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Representative Interpretations

In two centuries of history writing, perhaps the most contentious aspect of the history of the French Revolution is the domain of explanations concerning the conflict of the Revolution with the church and religion. Not only are the explanations sharply divergent as far as conclusions and interpretive terms are concerned, but, more importantly, the explanatory schemata are not even coextensive. Some of the pertinent theses regard the relationship of the consecutively dominant revolutionary groups to the church and to the "religious issue" as an interconnected and continuous process, a relationship that gradually developed or degenerated from mutually tension-laden but earnest attempts at cooperation into terror and civil war. For others, there is absolutely no connection between the fiasco of the efforts to reform the church by the new nation-state on the one hand, and the new revolutionary cult of the Supreme Being on the other.

Given the primarily political character of the issue, conspiracy theories quickly surfaced on both the right and the left. In the very period of the revolutionary storm, the famous Abbé Barruel set the dominant tone[1] for the two-centuries-long debate by flatly denouncing the gloomy drama as the end result of the plot of the philosophes, the freemasons, the men of the Enlightenment. Although over the next century, research methods matured from mere puerile accusations to academically respectable techniques, ultramontanism even in de la Gorce's magisterial work[2] remained fundamentally committed to the thesis of a premeditated and orchestrated leftist conspiracy. In the nineteenth-century republican narratives written in the style of Hugo, the similarly dubious story of a "counterconspiracy" of priest and nobleman in


alliance with the barbarously ignorant and bigoted peasant of the bocage , inevitably emerged.[3]

An incomparably more serious approach, one which constitutes a venerable tradition of interpretations from Madame de Staël to Jean Jaurès[4] and which is still present on the academic scene,[5] detects dilemmas where others only discover sheer manipulation, ill will, and factional spirit. These mention mistakes, sometimes of tragic magnitude, instead of deviously hatched plots. However, the different versions of this type of theory have one problematic feature in common: they are atomistic readings of the religious drama of the Revolution, a drama that has a thoroughly interconnected plot, a tightly interwoven texture, and a continuous structure.

Edgar Quinet,[6] the representative theorist of a third schema, refers to the "missed historical opportunity" of the alliance between religious and secular democracy. With certain modifications, his theory is an organic continuation, as well as a revision, of the aspirations and illusions of Le cercle social of Fauchet, Grégoire, and Bonneville. This debating club of the most democratic stream of the future Église constitutionnelle tried to create a new and plebeian Catholicism, and, so at least its founders believed, it was destined to become the religious center of the Revolution.[7] Quinet expands the confused overtures of Le cercle social into a world history of radical Christianity.

Aulard misreads Quinet's position as one recommending Protestantism for a panacea to the French Revolution.[8] In fact, Quinet interprets the story of Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) as humanity's great "novel of education" to political democracy. According to Quinet, the genuine spirit of Christianity had resided not in the papacy but in the councils, the "hermeneutical conventions" of equals who had, beyond the work of the free interpretation of the text, created the first system of a representative spiritual government.[9] The devastating inroads of the barbarians were needed to erode Christian democracy and to usher in, with the pope as an adequate primus inter pares , centuries of a degenerate aristocratic rule over the Church of Christ which were also long periods of a total religious decay.[10] But the "eighteenth of Brumaire" of Gregory VII, this revolutionary absolute monarch, overthrew the rule of a dissolute oligarchy and, in putting "morals on the order of the day" and demanding that popes should become saints, guided Christianity into a "social pact" with the world.[11]

The results of Gregory's revolutionary coup were in turn dissipated by both Catholic and Protestant church bureaucracies. It could have been one more powerful reason for the French Revolution, the this-worldly heir of Christian democracy, to assist the slender but surviving forces of democratic Christianity instead of tinkering with the bureaucratic rebuilding of the old edifice. The tragedy in the event was due to the historical circumstance that France was the only major country that lived its political revolution prior to


its religious revolution.[12] Therefore the spirit of the Revolution, despite the secular language, remained deeply Jesuitic and inquisitional in its vituperative rhetoric and coercive measures against both the old and new Gallican church. The great historical opportunity of an alliance between secular and religious democracy was thus missed.

Without doubt, Quinet's story is one of the representative grand narratives of the conflict between the (official and oppositional) church and the Revolution, and it is one recounted with great persuasive force and verve. However, the premise, the reconcilability of church democracy and the democratic nation-state as equal political partners, is, in my view, a premodern conception, and one that has been correctly criticized by H. Maier.[13]

The most celebrated debate in French historiography on the conflict between the old and new church and the Revolution, on the character and appraisal of both the dechristianizing movement and the Cult of the Supreme Being, is the Aulard—Mathiez controversy.[14] Despite the clamor of the mêlée, the factual disagreements between these doyens of revolutionary historiography are minimal, although their evaluations of the story are sharply divergent. In addition, neither side draws the philosophical consequences of their own respective positions. In his early, major book on the issue, Aulard indeed believed that dechristianization as a popular movement had started only with the Jacobin dictatorship, that it had had hardly any antecedents, and that it had taken but very slender roots. Mathiez, in contrast, spotted the beginnings of the movement already in the 1790 Feast of the Federation. He also marshaled considerable supporting evidence of a ceremonial and ritual culture that grew out of the Revolution and outside of the church, one that became a competition to both refractory and constitutional Catholicism. This new ritual served as the basis and the raw material for the popular movement of dechristianization and the Cult of Reason or (and this was in Mathiez's opinion a mere change of name) the Cult of the Supreme Being. However, Aulard frankly admits in his later book on the same issue that he had initially underestimated the deep religious indifference of the French (above all the peasant) masses. Thus their factual statements, if not their assessments, drew considerably nearer. At the same time, Mathiez ought to have made a philosophical argument to prove his major point, namely, the identical character of the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, since this is a theoretical and not an archival issue. And what is the most painful feature of this famous, tumultuous, but in the last analysis not particularly rewarding controversy, is the fact that neither Aulard's comprehensive books, which cover the whole story, nor Mathiez's writings on the issue provide an integral theory of the conflict between the church and the Revolution.

The postwar research on this classic topic has been characterized by a


revealing ambivalence. On the one hand, the impetus given to historiography by social and cultural anthropology and by the Annales movement has yielded significant results in exploring the subterranean world of popular religious imagination and habits and the survival of pre-Christian rites and their transformation in the revolutionary storm. Beyond providing a wealth of data, this has enriched us with new insights.[15] On the other hand, we face a telling lacuna whenever we try to address the revolutionary policies on the church and religion on the basis of more recent narratives.[16] This time, the cause of the silence is not embarrassment in the teeth of a "delicate" problem, but rather universal ennui. The postwar world of technological and social rationalization seems to be convinced that both fanatical and quasireligious anticlericalism as well as a redemptive politics with its revolutionary substitutes for transcendental beliefs belong irretrievably in a vanished world.

This chapter is based on a diametrically opposed conviction. The writer believes that the fiasco of the revolutionary reform of the Gallican church and the story of the subsequent reaction, of the attempts to create a revolutionary religion in an all-out critique of political reason, together write a drama in two acts, the second act of which cannot be understood without the first. They together recount a paradigmatic fable about the dogmatic fury of rationalization and secularization in the early days of what seemed to be the ultimate victory of the Enlightenment, about its necessary fiasco, about the backlashes of an overzealous rationalization, and about the limits of political secularization.

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