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By Their Groups Shall Ye Know Them

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 8: By their Groups Ye Shall Know Them

Several years before the Nazis came to power in Germany I, as a student, was standing on the street in the city of Nuremberg watching a parade. The Horst Wessel was being played by the band, and the parade lasted about four hours. Some of the banners were swastikas, and I thought it would be interesting to see what some of the people watching the parade would say. I asked a couple of “hair on the chest” men standing there what the meaning of the swastika was. They then gave me the Nazi story on anti-Semitism. I began to ask a few questions, and the conversation became rather heated. People standing around us could readily hear what we were arguing about. Suddenly I was seized from behind by two elbows and pulled out of there. I couldn’t get loose from this sturdy gentleman. He pushed me through the crowd, down a side street, up a dead end alley.

By the way, up until that time, I had found observation of the Nazis rather interesting in my detached way; but I want to say that on the little march up the dead end alley, I discovered what the meaning of the word “palpitation” is. When we got to the end of that alley, he wheeled me around and shouted at me in German with a few Christian words—I mean theological words used without theological intent. He said in effect, “You blankety blank fool, don’t you know that when you are watching a parade in Nazi Germany, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in!”

The palpitation was really going up, and I thought that he was giving me an agenda of what was going to happen. Then he smiled and said, “I saved you from getting sandbagged there. Do you know that? You don’t argue with those Nazis in that way. They would flatten you out on the pavement.”

I said, “Thank you very much.”

He said, “You know, when I was standing there watching you, you damn fool, I said to myself, ‘Well I have now been four times in the U.S.A. in the Merchant Marines, and I have been entertained marvelously by Americans, but I never had a chance to pay them back; so I said to myself, I am going to invite him home for Sunday dinner.’ You want to come home to dinner with me?”

So I went to dinner with him, an unemployed worker. We climbed three flights in a tenement house, with the bannisters gone and some of the steps out. For a couple of hours during a typical dumpling dinner of an unemployed worker with his small family, I found out something about the economic situation out of which Nazism was drawing.

We have here the contours of a totalitarian society. I say the contours in the sense that there are features that belong to a totalitarian society but which may, in one limited way or another, figure in so-called democratic society. That is, everything is controlled from the center: churches, trade unions, political parties, lodges, schools, commercial and financial corporations. This is the destruction of democracy. No group may exist within the totalitarian society that is not under the control of, under the license of, under the direction of, responsible to the central authority. One group holds a monopoly of power. In this case, Nazism holds the monopoly of civic religion.

The separation of church and state, as an institutional arrangement, is not only a fundamental aspect of the democratic society; historically it was the first important institutionalization of the decentralization of power. The separation of church and state came initially in the seventeenth century in a protest against the establishment that controlled both ecclesiastical and political economic affairs. In that time, the idea of separation of church and state was viewed as subversive. Indeed, a historian of British civilization, Winfield Stratford, indicates his negative attitude toward separation of church and state by describing this part of British history as “Spiritual Bolshevism.”

The separation of church and state carried with it the theory that people should be allowed to form associations without the control of the state in order freely to express their own convictions. The first struggle in the history of modern democracy was the struggle for what is called freedom of religious association. We take this for granted as a part of our heritage, overlooking the fact that initially our spiritual ancestors were viewed as “Spiritual Bolsheviks.” The word that was used was “Anabaptists.”

The separation of church and state did revive an institutional feature that had appeared earlier in Western history with the birth of primitive Christianity. Two very interesting similarities should be pointed out here between early Christianity and the Protestant sect who first fought for freedom of religious association. That is, primitive Christianity asserted that religion is not to be bound up with the nation or with the race. Religion will have its own free association not under the control of, and not licensed by, Caesar. Therefore, it is asserted by contemporary historians that one of the great innovations in the history of the West was the innovation provided by primitive Christianity in its assertion that people have the right to form a church that is not controlled by, not formed by, and does not directly serve Caesar. Thus, “Render unto God that which is God and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” was not merely a religio-ethical maxim; it was an idea that required a special form of social organization; namely, the church. In primitive Christianity, you see the separation between religion and government, religion and nation, religion and state. Secondly, you see a separation between religion and kinship. More of the ethnic orientation of primitive Judaism was now rejected, and thus you find, in the primitive Christian church, people leaving the family in order to join the small religious association of the primitive church. That church also brought in people of various races; indeed, it gave both slaves and women positions of authority in the church. These elements reappeared in the seventeenth century, with anticipation from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they found social institutional implementation especially in the seventeenth century.

At this point I want to remind you that one of the most influential books in the history of Anglo-American political theory was written in opposition to this new trend in the English religion; namely, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. That work was written to show that if you permit freedom of association, including freedom of religious association, you open the avenue to chaos and social dissolution. Hobbes argued, as did the Catholics, that you cannot have a stable society unless you have a united religion and that religion is also under the control of the state. Therefore, there may be no free associations in the state, for any such free association will mean that the unity and power of the sovereign is thereby jeopardized.

We take for granted the opposition to this view, but in that time one of the most learned people in a variety of disciplines—physics, political theory, and theology—Thomas Hobbes, gave the argument for unity as against freedom of association. He did this so powerfully that you can say that he is the most significant political theorist in Anglo-American tradition. Why? Because every fundamental attempt to spell out the theory of democracy begins with or takes into account how one is going to answer Thomas Hobbes. It is remarkable for someone to have written such a powerful statement of totalitarianism that again and again democratic theorists feel that they have to answer Hobbes, who rejected precisely the thing that began in the ecclesiastical area here and later went into the political arena; he rejected the whole theory of separation of powers. There cannot be a stable society if there is a separation of powers; all powers must be united in the sovereign.

There are many repressive people in democratic American society who talk as though they really agreed more with the spirit of the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes than with the spirit of The Federalist Papers, which insist that there must be differentiation and freedom to express differentiation and freedom to form associations to express separation of powers. The theory of separation of powers, as a consequence of this early Protestant movement, worked in two ways: first, in the development of free associations within the commonwealth; secondly, in the theory of separation of powers within the government itself. The idea of the separation of powers actually was spelled out institutionally under the rubric of the New Testament axiom: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” One not only has the attitude expressed; one organizes society in such a way that one may render to God that which is God’s where it is different from that which is Caesar’s and where it may even dissent from what Caesar demands.

Actually, Thomas Hobbes suffered a traumatic shock in the face of the swarming sect who in the name of God were claiming that you didn’t have to belong to the established church; and that you didn’t have to pay taxes to support the established church. They insisted that they should not be coerced into paying taxes for a church in which they disbelieved, and that they could have a church of their own.

Incidentally, the taking of the collection as a part of the Protestant liturgy was in those days of the seventeenth century a symbol of the fact: “Our church is not supported by the state. Our church does not require everybody to pay taxes in order to go to it. Our church is supported and paid for by its own members. We run our own show.” It was a revolutionary idea that, “We pay our own bills, and we don’t ask other people to pay for religion who don’t happen to believe in it.” The very act of taking a public collection is a symbol of an institutional change; namely, freedom of religious association in face of the Establishment. Now it is asserted also that it is the right and responsibility of every member of the local church to participate in the determination of the policy of that church. Indeed, church members took this attitude so strongly that they developed a kind of anti-clerical attitude as against the parson and they said, “The church belongs to the laity, and the ministry is only gathered out of the laity to give special function.”

Moreover, in the seventeenth century among our spiritual ancestors, there developed the idea that the authentic church must be a church that protects the minority within it. There were formulations such as, “If the Holy Spirit is to speak to us, it is more likely that God will speak to us through dissent and through the minority than through the majority who are in control.” So they developed the idea that it is the obligation of the true church not only to listen to, but even to protect, the minority view. You have here a fairly elaborate theory of dispersion of power; that is, scattering of power.

What is power? Power, understood politically and sociologically, is the capacity to participate in making social decisions. The principle of separation of church and state, the principle of freedom of expression, the principle of the autonomy of the local group, the principle that every member has the right and obligation to participate, and the principle of protection of minorities; all of these were the stirring up of a theory of power. Political democracy as we know it was born in the seventeenth century in the small church that Mr. Winfield in his History of British Civilization called “Spiritual Bolsheviks.” Modern democracy was not born through the Renaissance or through the reading of ancient Greek and Roman classics. As A. D. Lindsay of Balliol College at Oxford puts it, “Modern democracy was born by the principle of analogy whereby the theory of social organization developed by the churches was taken over as a part of the state.”

Within the sanctuary people said, “If God requires this kind of free church of us, he requires also a state in which these things can obtain.” Therefore, they began to ask for a written constitution, extension of suffrage, regular elections, reduction of privileges coming from the ownership of property. Therefore, we can say that freedom of religious association became a conception of a free democratic state. It then became a conception of freedom in the field of education; and it had a tremendous development in the eighteenth century in the Protestant academies where people could go to school who wouldn’t sign the thirty-nine articles which they had to sign in order to get into an academy of the Establishment. Thus also, more and more associations were formed in order to bring onto the public scene new concerns, new demands for rights, or attacks upon forms of injustice. So we have the development of the professional associations, the development of cooperatives, the development of missionary societies, and the development of the anti-slavery movement. We finally have the development of the pressure groups, the basic techniques of which were already invented before the year 1725 by the Quakers, who decisively affected public legislation in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

We have to say that today the movement in the direction of civil rights represents another application of the principle of freedom of association in order to achieve some kind of consensus in regard to public policy and in order to affect public policy. The general presupposition is that the democratic society, in contrast with the totalitarian society, is the multi-group society, and the vitality of democratic society depends upon the participation of citizens in the multi-group, where they have the opportunity to scrutinize propaganda, to get new information, to achieve a critical attitude, to learn the skill of selecting a good leader, to provide the arena within which leadership itself shall get its training. All of this is tied up with the theory of the multi-group society as democratic in contrast with the Hobbesian totalitarian society where everything is under the absolute control of the Establishment.

Finally, we have to say that in Protestant terms in the history of the multi-group society, a dual concept of vocation has developed. On the one side, every Christian has the obligation to do a good job in a particular vocation. Secondly, every Christian has the obligation also to participate in those processes that may bring criticism through processes that attempt to transform social institutions in the direction of justice and mercy. The litmus test there is how much time, how much energy, does the individual Christian devote to participation in organizations for the public welfare and for the transformation of society in the direction of justice, mercy, and love?

By their groups shall ye know them.