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.
NEUTRALITY AND MORALS
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