Montesquieu 2: On Religion and the Role of Religion in Public Life

As indicated last week, Charles baron de Montesquieu is a significant thinker for understanding the political ideas of the Enlightenment and American democracy. His work Spirit of the Laws is the most quoted philosophical work by the founders, quoted more often than John Locke. [1] His work was important for the development of our notion of limited government and separation of powers. He was also significant because of his understanding of the importance of religion and the development of religious freedom is reflected in our Constitution.

Born in 1687, he was raised a Roman Catholic but married a Protestant Huguenot. Like Burke, his experience of religious intolerance under the Bourbon kings impacted and formed his views on religious liberty. The exact character of his religious faith is the subject of academic discussion, but my view is that he considered himself a Christian, though like many Enlightenment thinkers, he is not consistently committed to any particular theology or interpretation of Christian faith. As a political thinker, his interest in Christian faith is practical and moral.

Virtue and Religion

As indicated last week, Montesquieu believed that a democratic republic must be founded on the virtue of its citizens. Without the kind of virtue that results in love of liberty, no democracy can sustain itself. As a result, moral education and moral formation are essential in the formation and maintenance of a republican government.

The formation of moral character and the ability to restrain immediate desire for the long-term good are fundamental to the Christian religion and to Western culture generally. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love and the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance lay the core of the historic Catholic notion of virtue in Montesquieu’s day as they do for Christians in our own day. Justice that lies at the basis of all good government; Prudence is necessary for the wise management of public affairs; Fortitude is necessary in times of danger; and Temperance is necessary to restrain the passions.

Religion and the State

Because of its role in the promotion of those virtues required to support a stable government, religion plays and important role in Montesquieu’s thought. Montesquieu recognizes that, as a matter of historical fact, religion has deeply impacted all human civilizations. [2] In the case of Israel (Judaism), Europe (Christianity), the Middle East (Islam), China (Confucianism), and Japan (Shinto), religion can be seen as having an extraordinary impact on society. As his analysis proceeds, Montesquieu shows a familiarity with each of these religions, and the way in which they formed the culture and laws of a society.

As a Christian and citizen of a Christian state, Montesquieu believed that the Christian religion played an important role in the evolution and development of republican democracy and the avoidance of despotism:

The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospel is incompatible with the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty. As this religion forbids the plurality of wives, its princes are less confined, less concealed from their subjects, and consequently have more humanity: they are more disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that they cannot do whatever they please. [3]

In Montesquieu’s view, Christianity stamped its character on the social mores and jurisprudence of the West due to its crucial role in creating the distinct characteristics of Western civilization. The “mildness” of the Gospel portrayals of God impacted the willingness of Westerners to obey the state and avoid violent, revolutionary, destructive social behavior. The way in which Christianity in the West incorporated the values on ancient Greece and Rome, contributed to the evolution of republican government in Europe.

In the west today, Christians can best recommend themselves as guardians of republican democracy by urging and demonstrating the virtues of love for the other, tolerance of other views, and abhorrence of violence as a political tool. Christianity is no longer dominant in the West, and Protestantism is no longer dominant in America. We live in a “post-Christian” society. This does not mean what we live in a society where people are not touched by self-giving love and an example of wise and healthy living.

To say that Christians should demonstrate and support traditional Christian values is not to say that other groups should not share their values. As will be seen below, secular humanism functions like a religion for many Westerners today, and it brings with it virtues that are part of the formation and maintenance of the modern state. What is necessary, and hopefully possible, is for secular people and religious people to create a political social space in which all views can be peacefully heard in a common quest for a just and peaceful society.

Love as Guard Against Despotism

One of the most important Christian contributions can be the creation of a “politics of love” in the center of democratic societies. As Montesquieu notes, the centrality of love in Christian thought is conducive to development of a society in which human beings peacefully seek the best for one another. “The Christian Religion, which ordains that men should love each other, would, without doubt, have every nation blest with the best civil, the best political laws, because these, next to religion are the greatest good that men can give and receive.” [4]

By its very nature, Christianity seeks a moderate government that is best created in some form of republican democracy. Thus, “the Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospels is incompatible with despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects and exercises himself with cruelty.” [5] In particular, Montesquieu sees that Protestantism is particularly compatible with a freedom of liberty. [6] In this respect his views are similar to those of Burke.

In a stunning warning that foresees the demonic character of the French Revolution and the violence of revolutionary movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Montesquieu notes that “Those who forsake religion are apt to forsake civilization and morals, becoming like beasts that bite and devour one another and seek to destroy every chain of restraint that law and society may feel necessary on behavior.” [7] Over and over in the 20th Century, in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, in Maoist China, in Cambodia and North Korea, we have seen the cruelty and violence into which purely atheistic regimes can descend. Only a politics of love can avoid the recurrence of this kind of prideful violence in Western culture today.

Freedom of Religion

Like nearly every early Enlightenment thinker, Montesquieu defends religious freedom. In his view, penal laws ought to be avoided with respect to religious belief, and the fear associated with the possibility of punishment is not conducive to religious freedom and progress. In particular, Montesquieu opposed the use of law for religious persecution, such as had been found in the case of the Spanish Inquisition. In what I think one of the most moving passages of theSpirit of the Laws, Montesquieu reprints at length a letter from a Jew who was put to death by the Inquisition.  In the letter, this unknown Jew makes a point that in this kind of behavior, Christians were not behaving as their founder, Christ, would have behaved and urged them to behave. [8]

Establishment and Tolerance

Implicit in the arguments that Montesquieu advances is the underlying idea that religious belief cannot be compelled, and even if established, as it was in France and England, other views should be tolerated by the dominant group and their leaders. In the case of France, this meant to Montesquieu that Protestantism should be tolerated even though Catholicism is established. In England, it would mean that Catholicism should be tolerated even if Protestantism is established.

Some readers misread Montesquieu as having no religious preferences, thinking them all equally false. [9] I think that the foregoing discussion shows that this view of his work is mistaken. There can be no doubt that Montesquieu prefers Christianity. However, his views on religion, and his goal as a law-giver and rationalizer compel him to the belief that religious toleration is required from the state.

In the Europe of Montesquieu’s day, Christianity was the dominant religion. In southern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was dominant. In northern Europe, the Protestant faith had become increasingly dominant. The issue of religious freedom and tolerance was substantially between these two sects and Judaism, which was often persecuted by both. Today, what scholars and writers sometimes call “secular humanism” is the dominant view by many elites in Europe and America, and their tendency is to be hostile to Christian faith in all its forms, since it is the dominant faith in their nations. [10] The call for religious tolerance is most necessary to be heard today by secular elites.

Separation of Church and State

Although Montesquieu is not generally considered important in the formation of the uniquely American doctrine of separation of the church and state, his Spirit of the Laws made an important contribution to developing a way of thinking that encourages such a separation.  In a section called, “Of Laws in Relation to the Order of Things Which They Determine” Montesquieu establishes a principle that “We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human laws what should be determined by divine law.” [11]

Implicit in this statement is the view that secular society should not legislate on religious matters nor should religious groups be given authority in secular matters. This is for the protection of both parties. Secular law is by its nature subject to change as society changes, while religious laws are permanent. Human laws govern circumstances that are always changing, with the result that many laws that are passed by legislatures and promulgated by the courts are likely to change. We see here a progressive view of society as often in a state of flux, requiring constant adaptation by the magistrate. If you remember the blog on Marcus Aurelius, one of the frequent recognitions of those who are actually in politics is a realization of the inevitability of change. Those who speculate can, like Plato, speculate on creating a perfect, static polity. Those who long bear the burden of magistracy, know better.

Conclusion

Leaving Montesquieu, like leaving Burke, is like leaving an old and dear friend. There is much out of date in his thinking, but there is also much of eternal relevance. In these two short blogs, I have been unable but to scratch the surface of his wisdom. One area I did not have time to cover is the area of taxation and budgeting constraints. One characteristic of a wise and prudent government is the ability to live within a reasonable budget.

The ability to tax is the most powerful element of governmental power, and one susceptible of misuse. A government that is imprudent with its finances is destined for trouble. The French Revolution was brought about by the inability and unwillingness of the Bourbon rulers to discipline their spending and the blatant unfairness of the French tax system. This is a point that should not be lost on contemporary policy makers.

Finally, this blog brings us to the founding of the United States of America and the Constitution. This summer, my intention is to make a slow journey through the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. For most of the summer, the only external source that will be referenced is the Federalist Papers, and the weekly posts will be shorter.

As mentioned from the beginning of these blogs, the Founders were well-educated in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Medieval Catholic, Protestant, and Enlightenment writers. At a moment in history, the influence of all the writers we have looked at thus far, from Plato to Burke, came together in a moment of synthesis as our system of government was formed. That formation is not the end of the story, but it the original defining moment in the story of the development of the government we enjoy today. It is worth spending time understanding the structure of our government and the initial modifications that were made in order to achieve ratification of the document. For now, we have come to a place to rest a bit as summer begins.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In preparing this blog, I have used the Great Books version of Spirit of the laws. All quotes are from, Baron de Montesquieu, “Spirit of the Laws” in Britannica Great Books, Volume 38 “Montesquieu and Rousseau” Mortimer Adler, ed. (Chicago, Ill: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

[2] Id, 197.

[3] Id, 201.

[4] Id, 200.

[5] Id, 201

[6] Id.

[7] Id, 200

[8] Id, at 212-213.

[9] I read several such views in preparing this blog. It is not really possible to read Spirit of the Laws without Enlightenment prejudices and not conclude that while Montesquieu has doctrinal doubts about all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches, and is suspicious of, and hostile to, all forms of extremism, he is sympathetic to Christianity and supportive of its generally positive impact on society.

[10] Interestingly, in France in particular, it is the Muslim faith that suffers the most opposition from the secular state, which has seen it possible and thought it wise to prohibit the Burka (a women’s dress) and to prohibit the wearing of certain religious garb, which constitutes a suppression of Islam. In America, an increasingly hostile secular left has taken to suggesting that Christians should not be allowed in politics, etc.

[11] Id, 214.

One thought on “Montesquieu 2: On Religion and the Role of Religion in Public Life”

  1. Chris,
    An excellent article reminding us all of the importance of the Christian faith in the founding and perpetuation of western civilization. Without a moral and restrained government it’s people will be ruled once again by tyranny and despots.
    Looking forward to seeing you this summer at Linwood Park. Please call me so we can find a date to get together perhaps over lunch there. Blessings to you and Kathy, jack

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