Untethering Conscience From Religion: An Interview with Louisa Thomas

Louisa Thomas’ Conscience is a story based on her own family’s history, of how four brothers tried to answer questions that, at the time of the First World War, were still novel: how should a democracy respond to the plight of far-off peoples, and how should it treat dissenters among its own citizens?

We talked about the role of religion in this story, and about the relationship between public and private, personal and political.

What role did family history play in the writing of Conscience?

I was exposed to a lot of war history growing up, both in books and in my father’s stories. My father is a journalist and popular historian with a particular interest in war—it’s actually something he wrote that influenced this particular project most of all. A family friend gave me a paper she’d found that my father had written in a history seminar. The paper was titled “Evan Thomas: A Case Study of a Conscientious Objector in the First World War.” As soon as I read it, I knew there was a richer, more complicated story that needed to be told. 

The central figure in Conscience is Norman Thomas, my great-grandfather. He is known to posterity—very slightly—as a man who ran for president six times on the socialist ticket between 1928 and 1948, and who inspired a lot of people. But it’s also about his three brothers, Evan Thomas, the conscientious objector my father wrote about, and Ralph and Arthur, who were soldiers. The book is about their family drama during that time, as each decided what his conscience demanded in these extreme circumstances.

All of the brothers were deeply involved in various forms of religious belief and practice, and one of the narratives of the book is how their religious perspective changes over time. What was their religious upbringing like?

They were the sons of a Presbyterian minister and the grandsons of two Presbyterian ministers, one of whom was an itinerant minister in Pennsylvania, from Wales. The other was a missionary in Siam and, after the Civil War, was the first president of the one of the first all-black colleges in the Reconstruction South. So all the brothers came out of a really strong religious tradition.

But Norman’s religious belief was certainly very different from that of his his grandparents and quite different from his father’s. Norman went to Union Theological Seminary in New York. Being a minister is what his parents wanted him to do; going to UTS was not what his parents wanted him to do. Union was a bastion of liberal Christianity, of the “social gospel.” The social gospel movement promoted the idea that society should abide by what Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, that love should be the animating force of human interaction. It meant that a lot of ministers were going into tenements and trying to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Norman was very much influenced by the writing of various social gospelers; he was also skeptical of many of them, because a lot of them were pretty sentimental. Some of them were more socialistic.

So Norman was straying from his religiously conservative background?

He came to some notoriety during his ordination exam, in 1911. In front of the New York Assembly of the Presbytery, he flirted with a bit of heresy about the Virgin Birth and the nature of the Resurrection. The more conservative members of the Assembly used his ordination as one of the battlefields in a controversy that was occurring in the Presbyterian church at the time—there were really big arguments going on over the literalism of the Bible.

When Norman’s controversial exam made the press, his father was devastated. Later in his life, after Norman disavowed Christianity and demitted from the ministry, Norman tended to downplay his earlier participation in these doctrinal conflicts.

In those years Norman also started to engage in increasingly liberal politics, along with his theological liberalism, right?

Yes. When he was ordained he was the assistant minister at Brick Church, which was then on Fifth Avenue. It had a wealthy congregation—a pretty complacent one in a lot of ways. The congregation saw him as a young man with a bright future. He could have stayed in that world and done pretty well for himself, but he decided to become the pastor of an impoverished parish in East Harlem.

He and [his wife] Violet moved to 116th Street, and his life changed. He was really committed to his neighborhood and became increasingly radicalized as he witnessed his neighbors’ and parishioners’ attempts to get jobs, failure to find jobs, his failure to help, his sense that even in the ways in which he could help he was making things worse, and his growing sense that his liberal friends would talk about how it was all very tragic but would ultimately side with the capitalists against the workers.

But the First World War was what really pushed Norman to become a socialist. He started connecting what he saw in the tenements to what was going on around the world, to imperialism and competition and ultimately to war.

When did Norman arrive at his strong pacifist stance?

He didn’t declare himself a pacifist until the end of 1916, when he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, then a Christian pacifist group. He came to the decision by degrees. His brother Evan helped pull him in that direction.

Evan was also a seminary student a Union, but he was more angry. He had a lot of skepticism about what he saw as the hypocrisy of liberal Christianity.

When the war broke out in Europe, Evan moved to Edinburgh in Scotland to see the war and its effects on society. While he was over there he became involved with the British pacifist movement. He wrote Norman a lot of searching letters. Norman was sympathetic but sometimes felt those letters were overwrought, which they were. Yet it was Even who preceded Norman into pacifism. It was also Evan who decided, before Norman moved away from the church, that he could no longer call himself a Christian.

When did Evan decide this?

Before even becoming a conscientious objector, while still in Scotland.

He wrote to his mother, saying, more or less, Jesus was only a man and a man is on his own. It’s clear that there was a lot of anguish in that decision. If anything, untethering his conscience from religion put more pressure on him to prove himself and his sincerity. When Evan was manacled to the bars of his cell in Fort Leavenworth because of his absolute refusal to serve the army, his friend (and President Wilson’s son-in-law’s brother) John Nevin Sayre went to Wilson on his behalf and repeatedly described Evan to Wilson as Christ-like. Evan would have hated that description, but clearly part of him wanted that and needed that kind of commitment.

So, the more radically Christ-like a figure he became, the less Evan attached himself to Christianity?

Right. Part of his repudiation was the classic rejection of organized Christianity. But it was not just a repudiation of organized Christianity; he had a sense that this was no longer a question of a pure as opposed to a compromised Christianity, but a question of identifying himself fully with the secular world, the body of humanity.

Did Norman ever make self-conscious statements rejecting Christianity in the way that Evan did?

Yes and no. He did basically say that World War I was irrefutable evidence that there couldn’t be an all-loving, all-powerful God. But that was mostly retrospective. At the time he was troubled by the church’s embrace of the war effort—it full-throatedly supported the war. A lot of the people he had seen as allies in the church were giving angry, polemical sermons. He did start to question what place religion had in all of this.

But the initial basis of his pacifism was essentially religious, and when he left the church I think he thought he was going to rejoin it. He never did. Later on people said socialism replaced Christianity for him. I don’t think that’s true, and he certainly said it was not true. But I do think he, more than Evan, had a lingering desire for spirituality.

What about him makes you think that?

He was still really attached to Christian culture. He would sometimes still go to services and sing really loudly. He would occasionally write about how hard it was for him not to believe, and he would write with such longing that you would have the sense that he sort of did still believe.

Many people on the left today are adamant regarding church state separation, and even that religious language doesn’t belong anywhere in public debate. How did writing this book help you think about current debates about religion and politics?

One thing that definitely became clear was that I wasn’t going to be able to tell this story unless I understood the brothers’ religious background. It was essential to their personal and political choices—and that was a surprise to me.

The dominant family narrative was that Norman became a minister because that’s what someone who was interested in social reform did at the time, but not because of any real religious belief, and that it was easy for him to move away from the church. Everyone also thought that Evan’s conscientious objection had been secular from the start.

So your family represents this liberal, deeply secular assumption that associates leftist causes—especially anti-war and socialistic ones—with a necessarily secular outlook. Whereas you discovered that it came from a deeply religious place?

I think “come from” is a dangerous phase—but their politics were definitely informed by their religious beliefs. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to separate religion fully from any political formation. Even people who are religiously tone-deaf, as Richard Rorty put it—and I am, I don’t feel that need to embrace some kind of transcendental being—live in a world that is influenced by religious belief.

Religion is a force in people’s lives, in shaping their values and expectations, and it has certainly been a force in American history. But even if Christianity provided some of the inspiration and vocabulary for Norman’s politics, it did not define his commitments. He kept his gaze trained on earth, not heaven, and believed in working for earthly, not heavenly, justice. For that, he came to believe that you didn’t need religion. You needed to believe in yourself and the worthiness of other people. His departure from the church, though, in part reflected his respect for the religious beliefs of others. He thought sincerity mattered.