The Church and the Social Evil, May 1912

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MAY, 1912.



A great English preacher has said that life holds for every man one searching test of the sincerity of his religious life, and that although this test is so often absurdly trivial, to encounter it is to "fall from grace." We all know these tests; a given relative or familiar friend has an irritating power of goading us into anger or self-pity; a certain public movement inevitably hardens us into a contemptuous mood of all uncharitableness; one particular type of sinner fills us with an unholy sense of superior virtue.

If we may assume that society itself is subject to one such test, it too, possesses a touchstone which reveals its inmost weakness and ultimate meanness, may we not say that the supreme religious test of our social order is the hideous commerce of prostitution, and that the sorry results of that test are registered in the hypocrisy and hardness of heart of the average good citizen toward the so-called "fallen" woman? May we not claim that, in consequence of this irreligious attitude, prostitution remains [today] a horror, an unresolved mass in the midst of so-called Christian civilization, until it has come to be regarded as a vice which cannot be eradicated, as a sin which cannot be forgiven, as a social disease which cannot be cured?

This attitude on the part of the Christian is the more difficult to explain because Jesus Himself was most explicit in the declaration of his own position in regard to the harlot. He did not for a moment imply that she could not be drawn into the radius of that wondrous affection He promulgated the love of all mankind, so new in the history of the world, nor that the new solvent could not melt down -- if I may use the phrase -- that obstinate mass of wretchedness.

It is hard to forecast the results on the social order if Christians from the beginning had followed their Master, and had encompassed the hearts with His charity and loving kindness, but it is certainly easy to point out the moral and religious disaster resulting from her exclusion fostering the "I am holier than thou" attitude which is the inmost canker of the spiritual life.

In less than three hundred years after the death of Jesus, St. Augustine asserted that the heart of a woman is the gate of Hell, so quickly had the fear and contempt of the harlot spread out from her as the center of irreligion, that it had then included all womankind. The very word "woman" in the writings of the church fathers stood for the basest temptations. The pagan women had been oppressed and despised, but [page 2] the women of Christendom in addition were hated and feared as the chief emissaries of the Devil himself and this in spite of the fact that the Virgin was worshipped, and many canonized as saints. It is significant that through this authorization of their religious attitude toward the harlot, developed apace the two sins -- contempt for a human creature and self-righteousness -- concerning which Jesus was most severe. The only time He referred to hell fire was to predict it for the man who should treat another with contempt, and He reserved the language of castigation for the self-righteous men who had arrogated religion to themselves and had put others outside.

One result of this irreligious attitude toward prostitution has been the development of the so-called worldly-minded Christian; thousands of decent men have developed a peculiar distrust of human nature, a cynicism which assumes that a certain proportion of men in every community will so inevitably violate the laws of chastity as to make a prostitution center a necessity, and the co-masonry among men in regard to her does much to lower the moral tone of the whole community.

The result of this worldly cynicism has become so registered in our political affairs that any probe into the conditions of the cities made by a grand jury or a commission uniformly discovers that prostitution is the root source of political corruption. Nowhere is the hypocrisy in regard to it so clearly revealed. Although laws declaring it legal have been placed upon the statute books, out of respect to public opinion which even the hardiest politician does not reveal, nevertheless, backed by this universal cynicism a politician openly considers the laws too impractical to be enforced, and not only deliberately decides not to enforce them, but actually defines the conditions under which this law breaking is committed; to permit this license in one particular is, of course, utterly to demoralize the entire police service. This police connivance at prostitution in certain districts creates a necessity for both graft and blackmail; the graft is easy, because the owner of an illicit business expects to have to pay for it, and every politician to the tiptop of the administration receives his share of this illicit fund; in connection with this, a municipal blackmail is also established which just escapes legal recognition. Prostitution, protected by a thick hedge of secrecy, imperceptibly renewing itself through changing administration, is the one fixed point of mal-administration, the unbreakable bank to which every corrupt politician may repair when in need of funds. The corruption spreads until the brothel, the saloon and gambling hall are the trio, literally, at the base of the real administration of our cities. Certainly the harlot has been avenged upon the city which despises her. The men who consider her a legitimate source of revenue in a thousand ways, fleece the decent tax-payers, who refuse to acknowledge her existence and she abides through one administration after another to the confusion and frustration of all elements for civic reform.

Thousands of court decisions every day bear testimony to the irreligious attitude toward the harlot permitted by the early church, which gradually embodied in canon and civil law, still survives. The laws of Illinois do not differ markedly from the laws of other States. The charge of seduction made [page 3] against a man is defined as a misdemeanor -- a breach of manners as it were; the punishment for rape is the same as that inflicted for the theft of $15 worth of property, and a man may not be extradited from one State to another for so slight an offence; the charge of bastardy against a man is not even a crime and is tried in a civil court; if the paternity of the child is proven beyond doubt or quibble, the father, under a maximum sentence, can be made to pay an average of 97 cents a week for its maintenance until the child is ten years old; if the child dies before that age, the father is exempted from this fine. So sure are all men that woman is the tempter that the age of consent is absurdly low. In several States a girl of ten is considered the aggressor, although her seducer may be a man of well-known immorality; if an illegitimate child dies before he is born, the mother, although totally innocent of its death, may be arrested and committed to the penitentiary. 

Quite recently in Chicago a Bohemian girl working as a maid in an American family was seduced by the head of the house and later driven forth on the usual ground that a Christian home must not be polluted by such a presence. Her child was born one day when she was quite alone in her cousin's house. Following her first instinct to take it to its father, she wrapped it in an apron and carried it immediately to his door, quite ignorant of the fact that her every step could be traced by a trail of fresh blood in the snow. The child was found dead upon the doorstep and the distraught mother was at once arrested on the charge of murder, although out of the depths of her ignorance and inexperience she could not tell whether or not her child had been born alive. The first ministration to her dire need came from the matron in the police station.

But the effect of this impious contempt is not confined to legal enactment. It also became registered in the ethical code of contemporary societies held by good women as well as men. Women, kindly toward all other human creatures' became hard and hostile to young girls who, in evil houses, are literally beaten and starved by the dissolute men whom they support.

Kindhearted women could not brook these things; their hearts would break had they not been trained to believe that virtue itself demanded from them first ignorance and then harshness. Their inherited fear of the harlot and terror lest she contaminate their daughters, may be traced in the caste basis of our social woman's interests. Yet the test comes to them none the less, for as all women fell in the estimate of religious men because they came to be looked upon as possible harlots, may we not predict that women will never take a normal place in the life of organized religion until they recognize as one of themselves the very harlot, who all unwittingly has become a test of their spirituality, the touchstone of their purity. As women were lowered in the moral scale because of their identification with her at the very bottom of the pit, so they cannot rise themselves save as they succeed in lifting her, with whose sins they are stained.

Contemporary women as well as men ought to find it much easier at the present moment to meet the supreme test of religion than it has even been before in the long history of civilization. A new publicity in regard to the social evil is a striking characteristic of the last [page 4] decade. This publicity has disclosed that thousands of these so-called "fallen" women are [piteously] young and that thousands of others lost their chastity when they were helpless, unthinking little girls, many of them violated by members of their own households in that crowding which life in a large tenement postulates. Even the wretched women whom we call degenerate have often been captured as children and deliberately debased in order to fit them for this dreadful life.

Only last week, I left at Hull House a young girl whose childish face, surrounded by old-fashioned curls, reminded me of the playmates of my earliest memory. She had been rented at the age of twelve by her mother to a notorious man in a neighboring State, with whom she had remained four years, ostensibly as his daughter. Two weeks ago, her mother sent her to Chicago to a white slave trader who agreed to meet her at a given place in a large railroad station; although she had been brought across the State line in an automobile to avoid the interstate pandering laws which imply the use of common carrier, the careful plot failed somewhere. When the man did not appear, she came directly to Hull House because in the brothel kept by her mother, the little girls had been in the habit of pretending that they were related to people whose names they had seen in the newspapers, and as I had figured as a hypothetical relative, she knew my name and address. The girl's story, which she gave most reluctantly, corroborated since by Government officials, reveals that she had been subjected to unspeakable experiences. She is still so simple and childlike that she lay awake until midnight last Friday night to see if she would feel differently when the clock struck and she would become sixteen, and she gravely reported her disappointment next morning.

Publicity thus making clear that a large number of women have entered the hideous life against their own volition, it inevitably discloses the existence of a widespread commerce organized for the profits of men. The man who owns a house, the one who procures the girls, the one styled her "protector," the agent who supplies her clothing, all exploit her each for his personal gain. Even the women in charge of the houses, who from the days of Babylon, have reaped large profits, are now becoming merely the paid agents of an organized business much as a saloon keeper is engaged by a brewery. The girl upon whom all that activity rests, young for the most part, stands in the middle of a complex system which she does not understand. On the other hand, commercial organizations are obliged to continually trump up business in order to secure enough men to make their business profitable and they lure them through alcohol and all vicious devices designed to stimulate the senses. The success of the business which in Chicago pays its promoters $15,000,000 a year, is founded upon the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the decent citizen, and it continues to capture girls, to debauch young men, to spread disease and to corrupt city politics because good men do not consider it part of their religious obligation to face it openly and to undertake abolition. The Christian church cannot hope to eradicate the social evil until it is willing fairly to make it the test of its religious vitality, to forget ecclesiastical traditions, to drop its cynicism and worldliness, to go back to [page 5] the method advocated by Jesus himself for dealing with all sinners, including not only the harlot, but we are bound to believe even those men who live upon her earnings and whom we call every foul name. The method of Jesus was nothing more nor less than sheer forgiveness, the overcoming of the basest evil by the august power of goodness, the overpowering of the sinner by the loving kindness of his brother man, the breaking up of long-entrenched evil by the concerted good will of society.

The new publicity in regard to prostitution in itself forces the church into radical action; understanding of the sinner has ever been essential to his forgiveness, knowledge of conditions has ever preceded social reforms. If it is discovered that the brothels are filled with over-fatigued and under-paid girls, procured by young men "too poor to marry," then it is obviously the business of the church to secure legal enactment which shall limit the hours of labor and fix a minimum wage, and prescribe the conditions under which young people may be permitted to work; if it is found that the army of girls and men required in this vile business is constantly recruited from the young, heedlessly looking for pleasure in vicious dance halls, on crowded excursion boats, in careless amusement parks, then it is the obligation of the church to guard and cleanse these pleasures and to provide others free from dangers; if the new publicity continues to disclose on the one hand the enormous number of little children who, pushed into an evil life through the very congestion of the city population, and discloses on the other hand the large number of young people in dreary country communities who are drawn into vicious practices through sheer reaction from the monotony and grayness of their lives, then a nation-wide church in the crowded city must advocate measures to lessen the sensational evils of over-crowding, and in the village it must offer social organization to all the solitary young people of the countryside; if it is made clear that youth is ensnared because of its ignorance of the most fundamental facts of life, then it is the duty of the church to promote public instruction for girls and lads which shall dignify sex knowledge and free it from all indecency; if it is found that degenerate children born of diseased and vicious parents become an easy prey for the brothel, it is clearly the obligation of the church to challenge all applicants for marriage and to work out through modern eugenics the admonitions of the Hebrew teachers as to the responsibility unto the third and fourth generation. 

Society, like the individual, always finds the contemporary test the most difficult, while it easily boasts of those already past and it is unduly confident of the future it too often fails to meet the test which faces it at a given moment and which alone can reveal its genuine courage and sincerity.

All over the world are traces of the changed attitude toward the social evil. Not only are American cities such Chicago recommending restrictive measures looking toward final abolition, but European cities such as Vienna are doubting the value of their long established regulation and are therefore logically facing the same conclusion; the medical profession is abandoning its century old position of secrecy and connivance; leading educators are at last urging adequate instruction for all youth. Shall not the church accept the [page 6] challenge and bear a valiant part in this modern crusade? The call has come not from a holy hermit who had conquered temptation through withdrawal from the world into a solitary place, but from a multitude of warm-hearted youth who from our streets, "paven with peril, teeming with mischance" still eagerly clamor for a world made fit and fair for their budding life! -- (An address given in New York, April 23rd, to the Congress of the Men and Religion Forward Movement.)