Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.

Nine The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political

The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political

Ferenc Fehér

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.

The Fury of Rationalization and the Revolutionary Fiasco

One of the very few consensually shared opinions by historians of the French Revolution is that the Gallican church was ripe for reform on the eve of the Revolution and that this was a widely held goal at the end of the Old Regime both within and outside the church.[17] The historians' general perception of the near-universal recognition of the need for rationalization in the age may create the illusion that it was an easy task. In fact, as the Revolution had to learn very soon, and at a heavy price, rationalization is not a homogeneous term but an umbrella word. In the mouth of the advocates of the internal reform of the church, the term meant streamlining, modernization. In the interpretation of the philosophes and their political successors, it simply implied the application of the uniform principles of reason to society as a whole and therefore, by implication, also to the affairs of the church. The homogeneity and uniformity of the catchword "rationalization" was a common but dangerous illusion of the prerevolutionary Enlightenment. The


stumbling blocks involved in the issue can be identified in very simple questions: What kind of rationalization, uniform or sphere-specific? Rationalization by whom? And, finally, Rationalization on behalf of whom?

Once these questions are posed, the almost inextricable complexity of the situation that had developed already before the Revolution[18] becomes apparent. For almost two centuries a trend had been emanating from the court "to rationalize" the inherent contradictions of Gallicanism on its own behalf. After eliminating the authority of Rome, the monarchs also intended to destroy the representative system of the church as a competitive political authority within the absolutist rule.[19] Absolute princes could not be satisfied even with the decaying representative system that was reigning supreme within the church, in part because it was a bastion against royal inroads and in part because it could have served as a dangerous example. Nor could they ever accept the claim of the church to maintain an independent legal system parallel to their jurisdiction. The much discussed issue of appel comme d'abus , a common device of the court and parlements against the church, is telling proof of this incessant and irreconcilable conflict of parallel legal systems.[20] The "royal rationalization" of the church was therefore a strong option. At the same time, however, it was never implemented, nor even seriously attempted, and for good reason. Without the sanction of an independent, authoritative, and wholly spiritual power, the absolute monarchy would have been reduced in the eyes of an ever more influential public opinion into common tyranny or oriental despotism.[21]

The attempts on the part of the parlements to rationalize the church were even more self-contradictory. Their famous and much discussed "egoism" was not a moral but a sociological category. The parlements constituted a professional corporation within the system of Estates. And a corporation cannot reform another corporation under the sign of universalistic claims notwithstanding the high degree of formal rationality of the parlements' demand for a unified legal system. The victory of the parlements would have resulted either in the total monopoly of a legal aristocracy over the legislature and the administration of justice or in the further strengthening of the absolute rule of the prince.

"Society," or "the public opinion," an entity that until the Revolution had no sociologically perceivable body, regularly proposed its own versions of rationalization for the whole social world, including the clergy. Philosophical theses (of "tolerance," of an education based on "reason" and not "prejudice," of civil or natural religions) were widely advertised. Bereft of public forums of deliberation, however, the future liberal and radical actors of the revolutionary assemblies, who were to have a prominent role in shaping the church policies of the Constituent Assembly, had no opportunity to conduct discussions on the future political options of the sweeping reform of the church. The frequent statements of historians concerning the total unpre-


paredness of the revolutionary politicians for dealing with this enormous task merely describe the result of precisely this political lacuna.

Future reformers and revolutionaries frequently boasted about the "supreme rationality" of their ideas. But in fact, they were of the worst schools of rationality. They were imbued with the dominant spirit of étatisme . As a considerable contingent of them (Treilhard, Durand de Maillane, Martineau) had served as legal experts in the parlements, they brought a badly needed expertise on the issue of the clergy into the revolutionary legislation. This expertise, however, was at the same time inextricably interwoven with factionalism and the spirit of tit-for-tat. Some others, for example Camus and Lanjuinais were either surviving vestiges of a long-suppressed Jansenism, Protestants like Barnave, or professed libertines like Mirabeau. Their masterplans of rationalization could, at least, be suspected by friend and foe alike of being less than an expression of impartial justice and coolly inquisitive reason.[22] Beyond this far-from-negligible moral consideration, the future experts on church issues for the Revolution never even explored the following fundamental issues, without which no blueprint could be termed rational. First, what status were they going to grant to the church: that of a reformed corporation, a separate and independent association, or a state agency? Second, it was a foregone conclusion of some, and the increasingly prevailing option of others, not to declare even a reformed Catholicism as the national religion. But were they not thus undermining Gallicanism and opening the door to the influence of Rome from which no radical social transformation could expect beneficial results? Third, if they were to reduce the church to the role of a state agency without integrating its dogma into the founding principles of the state, could the result of this decision be anything but the creation of a rebellious servant rather than a useful spiritual arm of the state?

Paradoxically, the drive for reform within the church was motivated by the very fact that the church was the best-organized and the most streamlined of all three Estates. The need for reform grew out of the needs of an already existing but defective internal rationalization, not from the total absence of systemic rationality. The church had a representative "political" system of its own, one that could be termed an aristocratic parliamentary republic within an absolute monarchy. It had its own judiciary system, which, though constantly threatened by the court and the parlements, was powerful enough within its own walls. While enjoying exemption from taxation and making only "voluntary contributions" to the royal budget, it had its own enormous wealth and system of taxation. The church employed huge and separate bodies of (political, fiscal, theological, and educational) bureaucracies and, although submitting to the political hegemony of the court, it enjoyed a virtual independence from Rome and had a political representation in the court as well as a wide influence over secular affairs.

At the same time, the whole elaborate and highly rationalized system suf-


fered from maladies that were surprisingly similar to those of the Ancien Régime as a whole. As a result of exactly the same principles of selection and appointment, the caste of the prelates became an aristocratic network to the same degree as did the clique of commanding officers in the royal army. The church went through the same process of unstoppable and irreversible fiscal crisis as the court, and basically for the same reasons (the luxury of the upper layers combined with the structural impossibility of financial modernization). The church also had its own rebellious Third Estate, the curés, the priestly democracy with their strong "Richerist" ideology, Christian egalitarianism, gestures of defection, and explicit political demands for the democratization of the "parliamentarianism" of the church.[23]

The modernizers of the church, who lent moderate support to rationalization both internally and to "society at large," were suffering from the same delusions as their secular counterparts when they assumed harmony between the various options of rationalization. From a sweeping rationalization of France as a whole, they could only expect to lose, not gain. For at least one consequence of a general rationalization must have been predictable: the demise of the Gallican church as an independent and impenetrable corporation. Furthermore, there were different and conflicting strategies of rationalization—modernization even within the church. What seemed rational for the haute clergé meant the betrayal of the interests of the Richerist curés and vice versa; the Richerist dreams of a renewal of the church on the bases of a primordial, poor but moral Christianity, was for the episcopal aristocracy tantamount to a total abandonment of the institutional past and present of the church, and thus not only treason but also total irrationality. Clearly, each and every scenario of rationalization was on a collision course with each and every other.

It is common knowledge that within a year after the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the rationalizing program of the Third Estate transpired as victorious and irrevocable, literally wiping out all other alternative approaches to rationalization. The confiscation of the wealth of the church and the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Gallican church comprised everything the political elite of the Third Estate was to say and legislate on the issue. And once the Constituent Assembly confiscated the wealth of the clergy, it practically excluded both options of an intrachurch rationalization. Only two alternatives remained: the separation of the church, no longer an Estate, from the state, that is, "laicization" or the merger of the church and the state; that is, the reduction of the new church to the rank of a state agency.

When the Civil Constitution decided in favor of the second option, this fundamental document transformed priests into state agents, the Gallican church into a clergé salariée . It brought greater social equality into the church by considerably raising the income of the curés and allocating to the episco-


pate salaries that, though high, no longer provided for a lifestyle comparable to the aristocratic luxury of prelates under the old regime. The Civil Constitution imposed a kind of work discipline on the clergy which was in harmony with their new identity as fonctionnaries . It demanded "job training" and the introduction of meritocratic principles in ecclesiastic appointments. It solved the internal fiscal problems of the church in the most radical fashion: the once enormously rich corporation ceased to be an independent economic unit.

A great rationalizer of the territorial organization of France, the Constituent Assembly also drastically reorganized the dioceses, transforming them into units basically coextensive with the new départements . Thousands of church positions were either abolished outright or slated for extinction once the incumbents died or retired. An overwhelming majority of religious corps and orders of century-long standing were dismantled overnight as ones not fulfilling a "socially useful" function. The ultimate act was the formal destruction of the internal parliamentarism of the church together with its separate corporative legislation. Once all internal political mechanisms of the church, including the councils or church assemblies, had been abolished, it seemed perfectly "logical" to the Comité Ecclésiastique , as well as to the majority of the Constituent Assembly, that the priests of the Catholic church should be elected by the citoyens actifs irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, as well as of their denominational affiliation. Finally, the Civil Constitution completed the work of centuries of Gallicanism in a form absolute monarchs had never expected and church leaders had never wanted. It severed all relations between the Church of France and Rome apart from the empty gesture of recognizing the pope as the "visible head" of Catholic Christianity.[24]

Despite the deserved ill-reputation of the church policies of the Revolution, it would be unfair to describe the Civil Constitution as merely a document of doctrinaires. On several points, the drafters were backed sometimes by the majority, sometimes by a considerable minority of the cahiers ,[25] and, above all, they were propelled by their own firm principles of a general and uniform social rationalization. Their first principle was that the emancipation of "society," which was for them tantamount to making the Third Estate general, be dependent on the political homogenization of the "national body." They were equally convinced, and on this point posterity has never questioned them, that the abolition of the prerogatives of the church (its position as a corporate feudal landlord, its exemption from taxation, its special system of jurisdiction and administering justice) was a precondition of transforming the confused network of privileges into the homogeneous system of universal rights. Finally, it was also self-evident to them that rationalization equaled modernization and that the latter was tantamount to functionalism . Defining a function as socially useful was naturally a public issue


pertaining to the competence of the sole authority in which the national will was invested: the Constituent Assembly. Generally jealous of associations, it never occurred to these radical rationalizers that an association may have either the authority or the competence to define its functional utility within its own borders.

From this dogmatic belief in the necessary homogeneity of ratio , a tyrannical spirit in the church policies of the Revolution immediately transpired. Together with the estate or corporation, they also abolished the association, a framework in which "society" could freely organize itself in various (not necessarily political) forms. By combining the system of election of church functionaries with the general political system of elections, they not only showed unmasked contempt for a millennial tradition, they also demonstrated that, for them, the new agency could only serve political purposes. As a result of this gesture alone, the church, reformed or unreformed, lost its raison d'être. It was therefore more than a passionate polemical invective, but indeed the truth of the matter that Camus, a Jansenist, threw down as a gauntlet in front of the reluctant or oppositional members of church representatives in the Constituent Assembly: a sovereign (i.e., the nation) not only can give orders to a religious agency, it can also change the religion of a nation by decree.[26]

"Rationalist fanaticism" crowned its work with the famous issue of imposing the obligation of an oath on the clergy. There is no point in rehashing here this well-known episode that made the breach between the church and the Revolution final. The important aspect is its overtly tyrannical and inherently absurd character. The oath, in itself a quasi-religious gesture that attested to the slowly emerging political fundamentalism of the new nationstate even before the Jacobin takeover, was imposed on Catholic priests in the name of a new sovereign, the nation. This sovereign was not Christian (it regarded itself as secular); it had refused earlier to declare Catholicism the national religion, for tactical reasons certainly, but also for reasons of principle.[27] And yet, at the same time, it felt it had a prerogative to legislate on all issues of religious doctrine.

Was the breach, at least in the early period of the conflict, reparable? In other words, was the conflict merely tactical in character, a matter of the revolutionaries' lack of prudence? The alliance of church and Revolution was undoubtedly a fact for a very short period, and sustaining this alliance seemed on the surface to be one of the feasible options. I am convinced, however, that the idea of a long-term alliance between church and Revolution was illusory right from the start, and the clash concluding in violence and terror was necessary, at least by the then-existing premises of the revolutionaries. The rift had firm roots in the very structure of the revolutionary ideology, most particularly in the idea of popular sovereignty as it then transpired.


Popular sovereignty started to emerge as a theroetical problem at the very moment it ceased to be a polemical concept used against a monarch whose existence as a sovereign could never be in doubt.[28] Arendt called it an outright tautological concept (over whom can the people be sovereign? she asked). She suspected that the term had only been preserved in order to activate occasionally the inherent totalitarian features of democracy: the oppression of a dissenting minority in the habitual fashion of sovereigns.[29] The undeniable tension in the very structure of the term stems from the fact that it had indeed retained the duality that was so brilliantly analyzed by Kantorowicz concerning the "King's two bodies." One of these bodies is natural; the other is transcendental—supernatural. The first can be the vessel of a criminal, tyrannical, or sick soul. Yet the other body is sacred in a dual sense: it is inviolable, barred from sacrilegious hands because it is annointed by God, and it is the repository of the Christian ideas inherent in sovereignty.

In the new concept of sovereignty, borrowed from the monarch by the victorious peuple , a similarly dual body of the new ruler was incarnate. The "natural part" was embodied in the empirically existing citizens and their elected agencies which together constitute the "body politic." This body had both the advantage and the disadvantage of being a body only in a metaphorical sense. It had the great pragmatic advantage of being imperishable; for example, it could not be decapitated like the king in his natural person. On the negative side, in the merely metaphoric body of the collective sovereign, its will was never unequivocal. It invariably transpired as the awkward aggregate of individual volitions and opinions which could only be summarized by a clumsy political arithmetic. In addition, the collective body politic had at least as many sources of "erroneous functioning" as the single body politic of the monarch. Le peuple could just as easily have a poor judgment in the selection of its agents and could thereby alienate its own inalienable rights just as the prince had. It could get entangled in internecine strife that made the body politic ungovernable. It could be possessed of various kinds of political furies that made it its own worst enemy, driving the citizens into the collective political hysteria of nous ne voulons pas être libres . It might easily become a menace to other collective body politics as well as the tyrant of its own dissenting minority.

For this reason, another supranatural—metaphysical body politic is needed as a principle of correction. In addition to the actual—empirical rule of the people, the idea of the popular sovereignty is necessary. It is no exaggeration to call it supranatural. It is meant to be immortal in the sense that it was not supposed to vanish even if every single member of the empirical body politic rejected it in a moment of political hysteria or if the people's representatives ruled as tyrants and banned the use of the term. Furthermore, in this metaphysical domain, the dispersion of pragmatic wills no longer presented a problem; here general will ruled and legislated.


It is small wonder, then, that the newly conceived idea of sovereignty was irreconcilable with the old Christian idea of the sovereign's supranatural body as a copy of the hierarchical character of the Christian universe. Nor is it surprising that in moments of political exaltation and "enthusiasm" (the latter was to become a key concept of Robespierrism), the new sovereign was regularly blown out of all proportion, even sacralized in the new political metaphysics. For the sacralizing of the political or the project of "redemptive politics" is inherently present in the dualistic structure of popular sovereignty, as is, of course, the idea of the constitution, an entirely rational answer to all enigmas of the "empirical body" of the collective sovereign.

The rationalizing fury of the first revolutionary wave intended to homogenize the whole social and political body under the sign of the metaphysics of la nation . It recognized no deviations (or to use the Weberian term, spheric rationalities) not only because it perceived them as so much stubborn and resistant irrationality in disguise, but also because it suspiciously sensed in them the hydra of corporatism and the relapse into the presocietal condition of estates. The rationalizers had to sanctify, and thus mystify, the new sovereign to such an extent that, by their tyrannical overrationalization, they also prepared the ground for the most irrational type of politics: the redemptive one. The end result of doctrinaire rationalization and tyrannical functionalization was the complete fiasco of the church policy of the Revolution.

The term fiasco has to be qualified in several aspects. True enough, the outcome of the clash between church and Revolution was a major disappointment on both sides; not just for the revolutionaries, but also for the counterrevolutionaries. A nationwide civil war with one side under the banner of a humiliated Catholic church never broke out. Instead, the civil war was restricted to the Vendée. In the heat of the clash, however, an irreconcilable schism between left and right was created in France which lasted for almost two centuries. Experts unanimously agree that almost until the late 1970s—early 1980s (when the pattern began to change), a Catholic vote was a rightist vote and vice versa.[30] Furthermore, the revolutionaries very soon came to realize that they had paid a heavy price in creating a state agency that was useless for them on all counts. This applied even to the "plebeian" or democratic wing of the reformed and nationalized church. The constitutional church never succeeded in embracing the majority of the believers and, instead of defusing the religious opposition, its very existence brought back the atmosphere of the religious wars in France together with the category (and the concomitant passion) of heresy. The religious schism undermined Gallicanism, the work of a long line of monarchs (which the Revolution had actually planned to bring to fruition) and brought back an unexpected protagonist absent from the French political scene for two centuries: the pope. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fury of rationalizing dogmatism activated that aspect of the new order which has been termed by Talmon


"totalitarianism in democracy" or "totalitarian democracy."[31] When Treilhard silenced the opposition during the debate on the Civil Constitution by saying that, when the sovereign deems a reform necessary, no one can oppose it,[32] it was the language of Louis XIV and of future totalitarian dictators. It reduced the citizens to the status of mere subjects.

The result of this fiasco transpired, both in the political elite and at the social bottom, in the form of a deep disillusionment with rationalization and political secularization. Tyrannical rationalization and functionalism, acting on the belief that it was crowning the venerable tradition of the Enlightenment, had created a political and spiritual vacuum that came to be filled by violent dechristianization, an anarchist scenario, and a new political religion that was an explicit critique, as well as a partial rejection, of political reason. This is why, in my view, the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being has to be understood as not merely related to the fiasco of the revolutionary church policy but also as a direct response to it.

The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Critique of Political Reason

Was the "religious revolution" a popular movement to which Robespierre, the Jacobin Club, and the Convention added nothing apart from some terminological polish and a legally binding form, or was it a manipulative campaign of the political elite? As is well known, the first is Mathiez's position (which also inherently condones the whole movement). The second, the Aulard thesis, establishes a diametrically opposed explanation. In terms of the latter, it was the ominous représentants en mission (symbolically: Fouché) who initiated the turmoil.

Both of these one-sided interpretations face several unresolvable difficulties. In the Mathiez version, the radical novelty of the Cult of the Supreme Being has disappeared. Had the whole work already been done by the anonymous activists, his own hero's philosophical efforts to introduce a "moral world revolution" would be, by implication, reduced to empty rhetoric. Nor can the vehemence of Robespierre's political campaign against at least certain contingents of the movement be accounted for on these premises. In the Aulard scenario, the popular movement, of which he was the great historian, either remains an irrelevant symptom of the general upheaval or, at the very best, is reduced to an easy excuse for the introduction of Robespierre's new state religion, the function of which remains, for Aulard, on the whole mysterious.

I propose a third approach to the issue, the methodological bases of which I have set forth in The Frozen Revolution . It is modeled on the Jacobin elite's attitude toward the policy of the maximum général . The idea of a terroristic economic policy was equally promoted by (sometimes the same) popular


activists; it was similarly expropriated and, in a modified form, declared the official policy of the dictatorship by the political elite.[33] The maximum général was a nihilist scenario precisely in the sense that it displayed an enormous destructive power without the capacity of creating anything durable. At the same time, it was a popular initiative of great strength, especially in the very power bases of the dictatorship, the Parisian districts, which suffered most from the collapse of the economic policy of the Revolution.

The power center, the Montagne, the Club of the Jacobins, and Robespierre himself, were watching the new movement with utmost suspicion and jealousy. They were convinced, in a manner similar to the famous dictum of Saint-Just, that no positive legislation on economy, on this almost natural domain within society, is possible. Even the most resolute radicals, Robespierre above all, hated anarchism. In certain aspects, they always remained statesmen of the Enlightenment who wanted to usher in the era of the rule of reason. At the same time, they shared at least one feeling with the suspicious demagogues of social turbulence: an increasing disillusionment with the supposedly self-regulatory rationality of the market. But they were not prepared to relinquish even a part of their authority. When it turned out to be impossible to control the popular thrust for maximum général with fine speeches, they expropriated the main demand of the movement, made it state policy, thoroughly transformed it, and used the modified result as a powerful weapon for, among other uses, crushing dangerous agitators. Something frighteningly similar happened in the case of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

Right from the beginning, there had indeed emerged several, and widely heterogeneous, trends and motifs on the lower echelons of the revolutionary process which prepared the ground for the final showdown. A number of eminent scholars, old and new, have proved how a system of symbols and ceremonies had been accumulating during the revolutionary events, anniversaries, and festivities from the Feast of the Federation in 1790 onward. These symbols and ceremonies were initially only instinctively profane and political, instead of religious, but they gradually paved the way for a new cult.[34] Perhaps the philosophically deepest observation concerning the sociopolitical vacuum that needed to be filled with this new cult, a crucial testimony about the strong need for a new political religion, reaches us through centuries from the most unexpected quarters: from Madame de Staël. Her premise is that "Representative monarchies cannot succeed absolute monarchies but through the change of dynasty, republics cannot succeed monarchies but through the change of religion."[35] And although her final considerations were dictated by the experience of "the socail question" after Thermidor, at least certain sections of her thought would have found unhesitant support from the man whose head fell in Thermidor and who had always been a suspicious observer of the antipatriotism of the rich. Here is the conclusion drawn from the premise:


The unique interest of people in France is to acquire a sum of available money. They act with such agitation as those on a shipwrecked vessel would grab any plank that would bring them to the shore regardless of what happens to the crew. One defies the other, and no one offers assistance . . . . There is no longer even a hypocrisy of language in personal relationships. Personal interest is so highly exalted by all sorts of fears of which it is composed that mentioning virtue, sacrifice, devotion would, in a manner of speaking, produce the effect pedantry did in other times . . . . Under the reign of the Terror a sort of passion inhered in the barbarism that was exercised. Those people were ferocious animals who satisfied their instinct rather than greedy men who offered sacrifice to their interest. Whoever commits cruel acts these days in France is solely inspired by calculating what the gamble of this or that agent of the power can be. It is better to bail out your life than defend it . . . . No one listens to reason of any kind for the issue is invariably one of selfish motives . . . am I wrong therefore to believe that we have to look for aid in the religious ideas?[36]

It is not civil religion (whose best-known champion in the French Revolution was, typically, an American, Thomas Paine) that is at issue here, but the religious underpinning of the Revolution in the face of the destructive atomization by an unrestrained free market, which erodes all republican virtues and leaves only sheer, and in bad times ferocious, egoism in the arena. The common feature in Robespierre and Madame de Staël is that they both drew a surprisingly similar conclusion from the rationalizing fiasco of political reason as well as from the new problems unleashed by the very process of the Revolution. Both gradually came to realize that tinkering with new editions of the old religion is futile. Both believed therefore that, in contrast to the mere change of the forms of monarchy, what they called the "Republic" needed a change of religion. However, both knew that the free state is in reality linked with the free market, that the citizen is also an egoistic man. Will the Republic be anything else but the constant battlefield of egoistic interests if reason, whose other name is calculation, is the sole guide? Are egoists, ordinarily full of contempt for "spiritual powers" and "higher principles," capable of sacrifice, devotion, justice? Both asked the question, and they answered it in the negative. In addition, neither believed, for different reasons, that egoistic man can be altogether eliminated from the social arena. At this point, because Robespierre added the power of the terroristic state as a restrictive—protective measure against the uncontrollable fury of unrestrained egoism, whereas de Staël remained for her entire life a passionate enemy of the Terror, their ways parted. But their dilemma remained valid for the whole lifetime of the French Revolution as well as for other revolutions and for "republics" functioning in "normal" times. Their fundamental and irreconcilable difference on "the socially useful function of the salutary terror" had the further consequence that while de Staël made efforts to devise a


new religion for the Republic, but one which operates in the private sphere, Robespierre decided that the terroristic state is the adequate locus for a "religious revolution from above."

Robespierre faced an enormously complex problem during the months the idea of a religious revolution must have gradually been taking shape in his thoughts. As a young deputy of the Constituent Assembly, he had been in the forefront of the drive for the Civil Constitution. Although, as he was to admit later, he was always a bad Catholic and influenced by a philosophy whose Protestant dimensions were not particularly hidden, he still believed that the old religion, once sufficiently broken and humiliated, could be streamlined and used by the Revolution in a subaltern position. However, his illusions totally evaporated under the impact of Vendée and the evident uselessness of the constitutional church in channeling the counterrevolutionary sentiments. When the dechristianizing movement, both in spontaneous and organized forms, emerged in late 1793-early 1794, he immediately smelled anarchism and his term of accusation was atheism .

Robespierre emphasized several times, most emphatically in his crucial speech in Floréal on the Supreme Being, that he was not a metaphysician but a statesman with philosophical intent.[37] For him, every social trend that tended to destroy the old belief without creating a new one transpired as anarchist atheism, because it created a dangerous political—spiritual vacuum that, Robespierre firmly believed, would be filled with the spirit of Vendée. This is why the genuinely atheist Cloots and the anti-Christian but religiously mystical-minded Chaumette were uniformly accused of atheism, a charge which, if erroneous on philosophical grounds, was completely consistent in terms of a terroristic logic.

Although perhaps Rousseau's thunderous invectives against the idle disbelievers, the enemies of humanity, reverberated in Robespierre's charges of atheism with counterrevolutionary intent when he committed his list of accusation to paper, the atheist—anarchist (whose epitome was the despised Fouché) appeared to him as a modern type, one not identical with the aristocratic libertine.[38] Robespierre, who hated Diderot but who was to a degree familiar with his writings, could have encountered such a specimen in Rameau's Nephew . This new type of atheist was a gambler with ideas and commitments. His republican virtue was pure affectation or hypocritical theater behind which lurked either corruption (as in the case of Fabre Églantine) or a criminal lust for power. At any rate, the haughty atheist's superhuman challenge to God and the immortality of the soul was more than the attitude of a virtuous citizen and, as such, it was suspect.

The venture of expropriating the results, channeling the destructive energies, and reshaping the options of the popular movement in the positive form of the Cult of the Supreme Being could find very few constructive elements to build on among the debris left behind by the dechristianizers. It


shows Robespierre's mettle, indeed his tyrannical genius, that he extracted from this meager material, as well as from his own amateurish philosophical erudition, the project of a religious revolution. Mathiez believes otherwise. His thesis is that Robespierre added nothing but a new name to what had already been created by anonymous militants, namely, the Cult of Reason.[39] I will try to prove, first, that names do count and that the "Cult of Reason" was inadequate for Robespierre's own purposes; and second, that the "Supreme Being" was the only overarching term that could serve the Robespierrist "republic of virtue."

As we now see from the end result, the following principles were leading Robespierre in the masterplan of the new cult. First and foremost was that the Enlightenment, with its spirit of unshakeable trust in the omnipotence of reason, had proven inadequate in the storms of revolution. There had been just too many areas where reason's promises were self-confident but its actual performance catastrophic. Although reason remained one of our guides in Robespierre's view, it has an in-built penchant to be perverted into mere calculation; therefore it must be closely supervised. Furthermore, reason is lame without enthusiasm, which cannot be generated from rationality alone. The explicit ban on the mainstream of the Enlightenment in the speech of Floréal, the outburst against Diderot's more rational-than-enthusiastic patriotism, bears out the truth of this interpretation.[40]

Robespierre's second guiding principle was that the new religion must be political, not just civil (an idea he had inherited from Rousseau), and therefore that it must be a cult enforced by the Republic of Virtue. Political religion and "Republic" reciprocally presuppose each other. Without the republican power, the new cult could not maintain itself against the wave of anarchy. This is why in a special decree that was pushed through in the Convention, "the French people recognized the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul" in the same manner as parliaments recognize the existence of a new state.[41] On the other side, the Republic of Virtue would be lacking in moral foundations without the legally decreed idea of the Supreme Being. Robespierre provided a laconic maxim of moral politics or politicized morals: "Immorality is the basis of despotism, as virtue is the essence of the Republic . . . . "[42]

The third ground rule of the new cult was that it was not allowed to infract the organizational monolithism of démocratie dirigée . As far as we can ascertain from the interpretation given to it by Payan (who in the last period of the dictatorship following the fall of both ultras and citras emerged as the major translator of Robespierre's implicit intentions), it was a categorical decision of the center that the new political religion should have neither priests nor a separate institutional existence.[43]

Finally, the new cult was not meant to be the continuation of any traditional belief, dogma, or religion; it was arbitrarily created. This fact alone (of


which the new prophet was proudly aware) attested to the growing selfconfidence of the new revolutionary in handling the social world as an artifact, instead of a natural, and therefore unalterable, order.[44] The "artificially" created Cult of the Supreme Being had a single, explicitly political, task: to solve all the unresolved problems of the Revolution, the Republic of Virtue. Its functions can be derived from this assigment alone.

The first and overarching function has already been mentioned: to provide a moral grounding for the "Republic," which was never a technical term in Robespierre's vocabulary. Although for him both constitutional monarchy and aristocratic (Girondist) republic were variations on the same old theme, Republic writ large represented a completely new phenomenon in the moral and political history of humankind. This novel creation could not possibly rest on tradition (because the latter was one of servitude), nor could it be based on the self-interest of those who find the Republic more profitable than the rule of the prince. In fact, Robespierre's almost general suspiciousness toward his own former comrades-in-arms in the last months of the dictatorship, his growing obsession with the hydra of an internal counterrevolution, was rooted precisely in his experience (or perception) that the majority of them served the Republic for their own selfish interests. Mathiez, who endorsed his paranoid vision without reservation, provides a good summary of Robespierre's attitude:

Robespierre . . . showed that all the crises of the Revolution had been caused by more or less avowed agents of despotism—that is to say, of crime : by Lafayette, "who invoked the Constitution in order to restore the royal power"; by Dumouriez, "who invoked the Constitution in order to protect the Girondin faction against the National Convention"; by Brissot, who desired to turn the Constitution into "a shield to parry the blow which menaced the throne"; by "Hébert and his accomplices, who demanded the sovereignty of the people in order to slaughter the National Convention and annihilate the republican government"; by Danton, "indulgent to every crime, involved in every plot, promising protection to villains and fidelity to patriots; adroitly explaining away his treachery by the pretext of the public weal." . . . Robespierre examined into the means of putting an end to these crises, and defined the principles which ought to guide the Convention, and with which it ought to imbue the souls of Frenchmen, so that they might at last become insensible to the snares of despotism .[45]

"To imbue the souls of Frenchmen" and to make them "insensible to the snares of despotism" are terms of indoctrination the functions of which are manifold. But all of these functions can be grounded and fulfilled by the sacralizing of the political authority from which indoctrination emanates and which, in turn, draws its legitimacy from the end result of this indoctrination process.

For Robespierre, "the happiness of the people" was the major item on the political agenda. And without having ever heard the name of Immanuel


Kant, he was on this point, as on so many others, in a surprising harmony with Kant (of course, only within an overarching disagreement), who contended that while freedom unites, the quest for happiness divides.[46] Robespierre discovered the roots of this divisive impact of the quest for happiness in "egoism," and he was prepared to apply the sword of the Terror to the egoism of the rich, and even to restrain the poor with coercive measures. But he was too great a statesman to miss the point that force cannot survive on its own premises nor can it bring cohesion where division reigns supreme. State terrorism always needs a cementing doctrine that is religious or quasireligious in the sense that it is above criticism, not only in the public space but preferably also in the hearts of the people.

The moral and political corruption of a growing number of leading functionaries raised a new dilemma. It transpired for Robespierre not just as a morally dangerous phenomenon but also as a potential political threat because he, correctly, believed that the nouveaux riches could easily forget their youthful enthusiasm and make a quick compromise with one or another form of restored monarchy. But the moral purifier needs a great supervisory eye that sees into the hearts and spots the seeds of corruption before they become public acts. In an atmosphere of institutionalized political paranoia, it is very difficult to decide where enthusiasm ends and hypocrisy begins. Like all prophets, Robespierre also identified himself with his newly found deity and was increasingly convinced that he had the capacity of seeing into human hearts. He might therefore have honestly believed in his mission to establish a new cult. He might have also assumed that the new cult would make the virtuous ones, who for ontological reasons are eternally in minority, capable of such insight. At the same time, acting as the "great supervisory eye," he deliberately manipulated the apparatus of the revolutionary government and the Convention. Fanaticism and cynicism mingled in this system of political fundamentalism.

For the Cult of the Supreme Being was the crowning act of a long-term strategy initiated by Robespierre almost from the very beginning of the dictatorship. Its ultimate end was the creation of strictly defined moral maxims for a political establishment by making moral prescriptions into binding legal decrees, which is precisely the definition of political fundamentalism.[47] This is why I believe, in contrast to both Mathiez and Aulard, that the new cult was neither an improvisation by Robespierre nor a simple rebaptism of the inchoate initiatives of the popular movement that had given to itself various ad hoc apellations. Rather, it was the final act of the long-term strategy growing out of Robespierre's deep philosophical and political dissatisfaction with the rationalizing trend of the Constituent Assembly. Aulard sums up, in my view correctly, the major change introduced in the speech of Floréal (which was in fact an amendment to the never-enacted Montagnard Constitution of 1793). The speech, which grounded the decree on the Supreme


Being, left no right for the citizen other than "the right to goodness," that is, a uniform behavior strictly defined by the Supreme Being and its pontifex maximus .[48] This is tantamount to the elimination of the liberal heritage of 1789 insofar as it no longer tolerates the diversity of political and moral behavior. The famous gesture, pinpointed by Robespierrist and antiRobespierrist historians alike, of setting the allegorical statue of atheism on fire in the festivity of the Supreme Being was almost a quotation from the days of the Inquisition.

The second function of the new cult well reflects the carrot-and-stick nature of Robespierre's thought. On the one hand, the decree of the Convention by implication made religious skepticism punishable under the law. On the other hand, the new deity appeared in its prophet's own presentation as a utilitarian fiction: "[I]f the existence of God, if the immortality of the soul were but dreams, they would still be the finest of all the conceptions of human intelligence . . . . In the eyes of the legislator, truth is all that is useful and of practical good to the world." Mathiez then adds a highly revealing comment to these words: "Robespierre held to the idea of God; but he did so because this idea has a social value ."[49] The crucial question here reads as follows: What was the social value of the Supreme Being?

The inauguration of the Cult of the Supreme Being was meant to be the festivity of a covenant between the Supreme Being and the Republic of Virtue which, ironically, bore strong resemblances to a commercial contract with ironclad guarantees for the this-worldly partner. This combination of devotion and benefits had eminent pragmatic advantages. It provided the answer to the difficulties stemming from Robespierre's anthropological pessimism combined with political activism. Insofar as human beings, with the exception of a saintly minority, are irredeemably egoistic, the new religion can "imbue their hearts with virtues" if, and only if, it guarantees rewards for a virtuous life. There must be a mirror symmetry between "the only right to goodness" (which is, in actual fact, an imperative beyond appeal) and the absolute guarantee of the rewards of goodness, else the tyranny of goodness would become unbearable. The Supreme Being thus appeared as the god of distributive and retributive justice. What Foucault termed a "pastoral state" negotiated here a full circle: state-guaranteed rights and state-imposed penalties (actually, only one kind of penalty) appeared in a perfect metaphysical symmetry. The only loser was moral and political freedom.

The great political metaphysician solved a serious internal tension of his own vision of the world via the third function of the Cult of the Supreme Being. Put in the language of a later age that learned its lesson from him, the inauguration of the new cult meant the "end of prehistory," the onset of the "real history of humankind." Here is again his own testimony: "All has changed in the physical order; all must change in the moral and political order. One half of the world-revolution is already achieved, the other half has


yet to be accomplished."[50] The term world revolution must not of course be interpreted in the sense of a proto-Comintern. It is common knowledge that Robespierre was a rabid nationalist and an avowed enemy of the revolutionary crusade proposed by the Gironde. However, the nationalist streak of his own thought posed a very serious problem for the statesman living in the dawn of a universalist era. Unlike Cromwell, whose shadow he constantly dreaded, Robespierre could not possibly regard his nation's revolution as a domestic affair. His new political religion seemed to have provided him with an answer to this problem as well. France, the domicile of the Republic of Virtue resting on the Cult of the Supreme Being now emerged in his vision as the country of the elect, as an eternal paradigm. Once the great example had been set, it was a matter of other peoples' virtue and intelligence to imitate it. Both national pride and universalist aspirations seemed to have been satisfied in one stroke:

The French people appear to have outstripped the rest of the human race by two thousand years; one might even be tempted to regard them as a distinct species among the rest . . . . Yes, this delightful land which we inhabit, which nature favours with her caresses, is made to be the domain of liberty and happiness; this proud and sensitive people is truly born for glory and virtue. O my country, had fate caused me to be born in a foreign and distant land, I should have addressed to heaven my constant prayers for thy prosperity; I should have shed tears of emotion at the story of thy combats and thy virtues; my eager soul would have followed with ardent anxiety every movement of thy glorious Revolution; I should have envied the lot of thy citizens, I should have envied that of thy representatives.[51]

The Cult of the Supreme Being remained eternally buried under the debris of Thermidor. The European observers of the French Revolution, friends and foes alike, had enough of a task to interpret other aspects of its colossal heritage. This self-restraint seemed to be all the more appropriate since "the great teacher of the philosophy of state," as Hegel described Napoleon, for once untied the Gordian knot instead of cutting it. The paradigmatic solution of the problem, namely the separation of church and state , was first implemented by the Napoleonic concordat. But since the French Revolution could neither impose itself on Europe nor even consolidate itself on the domestic scene for almost a century, among its many unfulfilled promises, the one concerning secularization also remained an eternally postponed hope for much of the European world.

And this particular postponed expectation developed into a crucial political dilemma. For when people in sufficiently great numbers prove incapable of coping with the "alienness" of their self-created artifact, the free political state, they often take refuge in the sacralizing of the political. Our century, teeming with leftist and rightist scenarios of "redemptive politics," is almost


a textbook case of these trends. All of these attest to the existence of very strong limits set to the great hope of the Enlightenment: the absolute secularization of the political. But none "proves" that the very trend is futile. For this writer, the answer to the dilemma is the difficult combination of stubbornly maintaining and expanding the process of political secularization and simultaneously deflating the exaggerated hopes invested into such efforts. This is the philosophical and political "moral" of the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

Nine The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political

Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.