was to stand on one’s own two feet. But that was ancient history. In the modern world, most notably in parts of the United States, “the population of peasant proprietors and small masters was replaced in three generations by the nightmare that haunted Jefferson—a propertyless proletariat and a capitalist plutocracy.” Now “property rights” was a shield for the super-rich to justify their fortunes. The owner of a mine who, “when asked why he should be paid £50,000 a year from minerals which he has neither discovered nor developed nor worked but only owned, replies ‘But it’s Property!’ may feel all the awe which his language suggests.” But the rights of property, as originally framed to protect the little man, had nothing to do with this kind of economic power. The opposite was the case: Industrialists were obligated to increase shareholder value, so that to rip off customers or work employees to breaking point became, by a twisted logic, a professional duty.
Tawney’s political goal was to demolish the obstacles that stood in the way of people’s genuine happiness—as parents or children, as members of their trade, as citizens. Yet here a false solution loomed: “equality of opportunity,” the belief that gross inequality could be justified by the chance—however slight—that some would rise to the top. The British Conservative Party has long appealed to this principle, whose canonical statement was a 1992 election poster during the leadership of John Major: “What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister.” It was as though, Tawney wrote sixty years earlier, “the noblest use of exceptional powers were to scramble to shore, undeterred by the thought of drowning companions.” Through the rhetoric of equal opportunities, the elite concealed that society was scarcely more equal than when the early capitalists drove small peasants off the land in the sixteenth century, or when industrialists reduced the poor to a condition of near-slavery in the nineteenth.
Such a reading of history provoked, after Tawney’s death, some enraged denunciations from the Cambridge history professor Sir Geoffrey Elton. “That very good man Richard Tawney,” Elton thundered, had a
disastrous effect upon what I may call the national self-consciousness. . . . At least one generation, and that a crucial one, was given grounds for believing that everything that contributed to the greatness and success of their country derived from sinful selfishness and money-grubbing wickedness.
That, however, misunderstood Tawney’s point, which was ultimately benign rather than subversive (or at least, subversive because it was benign): that the power of the rich should not be allowed to stifle human potential. His longest campaign, significantly, was for better-funded schools, and for the leaving age to be raised from fourteen to sixteen; both goals would eventually come about.
He also advocated, with less success, a democratization of economic power, to remove industry from the hands of a few major owners and give workers more control over their lives. That didn’t necessarily mean state management, which could, he suggested, be almost as soul-crushing as big business. (The sclerotic nationalized industries of the 1970s, later sold off by Mrs. Thatcher, were a sad vindication of his warnings.) Rather, he was enthused by experiments in economic democracy—in industries where workers took a greater role in decision-making, and in cooperatives where employees and consumers, rather than profit margins, directed company policy. He was immensely heartened by the advance of trade unionism, not least in the United States: “Big business no longer reigns alone, as it did when I first went to America,” he wrote to a friend in the 1940s.
As the decades passed, political reform loomed larger in Tawney’s writings, and his early insight that social progress depended on religious truth seemed to fade away. Perhaps, as his judicious biographer Lawrence Goldman argues, this signifies an unfortunate loss of youthful idealism. Perhaps, as Alasdair MacIntyre once claimed in a biting critique, Tawney naively idealized the postwar Labour government. Yet Tawney never quite reconciled himself to secular politics, and even as his long-standing causes became government policy, he felt at odds with the world.
One newspaper obituary declared that he had “lived to see the victory of most of the things he had fought for: the minimum wage, the raising of the school leaving age, the extension of workers’ education.” The Times of London had claimed a few years earlier, on the occasion of a dinner at the House of Commons to honor Tawney on his eightieth birthday, that “no man alive has put more people into his spiritual and intellectual debt.” But toward the end of his life, he insisted that he had had no influence on anything. “Thank you for comparing me with the Bible,” he wrote in response to one fan letter. “If I resemble it the only likeness is that nobody nowadays believes in either.”
Giving the eulogy at Tawney’s funeral, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell praised him as “the best man I have ever known” and recorded his “tremendous impact upon my generation” in “exposing the discrepancy between the Christian ethic and the actual condition of society.” Yet once again, Tawney’s contribution was not purely negative: He also longed for the rebirth of a Christian society. Naturally, the Church’s goal must be “to convert the world to Christianity”; on how this might be achieved, as on almost every theological question, Tawney maintained an enigmatic silence. But there was one point on which he doggedly insisted: If the economic system was fundamentally corrupt, the gospel could never take root. When nine-tenths of people’s lives were lived under the shadow of a system that incentivized the strong to exploit the weak, the Church must either resist that system or, by bowing to it, vitiate its own message.
If modern Britain worshiped wealth and treated the poor as less than human, the blame lay partly with the centuries-long failure of church leaders. The language of sin, even in the mouths of clergy, was now archaic:
A dock company which employs several thousand casual labourers for three days a week, or an employers’ association, which uses its powerful organization to oppose an extension of education, in order that its members may continue to secure cheap child labour, or a trade union which sacrifices the public to its own professional interests, or a retail firm which pays wages that are an incentive to prostitution, may be regarded as incompetent in its organization or as deficient in the finer shades of public spirit. But neither they, nor the community which may profit by their conduct, are regarded as guilty of sin, even by those whom professional exigencies have compelled to retain that unfashionable word in their vocabulary.
What, then, did Tawney want the churches to do? Not just to preach more sermons and write more letters to the newspapers denouncing this or that injustice. If one thing emerges clearly from Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, it is that rhetoric is not enough. When modern capitalism began to take shape in England—when usury and sharp business practice were no longer despised, but accepted as part of a brave new world of competitive markets and frantic money-making—there was no shortage of pious Christians to denounce it. As Tawney showed, the sixteenth century was full of such protests. But the old economic doctrines “were merely repeated, when, in order to be effective, they should have been thought out again from the beginning and formulated in new and living terms.” The medieval Church had tried to articulate the moral standards by which the latest economic practices should be judged. By the seventeenth century, even where Anglican theological works condemned extortion and oppression, they failed to define what these looked like in contemporary life. In effect, a large field of human activity had been abandoned to secular standards.
“An institution which possesses no philosophy of its own,” Tawney writes in an aphorism startlingly applicable to our own times, “inevitably accepts that which happens to be fashionable.” Along with this intellectual retreat went an institutional one. After the Reformation, the Church “became, in effect, one arm of the State.” The clergy, increasingly dependent on lay landowners for patronage, were unlikely to pick a fight with the rich. Canon law and the threat of excommunication were displaced by civil law, which was more lenient on matters such as usury. As the Church surrendered its public authority, markets became a morality-free zone.
Puritanism, likewise, began by advocating a strictly enforced economic morality. But it contained, Tawney argues, latent tendencies, which came to the fore as modern capitalism advanced. By rejecting the social order as unspiritual, and stressing the Christian’s unmediated relationship with his Creator, Puritan thinkers unintentionally laid the foundations for individualism, and for the belief that, in Thatcher’s words, “there is no such thing as society.” Meanwhile, their “emphasis on the moral duty of untiring activity, on work as an end in itself, on the evils of luxury and extravagance, on foresight and thrift, on moderation and self-discipline and rational calculation” created a new ideal of Christian life that was rather easily accommodated to a commercialized culture.
Tawney did not mean to sneer at the Church of England—he was, at least toward the end of his life, a diligent attender at its services—or Puritanism, with which he had an obvious affinity. The heart of his argument was, instead, about how easily Christianity can be co-opted by worldly powers. When theologians neglect to analyze the complex realities of the present, and when ecclesiastical bodies hand over their social functions to the state and the market, the Church has accepted marginalization. In other words, it has failed in its mission.
Much of Tawney’s work, then, was an attempt to remedy that intellectual deficiency—to suggest what light the gospel cast on specifically twentieth-century forms of political and economic organization. Less frequently, but with equal urgency, he addressed Christianity’s institutional deficit. A just social order required the church to regain the sociopolitical authority it had long since relinquished, and that meant once again taking responsibility for disciplining its members.
Tawney did not quite explain what he had in mind—presumably not a return to medieval canon law on excommunication. But he insisted that, as a matter of principle, the Church must have some kind of rulebook:
It ought to be the greatest of societies, since it is concerned with the greatest and most enduring interests of mankind. But, if it has not the authority to discipline its own members, which is possessed by the humblest secular association, from an athletic club to a trade union, it is not a society at all.
Tawney’s point is akin to that of present-day Catholics who ask how their Church can expect to be taken seriously when its leaders permit, even encourage, Joe Biden to receive Communion while advancing the destruction of unborn children. A Church too feeble to put its teaching into practice where it clashes with secular pieties has, in the last analysis, abandoned the public square to the devil.
Only once, to my knowledge, did Tawney write with real optimism about the future of the churches, in a newspaper report from a 1928 conference. Listening to the delegates from Africa, India, China, and the Philippines, he was gratified to hear them speak as though social injustice were an urgent question for Christians. “It is not at all that religious are subordinated to political and economic issues,” Tawney wrote. But there was, as in the works of medieval theologians and Reformation controversialists, a readiness to judge the present in the light of divine revelation. “In the West,” Tawney remarked, “Christianity is sometimes thought of as soporific. In Africa and the East, as in the Roman Empire, it appears to have some of the qualities of an explosive.” Tawney loved Western civilization, the culture he wished every poor child could have access to. But as he listened to the confident speeches of his fellow Christians, he felt, he said, the world turning on its hinges.
Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.