Religious Idealism Behind A Realistic Peace


By WILLIAM MATHER LEWIS, President of Lafayette College

Delivered before a Conference to Study the Organization of Peace, New York, November 10, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 140-141.

THE title of this talk—Religious Idealism Behind A Realistic Peace—is not of my choosing. The directors of this conference, aware of the fact that college presidents have but one address, which they present under various intriguing titles to different audiences, have attempted a coup d'etat by forcing this designation upon me. This being the case, I feel perfectly free to say anything about the matter that I wish.

This title carries the general implication that idealism and realism are mutually exclusive terms. The dictionary justifies this point of view, for it tells us that idealism is opposed to realism. But unless at this moment of opportunity and of crisis we can abolish this conception; can fuse these ideas; unless indeed we can make idealism realistic and realism idealistic, then even before the guns cease firing we shall be on the road to a third world war, we shall have lost our chance to live and move and have our being in a truly peaceful society.Historic events bring forcibly to our minds the important part which comebacks play in the affairs of men. General MacArthur escapes from the Philippines in a small boat with a handful of companions after a crushing defeat, and now returns with a mighty army and navy to punish the invader. Marshall Joffre turns certain defeat into victory at the battle of the Marne; Napoleon Bonaparte returns from Elba; Gene Tunney gets up off the floor after the long count to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

History offers no more striking example of a comeback than the story of Woodrow Wilson. I recall that as I walked to my office in Washington one bleak morning I passed the foot of S street, and there I saw kneeling on the damp pavement a little group of men and women. Inside the house before which they prayed there died a heartbroken, defeated man who had seen his cherished plans for permanent peace smashed by a wilful group. Today Woodrow Wilson is a vital, living force in the world, and in the national campaign which culminated Tuesday neither political party dared ignore him. At Dumbarton Oaks his spirit presided at the council table. This stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This so-called impractical idealist is today recognized as a profound realist. The change in the public attitude suggests an ancient example of comeback; the prodigal son who turned his back on his home, ran into difficulty and then returned to find happiness. To me, the important statement in that story is not that having to do with riotous living or hunger or distress; it is this: "And then he came to himself." The great mass of thinking Americans have come to themselves; not in time to avoid the loss of untold lives, as would have been the case had they heeded earlier the prophetic voice of Woodrow Wilson, but in time to kindle hope for better things ahead. Nations, like individuals, must come to themselves before they can contribute to the welfare of civilization. Germany can never be a part of progressive world movements until she awakes from her dream of a super-race and stops thinking of herself more highly than she ought to think. Yes, and the United States of America will never fulfill her high-sounding protestations of equality, until, for example she puts an end to the disfranchisement of negroes in elections. The time has come when we must cease theorizing and approaching problems academically, when we must cease dodging great issues at home as well as abroad. Before any nation can come successfully to its hour of opportunity it must come to itself. When the prodigal son came to himself he arose and came to his father. Throughout the ages men who have come to themselves have indeed come to the Father—the Father of all mankind. At the moment they have found themselves as they have also found a great faith. Truly without spiritual awareness, without a universal religious idealism, men will not at this time assure a realistic and an abiding peace.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing expressed a profound truth when he said, "The new era, born in blood and fire onthe battlefields of Europe, must be a Christian era in reality and not alone in name. The years to come must be years of fraternity and common purpose. International injustice must cease.

But we made the era of which he spoke a Christian era in name only; we allowed the so-called realists to sow their seed and again we reap the whirlwind. But again we have a chance, perhaps the last chance, to see that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom. What will we do about it?

Postwar plans pour out of committee rooms and conference halls by the ream. A recent cartoon depicted a husband and wife returning from a dinner party. The wife turned to the husband and said, "I was never so humiliated in my life; you were the only man at the table tonight who didn't have a postwar plan."

Now we shall never acquire lasting peace if we wait for the perfect pattern of a peace plan worked out to the last minute detail. I served as a member of the committee which prepared a report on a righteous peace for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. I am proud of this statement which it contains: "It is not the task of the church to prepare in detail a peace program. Such a task involves a knowledge of economics and politics concerning which the church has no infallible judgment. We can provide no blue print with accompanying specifications, but we can point out the moral pathway which those who plan for tomorrow must take. The duty of the church is clear; it is to state the Christian principles upon which any new world order must rest. What these principles are we well know; they are everywhere present in the New Testament and are set forth in the standards of the church. They speak in terms of eternal values and demand an ever widening application to all life. Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Here is the ideal after which we strive."

We know the Christian principles upon which any new world order must rest. But knowledge is not enough. As in all fields of activity, there is here enough knowledge piled up at the mine mouth today to last the nation for the next fifty years. The trouble is that the transportation facilities are poor—that we are not successful in getting the knowledge from the place where we dig it out to the place where it can be converted into energy, in the hearts and minds of men.

It is fine to have conferences of leaders where great issues are discussed, but often the results do not justify the time and effort put into them. When the war is over, if leaders do not take the necessary steps to avoid it there will be a widespread cynical reaction replacing the exaltation of war days and we will find ourselves back where we were in the roaring '20's.

The church in America has on its rolls some 60,000,000 members. What a power that would be if 50% or 25% of that number took their vows seriously. If we are to have religious idealism behind a realistic peace, we must in some way transfer the war dynamics to peacetime activity. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are for the first time experiencing the joy of unselfish service in the Red Cross, U. S. O., the bond campaign and a hundred other altruistic activities. What if the church members among them would give that same effort to the great program of organized religion, to civic improvement, to social betterment. If we are to have a just and lasting peace, back of Dumbarton Oaks or any other plan for the unity of nations in the bonds of peace, there must be an informed and devoted public. How well do we know and how little do we heed the admonition of George Washington. "Promote then as an object of primary importance institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." That such opinion is not enlightened at the moment may be proved by asking the average man on the street what Dumbarton Oaks is. Many think it is a horse race—others a picnic ground. It is for us to see that universal interest and understanding is created in this great project.

American politics were at their best at the time when the New England town meeting flourished. We should have similar meetings in every church throughout the land this winter, mobilizing our Christian forces for a lasting peace, making the voices of Christian citizens heard.

We should work to eliminate petty quarrels between churches concerning matters of creed and dogma. The forces of Godlessness will never be defeated by a church "by Schisms rent asunder." How can nations live together in peace if church groups cannot? This is the time to demonstrate that religion really works. "Not by light nor by power, but by my spirit," saith the Lord.