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religion of Christ, which was to renew man and save him, has not by the mere process of interpretation got a noxious quality, the divine remedy having, in the greater number of cases, become a poison, by merely combining with the nature which it was to heal ? or that the Old Testament, even when separated from the New, has yet its message from God to man, and breathes a spirit which tends to lift man to God? True it is that this variety of religious beliefs must of necessity involve error, and that error is an evil. Religious error in particular is a serious evil; for faith is the condition of salvation; and that faith is not merely a disposition to believe, but the disposition exerted on a certain object. The Christian world indeed is not as ready as it used to be to define the articles of the faith which are necessary to salvation; but neither is it prepared to dissolve the Christian religion into a system of sentiment. Many subtle questions of theology have in past times acquired a most exaggerated importance, but still it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the truth, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved ;" nor is it possible, remembering that truth, to look without alarm on some of the diversities of religious belief which exist in the country. But can we pronounce with regard to any of them that they are damning errors ? If Enoch and Noah had the faith which pleased God, that faith must be relative to the revelation which God gives, and God alone can discern the form in which His revelation has come to each man, through the medium of the family and the sect, and mingled unavoidably with the traditions of centuries. To His fatherly judgment we must leave those whom we cannot win over to agree with our
selves, without daring to anticipate His sentence. If we founded our religious legislation on the principle that certain forms of religious belief were obnoxious to His displeasure, thus deciding His decrees by a parliamentary majority, we should indeed
“Snatch from His hands the balance and the rod," and might expect nothing but disaster to follow from our blasphemy and sectarian hatred.
Judging the various forms of religion which prevail in the nation by those qualities which are within the reach of our knowledge, we may plainly perceive that in all of them which take Scripture or Christian tradition for their basis what is good vastly preponderates over what is evil; whether we regard them as what they are in themselves, or as to the effects which they produce.
In themselves they contain one common essence, namely the highest ideals which men can form. It is to the objects of religious belief that all the purest sentiments, all the highest aspirations, all the best purposes of men ascend, in God they are concentrated as in a focus; He is that to which they all tend, and they continually refresh themselves in His worship. In the divine presence, too, the tenderest memories and highest hopes of men of all creeds are treasured. Thither the dead carry our love, and there we hope to have an immortality delivered from the bondage of corruption. Not that men can extemporize for themselves religious beliefs with these high attributes; but such are the spiritual riches which they all contain, when they have an external basis of belief, and when faith in them is maintained by religious ministrations. In all religions founded on the Bible this central essence is true. Their ideal is the true God; their law,
His will; their hope, a rest which really remaineth for His people. Such divine truth penetrates and overpowers with its influence the error with which it may be mingled, giving a value as of precious ore to the religious systems in which it is present. As such they should be preserved by the State; for though other forms of religion may be superior, the loss of these unless replaced by the others would diminish the store of national happiness and greatness, which it is the duty of the civil power to guard.
It seems indeed to be thought that the civil power has properly no charge of religion, because its object is merely temporal utility. Now utility refers to means, and means imply ends; so that the very idea of temporal utility as the object of government, implies that it exists to attain those ends, so far as they are within its reach, which in this life are good and desirable in themselves. Men have not only bodily appetites, but also mental and spiritual capacities, and so far is civil society from existing only to secure our material goods, that the word civilization, now so much used, implies in its large meaning, that we look to the influence of civil society for what is good for the higher parts of our nature. Religion answers to the purest sentiments, and satisfies the deepest crayings of the spirit of man. It claims, therefore, to be guarded along with art and learning, as being in itself and irrespective of its effects, the most precious treasure of society. For government should not so occupy itself with things useful as to neglect things good, or assume that there is nothing good except bodily comforts, as if men were “animalia prona et obedientia ventri.”
11. Not only, however, are all our principal varieties of religion in the main good in themselves, they also produce the most excellent and necessary effects. Morality rests throughout the nation on a religious basis. Amongst the most highly civilized classes, indeed, social opinion is a powerful educator of conscience, and a most efficient authority in supporting its dictates; but amongst the lower orders, whose sentiments are less refined, the sanctions of religion are the principal foundation of morality. The religions which they profess differ to a large extent, but they in general enforce the principles of civil and social duty, and if they were to disappear without being replaced by others, the dangerous classes of society would be proportionally increased. The Roman Catholic Church, indeed, has inherent political tendencies which do not coincide with those of English politics; but even in her case, the evil which results from these in favouring disloyalty and disaffection, is as nothing compared with the good which she does in strengthening the fabric of society by enforcing the obligations of moral duty.
Such being the nature and influences of the religions of the people, the question arises how ought the State to deal with them? The civil ruler belongs to a Church which has for centuries declared its difference from them all, and whose history has been a continued struggle and protest against the principles of one of them. The majority of the legislature are members of this Church, and they cannot in their legislation on religion go on the principle that the religious belief, which they hold with a full faith, is either false or doubtful. Are they to support what they do not believe, or to shrink from maintaining what they do believe ?
12. There are three directions which may be given
to legislation as to the religious bodies which exist in the nation. Legislation may aim at bringing them all into conformity with the religion of the legislature, or it may aim at securing for them merely the liberty of their own self-development, without interfering with them; or it may aim at the maintenance among the people of the beneficial influences of religion in the highest attainable amount, by helping them to have the religious ministrations which they will accept, and seeking to improve the quality of these.
13. The first of these aims is that which the legislature would most naturally be prompted by the sin.cerity of its own faith to take. The most beneficial influences of religion must in its view be those of the form of religion which it has itself adopted; and in applying the fundamental axiom which has been mentioned, it would naturally seek to make the beneficial influences of that form of religion universal throughout the nation. This, indeed, is an object which every sincere believer will seek to obtain for his own religion; but can it be obtained by legislation? The experiment has been tried and has failed. In Ireland, indeed, the original difference in all social ideas which rendered it impossible for the Celt and Anglo-Norman to coalesce in harmony, and the protracted hostility which engendered a deep national antipathy between Irish and English, when embittered by the mortal feud which raged everywhere between Protestantism and Romanism, may sufficiently account for the failure of the experiment to bring over the Irish race by legislation to the religion of England. But in Eng. land itself the experiment has failed as signally, where no such causes existed to excuse the failure. In truth, all that can be done by legislation to bring the