Page images
PDF
EPUB

minor premise, and, consequently, a different con clusion. Are Protestants, to say nothing about Jews and Catholics, prepared to accept this conclusion, and then quietly submit to taxation for the purpose of paying the expenses of teaching infidelity? Who doubts that they would protest against it as an outrage? And yet the syllogism is just as valid when used by the disciples of Thomas Paine, being the majority in any State or any school district, as it is when used by Protestants, they being the majority. Its logical power is precisely the same in both cases, unless we assume for Protestants some special right which is not common to all citizens.

Take another example: The majority ought to rule; Presbyterians, who demand that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism shall be taught in the public schools, are the majority; therefore, these Presbyterians ought to rule. This might be very agreeable to Presbyterians; but how would it be with the Baptists, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, and other religionists, when required to pay taxes for the teaching of Calvinism according to the Presbyterian interpretation? They would complain of the injustice, and this is precisely what Presbyterians themselves would do under similar circumstances.

We might extend these illustrations through any number of syllogisms, and, by simply changing the minor premise, prove almost all sorts of conclusions. An obvious fallacy lies in the major premise, especially in assuming the rule of the majority, without any qualification. The rule itself supposes a society of human beings bound together in certain relations and for certain ends or objects; and it is undoubtedly a good rule, so long as the action of the majority is limited to these ends. A railway company is organized to conduct a specific business, and is by the terms of its charter confined to that business. The majority of stockholders, represented by the directors, may control the business within the limits of the objects for which the company exists as set forth in its charter; yet no one will pretend that the majority, simply because it is such, would have the right to undertake the work of Christian missions to the heathen and spend the funds of the company in propagating the Gospel. The answer of law and of common sense to such a proposition would be that this work, however important, does not come within the scope of the organization; and, hence, that the majority cannot wield its powers for any such end. The charter itself is the constitution of the company, and protects the rights of the minority, by limiting the powers of the majority.

The same principle applies to civil government organized according to the democratic theory. The majority are entitled to rule within the limits of the objects for which such government exists; but the moment these limits are exceeded, then the action is simply usurpation and may be an outrage to the rights of the minority. No man, surely, will pretend that majorities under our system of government have a right to do just what they please. They must act within certain limits or become oppressors.

Let it, then, be shown that religion or irreligion in any

form constitutes one of the ends of civil government, as we have it in this country, and that the people have vested their government with power to propagate one or the other; let the well established principles of American democracy in regard to religion be thus reversed; and then we shall grant that the majority conscience would have the legal right to suit itself, and, at the general expense, provide for teaching Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Deism, Paganism, or any religious or anti-religious system, not only in the public schools and to children, but also in the pulpit and to adults. It would then take the place of the governor's conscience in the theory of Mr. Gladstone, or the Pope's conscience in the theory of Romanism. It certainly would be no better, since we may as well have a religious pope in one man clothed with the civil power, as a virtual pope in many men.

The unqualified and unrestrained power of the majority involves a principle that is fatal to the religious rights of the minority, and leaves the latter without any protection against the abuses of power. Adopting this principle, we may as well at once dispense with constitutions and bills of rights altogether,

and simply say that, for all things and all purposes, no matter what, the existing majority may lawfully do its own bidding and employ the whole power of society for its accomplishment. This would be a short cut to the doctrine of simple absolutism under a democratic form. Any one who even half understands our political institutions knows that this is not their character at all, and that religion in any form is, as to the compulsory acceptance or support thereof, among the things excepted from the jurisdiction of civil government. The people have seen fit not to trust even a majority to pass any law for the government of the whole in respect to the maintenance and propagation of religion.

If, moreover, we look at the question as one of ethics, aside from constitutional limitations, we can hardly fail to see that this majority conscience, when employed in imposing religious taxes and burdens upon a dissenting minority, is not exercising its own rights of conscience, but trampling upon the rights of others. This would be readily seen by Christians if the majority conscience were Pagan and should compel Christian consciences to support Paganism. Is it any less a wrong to compel Pagan consciences or any dissenting conscience to support Christianity? The rights of conscience are individual and personal, and are not to be settled by the arithmetic of putting many consciences on the one side, against a few on the other. The conscience of a single man, peaceably exercised, is for him good against he right of the whole race to invade it by any compulsory process, when religion is the matter to which it refers. There ought to be room in this world for all the consciences in it, without any encroachment upon the rights of each other; and there would be if all men, in their relations to each other, would be content to exercise their own rights of conscience in a reasonable manner. This would leave every man to determine the religious question for himself, and, as the necessary consequence, relieve every man from all impositions, burdens, taxes, or disabilities arising from the determination of the question by others. Though the rule is a simple one, it is, nevertheless, one of the most difficult things for bigotry to learn. The only way to learn it effectually is not to be a bigot.

It is quite true that there are some inconveniences in the doctrine of private judgment on religious subjects. Yet, notwithstanding these inconveniences, it is much better than the doctrine of State judgment, whether in the form of the governor's conscience or that of the majority. If we have the liability of aberration and diversity in the one case, we have the more formidable liability of oppression and injustice in the other. This liability of diversity is not, after all, a very frightful thing, since it implies individual activity. There is much truth, not always seen, in the following observation of Isaac Taylor, contained in his “Essays on Ultimate Civilization : “Religious differences-well defin

a

« PreviousContinue »