Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Religion

By Bertolt Brecht


THE CHAPLAIN: […] when Our Lord turned the five loaves into five hundred there was no war on and he could tell people to love their neighbours as they had enough to eat. Today it's another story. (II, 127-130)

Sound familiar? Not so much, Chap. The chaplain takes two well-known biblical themes and dismisses them as irrelevant to the present day, so as to justify theft and murder. (Take a look at our section on "Allusions" for more on this.) Whenever biblical themes pass through the prism of war in Mother Courage, they always seem to come out wrong.

THE GENERAL: […] Hacked 'em to pieces, did you, so my gallant lads can get a proper bite to eat? What do the scriptures say? 'Whatsoever thou doest for the least of my brethren, thou doest for me.' And what did you do for them? Got them a good square meal of beef, because they're not accustomed to mouldy bread […]. (II, 132-137)

What would Jesus do? Well, for one, he probably wouldn't become a general. In this line, the general compares himself to Jesus, who tells his followers that they please him most whenever they help their weakest member. At the same time, though, the general praises Eilif for violently murdering peasants and stealing their cattle. That clearly doesn't jive with Jesus' message of non-violence. Passages like this one are there to demonstrate the abuse of religious themes by those in positions of power.

THE CHAPLAIN: Don't give way to your feelings, cook. To fall in battle is a blessing, not an inconvenience, and why? It is a war of faith. None of your common wars but a special one, fought for the faith and therefore pleasing to God. 

THE COOK: Very true. It's a war all right in one sense, what with requisitioning, murder and looting and the odd bit of rape thrown in, but different from all the other wars because it's a war of faith; stands to reason. But it's thirsty work at that, you must admit. (III, 150-158)

The cook's not buying it. In this exchange, the cook gives free reign to his cynical contempt for what the chaplain calls "a war of faith." The cook sees right through the chaplain's rhetoric: calling the war "pleasing to God" is just a way to draw attention away from the fact that war is war, no matter how you spin it, "with requisitioning, murder, and looting and the odd bit of rape thrown in."

MOTHER COURAGE: […] I think I got meself cleared. I told 'em I didn't hold with Antichrist, the Swedish one with horns on […] They didn't believe me all that much, but they ain't got no regimental canteen lady. So they're winking an eye. Could turn out for the best, you know. We're prisoners, but same like fleas on a dog. (III, 326-337)

Gotta watch out for that Swedish Antichrist. Mother Courage delights in the way her business triumphs over the religious divide between Catholics and Protestants. This passage suggests that the military is more interested in keeping itself and the war going, and cares a lot less about faith than it claims. This gestures toward what Mother Courage has to say about corruption (see III, 644-649).

THE COOK: […] So the poor old king's had nowt but trouble for all his kindness and expenses, and that's something he had to make up for by taxes of course, which caused bad blood, not that he's let a little matter like that depress him. One thing he had on his side, God's word, that was a help. Because otherwise folk would of been saying he done it all for himself and to make a bit on the side. So he's always had a good conscience, which was the main point. (III, 199-207)

Ever the ironic wit, the cook points out the way the king's claim to have "God's word" on his side is a cover-up for his plan to "make a bit on the side." This is in line with other things the cook says (e.g. III, 150-158), which also suggest that the use of religious rhetoric by those in power is a strategy to sell the war to the taxpaying lower classes.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Thank the Lord they're corruptible. After all, they ain't wolves, just humans out for money. Corruption in humans is same as compassion in God. Corruption's our only hope. Long as we have it there'll be lenient sentences and even an innocent man'll have a chance of being let off. (III, 644-649)

Whew, we don't even know where to start with this one. Mother Courage could not make her cynical feelings toward Christianity any clearer. While others turn to God as a source of compassion, understanding, and justice during times of difficulty, Mother Courage counts on the corruptibility of humans. Her source of hope is not her belief in something higher, but is instead her trust in the fact that the world is a bad place, where people act out of their own interest. In short, she's lost all faith in God.


Back when I was young, I was brought to realize
What a very special person I must be
(Not just any old cottager's daughter, what with my looks
and my talents and my urge towards Higher Things)
Then I heard a tit
Chirp: Wait a bit!
And you'll be marching with the band
In step, responding to command
And striking up your little dance:
Now we advance.
And now: parade, form square!
Then men swear God's there—
Not the faintest chance! (IV, 94-110)

This song is just like a window into Mother Courage's past. (See Mother Courage's "Character Analysis" for more.) It juxtaposes the arrival of war in her life with her loss of faith in "Higher Things," i.e., God. It allows us to think that Mother Courage might not have always been so cynical about religion, suggesting instead that the experience of war and the changes war brought to society made her give up all hope.

THE CHAPLAIN: […] One sermon of mine can put a regiment in such a frame of mind it'll treat the enemy like a flock of sheep. Life to them is a smelly old foot-cloth which they fling away in a vision of final victory. God has given me the gift of speech. I can preach so you'll lose all sense of sight and hearing. 

MOTHER COURAGE: I don't want wish to lose my sense of sight and hearing. Where'd that leave me? (VI, 196-204)

Okay, so, on the surface, this is the exchange leading up to the chaplain's proposal that he and Mother Courage get it on with one another. But we're not quite there yet. Here, he's making a more general comment on his profession. When he says he can "preach so you'll lose all sense of sight and hearing," this suggests he sees religion as a kind of power, used to get soldiers to enter battle. Well, looks like his romantic talents are not so well-honed.

THE COOK: pulling off his boots and unwrapping his footcloths: Pity the war made such a godless s*** of you, else you'd easily get another parsonage now it's peacetime. Cooks won't be needed, there's nowt to cook, but faith goes on just the same, nowt changed in that direction.

THE CHAPLAIN: Mr. Lamb, I'm asking you not to elbow me out. Since I came down in the world I've become a better person. I couldn't preach to anyone now. (VIII, 171-178)

The exchange is like a grand finale in the chaplain's character development. He has gone from justifying the war in all its brutality to acknowledging that he's become a better person, and "couldn't preach to anyone now." This turnaround implies the chaplain's realization—and at this point, hopefully ours as well—that his former life as an army chaplain had little to do with promoting Christian values.

Here you can see respectable folk
Keeping to God's own laws.
So far he hasn't taken heed.
You who sit safe and warm indoors
Help to relieve our bitter need!
How virtuously we had begun!
The world however didn't wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's fear of God that brought us to that state.
How fortunate the man with none! (IX, 151-160)

"Keeping to God's own laws"? Maybe in a different play. In any case, this verse, in the song shared by Mother Courage and the cook, is basically a shared apotheosis in their cynical attitudes toward traditional Christian values. The song portrays its singers as poor believers, who have always kept to "God's own laws." But they've come upon hard times. The message: a belief in God doesn't get you anywhere in the present state of the things. So, it seems like people would be better off without it.