Dechristianization: Chapter One

Are there parallels between the French Revolution and contemporary Church-State conflicts?
Andrew Thompson | Sep 7 2015 | comment  

“Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country,” tweeted US Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. Is the jailing of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis for contempt of court after she refused to issue marriage licences for same-sex couples a storm in a teacup or the beginning of a program of dechristianisation?

The West has debated many times before whether Christianity is a friend or foe of society, but perhaps never so dramatically as during the French Revolution. For several years, from about 1790 to 1800, the revolutionary government exiled or executed thousands of Catholic clerics and tried to expunge all traces of France’s Christian past from public life.

Does this dramatic episode hold any lessons for today? To shed light on this, MercatorNet interviewed Dr Andrew Thompson, an historian at Queens' College, Cambridge University.

 The 16 Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne go to the guillotine during the Great Terror in June 1794

MercatorNet: When Chou En Lai, the great Chinese Communist, was asked about the significance of the French Revolution, he supposedly replied, “It’s too early to tell.” Does 1789 still shape the way we think about politics? 

Andrew Thompson: Absolutely. In France itself, political geography is still very largely shaped by the divisions between pro-royalist and pro-revolution which emerged in the 1790s. In a more global sense, the French Revolution defined what we mean by ‘modern’. The revolutionaries intentionally set out to break with the past. Whereas previous campaigners for change tended to justify what they wanted to do on the basis that it was a return to something that existed previously (the wheel of fortune was revolving back, in other words), revolutionaries in France increasingly justified their actions on the basis that they were breaking strongly with the past.

MercatorNet: In the mid-18th century, France was the most Catholic country in Europe. By 1800 the Church was in ruins and religious indifference was widespread. How did it happen so quickly? 

Thompson: The picture is not quite so clear-cut as you paint it here. The relationship between church and state was complicated in most 18th-century European states and governments, in general, were seeking to increase their power at the expense of ecclesiastical authority. The church in France, as elsewhere, was a significant landowner so when the revolutionaries were short of money, appropriating church lands was an easy way to solve some of their financial problems. 

Intellectually, though, revolutionaries also realised the central place that the church had in every day life. All important life-cycle events (births, deaths and marriages) were marked by church ceremonies and the priest was likely to be the most educated person in many French villages. To break the power of the monarchy it was, therefore, vital to attack the power of the church at the same time. Ecclesiastical support was seen as vital to the old order so if, as the revolutionaries did, one wanted to introduce rapid and serious political changes, it was necessary to attack the power of the church.

In some ways the campaign was successful but the civil wars that broke out in the 1790s also suggested that there was a very large minority of the French population who were unwilling to give up on the church.

MercatorNet: The Church’s property was nationalised to pay the revolutionary government’s debts. But what motivated the revolutionaries go even further and try to "écrasez l'infâme", to crush Christianity?

Thompson: As I said before, Christianity was seen as being supportive of the old political order. Any new political regime needs to do two things: provide new ideas and ensure that its opponents don’t have the resources to challenge it militarily. Priests were seen, often rightly, as the sorts of people likely to stir up support for the royal family and provoke resistance to the new political order.

MercatorNet: What did the program of “dechristiansation” involve?

Thompson: The first stage involved something called the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’. All priests were asked to take an oath acknowledging its legitimacy (although in reality only just over half of the priests in France did). It contained various provisions, such as making church appointments an entirely French matter an banning even retrospective approval from Rome. It also redrew diocesan boundaries to ensure that they matched the new administrative boundaries of France (thus dramatically reducing the number of dioceses within France in the process). 

Later the state stepped in to make the registration of births, deaths and marriages a purely civil affair so now it would be local mayor, rather than the priest, who would preside at weddings. All of this was aimed at reducing the connection between the church and the population’s everyday existence.

MercatorNet: What were the revolutionaries trying to do by changing the calendar from a seven-day week to a ten-day week? 

Thompson: Several things. The revolutionaries were great believers in the logic of the metric system so dividing time into ten-day units made more sense to them. It also made it more difficult for people to follow the traditional religious pattern of resting on the seventh day (and also meant that they had to work longer without a break). 

It was part and parcel of a broader assault on the place of Christianity in public life. Months were renamed and the calendar was restarted, meaning that the foundation of the French Republic in September 1792 became the date from which everything else was dated. Just as Christians believed that the birth of Christ was the most important date in world history, the revolutionaries were claiming global-historical significance for the foundation of the French republic.

MercatorNet:  or by placing "Death is an eternal sleep” over all the cemeteries?

Thompson: This was simply a manifestation of a broader enlightenment materialism.

MercatorNet: Some of the revolutionaries tried to establish civic cults to replace Christianity, like the Cult of Reason, the Cult of the Supreme Being and Theophilanthropy. Were the people enthusiastic?

Thompson: Some were but many were not. It is interesting that the new regime recognised the need to put something in the place of Christianity to fulfil a desire for ritual and order. That said, when Napoleon came to power, he quickly realised that these movements were not meeting with much success and he began a reconciliation with the papacy that eventually led to a concordat.

MercatorNet: In the 20th Century the Nazis and the Communists tried to displace or remove Christianity from public life. Is there a link to the French Revolution here?

Thompson: Not really (and the Nazis had an ambivalent relationship to institutionalised religion). The best that can be said is that Marx and some of his followers realised the power that institutional religion might have and sought to substitute that for something else.

MercatorNet: What was the long-term impact of the dechristianisation campaign?

Thompson: The dechristianisation campaign could be seen as part of a broader intellectual movement which sought to question the place of religion within public life. Many enlightened thinkers thought that religion was a matter of private judgement and should not be dictated by secular authorities. This had the hugely beneficial impact of increasing levels of religious toleration and reducing tensions between Protestants and Catholics but it also meant that secular authorities felt it increasingly unnecessary to draw on religious authority to justify their own existence.

MercatorNet: Can lessons be drawn for contemporary battles between Christianity and the State, in the UK and US? 

Thompson: The US, of course, was set up with a formal, constitutional division between church and state, precisely because its founding fathers were inspired by some of the enlightened ideas I mentioned above. Many enlightened thinkers believed that if people thought about things hard enough, they would eventually reach similar conclusions about the same problems. 

This attitude now appears naive, to say the least. The question for any state is how far one is prepared to tolerate those who hold radically different views and what the best mechanisms are for regulating those views to ensure that civil peace is preserved.

Some commentators have claimed that the treatment of Kim Davis amounts to a form of religious persecution. The assumption is that there is a singular religious perspective on this issue. At the same time moves are being made in Congress to pass a ‘Religious Peace Tax Fund Act’ which would allow those with religious objections to the military to opt to have their taxes only used for non-military spending. Both positions rely upon definitions of conscience and the idea that our conscience should not be coerced by government. Yet the people making these respective cases are likely to come from rather different political positions.

MercatorNet: Any suggestions for (light-weight) further reading?

Thompson: William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2001).

Andrew Thompson is lecturer in History at Queen’s College, Cambridge University. 

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