Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1918, Shailer Mathews, the late dean of Chicago Divinity delivered a series of lectures at the University of North Carolina entitled “Religion and Patriotism.” With the Great War as backdrop, the great culture warrior for the social gospel utilized his understanding of historicism as a method to discuss how religion and patriotism should be rightly understood in a genuine democracy. Along the way, Mathews attempted to indict the religion of German nationalism and what he considered the religious right of his day. Both, ultimately, subscribed to the same vision of God as sovereign ruler rather than loving father, and it was this vision that supplied the rationale behind autocratic rule, whether that rule came in the form of an inerrant scripture, an infallible pope, or an all-encompassing state.

Mathews thought that religion had to be reconceived along the lines of democratic life if it was to survive. This is in part because Mathews saw all religious beliefs (doctrines) as a product of the social mind of the period. Doctrines, like nations, are no more than the projections of the people writ large. Therefore religion is an expression of patriotism and theology a “super-politics” because both “transcendentalize” human experience. In non-democratic forms of government, the divine will can easily become the national will because the authority of the king or the few did not derive from the consent of the governed. It was empire, monarchy, and aristocracy that gave rise to Christian ideas of God as a sovereign master who bestowed divine rights.

For Mathews, the clash of civilizations was in reality a clash of different kinds of social experiences and mentalities and the religious ideas that supported them. In his own day, he saw the fundamentalist-modernist controversy as evidence of this clash as well as the Great War with the Kaiser of Germany. What lay behind both was a conflict between a view of God as loving father of Jesus and immanent within the processes of history and a view of God as divine monarch, who’s transcendent will determined all things. Thomas Aquinas was the prime example of what theology as a super-politics looked like, which meant that Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical calling for a renewed Christian philosophy primarily through Aquinas must be rejected as a remnant of an ancient and medieval social order.

Because democracy offered a different social experience, Christian thinkers must ask what the democratic social mind envisioned. In Tertullian’s language, Mathews wondered, “What fellowship has democracy with religion? Can it too, as the mood of a social mind, give form and terms to religious thought? Can theology describe a divine super-democracy?”

For Mathews, democracy is another projection of the social mind. It is a symbol of human social experience. As he states, “in practice democracy must be described as the development of the rights of Englishmen into the rights of humanity. That which the Englishmen claimed as rights in England, our intellectual and idealistic development has made the basis of our conception of whatever democracy we actually enjoy.” This why Mathews thought that democracy was the “child of religious freedom.” He was, after all, a Baptist at heart. The first step toward democracy was the extension of religious freedom to all humanity.

For Mathews, democracy continues through the ongoing increase of freedom as “the process of extending popular rights by extending privileges enjoyed by some favored class.” The formation of a right was in reality the recognition that some groups possessed exclusive privileges whether religious, political, economic, or otherwise. Equality meant the extension of such privileges from the few to the many, or even from the many to the few. To proclaim the sovereignty of the people was to support the ongoing increase of freedom through the expansion of rights.

Mathews’s program of modernism was the reconstruction of all theology along the lines of democratic life because all theology had been “incubated in a period of monarchy” and thus expressions of ecclesiastical autocracy. Eventually this perspective would lead Mathews to view God as the inner life of the universe who’s will was given expression through nature and the social mind. Regeneration was the interior awakening to social solidarity with humanity. A regenerate individual became a relative of the entire race. Paternity under God, fraternity with human beings.

What Mathews tried to do was wed the Christian message of fraternity and love to his understanding of democracy as the extension of freedom in the form of rights from one group to another. Equality meant the universal extension of rights and freedom referred to the capacity to exercise those rights through maximizing choice. For this reason, “citizens must believe in a God who works through the development of institutions that give equality of opportunity to every member of a national group and to nations themselves.”

Mathews provides a window onto the cultural landscape within America. He pitted the religion of Jesus as the benevolent Fatherhood of God and the universal solidarity of man over against what he saw was the autocratic rule of a sovereign dictator in conservative Protestantism and Catholicism. Preservation of human worth involved the extension of freedom through a solidarity birthed of regeneration. This perspective still inhabits the popular mind, being wedded to forms of individualism that allows for talk about solidarity in terms of the continuous extension of the practices of one group to another. The liberation of Christ is reduced to the expansion of freedom in the form of limitless choice.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles