August 1, 1915, World War I in Marion County

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The Oregon Statesman published two editorials addressing the issue of moral values. The first, “Democracy Fails Because Churches Fail” opened with a quote by the Congregational minister Adolph A. Berle (not to be confused with his son of the same name who served as one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust”) that “our democracy is the stupidest, the most inefficient and the most ludicrous exhibition of moral imbecility the world has ever seen.”

The editorial draws from Berle’s book Christianity and the Social Rage to argue that the church should be “the vital regenerating force of society – a society that is wasting its
energies for lack of a central, dominating moral force.”

The editorial examines Berle’s views on wealth and social justice, comparing churches unfavorably with the flocks they were supposed to guide. Income inequality was an issue during the period we are following and though the dominant theme of these dispatches is The Great War, the carnage in France aside, residents of Marion County lived in a world of stark income differences. Thought not quite as stark as today, a sub-theme – almost a fugue – is the issue of wages and working conditions, not only in this country but throughout the industrialized world. Socialism was viewed with grave distrust by businesses, corporations, and the state.

Elements of the labor force viewed the state as being in thrall to “captains of industry” who used the powers of the state to suppress worker organizations. Where labor was well organized, as in Germany and Great Britain, the state made concessions to workers. In other states, Russia for example, suppression of efforts to achieve wage dignity for workers would result in revolution and the specter of revolution would be a theme in this country during the coming years.

The neglect of churches to address these issues brings out Pastor Berle’s wrath:

“The public,” he says, “is getting more and more into the habit of asking a rich man, ‘Where did you get it?’ How often does the church ask the same question of one of its members?”

He is horrified at “the spectacle of present-day Christians – church-goers and partakers of the holy communion – conniving at every form of immorality, vice and oppression, and going unrebuked by their spiritual leaders..”

He declares that “this shameful condition has been brought about by the abandonment, through a firm alliance between the church and the property owning class, of the one single imperative mandate of Christ, the Christians must adopt the rule of love as the law of life.”

The editor points out that “originally the Christian brotherhood meant division of goods with neither wealth nor poverty.” To support this, the editorial continues, quoting Berle:

But “as Christianity became identified with churchdom, the theory was set up that Christian duty extended no further than ‘spiritual matters,’ and that whatever the property owning group did to aid the poor in the material things of life was in the nature of credit-conferring benevolence.” With the church paying little attention to the moral aspects of wealth, things have drifted so far from Christian mooring that renting property for immoral purposes, from permitting abominable conditions to prevail in their tenements, from killing off thousands of children yearly in their factories; and if you consult the list of pew renters in Christian churches and the city’s tax dodgers, you will be amazed to find how often the names are found on each list.

“And the real gravity of the situation lies in this, that the Christian churches are a party to the fraud and hypocrisy.”

He does not profess to believe that the propertyless groups are any better than the wealthy. But they are wronged by those who have the power to wrong them, with the church passively encouraging the injustice.

Acknowledging that there needs to be a moral regeneration, both the editor and the Reverend Berle agree that “no patent remedy in the way of new laws or new institutions” exists. The editorial concludes by quoting from Reverend Berle:

“What we need,” he concludes, “is simply to release the natural forces by which society mends itself, and give them a chance to do their liberative and developing service to mankind..”

And the new spirit that is needed for the redemption of our industries, politics, law, courts, schools and everything else is to come from the churches, which work in the hearts of men and therefore in the heart of civilization.

“The church,” he says, “must return to the simplicity of the New Testament, teaching and telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” keeping ever in mind the eternal contrast between property and humanity, and providing “spiritual regulation” of property for the sake of human freedom.

The second editorial also addressed the issue of morality – in this case as it applied to trade with the belligerent powers. When war broke out few appreciated the extent to which this country could be a cash cow by extending loans and providing for the sinews of war – credit, cotton, and munitions, to name just three. To remain neutral we had two options – sell no war-related products to anyone, or sell willingly to anyone.

Britain and France isolated Germany and Austria from international markets, thus reserving for themselves the burgeoning economic capacity of this country. Though we would eventually enter the war, this country’s contribution was more in terms of material than manpower. We profited from our neutrality until 1917 when Germany finally could do no more, and opted for unrestricted submarine warfare.


There is much confusion regarding the nature of neutrality, and the duties of the American people as a neutral nation. Why not try to get our bearing on the subject?

To many of the so-called neutral organizations formed in this country since the war began, neutrality plainly means “helping Germany.” The propagandists may be quite sincere in their belief that they are neutral, but they are evidently incapacitated by war-stimulated racial feeling for obeying either the spirit or the letter of true neutrality. And the same may be said of a great many of the pro-ally “neutrals” who work as individuals for the side they favor. Both of these classes, if they had their way, would drive government from its neutral position and probably involve it in the war.

The editor distinguishes two sorts of neutrality, distinguishing between public and private morality. “Public neutrality” is defined as:

The nation acting publicly, through its government, is neutral, and has thus far maintained its neutrality with scrupulous care, holding strictly to the line marked out by international law.

“Citizens,” the editor notes, “can do as it pleases

[sic].” The paper notes that the President, early in the war, asked Americans to be neutral privately as well as publicly, an all but impossible standard, as the editorial notes:

If an individual American wants to go to Europe and serve in the belligerent army of his choice, that is nobody’s business but his own. The government has no right to interfere. If he wants to give money to any belligerent nation, that is nobody’s business but his own. If he wants to win other Americans to his own point of view, he has a perfect right to try it, as long as he doesn’t pass the usual bonds of decency and lawfulness. He may even form organizations for the spread of any sort of propaganda, as long as he doesn’t compromise the nation by breaking the national or international neutrality laws. Anywhere short of that extreme, his action, however unneutral, is subject only to the informal disapproval of other citizens.

Most American, the editorial points out, seek to mind their own business, do not seek to push the nation into war, nor attempt to force their views on others. Nonetheless, people who think and feel, “who are not mental defectives or human jellyfish,” have observed and have formed opinions, and “in their own souls at least, are partisan.”

The editor then questions whether it is possible to remain morally neutral as individuals:

This brings us to another distinction. The non-neutral majority may be divided into two classes – the racial partisans and the moral partisans.

It is natural that Germans should favor Germany, the Englishmen would favor England, etc. The racial pull is strong, whether it comes through the blood or through the influence of race-culture.

It is natural, however, that the majority, whose European bonds are less strong, should have their minds free from the warping pull of race prejudice, and should form their sympathy along moral lines. And thus it is that the real, indisputable partisanship of most Americans for the allies has been formed.

There is not such thing as “moral neutrality.” Morality that is neutral is not morality at all. We might as well talk of being neutral about the Ten Commandments as being neutral on the moral aspects of the war – which are the only aspects really important.

The editor asks whether it is possible to remain neutral in cases of arson, theft, perjury, breach of faith, or criminal conduct. The editor writes that “it is precisely such considerations as these that are involved in the war. Instinctively we judge nations as we judge men. And it is not only our right to judge them; it is our duty.” The editorial continues:

From the beginning of civilization, moral indignation has been accounted a virtue. It is moral indignation that preserves society by visiting condemnation on the wicked. If civilization is to be saved from this chaotic welter, its salvation rests with the conscience of mankind, and in the last analysis, on the moral verdict passed on the war by such men and women everywhere as are capable of disinterested judgment.

The editorial concludes that we must think about the issues and weigh those issues in the balance where we place our moral values:

We owe it to ourselves and to the world to observe closely this war, which is at the same time the most tremendous event of history and the supreme test of human virtue. We owe it to ourselves to think about it, and to make up our minds about it. And if we honestly conclude, after conscientious balancing of the evidence, that one side is morally right, or nearer right morally than the other, then it is not only our privilege but our duty to give that side our moral support. We don’t have to preach or write about it, or even argue with our friends, but we should at least be honest with ourselves. Any other attitude is immoral and cowardly.

Or, as Ronald Dworkin wrote in “Justice for Hedgehogs:”

“Absolute confidence or clarity is the privilege of fools and fanatics. For the rest of use we must do the best we can: we must choose among all of the substantive views on offer by asking which strikes us, after reflection and due thought, as more plausible than the others.” (Dworkin, 95)

Place yourself in this time, and ponder the editor’s suggestion. Think of yourself as an immigrant or first generation American with roots in one of the belligerent nations. Earlier dispatches reported concerns about America profiting from the war. How would you respond? What should America’s policy be? And, how does your background affect your answer. If you wish to share your thoughts, please leave a comment.