Religion in Political Theory
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- John Calvin
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- Joseph Priestley
Religion was central to early political control of society. By assuming the authority of higher beings, priests and princes were able to suppress dissent without constant recourse to military terrorism. The more successful leaders realized that internal legal harmonization bought significant advantages, and most judicial systems are religiously inspired. Both English Common law and Roman Codex systems exeunt across Europe used to presume that 'all law is known to God' and the law court is merely a forum in which we lesser beings might 'discover the mind of God. Since 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has guided most western judiciaries. The British monarch is still enthroned "By the grace of God, Defender of the Faith" and British coins bear the legend "Deo Gratia, Fid Def" around the royal image as a constant reminder to British subjects of this divine providence!
Some people have argued for a strong religious influence on the workings of modern governments while others have detected little for no religious influence at all. Nations throughout the world have differed widely in terms of their ideas of religion and its place in the state. Some of these nations have failed while others have produced notable success, but religious influences in choosing the system of governance can usually be traced back to one of three central political philosophers.
The ideologies of John Calvin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Joseph Priestley all are similar in some aspects, but an area in which they differ is in their notions of the proper role of religion in 'westernized' (non theocratic or liberal) societies.
John Calvin was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation (circa 1520) who insisted that the church be free from political interference. While he expected government officials to be Godly men he would allow them nothing to do with a theocracy.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a major philosopher, writer, and composer of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of modern political and educational thought. His work has been widely quoted as one of the pillars of early political theory, and his positions on religion and the social contract influenced many of the more modern political thinkers to follow.
Joseph Priestley was an 18th-century British theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, educator, and political theorist who published over 150 works and is also credited with the discovery of oxygen. His arguments against state interference in religion are still very widely followed in today’s world as it is one of the founding doctrines upon which the basis for the United States’ policy of the formal separation of church and state is grounded.
As can be seen when analyzing the works of these men, their general attitudes towards a central, public religion evolves with time. Calvin, the earliest of the three, champions religion as a powerful, governing institution. Rousseau, who came nearly 200 years later, took a more middle of the road approach in discussing the topic. And Priestley, who followed Rousseau, took an approach nearly opposite of John Calvin’s design of hundreds of years before. As debate on the role of Religion is still raging today, it is valuable to look at each proposal to try and reevaluate the philosophies of each man to fully understand how and why religion evolved over the years in terms of its political significance.
Born in 1509 to upper middle class parents in France, Calvin became one of the most influential figures in the Reformation era. He was heavily influenced by humanist movements of his time as could be seen in his establishment of the church of Geneva in 1535. After serving for three years at a church for French Huguenots in Strasbourg due to being exiled from Geneva, Calvin returned to impose a strict moral code on the citizens of Geneva based on his literal, extreme interpretations of the bible. He set up a moral censorship complete with spies and confidants, and also made governmental decisions the role of the Clergy. Calvin established four categories of governmental offices, all with a clerical influence. These offices consisted of Doctors, Pastors, Deacons, and Elders, all of which held power over the actions of the citizens both in religious and public aspects of their lives. Calvin’s theocratic rule served as one of the earliest attempts to unite the government of man with the government of God, a point Calvin stresses earnestly in his piece On Civil Government.
On Civil Government
In this work, Calvin outlines his ideas on how government and religion should interrelate. He also reinforces and commits to paper the austere ethics he holds as central to the civic and religious life that he constructed in Geneva. Although Calvin writes that the laws of religion are to be held higher than the laws of society, he clarifies that there is a place for both in the state. He furthers this notion by saying that these two law-making bodies are not in opposition to one another, but in a way work together, the government of religion picking up where the government of man fails as long as the public authority does not use its laws to pollute Christianity. When speaking of the magistracy is his Geneva government as aforementioned, Calvin writes that leaders should focus on divinity and worship above all else, then look to apply theses religious aspects to upholding the law of man. With such direction, it can be seen that John Calvin was a staunch supporter of the government and government officials looking to religion as a basis and example of how to properly govern a state. This view was not an uncommon one at the time, meaning Calvin’s philosophy was in part a product of the era in which he lived.
Born in 1712, Rousseau spent most of his childhood with his Aunts and in an apprenticeship as an engraver. He studied in Paris and joined the likes of Voltaire and Diderot to pursue writing, poetry, and opera. In 1750, Rousseau published his first discourse, bringing his work to the rest of the world. Rousseau followed this with many other pieces, including the influential The Social Contract. He also did some important work regarding the concept of inequality among men as outlined in his second discourse published four years after his first. He distinguished between natural inequalities as opposed to political inequalities, recognizing how they differ as well as how they relate. By the time of his death in 1778, Rousseau had written on many topics such as the arts, the enlightenment, and sovereignty, making him one of the foremost political theorists in the world.
The Social Contract
Rousseau touches on the issue of civil religion towards the end of his piece. He takes a more moderate position in regards to the role of religion in government, distinguishing between three “types” of religion. The first, he writes, is the religion of man which is a sort of personal religion involving only the individual and god or the divine. As related to Calvin, this view of spirituality is much more progressive. The second type of religion Rousseau describes is that of the religion of the citizen. This is the state/public religion and is more of an institution that combines the interests of the state and the religion itself. Rousseau writes that such an institution may breed corruption as well as intolerance for the religions and cultures of other nations and governments. The last type is religion based in the style of the catholic church, in which two sets of laws are made, one for religious purposes and one for civil purposes. Rousseau condemns this type in the style of the Catholic church and instead offers a compromise between the first two types listed. He writes that the people of the state should be free to worship in whatever manner they want as long as it does not affect the well-being of others; but also states that these citizens must pledge allegiance to a central religion that upholds the basic guidelines for a just state. In this way Rousseau falls into the middle by taking some Calvinist aspects (i.e. the state/civil religion), as well as some more progressive aspects (i.e. religious freedom) of religion and its role in governance. This idea of individual religious tolerance was later expanded upon by Joseph Priestley.
Joseph Priestley was born in 1733 outside of Leeds in England. Today, he is known more for his endeavors in the physical sciences (namely chemistry), but also provided many influential writings on philosophy, education, politics, economics, and theology. In the Revolutionary period, Priestley was a supporter of the U.S. colonies uprising from England, writing of the injustices levied upon the colonists by the British in his piece The Present State of Liberty. He later moved to America, setting up a colony for English Dissenters near Philadelphia with the help of his son and friend Thomas Cooper. He continued to influence American political policy and religion until his death in 1804.
First Principles of Government
In this work, Priestley discusses the issue of religious liberty and toleration in section five towards the middle of the piece. Essentially, Priestley argues that societies that have enjoyed the most success are those that have not interfered with or tried to establish religion. He writes that religion should be as free as the air we breathe, and should not be regulated or enforced in any way by the central government. In order to promote truth and the progression of the state, Priestley advocates toleration towards all religions and sects in the eyes of the government as long as they promote the common good. This sentiment is reflected in many areas of society in his writings due to the fact that his greatest concern for the state was the freedom and well-being of the citizens as individuals. Priestley’s political influence is apparent in the U.S. still today, even though he isn’t widely quoted as being one of the main contributors to American political policy.
As can be seen from viewing the lives and philosophical and political writings of these three men, their views on religion and its role in the state as an institution changes with time. In Calvin’s era, the majority of the nations that surrounded him generally acted as hierarchical theocracies, which in his opinion worked best. Rousseau lived during a transitional period in Europe, and this is reflected strongly in his many contributions to the theory of politics. Priestley, the most modern of the three, lived through the Enlightenment Revolution and witnessed firsthand the negative effects that religion can have on a nation's ability to legitimize the suppression of intellectual exploration and authorize bloody war in pursuit of worldly wealth and power.
Priestley’s writings are still for the most part influential in regulating how the United States handles religion, but the line dividing the institutions of religion and government is becoming more and more blurred as states take on some formerly 'religious' social obligations and religions construct non-government organizations (NGOs) to both provide relieg welfare and promulgate their religious views.
Whether this is a positive or negative depends on one’s personal beliefs, but the reemergence of religion as a powerful political tool cannot be denied, especially in English speaking regions, when American and British leaders often feel obliged to conform to some form conventional religious doctrine and perform regular acts of worship publicly.
Both George Bush and Tony Blair paraded their ostensibly deep religious convictions, but saw no disgrace in earning the outright condemnation of the United Nations General Assembly nor shame in their use of religious propaganda which suited their purpose, nor eventually with their unleashing of war upon oil-rich Iraq.
Similarly, supposedly devout Muslim clerics routinely order political assassinations and attempt to overthrow legitimate governments and install brutal, quasi-religious theocracies.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and its daughter conventions) is far from perfect, but it is perhaps a 'neutral' foundation forged in deadly warfare on which we might usefully build a better multi-cultural civilisation?