Revisiting the Cult of the Supreme Being

Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre may provide a model for the relationship between church and state in an emancipated society.

The Festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being in 1794. Wikimedia Commons

The relationship between church and state is no easy affair. In the United States, the Right has long rallied under the banner of religious freedom — claiming a divine right to defy federal law — while in France, controversy over the proscription of the hijab persists. But instead of looking to pluralism and neutrality to resolve these issues — as liberals are wont to do — the tradition of Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre provides a promising alternative for positive conceptions of the good in civic life.

Instead of the liberal doctrine of the separation between church and state, these figures promoted the institutionalization of a secular morality to strengthen popular sovereignty and combat injustice. They all addressed oppression and social alienation in contrast to the elitist “New Atheist” approach of directly attacking the religious beliefs of the poor and the marginalized as a political solution.

For Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre, the active role the sovereign authority played in religion meant the promotion of specific forms of ethical conduct, while tolerating religions and creeds that were in harmony with those ethical forms.

The recent controversy around Kim Davis illustrates some of the problems involved in questions of the separation of church and state. In her capacity as a legal clerk for Rowan County Kentucky, Davis defied federal law by refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples and spent five days in prison as a result. Davis cited her Christian faith as the reason for her actions: “It is not a light issue for me. It is a heaven or hell decision.”

For many on the Left, this is an open and shut case of a legal official dissolving the boundary between church and state, a boundary that should never be weakened or tampered with. But many conservatives disagree, arguing that faith can legitimately motivate a person’s politics.

They say if a liberal society is truly committed to the pluralism of different viewpoints — with the state itself acting as a neutral party — then there is no reason why their faith should not help determine public policy. Moreover, to maintain true pluralism, public authority must not play a constitutive role and instead must accede or make room for private interests, even if they happen to be clerical and anti-liberal ones.

The Right’s defense of Davis raises thorny questions about the separation between church and state. In the United States, the division is seen as a cornerstone of democracy and the Constitution, but it is not without its ambiguities. Indeed, whether an action or institution is a legitimate expression of established religion is ultimately a matter of taxation, with the Internal Revenue Service playing the role of adjudicator.

But what if the sovereign authority had a greater influence on the role religion plays in the public sphere in establishing something like a civic creed? What if political authority ceased to be neutral, an empty placeholder of competing conceptions of the good, and instead helps to shape public displays of religion as part of its politics?

As Spinoza put it, “Religion acquires its force as law solely from the decrees of the sovereign. God has no special kingdom among men except insofar as He reigns through temporal rulers.” Inner piety for Spinoza, or private belief, was not something the sovereign authority could interfere with, but questions of how religion plays a role in the public square (or what Spinoza calls “outer piety”) is a matter for the sovereign authority.

For instance, it is not up to the Catholic Church to decide what their hospital employees receive as insurance options for reproductive health. Insofar as they are operating a hospital open to the public, this is a secular and not a religious issue.

Spinoza is usually seen as a liberal on religious and philosophical matters, and he was. In order to counter the theocratic tendencies Calvinism represented, Spinoza proposed a liberal national civic religion that would include all subjects. The liberal norms of the state would be enforced by a public cult promoting an ideology of “justice and charity,” which meant the practice of solidarity and love of our neighbors.

For Spinoza, this love was a manifestation of the love of a rational universe we all participate in, and thus he grounded his public cult in his broader pantheistic metaphysics. But regardless of Spinoza’s own ideas concerning God and the universe, as long as religions were in accord with the percepts of the public cult, they would be tolerated and supported by the state, and could practice their faiths freely. Spinoza’s idea for a civic religion also anticipated another conception of a national religion, as instituted by Maximillian Robespierre during the French Revolution.

Amid violence and bloodletting, Robespierre and his fellow Jacobin deputies instituted the Cult of the Supreme Being to spiritually and morally unite the nation. As a national religion it was deistic in form but secular in action, laying out the principles for political virtue that would help educate the people and preserve the French Republic.

The Cult of the Supreme Being was established in May 1794, with the decree for the Worship of the Supreme Being affirming that

  • The French People recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul
  • They declare that the best service of the Supreme Being is the practice of the duties of man.
  • It considers that the most important of these duties are: to detest bad faith and despotism, to punish tyrants and traitors, to assist the unfortunate, to respect the weak, to defend the oppressed, to do all the good one can to one’s neighbor, and to behave with justice towards all men.

Rousseau was Robespierre’s direct inspiration for the idea of a republican civic religion, but scholars such as Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt emphasize the Spinozistic impulses behind Rousseau’s and Robespierre’s ideas. For both Spinoza and Rousseau, the idea of civic religion was to be a political and a moral institution; something not just for worship, but for shaping political belief as well.

The Cult of the Supreme Being was not merely a system instituted on a political whim. There was also a practical reason for Robespierre and his colleagues’ establishment of a national religion: to promote unity between the various republican factions of the nation after so much internecine strife, and to stop the antagonism against religious peasants instigated by previous campaigns of de-Christianization. Such atheistic campaigns threatened the political hegemony the Jacobins achieved in uniting town and country.

Robespierre had a deistic aversion to atheism, but he was practically opposed to the de-Christianizers who wanted to resolve political contradictions through one-sided ideological warfare. Robespierre’s main opponent in this struggle was the radical journalist Jacques Hébert, who called on the French people to exterminate Christianity root and branch.

Robespierre’s position on religion holds important lessons for the Left today. To wage war against Christianity or religion as abstractions, instead of attacking the more mundane sources of alienation and oppression, is politically foolish. There is nothing inherently progressive or revolutionary about being an atheist, since atheism in itself is not a positive basis for politics.

Indeed, it can turn elitist and reactionary if it considers fighting religious belief more important than fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Ayn Rand and New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are perfect testaments to atheism in the service of virulent reaction.

The destructive and nihilistic tendencies of the Hébertists, who were hell-bent on stomping out religion, evoked Robespierre’s indignation. As he argued to the Jacobin Club,

I see only one way of reviving fanaticism among us: it is to affect to believe in its power . . . Priests have been denounced for saying the Mass. They will continue to do so all the longer if you try to prevent them. He who wants to prevent them is more fanatical than the priest himself.

The current debates about the display of the hijab in France have echoes in the country’s revolutionary past. For instance, in a Hébertist decree, it was stated, “Under penalty of imprisonment, it is forbidden to ministers and priests to appear with their costumes anywhere but in their temples.” The republicans who oppose wearing the hijab in French schools today can trace their heritage back to these policies.

But it seems unlikely that Robespierre would have much sympathy for the secular motivations to ban the hijab, any more than he would have sympathy for prohibiting other forms of religious expression. Robespierre was more committed to justice and the oppressed than to mere fidelity to the secular state. Hence his statement that “atheism is aristocratic, whereas belief in a Supreme Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes the crimes of the oppressor is popular.”

As Nesbitt argues, “[Robespierre] saw atheism not as false, but as a luxury of a privileged bourgeois and aristocratic education and habitus.” The real goal was to establish true popular sovereignty, and that meant respecting the existing religious preferences of the people. For Robespierre, those who hated religion with such ferocity masked their own aristocratic and bourgeois contempt for the poor.

In this respect, Robespierre’s new civic religion was designed to preserve the republic; the new religion was viewed as the last chance to rejuvenate the spiritual energies of the French nation, and Robespierre presented the religion to the nation in an inaugural ceremony and festival on the twentieth Prairial (June 8).

The Paris festival was choreographed by Jacques-Louis David and was attended by thronging crowds, attesting to the fact that Robespierre was responding to national needs. The ceremony began with a speech from Robespierre and the burning of effigies of Nothing and Atheism, revealing behind them a statue of Wisdom. There was even a statue of Hercules installed to represent the strength of the people.

More festivals were planned for the nation to honor the Supreme Being and the people of France. The fifth article of the declaration, cited above, names festivals to be held “after the glorious events of the Revolution, the virtues of which are most dear to men, and most useful, and the chief blessings of nature.” In his biography of Robespierre, George Rudé lists those events as the fall of the Bastille, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the expulsion of Girondins from the Convention. The virtues and chief blessings of nature were

numbered three dozen, one for each decadi, and ranged over a rich variety of items, including patriotism, the Republic, the hatred of tyrants and traitors, friendship, love, conjugal fidelity, mother-love, filial piety and the benefactors of mankind.

Robespierre declared that his fellow deputies and citizens “abandon the priests and return to God.” Public morality was to be equipped with a metaphysical basis, established on “eternal and sacred truths.” The public religion would help to inspire in people “that religious respect for man, that profound sense of his duties, which is the guarantee of social happiness.”

For Robespierre, these festivals displayed “the joy of a great people, gathered together beneath his [the Supreme Being’s] eyes in order to draw close the sweet bonds of universal brotherhood and offer him the homage of pure and feeling hearts.”

The civic religion was ostensibly deist, but it left open some room for interpreting what the nature of the Supreme Being was. Robespierre interpreted it deistically: “The author of nature ties together all mortals in an immense chain of love and felicity.” But Robespierre also could invoke nature as a power itself: “Let nature take on again its entire éclat and wisdom all its empire. The Supreme Being is not obliterated.” Occasionally, he even sounded pantheistic: “The real priest of the Supreme Being is Nature; his temple, the universe; his worship, virtue.”

Robespierre’s colleagues had latitude in interpreting what the Supreme Being meant. Jean Jaures, who wrote a socialist history of the French Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century, reported one Jacobin, Laveaux, as “confusing” the God of the civic religion with nature.

But such “confusion” was arguably built into Robespierre’s own speeches and declarations, and what is interesting about Jaures’s discussion of the Cult of the Supreme Being is how he defends the need for a metaphysics of progressive politics (and for socialism in particular) without having to accept Robespierre’s specific preference for deism:

Perhaps if socialism had arrived at a clear idea and a clear and profound self-awareness, it would have objected that the God external and superior to the world invoked by Robespierre to fulfill and put right human justice shattered human solidarity in space and time . . . But communism didn’t yet have its formula and it hadn’t been able to fashion a metaphysics of the world.

All of Robespierre’s efforts to heal the rifts of the nation around a new civic religion were too late. Only a month after the ceremony for the Supreme Being, he fell from power. At the time of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the Jacobin Mountain itself was divided between “pure” and “corrupt” factions, with the latter thinking Robespierre’s civic religion was a complete joke, or worse, that Robespierre was auditioning for the role of Pontiff. Their cynical mockery and contempt for Robespierre’s earnestness contained the seeds for turning back all the popular gains the Jacobins had made up to this point.

The men of Thermidor sealed Robespierre’s fate, and sent him and his supporters to the guillotine. In Robespierre’s wake, the Directory replaced the Convention, and safeguarded the narrow property interests of the rich at the expense of the popular interests of the French plebs and sans-culottes.

Robespierre’s civic religion died with him, but that doesn’t mean the problems Robespierre had to confront are over. Whether it’s a question of the religious right’s clerical hold over the political process, or an ideological chauvinism that hides behind the banners of Enlightenment and Reason, the relationship between church and state is still an important question.

But while contemporary liberalism lacks the resources to resolve the theologico-political dilemma it faces, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre may provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.

What we can learn from these figures is not so much the need to institute a new religion, but a very secular lesson about the relationship of belief and popular power. The lesson encompasses the philosophical and moral dimensions of our politics, or how such a morality can be organized to promote the struggles of the oppressed while respecting and tolerating religious beliefs.

From the standpoint of politics, what is more important than religious faiths and beliefs is the progressive content of such beliefs, or what Spinoza called the universally true religion of “justice and charity.”