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Rousseau's Civil Religion: the Idolatry of Tolerance

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

When Thomist dispensationalist Norman Geisler during the Bill Moyers special on Reconstructionism stated that Christians want a moral nation, not a Christian nation,1 he was speaking in the vein of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguably the most influential political philosopher of the last three centuries. Rousseau, defender of the infallible (and imaginary) “general will,” of the indivisibility of human sovereignty, and of social egalitarianism,2 was also one of the first Enlightenment proponents of “civil religion,” as set forth in chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract. Rousseau recognized the inescapably religious character of law and society, but deplored the influence of Christianity and Christians on the commonweal. He had nothing but contempt for a Christian citizenry:

. . . no State has ever been founded without a religious basis [but] the law of Christianity at bottom does more harm by weakening than good by strengthening the constitution of the State.3

Rousseau depicted Christianity as an impotent, vacillating, dualistic, masochistic faith:

Christianity as a religion is entirely spiritual, occupied solely with heavenly things; the country of the Christian is not of this world. He does his duty, indeed, but does it with profound indifference to the good or ill success of his cares. Provided he has nothing to reproach himself with, it matters little to him whether things go well or ill here on earth. If the state is prosperous, he hardly dares to share in the public happiness, for fear he may grow proud of his country’s glory; if the state is languishing, he blesses the hand of God that is hard upon His people.

If war breaks out with another State, the [Christian] citizens march readily out to battle; not one of them thinks of flight; they do their duty, but they have no passion for victory; they know better how to die than how to conquer. What does it matter whether they win or lose? Does not Providence know better than they what is meet [suitable] for them? Only think to what account a proud, impetuous, and passionate enemy could turn their stoicism! Set over against them those generous peoples who were devoured by ardent love of glory and their country, imagine your Christian republic face to face with Sparta or Rome: the pious Christians will be beaten, crushed, and destroyed, before they know where they are, or will owe their safety only to the contempt their enemy will conceive for them. It was to my mind a fine oath that was taken by the soldiers of Fabius, who swore, not to conquer and die, but to come back victorious-and kept their oath. Christians would never have taken such an oath; they would have looked on it as tempting God. . . . Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a regime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.4

Rousseau considers any sort of attempt to Christianize the state a reversion to paganism; for him the gospel is wholly “spiritual.” This is the temper of dualism, but Rousseau nonetheless perceives that when Christians do subordinate the state to Christ’s authority, the “secular” state must dissolve-there can be no compromise. The problem, as Rousseau notes, is that state and society without religion are an impossibility. That religion, however, according to Rousseau, cannot be Christianity, for if it is “gospel” (pietistic) Christianity it is counterproductive to state interests, and if it is “pagan” (virile) Christianity it is subversive of the state.

Rousseau’s solution to this alleged problem of a Christian state and citizenry is the replacement of Christianity with a civil religion, “a purely civil profession of faith, of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogma, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen and faithful subject.“5 That is, since civil government without religion is an impossibility, but also since Christianity is counterproductive to or subversive of civil government, the state must impose its own self-serving religion, which occupies a merely utilitarian function.

Rousseau’s dogmas formed the ideational basis of virtually all political revolutions since the eighteenth century, and it is an easy transition from Rousseau’s civil religion to Marx’s estimate (borrowed from Heine) that religion is “the opium of the masses.” Marx realized that in Rousseau’s interpretation religion served a merely utilitarian function in society and expelled the latter’s abstract civil theism in favor of a concrete civil theism-the state is god walking on earth. The Marxist society is no less religious than the Christian-the true God has simply been replaced by a humanistic and totalitarian idol.

What Rousseau really meant, of course, is that virile, comprehensive Christianity (what he calls a reversion to “paganism” [!]) is subversive of anti-Christian regimes; and in this insinuation he is entirely correct. He is only partially correct in asserting that “gospel” Christians (we call them pietists) are counterproductive to the anti-Christian regime; for it is true that their dualism cools any fanatical patriotism on which such regimes are fueled, but, conversely, pietistic Christians’ tacit acceptance of anti-Christian states renders easy the maintenance of a statist stranglehold.

The similarity between Rousseau’s civil religion and modern evangelicals’ preference for natural law is most striking. Geisler abhors the abandonment of natural law theory, correctly recognizing that the lack of any objective standard of morality invites civic tyranny.6 The problem is that because of man’s-especially political man’s-depravity, he will employ an amorphous natural law as an instrument to subvert godly Christianity, just as Rousseau’s ideological disciples did in the French Revolution. Abstract “rights” secured by natural law are fictive: they become (as they have in Marxist countries) means of enhancing tyranny. Marxist countries, of course, repudiate natural law, at least in its historic sense; but their “natural law” arises from the nature of materialist man, as interpreted by philosophers and elitist social engineers. Both “human rights” and “natural law” are no impediments to this scheme-indeed, they are catalysts of it. For example, the “rights” to employment, health care, and retirement benefits justify the seizure of property by the state to supply those “rights.”

The sort of civil religion evangelicals covet-“good” and “fair” government, in the words of Geisler, but decidedly not Christian-is in some ways more pernicious than immediate and flagrant totalitarianism. Although all states are inescapably religious, at least the religion of the state depicted in Orwell’s 1984 is obvious; by contrast, under the guise of civil religion, states can with impunity systematically subvert Christianity and rob true freedom from their citizens. They begin by asserting dedication to Christian virtue without the dogma of Christianity. They conclude by undermining godly culture while all the while claiming to do God’s work on earth. And they persecute all “pagan” (i.e., non-pietistic) Christians who refuse to submit to their religion. Such civil religion can tolerate all religions but the intolerant:

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: thenceforth priests are the real masters, and kings only their ministers.7

A prime stated goal of civil religion, according to Rousseau, is to defang the exclusivity of robust faiths that may compete with and supersede the statist faith. It is to emasculate virile Christianity, to render it docile before the civil sovereign who then can indeed become universal Sovereign, god on earth. In such a scenario the state does not find active persecution of “gospel” (i.e., pietistic) Christians necessary; if Christians can be rendered as tractable as declawed cats in a mice reservation, they need not be exterminated. It is just this sort of faith the evangelicals desire in the political sphere; being consummate dualists, they want to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the church, but a “good” and “fair” god of their own imagination in the state. But Christians devoted to the uninhibited Lordship of Christ are at war with all idolatry-familial, ecclesiastical, or civil. They will war no less vigorously against idolatry in the state than with idolatry in the church. It is this godly “intolerance” that Rousseau and his modern disciples cannot tolerate. Evangelicals will bow the knee to civil religion; we reconstructionists will bow the knee only to the sovereign God of the universe revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

The alternative to atheistic raw statist politics is not hypocritical and cunning Rousseauian civil religion. It is a full-orbed, red-blooded orthodox Christianity applying the Crown Rights of Jesus Christ in all areas of life.

Christ is King; He will abide no competitors.



1 Geisler observes elsewhere: “Premillennialists, unlike postmillennialists, do not attempt to set up a distinctively Christian government; they work rather for good government. Premillenarians need not work for Christian civil laws but only fair ones,” “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 142, Num. 567 [July-September], 1985, 256. Geisler suggests that “good,” “fair” government is built on natural law and natural revelation, the “ultimate moral ground” of society, ibid., 257-260. He does not demonstrate any relation between natural law and Christian morality, or how non-Christian societies may be expected to interpret natural law in a moral fashion.
2 For an explication of the totalitarian propensities of Rousseau’s theories, see J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York, 1960), 38-49.
3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Chicago, 1952), 436, 437.
4 ibid., 437-439.
5 ibid., 439.
6 Geisler, 260.
7 Rousseau, loc. cit.


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Amazing GraceAmazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (DVD)

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