Challenge to the Churches: Religion and Democracy

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: 1st published by Kegan Paul, London, 1941, 63 pp.

Introduction by Francis Williams
30 titled paragraphs:
1. Religion and Democracy
2. The Democratic Conviction
3. Limitations of Political Control
4. The Problem before Democracy
5. The Importance of Religion
6. We Need a New Reformation
7. Religion and Society
8. What Society Means
9. Elements of Unity
10. Religion and Politics
11. The Function of the State
12. Love or Fear.
13. The Value of Fear
14. Roots of Totalitarianism
15. The Argument Summarised
16. Socialism is Inevitable
17. Religion’s Social Task
18. Conservative or Creative?
19. Naziism is a Religion
20. Creative Religion
21. The Mission of Christianity
22. A Revolutionary Religion
23. The Failure of the Churches
24. Spiritual Smoke-Screen
25. Symbol of Medievalism
26. The Old Democracy is Done
27. Conditions of Democracy
28. No Unity Without Christianity
29. Can the Churches Respond?
30. The Christian Revolution

This little book (or, rather, hard-covered pamphlet) is one of a series published under the general editorship of Francis Williams during the Second World War. Much of its historical political content is treated slightly more fully in Macmurray’s Constructive Democracy published two years later. Interested readers might care to read the latter book, or at least my summary review of it, alongside the present volume. The purpose of the whole series of pamphlets was not only to help us achieve victory but to prepare us for the restoration, preservation and further development of democratic forms of government once military victory had been attained. (The assumption of the latter was a bit cheeky at the time. As I recall, the British Army had not won a significant battle. El Alamein was yet to come!)

Since the seventeenth century Civil War, democracy in England had had two main principles:
i) Government should not interfere with religion
ii) Government should not interfere with trade

Macmurray thought that i) was a matter of principle for all time, but that ii) was a matter of expediency for its time. And its time might well be past. The development of industry, including the advent of large corporations, might force governments to interfere in matters economic. Macmurray expresses this in terms of socialism and the planned economy and so might therefore be dismissed as the prophet of a damp squib. However, I suspect that there are those who would consider that today even right-wing governments find themselves having to interfere more than their predecessors did in things financial. And I remember some years ago hearing the American economist, Galbraith, opining that a form of socialism was being forced upon the corporations although they, of course, did not describe it in those terms.

However, if government were to interfere more in financial matters (even in the interests of democracy) then our traditional control of democracy would be lost i.e. the power of our elected representatives to vote (or withhold) supplies to the government. What could replace this control? It is Macmurray’s view that only religion, properly understood, could provide the cohesive emotional force to keep government in its place. Hence his ‘challenge to the churches’. He is challenging them to turn themselves into the sort of communities which could respond to the new need. As at the time constituted, he saw most churches as conservative institutions defending the political and cultural status quo. They preached a ‘spiritualised’ Christianity which sought to bring about the Kingdom in Heaven rather than the Kingdom of Heaven and which tended to become a religion of blood and soil (or kinship and nationality). What was required was a Christianity which fulfilled its essential nature and became universalist, revolutionary and creative, seeking to bring about the community of the future, not to prop up the failed societies of the past.

There may be those who say that Macmurray does not tell the churches how to achieve this transformation or explain how they will be able to keep governments in check once they have done so. I suspect that his retort would have been that such a reaction, requiring a blueprint, betrayed the ‘theoretical’ bias of our culture. The way would be found (if we could find the will) in our effort to walk it. He who lives the life shall know of the doctrine. But that’s just my guess.