Civil Religion: The Theory

  Lecture of Dr. Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Thomas Jefferson once said, "No nation has yet existed or been governed without religion." Jefferson, as a man of the Enlightenment, was echoing a view that had been put forth by other thinkers of the time. In Book Four, Chapter Eight of The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes his case for what he terms "civil religion":

But, setting aside political considerations, let us come back to what is right, and settle our principles on this important point. The right which the social compact gives the Sovereign over the subjects does not, we have seen, exceed the limits of public expediency. The subjects then owe the Sovereign an account of their opinions only to such an extent as they matter to the community. Now, it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion. That will make him love his duty; but the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign's business to take cognisance of them; for, as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life.

There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them — it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.

The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.

Those who distinguish civil from theological intolerance are, to my mind, mistaken. The two forms are inseparable. It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them: we positively must either reclaim or torment them. Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it must inevitably have some civil effect; and as soon as it has such an effect, the Sovereign is no longer Sovereign even in the temporal sphere: thenceforce priests are the real masters, and kings only their ministers.

Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. But whoever dares to say: Outside the Church is no salvation, ought to be driven from the State, unless the State is the Church, and the prince the pontiff. Such a dogma is good only in a theocratic government; in any other, it is fatal. The reason for which Henry IV is said to have embraced the Roman religion ought to make every honest man leave it, and still more any prince who knows how to reason.

From Rousseau's comments, therefore, we can make the following observations:

1.     Religion is a human need. We require something to believe in, something that inspires faith and devotion.

2.     Religion can provide a sense of unity, belonging, and brotherhood, welding together a disparate group of people into a unified whole.

3.     Religion can ensure obedience or submission to a code of behavior or moral dictates.

4.     In a situation where there is religious pluralism, there exists a very real danger of division and separation of the population and the grounds for civil disorder on the grounds that people will view themselves as belonging to separate and potentially hostile communities

5.     Civil religion is that set of beliefs which all citizens are required to hold and profess without injury to their own personal beliefs.

6.     Public adherence by all citizens to the civil religion creates the basis for societal unity.

7.     Common participation by all in the civil religion will cause each citizen to recognize each other as a fellow citizen and not as an infidel or outsider who happens to be a neighbor.

8.     Civil religion should be based on only a few major precepts which all can accept on the basis of reason.

For Rousseau, as for many other Enlightenment figures, it was rational to presume that there was a Supreme Being, and that certain moral tenets, being based on reason, were in fact universal. This was the common base which all human beings of reason should agree; more substantive declarations (e. g. who is a prophet, who speaks for God, what are specific rules for worship, etc.) were best left to the private conscience. A common set of beliefs shared by the populace could then be manifested in public actions that reaffirmed these beliefs--ceremonials, rituals, holidays, which would strengthen community bonds and a sense of togetherness.