The Ethical Culture Movement is a creature of its times, but the values it stands for are eternal. Our movement will be 130 years old next year. Its creation resulted from various streams of intellectual fervor and social upheavals that came together in the mind of Felix Adler, our founder, in the decades after the Civil War. But in its yearning for social justice in world in which the dignity of all human beings is reverenced, Ethical Culture stands in a moral tradition that is as old as recorded history, and we trust will extend as long into the future as people dream of a better world.
Ethical Culture could only have been born in the modern age, when science was driving changes in how people looked at the world, and technology was rapidly transforming human society. Science had great prestige in the latter half of the 19th century. In was an era in which scientific explanation was pushing a belief in a divine mechanic of the universe closer to the margins of intellectual acceptance among educated people. Adler was one of those modernizers who believed that physics, geology and biology nor longer rendered credible a God who interrupts the laws of nature with His miracles, who cares for us personally, and will judge us at the end of time. Moreover, the modern tools of linguistics, archeology and anthropology when applied to the Bible made it pretty certain that the holy texts of the Jewish and Christian bibles were not dictated by God, but were written by men over long stretches of time and not in the order in which they appear in the accepted canons.
If the scholarship of the modern age inspired the birth of Ethical Culture on the intellectual side, it was the evils wrought by the Industrial Revolution that saved Ethical Culture from being just another philosophical debating society and fueled it with a sense of mission. In many ways the decades of the late 19th century and early 20th century had much in common with the social conditions of the world we inhabit today. In the age of industrialization, with the emergence of the robber barons, the rich were getting richer and the poor were growing more destitute. Although arguably the poorest of those among us today are better off than the poorest of the poor in America’s industrial cities of the late 19th century, the gap between the wealthy and the poor today is actually greater than it was then. The late 19th century in the urban areas was a period marked by the prevalence of inner city poverty, overcrowded and substandard schools, preoccupation with crime, youth violence, an increase in divorce and drug addiction.
We live today in an era of globalization when capital travels around the world to exploit new markets, and people from diverse cultures are brought closer together. Though the decades before and after the turn of the 20 the century lacked the miracle of modern communication, in a certain sense that period was also one of economic and social globalization. It was the period par-excellence of empire building, when beyond the British, French, Belgians, the United States also became an imperial power. And starting in 1881 and extending through the mid-1920s massive waves of foreign immigrants flooded American cities in search of upward mobility or fleeing political persecution, and occasioning in American societies the kinds of multicultural tensions and urban dislocations we experience today.
But there was one important difference between then and now. With the New Deal still half a century in the future, in Adler’s day one could scarcely look to government to mitigate the suffering of the poor. There were no laws for protecting young children from exploitation in factories or barring sweatshops or regulating health and safety in the workplace, or setting up standards in housing, or government supported health care. One could not turn to government to provide a safety net to assuage the worst inequities of economic oppression. The only place one could turn to for help were private benevolent associations, unions and charitable organizations, most often run by religious groups, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. It has sometimes been noted that a restoration to these conditions is the true goal and vision of the current Bush administration, that is, to destroy government as a provider of social support – and social security – and return us the 19th century when the best that those whom the economic system has cast aside can hope for is a hand out from religious charities. It’s a vision in my view that is condescending, cruel as well as totally impractical in a modern society in which our great social dislocations of poverty, homelessness, health care, disability and structural unemployment, among others can only be redressed through the presence of a government safety net, not only as a practical matter, but as a matter of right.
Despite his criticism of traditional religion, Adler remained a man of religious passion in the sense that he believed that religion, in upholding the sacredness of human beings, did something that science cannot do. Science is a powerful tool in explaining to us how the world works, but it does not tell us what we should value. By stripping away from religion supernaturalism, and the myths and rituals which serve to express and give homage to God’s glory, Adler focused his attention on what he believed was religion’s most important element – its ability to proclaim the sacredness or worthiness of human beings. So in Ethical Culture Adler created a new religious movement that in his own words, would be “ultra-scientific without being anti-scientific.” As a modern faith, Ethical Culture was dedicated to respecting the knowledge that reason and science bring us, but our source of value would come from our appreciation of ethical ideals – the worth of the person being the foremost among them.
In Adler’s new religion, man would not be deified, but what would be exalted was the ideal of a perfect society of perfect justice in which no one would suffer under the boot heel of oppression, inequality or degradation. Ethical Culture is a religion of social action, but it does not start with social action, but rather with a vision that then inspires that action.
Adler, coming out of the German Idealist tradition in philosophy, was fascinated by the interplay of what he referred to as the “ideal” and the “actual” realm. In a way that harkens back to Plato, Adler believed that behind this imperfect world, which we know through our senses, the world of space and time, there is another, ideal, realm, which we need to strive to approach, but since it is ideal, we can never fully reach. For Adler, this ideal realm in its inspirational value is the parallel of the “Kingdom of God” for the traditional believer. He stated over and over again that the purpose of our lives is to work to transform this world by the light of the ideal realm, which we get glimmers of when we act on the basis of our moral conscience, which Adler believed was the highest and best of what is in us. We need to work, in briefest terms, to turn the world from what it is to what it ought to be. Therefore Ethical Culture is an activist approach to life. While some religious traditions counsel that the religious life is to be sought by monastically removing oneself from the defilements of the world, in short, to be quietistic in one’s outlook, Ethical Culture counsels the opposite; that the spiritual life is to be hewn out of an active engagement with the grittiness of this world, through actively attempting to move it ahead by the light of the Ideal. In Adler’s vision, the end was not to seek one’s personal salvation to the exclusion of others, but to exert oneself in the effort to improve the quality of the human family overall to the extent that one was able. His very approach suggests this agenda for Ethical Culture is social, for one does not start with oneself, but by the effort to improve the well-being of the other. One must start with attempting to get others to think well of themselves, to bring out the best in others, as a way in which we can best renew ourselves and grow ethically and spiritually.
My point in citing Adler’s religious philosophy is to underscore the idea that Ethical Culture is not first and foremost a social justice organization. From time to time cause oriented people join the Society assuming that we are nothing but a social change or political organization, and that they will find here fertile ground to promote their issues and causes. I think that this is a rather one dimensional and erroneous view of the Ethical Culture Society. From the beginning we have been a movement with deeper spiritual roots in which the desire for social change is lodged in a vision and ethical philosophy based on the realization of human dignity and the progressive realization of that dignity through cooperative activity. We are not merely a social change organization, nor something like the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, although we are mistakenly sometimes interpreted as such by the outside world. It is this constant interplay between facts, ideals and cooperative activity that characterizes Ethical Culture’s approach to social reform. In this regard, work toward social justice is not the alpha and omega of Ethical Culture, but Ethical Culture without an abiding commitment toward social justice would not be Ethical Culture. It is an essential dimension of what we are about, but it does not exhaust what we are about.
While the approach of Ethical Culture toward social change has been reformist, the idea of a movement which was not based on God, but on a commonly felt intuition to live the moral life and to respect human dignity, was religiously radical in its day, and Ethical Culture came into its share of criticism in its early years.
In its 129 year history, I think we who are its legatees feel justly proud of the role we have played and continue to play in striving to create a humane, decent and just world. In a certain sense, Ethical Culture has never received the recognition it deserves for the contribution it has made to the American social landscape. This is because Ethical Culture remains small, but more importantly because it has been unusually self-effacing in the arena of social change. Our historical pattern has been to establish institutions which then go on to achieve an independent identity of their own, and their origins in Ethical Culture recede and are eventually lost. In many cases, we have developed pilot projects, which later were picked up by government, and so served to further wipe out their denominational origins in Ethical Culture. Yet, I think it is to the credit of this organization that it has so been able to read the winds of social progress, that many of the institutions and projects that it initiated long ago remain fixtures on the American landscape.
For example, the settlement house movement created to provide housing, education, vocational skills and lessons in democratic self-governance to generations of immigrants, is usually associated with names such as Jane Addams who created Hull House in Chicago, and Lillian Wald who developed the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Yet, the first settlement house in America, the Neighborhood Guild, which today is known as the University Settlement, was founded in 1886 in New York, by Stanton Coit, who was a leader of the New York Ethical Society. This was followed by two other settlement houses founded by the Ethical Culture Movement in New York, Madison House and the Hudson Guild in 1895.
The Visiting Nurse Service, which today is an international organization, and again is usually associated with Lillian Wald as its founder, was actually started in 1877 by the New York Society. It was later picked up and expanded by Lillian Wald who worked to ensure that it became part of New York City’s health system.
but it origins emerged out of Ethical Culture.
Around the same time, Ethical Culture established the first free kindergarten for working class families on the Lower East Side. This effort grew into an eight grade school and then a high school and eventually the Ethical Culture School system. In its earlier incarnations, Adler introduced a progressive pedagogy that combined liberal arts education with specialized vocational training programs for students who opted for them. Though this blueprint was never fully realized in the Ethical Culture Schools, it was picked up by the New York City public schools in the creation of what are called today “magnate schools” like the Bronx High School of Science, the school of music and art, nursing etc.
Among other earlier achievements of Ethical Culture was the creation of six model tenements on Cherry St. on the Lower East Side that provided housing for 3,500 families. The effort was to create humane, healthful living spaces for the immigrant poor at affordable rates. This led to the creation of a State Tenement House Commission to regularize and oversee standards with regard to housing. It was a commission on which Adler was very active. In a similar vein, Adler railed against the powerful commercial and industrial interests that exploited children in factories while denying them education. Adler became an active member of what became know as the National Child Labor Committee. With the documentary assistance of the famed photographer Lewis Hine, Adler’s Committee paved the way for early legislation to protect the rights of the children. Some of that work is exhibited today at the immigration museum at Ellis Island.
Because of the early prestige of Ethical Culture, it was able to bring into its orbit a phenomenal roster of talented visionaries and organizers such as Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Booker T. Washington, W.E.DuBois, William James, Walt Whitman and Samuel Gompers. The latter who founded the American Federation of Labor, was an enthusiastic member of the New York Ethical Society. Of all the religious and affiliated associations in New York Gompers saw Ethical Culture as the most supportive of the interests of labor, and Felix Adler was no doubt the religious leader who was most outspoken in the cause of the working class.
Three other projects of lasting influence deserve mention. In 1888, the Ethical Society of Chicago founded the Bureau for Justice which was the first organization providing free legal assistance to the poor regardless of nationality or religion. That organization quickly was transformed into the Legal Aid Society, which remains a significant institution to this day.
In 1909, on the centennial of Lincoln birth, the owner of the Nation magazine by the name of Oswald Garrison Villard, issued a two-page petition calling for the political equality of Blacks in the United States. That call to a conference was signed by 60 luminaries, five of whom were leaders in the Ethical Culture movement. The conference that was put together around the petition was the founding event of the NAACP in which leaders John Elliott, Henry Moskowitz, Anna Garlin Spencer and later Algernon Black as a vice-president of the organization were to play major roles.
In 1920, in response to the Palmer raids, which led to the arrest of thousands of immigrants in a round up sometimes analogized to the plight of Muslims after 9/11, Roger Baldwin, who was Unitarian, founded the American Civil Liberties Union dedicated to preserving the freedoms of the Bill of Rights. Baldwin was first introduced to Ethical Culture in St. Louis as a director of what were called the Self-Culture Halls which were like non-resident settlement houses, and later became a member of the New York Society. Among the original twelve members of the ACLU board was John Elliott, a position which was later held by Algernon Black and more recently Sheldon Ackely, leaders of the New York Society.
The period from 1876 until the 1920 was assuredly the golden age of Ethical Culture and social activism. After this time, the movements activist edge became more difficult to maintain. In part its class character changed, and many financial and industrial elites whom Adler was able to attract and who bankrolled these projects and many more, began to pass from the scene. In addition, with the coming of the New Deal government program superceded or picked up many of the functions which were earlier on spearheaded by Ethical Culture and kindred organizations.
But Ethical Culture, has never lost its commitments to social justice. I was fortunate to have known Algernon Black in my earlier years of leadership. Black was a simply grandiloquent orator and tireless fighter for social causes. As a democratic socialist he helped organize striking silk workers in Lodi and Paterson. He spoke out against fascism during World War II and transformed the New York Society’s platform into one of the first venues to courageously attack and expose McCarthyism in the 1950s. Black was a champion of labor, of civil rights, of housing justice or civil liberties, and anti-Vietnam activism and much else. He was appointed by John Lindsay to be the chairman of the controversial civilian-police review board. But nothing caught his imagination as much as the Encampment for Citizenship which he founded together with Anita Pollitzer a former suffragist and with the full support of Eleanor Roosevelt. The Encampment which was created before the dawn of the Civil Rights era in the mid-40s brought first college, then high school age students from different racial, class and national backgrounds together in residential settings to engage in progressive community-based action projects. It helped to educate aver 5,000 activists during its 50 year history, a good number of whom went on to be notables in their own right.
In the 1960s, the Ethical Movement, through the AEU got involved in coalition work and sponsored a lobby in Washington with the Unitarian Movement and the American Humanist Association. We continued to ply our work in civil rights, in organizing against the Vietnam War, in safeguarding civil liberties, separation of church and state issues, the rights of non-theistic conscientious objectors and women’s rights, especially the right to a safe and legal abortion.
Here at the Bergen Society during more than the half century of our existence, we have maintained that tradition of engaging the issues of the day, and unlike the early years of Ethical Culture, with minimalresources. Members who were Teaneck residents were involved in integrating the Teaneck Schools in the 1960s. We founded the Fair Housing Council of Bergen County, which has long had its offices on Main Street in Hackensack. We were involved in starting the Health and Welfare Council, which coordinates social services in the County. For eight years we ran an inter-racial summer camp. We started a very activist chapter of Amnesty International, and in the late 80s, we created a sanctuary which gave housing, support and a political platform to a Salvadoran refuges who escaped the civil war in his native country. For years we were very involved in not only housing the homeless but in advocating for housing justice and affordable housing through many different venues. Peter’s Place, a shelter without restriction and entry criteria is named for our late member, Peter Jacobsohn. More recently, in coalition with others, we have initiated a temporary sanctuary for political asylum seekers granted parole from the federal detention center in Elizabeth. Interspersed between these programs, there are hundred of others I have not mentioned, innumerable letter writing campaigns and countless educational forums and other initiatives geared toward social justice.
This, I believe is quite an accomplishment, especially for a movement that has never had more than 6,000 members, for whom political activism is not the sole purpose of our existence.
I have sketched our activist history is morning with two purposes in mind. One is to encourage us to feel a sense of pride in the commitments we have held and in exposition of those commitments in the service of social justice. This is our tradition, and it is one that we can feel good about. But the second is because I believe that there is a need to redouble our efforts as we look to the future.
I believe that we are at a very dangerous moment in American history, when the humanistic ideals of Ethical Culture have never been more relevant. We live at a time when there is an assault not only on the poor, but also on the middle class. We are at a moment when the social safety net, which is the hallmark of a civilized society, which has been put in place to assist those who often through no fault of their own suffer the dislocations of poverty, illness, homelessness an disability is being destroyed on the levels of both ideology and in practice. We live at moment when our civil liberties are under assault, religion of a very conservative kind is trimuphalist and the merciless forces of the unbridled market have become idolatrous. Privatization is rampant, the public sphere is being narrowed, and the human bond is torn asunder.
All these forces severely threaten our freedom and dignity and put the humanistic, decent values we stand for on the defensive. If you are like me, you want to live in a political culture which is morally friendly and not morally alien. As a parent and a grandparent, I am concerned for the world my children and my grandchildren will inhabit, not as a cliché but as a palpable worry and deeply felt disturbance.
We need to critique the conditions we are in by the light of our ideals.
As a humanist, I am not a determinist. I believe that the future can be altered by good people banding together to do the right thing, as we understand it. Now more than ever, I believe we need to be inspired by our past in order to dedicate ourselves to the future. In the short lives we have, we can make choices as to how we will live our lives, and what we seek to make of ourselves. I propose that one of the best uses we can make of ourselves — practically, morally and spiritually — is to see our lives within the context of the moral and political conditions of which we are a, inseparable part. We can understand ourselves not as individuals in our isolation but as participants in the progressive evolution of the entire human family. Inspired by our highest ideals we can dedicate ourselves to humankind, and by our efforts, if only a little bit, bring greater dignity, justice, freedom and peace to the human community. I believe that our times demand such dedication, — In fact, now more than ever.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
6 March 2005