TOPICS OF TH_E DAY.
THE BRADLAUGH CHAOS. THE House of Commons never shows to worse advantage than when it finds itself in the presence of new forces of which it does not know how to estimate the significance and force. Only the other day it was in utter bewilderment when Mr. O'Donnell chose to disregard the appeal of the Speaker, and to use the motion for the adjournment of the House for the purpose of improvising a new attack on a foreign Ambas- sador. The Prime Minister met the crisis in the only way in which it could be met ; but the House, equally alarmed-at the unprecedented aggression and the unprecedented suggestion for suppressing it, underwent a succession of convulsion-fits, from which it only recovered after the retreat of the offender. It is still worse now with Mr. Bradlaugh. The House sees a very repelling form of Atheism looming darkly upon it, and is utterly bewildered how to deal with it, in relation to its own ancient and decent forms. It has not the courage to leave the matter to the courts of justice, and declare itself unequal to act as a judicial body, which is what it would have been far the wisest thing for it to do. It cannot endure to admit either that a form of escape devised for religious scruples should be applied to the case of what it regards as irreligious scruples, or that the dignity of the Assembly is consistent with its witnessing an oath which is an oath only in form, and leaving the adjudica- tion upon that oath to the Courts of Law. It cannot bear not to assume authority in the matter, and it does not know how to assume authority with good effect. It has undertaken to refuse to Mr. Bradlaugh both the oath and the affirmation, and now it may probably be saddled with Mr. Bradlaugh as a prisoner,—a prisoner most difficult to deal with. Indeed, unless Mr. Bradlaugh betakes himself to the Courts, and aban- dons the idea of resisting the order of the House of Commons, it may very possibly be employed all the rest of the Session in first making Mr. Bradlaugh prisoner, and then trying to get rid orhim. All the debates have shown how full of per- plexity and of formless prejudice irrelevant to the issue, the House has been. It has mixed up personal and moral questions with legal and social questions in the most helpless and dis- creditable manner.
If the question raised by Mr. Bradlaugh had been raised, as it well might have been, by the late Mr. J. S. Mill, there is no manner of doubt how it would have been decided. Mr. Mill would probably have been allowed to affirm if he wished, or to take the oath if he wished, and certainly would not have been excluded from Parliament, even in consequence of the open avowal of such views as he held, and as were deliber- ately published by his relatives after his death. Even in Mr. Bradlaugh's case, as Mr. Childers showed, neither Com- mittee contained a majority against Mr. Bradlaugh's being allowed to take his seat in the House. The first contained a majority against his being allowed to make an affirma- tion, but in favour of admitting him either by the one door or the other ; the second had a majority in favour of permitting him to make the affirmation, and then getting the legality of his affirmation tested by the High Court of Justice. The majority of both Committees alike shrank from refusing point- blank to the representative of Northampton his right to take his seat in the House, though one of them bolted one door of approach against him, and the other of them, after shooting back the bolt of the door in question, carefully bolted the other one. Neither Committee, however, ventured to repel him altogether. But what neither Committee dared to do, the House, in its personal prejudice against him,—a personal prejudice which was perhaps just, but which had no bearing whatever on the issue before the House,—did. Member after Member plainly admitted that as Mr. Bradlaugh had given them a chance of challenging his right to sit amongst them, they would avail themselves of the chance, because they dis- approved and abhorred many of his views. There was no attempt to disguise, on the part of numbers of the speakers, that they were not even thinking of the question of legal right, but were bent on assuming the power to rid themselves of a colleague of whom they were ashamed. Alderman Fowler, for instance, stated openly that "if a man did not believe in God and a future state, he was not likely to be a man of high moral character ;" as if it were competent to any one to urge that because a man was " not likely to be a man of high moral character," he should not sit for a constituency which had returned him by a valid election. Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Synan both contended that Atheists, ought to be excluded so long as they were few, but that so soon as they became numerous,—which the House is doing its best to make them,—it would be quite necessary to consider their demand to be relieved from such a test. Mr. A. Moore put aside the legal question with the utmost contempt,—" One of the calamities of the debate was the rapacious manner in which the lawyers had occupied the time of the House. The question before the House was not a legal question. The point really at issue was this,—Great Britain, being a Christian country by the Constitution and the Common Law, were they to allow an avowed Atheist, who thrust his opinions before the House and the nation, to take part in the government of the country ?" That might well have been said, if the debate had been on the question of exacting a theistic test. But the debate was on no such question. It turned on the right of the House to interpret for itself the statutes imposing either an oath or an affirmation on Members of the House, and to forbid any qualified Member who demands the right to take the one or the other from going through, the form prescribed by law. Catholics and Protestants,. Dissenters and Churchmen, those who believe much, and those who believe little or nothing, all agreed to import into the issue the prejudices they entertained against Mr. Bradlaugh, either foi his atheism, or for his republicanism,. or for his immoral publications, and to vote him down, because they felt that it would not be a pleasant thing to sit beside him. Thus it happened that in a House of over 500 Members,—nearly a hundred Liberals apparently staying away,—a majority was obtained against permitting Mr. Brad- laugh either to affirm or to take the oath, though no one- doubts that he has been validly elected. It would have been far more manly to set up at once a new test,—an abstract theistic test,—and not permit notorious agnostics and atheists to come into the House so long as they do not assert their agnosticism or atheism before they take the oath, while any atheist who has happened to confess his atheism to the House of Commons is excluded from the House. No course can be more cowardly. Mr. Newdegate asserted that it was the supporters of Mr. Labouchere's resolution who wanted to admit atheists "by a side-wind." On the con- trary, as it seems to us it is Sir Hardinge Giffard and Mr.. Newdegate and their friends who wish to exclude an atheist, by a side-wind. Sir Hardinge Giffard said that so long as Mr. Bradlaugh had not raised the question himself, every one would have been glad ; that no one on his side of the House would have proposed a direct theistic test for the acceptance- of Mr. Bradlaugh, or any one else. Very well, then, it is not proposed to impose a direct theistic test upon the House as a whole. But it is proposed to impose a theistic test on those few only who choose to declare their atheism at a particular place and time. Can anything be more cowardly, more im- politic, more openly cynical, than this attempt to use the oath as a loose sort of sieve, which will let most notorious atheists who have no desire to republish their atheism. so as to put difficulties in their own way, slip through, while- it sifts out equally notorious atheists who are so wanting in tact as to repeat at Westminster what they had a hundred times said before elsewhere I It is this disposition to cling to orthodox formulas which represent nothing but a sham, which could alone justify, but which does justify, such eloquent outbursts as Mr. Bright's against the hypocrisy of the situation. When every one knows that the religious form of an oath is taken in vain by so many men of the world, some of whom would declare themselves agnostics, and some of whom are agnostics in the sense only of knowing nothing and caring nothing about the subject of religion, it does seem hypocrisy to attempt by a side- wind to keep out of the House the one agnostic who con- fides his disbelief to the Assemby in which he asks to sit. Mr. Bright was severely reproached for saying that the working-classes "care no more for the dogmas of Christianity, than the upper classes care for the practice of that religion." That was a rather sweeping charge against the upper classes, no doubt ; though we fear it is strictly true of all classes in this country, for our modern Christ- ianity, even at its best, compared with the Christianity of Christ, is a sickly, pallid, and weakly affair. But Mr. Bright's motive in saying it was not, as we conceive, simply to throw out a taunt against the upper classes, but rather to indicate why it is that the working-classes do show their indifference to the dogmas of Christianity, namely, that they do not find so
much practical result from the Christianity of those who pro- fess it, as to make them very eager on behalf of the dogmatic essence of it. Now, which of us can stand up and say that this is a false charge, and that our Christianity is of so prac- tical and beneficent a kind that the working-classes ought to be jealous of any attempt to undermine its dogmatic founda- tions ? The real reason why the theistic test, like all other religious tests of the political fitness of representa- tives, ought, if it exists, and so far as it exists, to be abolished, is that it is a dead failure for the purpose for which it is pro- posed. Just as dogmatic orthodoxy fails to make a Christian, just so belief in God fails to make a good man and an upright politician. We do not say, and do not believe, that it has nothing to do with the matter. We do not believe that Atheism can be anything but profoundly injurious to the inner life of man. But we do say that the barren declaration of Theism is so often made in a hollow sense,—that there are so many who make it honestly who are none the better for it,—that there are so many who reject it honestly who would compare favourably with those who accept it,—and that all our religious tests are so much profaned and have been proved so incapable of any wise use, that the miserable rag or tatter of such tests for which certain short-sighted Members of the House now contend, without having any solid ground even of law for their contention, ought to be got rid of at once and for ever.