Diogenes wrote:I have come to recognize that a belief in a higher power is the lynch pin that keeps our society civilized. I was encouraged to discover that the founders (some of the most brilliant men of their time) have likewise recognized this.
You've mentioned this very briefly before. What I got from it was, that you see the utility of religion in much the same way as Rousseau does in his Social Contract
. For those who've never indulged, let me note our entire government is based on Rousseau's ideas save that we did not have religion embedded in the center of our government. This single issue forms the main difference between our government here in the US and all other previous governments. Rousseau himself argues both sides of the issue and goes out pro-religion, being essentially what the French have. A distillation of the Social Contract
on this issue follows, as it should be part of everyone's understanding of political philosophy and underpin every reference to the mind of the founding fathers who were all intimate with this material. Without Rousseau, there would be no US as it exists today. And it does seem certainl that Rousseau was correct that religion is necessary to the state. Though no particular religion was instituted into the Constitution, religion and the religious were everywhere. It is the change to the fact this is no longer so, that is destroying our nation. Just as Os Guiness writes in his The Dust of Death
, our nation will indeed destroy itself as the people shed their religion.
Rousseau and Religion
Rousseau concludes his Social Contract with a chapter on
religion. His view on the subject is subtle and interesting; and
moreover, I maintain that it provides us with one of the keys to
Rousseau's thought. Rousseau's near-deification of the General Will
has led many analysts to argue that Rousseau's state is merely
secularized Christianity. A careful examination of this chapter may
well help us understand to what extent this thesis is correct.
2. Rousseau's Typology of Religion
Strangely, Rousseau begins by telling us that there are two
types of religion, but winds up giving us three. "Religion, considered
in connection with societies, whether general or particular, can be
divided into two categories, the religion of the man and the religion
of the citizen." (p.181) The religion of the man is informal and
unorganized, centering on morality and the worship of God. The
Christianity of the Gospels is Rousseau's example. In contrast, the
religion of the citizen is what has been called "civil religion." This
is the religion of a single country, a national religion. Such a
religion is organized and hierarchical, with formal dogmas. It
teaches love of country, obedience to the state, and martial virtues.
The religions of ancient peoples like the Romans fit this mold.
To this list Rousseau adds a third religion. Unlike the religion
of the man, it is organized and hierarchical, with precise dogmas.
Unlike civil religion, it is independent of the state, in the sense that
it is international and has its own agenda. It may counsel
patriotism, but only in a limited fashion, because it is the religion
of many nations rather than one. A religion of this kind is a
competitor to the state for the allegiance of citizens, and it
produces internal division as a consequence. Catholicism is
Rousseau's favorite example of this kind of religion.
3. Rousseau's Critique of the Three Types
To begin with, Rousseau is clearly not hostile to religion as
such: "no state has ever been founded without religion at its base."
(p.180) But he does have serious complaints about each of the three
types of religion. Let us examine his complaints, then see what
Rousseau judges to be the least defective of the three.
To begin with, Rousseau will have no truck with the third kind
of religion - organized yet separate from the state. As Rousseau
tells us, "The third kind is so manifestly bad that the pleasure of
demonstrating its badness would be a waste of time. Everything
that destroys social unity is worthless; and all institutions that set
man at odds with himself are worthless." (p.181) The problem, in
short, is that this kind of religion competes with the state for the
total allegiance of the people; in consequence, society is divided.
Individuals might think that conscience demands disobedience to the
state, and they would have an organized hierarchy to back them up
and marshall resistance. To a convinced corporativist like Rousseau,
this is intolerable.
Let us turn now to the first type of religion, exemplified by
the Christianity of the Gospels. At the outset, Rousseau tells us
that this form of religion is not only holy and sublime but true.
While that would appear to settle the matter, it doesn't for
Rousseau. Instead, he moves on to complain that simple Christianity
is bad for the state. Christianity is other-worldly, and therefore
takes away from citizens' love for life on earth as exemplified by
the state. As Rousseau explains, "Christianity is a wholely spiritual
religion, concerned solely with the things of heaven; the Christian's
homeland is not of this world." (p.183) In consequence, Christians
are too detached from the real world to fight against domestic
tyranny. Moreover, Christians make bad soldiers, again because they
are other-worldly. They won't fight with the passion and patriotism
that a deadly army requires. Why any of this should count against
Christianity after its truth has already been conceded is hard to
We then turn to civil religion. It has much to recommend it:
"The second kind of religion is good in that it joins divine worship to
a love of the law, and that in making the homeland the object of a
citizens' adoration, it teaches them that the service of the state is
the service of the tutelary God." (pp.181-182) If the sole purpose of
religion is to butress the state, then a civil religion is the one to
pick: it inspires obedience and service, but could never become an
independent standpoint from which the state might be criticized or
called to task for misdeeds. Religion is necessary to provide the
state with moral underpinings; but if religion is separate from the
state, then there is always the danger that the decrees of religion
will fail to match those of the state, and instead positively mandate
Yet Rousseau cannot give a whole-hearted endorsement to civil
religion either. For one thing, "it is based on error and lies, it
deceives men, and makes them credulous and superstitious." (p.182)
Again, this would appear to be a fatal blow; but for Rousseau, it is
just one bad point to keep in mind. Civil religion also makes the
people "bloodthirsty and intolerant" and Rousseau doesn't like that
4. Rousseau's Compromise and the General Will
After considering the advantages and drawbacks of different
sorts of religion, Rousseau figures out a compromise. Tolerance
should be granted to all religions that will grant it to others.
Apparently, Rousseau believes to some extent in religious tolerance;
at the very least, uniformity is no longer achievable in the modern
world. In this sense, religion becomes a matter for private
But that is not the end of the story. Rousseau wants to have a
public religion in another sense. Namely, he wants all people on pain
of banishment to accept some religious doctrines, "not strictly
speaking as religious dogmas, but as expressions of social
conscience." (p.186) The state should not establish one religion, but
it should use the law to weed out any religions which are socially
harmful. All legal religions must accept: "The existence of an
omnipotent, intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and
provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment
of sinners; the sancity of the social contract and the law." (p.186)
In addition, they must foreswear intolerance; not only "civil"
intolerance (The state must crush unbelievers) but also "theological"
intolerance (There is no salvation outside the church).
Rousseau makes an important exception to the last point
mandating tolerance: "unless the state is the church and the prince
is the pontiff. Such a dogma is only good in a theocratic government;
in any other, it is pernicious." (p.187, emphasis added) In principle,
then, the state may be as intolerant as it likes, so long as it is
This exception is particularly interesting in light of the
remainder of Rousseau's political theory. For suppose that the
General Will (in practical terms, the majority) believes that there is
no salvation outside of their church? Would it be wrong for them to
vote to establish their own view and crush all dissent? On
Rousseau's terms I can see no objection. It appears to be another
legitimate exercise of the General Will; and if the minority
disagrees, it is merely mistaken about what it wills and must be
forced to free. Rousseau's principles do not imply a theocratic
state; but so long as a majority of the people want it, it is not only
morally permissible but morally required. The charge that
Rousseau's system is just a secular version of Christianity is not
exactly correct; as a matter of fact, Rousseau's system gives a
secular justification for any form of popular intolerance, both
secular and religious.
"Courage is not just a virtue, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." C. S. Lewis