Saturday, May 15, 2010

Montesquieu on Religion in a Republic

Of all the source material quoted by our Founding Fathers, Charles baron de Montesquieu was at or near the top. As one of France's top minds on political science during the Enlightenment (particularly his ideas on separation of powers), Montesquieu's pearls of wisdom were sure to filter down to America's founders, who were more than anxious to learn all they could about the ins and outs of republican government. And Montesquieu had plenty to say on the matter.

Montesquieu believed that there were essentially three key ingredients to ensure a republic's success and survival: education, morality and a relatively small geographic boundary. And when it came to morality, Montesquieu didn't hold back on his feelings. Though he admitted to having no personal interest in the validity/invalidity of any given religion (Montesquieu was no theologian), Montesquieu did believe that religion was fundamental to good government, and that some religions were better equipped for certain government systems:
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.

While the Mahometan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians renders their princes less timid, and consequently less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other life, continues the happiness of this! It is the Christian religion that, in spite of the extent of the empire and the influence of the climate, has hindered despotic power from being established in Ethiopia, and has carried into the heart of Africa the manners and laws of Europe.


From the characters of the Christian and Mahometan religions, we ought, without any further examination, to embrace the one and reject the other: for it is much easier to prove that religion ought to humanise the manners of men than that any particular religion is true. It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.
And Montesquieu got even more specific when he broke down which Christian religions he believed were better fit for certain governments:
When a religion is introduced and fixed in a state, it is commonly such as is most suitable to the plan of government there established; for those who receive it, and those who are the cause of its being received, have scarcely any other idea of policy than that of the state in which they were born.

When the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south adhered still to the Catholic. The reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will for ever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable to the independence of the climate than that which has one. In the countries themselves where the Protestant religion became established, the revolutions were made pursuant to the several plans of political government. Luther having great princes on his side would never have been able to make them relish an ecclesiastical authority that had no exterior pre-eminence; while Calvin, having to do with people who lived under republican governments, or with obscure citizens in monarchies, might very well avoid establishing dignities and preferments.

In other words, the Catholic version of Christianity is best for monarchies, while Protestant/Calvin faiths are suited to republics...or so says Montesquieu.

And while we could debate Montesquieu's understanding of Christianity, Islam, etc., the point I am trying to make is that Montesquieu, and the founders who quoted him, believed religion was as indispensable to republicanism as were the separation of powers (also a Montesquieu idea). And several of the founders actually appear to agree with Montesquieu's belief that Christianity was the best fit for their republican experiment:
"I have examined all religions, as well as my narrow sphere, my straightened means, and my busy life, would allow; and the result is that the Bible is the best Book in the world. It contains more philosophy than all the libraries I have seen."
~John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813.

"Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity...and leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system."
~Samuel Adams

" Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure...are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments."
~Charles Carroll to James McHenry, November 4, 1800.

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever."
~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, 1781.
Now let's be careful here. These quotes are NOT proof that the Founding Fathers wanted to establish a Christian nation. Instead, they illustrate that the founders upheld Christianity (what brand of Christianity is another debate for another day) above other forms of worship as the best means by which morality and virtue could be preserved; a component of republican society which they believed was of the utmost importance.

Of course, this same desire to ensure virtue and morality caused many Christian zealots, then and now, to go beyond the mark:
"Whether our religion permits Christians to vote for infidel rulers is a question which merits more consideration than it seems yet to have generally received either from the clergy or the laity. It appears to me that what the prophet said to Jehoshaphat about his attachment to Ahab ["Shouldest thou help the ungodly and love them that hate the Lord?" 2 Chronicles 19:2] affords a salutary lesson."
~The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, 1794-1826.

It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans (Muslims), pagans, etc., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President or other high office, [unless] first the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves.
~Governor Samuel Johnston, July 30, 1788 at the North Carolina Ratifying Convention.

"The great misunderstanding of ‘the separation of church and state’ is closer in spirit and letter of the law to the old Soviet Union than it is to the spirit, letter of the law, and actions of the founders of this country."
~D. James Kennedy, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 5.

"They [the founders] were quite clear that we would create laws based on the God of the Bible and the 10 Commandments."
~David Barton, America’s Godly Heritage (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Publishing, 1993), 36.
As with any new idea, a few overzealous, misinformed and even ignorant individuals have (and continue to) poison(ed) the well of understanding, causing scores of historically illiterate followers to believe in a false reality.

And though Montesquieu's ideas on religion may seem biased and even a little racist, there is no doubt that they played an important role (along with many of his other ideas) in the development of American republicanism.

***Next Up: Montesquieu's belief that republicanism only works in small, localized societies and how it relates to the founders leaving religion to the states.***


Brad Hart said...

Woohoo! This is my 200th post here at AC. Only 232 more and I catch J. Rowe!

Unknown said...

It was a good one too. I will comment later but you bring up some excellent points.

Phil Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Johnson said...

One of the problems present day thinkers run up against has to do with what Montensquieu and others meant in those days when they used the word, Gospel, in their talk.
And, there was a time not that long ago in our present day when traditional Christianity meant the teachings of Jesus in using the word, Gospel. Now, the word has been morphed to mean the entire Bible as the Revealed Word of God which amounts to a distinct difference in meanings--thanks to Christian Fundamentalism. Back in the nineteen thirties and forties the Old Testament was taken to strictly represent errant Judaism whereas the New Testament was intended for regenerate Christianity. There was a distinctive relief expressed between the two.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't see anything "racist" here, Brad. Montesquieu was speaking of Islam as practiced in his day. Christianity wasn't always so friendly to republicanism, and implicit in Montesquieu here is that Protestantism, by dumping the central authority of the Magisterium and the Pope, was more congenial to republicanism.

Islam has no Magisterium or Pope; there's a mechanism I forget the Arabic word for where "councils" decide the right thing to do. Islamic political theology might develop toward republicanism in time. One might say Pakistan or particularly Malaysia are on that road, although not quite there yet.

Montesquieu does point up a bit of a problem with Islamic polygamy, but that's not insurmountable. Pakistan did elect a female prime minister, after all.

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, I don't think Montesquieu was being outright racist...just a little too biased in his appraisal of Christianity and Islam.

Tom Van Dyke said...

[bumping up a previous discussion]:
Brad Hart:but [the declaration of Independence's God-talk] also can fit with virtually every other creed out there.

TVD: I do think that was their dream, although they actually knew little of other religions. But I resist simply taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach to man's religions.

Western political philosophy as seen through one pair of Muslim eyes. He's very well-read, Plato through Burke and Kant and Lincoln and whathaveyou:

It's really worth a skim, very wise and honest. Still, he reaches a roadblock at the very end re sharia:

One vital question remains to be answered which arises necessarily out of the relation of Islam to democracy and that is: 'How far is an Islamic society free to make laws for itself if a comprehensive code is already prescribed?'

Unlike Islam, Christianity does not offer itself as a comprehensive code for daily life, leaving a lot of wiggle room. That's all I mean about examining each faith system for its unique content, instead of a blanket term of "religion."

No Christian zealots here, just us chickens. I'm just positing they may be right for the wrong stated reasons. Montesquieu, similarly. By the time Christian political theology arrived at the Founding [with no small contribution from Protestantism, and I say that as a Thomist], it was quite congenial to republicanism. Other faiths are still scrambling.

Anonymous said...

Pinky's comment in May, 2010, deserves amplification. Pinky wrote:

"traditional Christianity meant the teachings of Jesus in using the word, Gospel. Now, the word has been morphed to mean the entire Bible as the Revealed Word of God which amounts to a distinct difference in meanings--thanks to Christian Fundamentalism. Back in the nineteen thirties and forties the Old Testament was taken to strictly represent errant Judaism whereas the New Testament was intended for regenerate Christianity. There was a distinctive relief expressed between the two."

1. In his "Syllabus," Thomas Jefferson evaluated the various creeds for their moral foundations and found Judaism wanting
Jefferson elevated the moral code of Jesus to the highest plane -- somewhat consistent with Pinky's reference to "Gospel" to mean only the teachings of Jesus.

2. The way that the Old Testament AND New Testament became incorporated into American religious life has long intrigued me. The phenomenon of zionism-Christian zionism is beyond intriguing, it's downright disturbing. As close as I can come to the facts, it seems that wealthy Jewish bankers (Samuel Untermeyer a key representative) who were very eager to create a "homeland for the Jews" in Palestine, paid rather unscrupulous people like Cyrus Scofield to annotate a bible and merge it with notions of messianism that were being preached by Irish itinerant preacher John Darby. Out of this mashup emerged the Scofield bible that motivates such worthies as John Hagee (and, I'm afraid, also the late D James Kennedy). Untermeyer's goal was to gain broad-based support among the American masses for a project that was expected to cost millions of dollars and lives -- Untermeyer and his fellows were prime movers who urged Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I in order to destroy the emerging dynamism of the German industrial state, in favor of perpetuation and expansion of the British empire.

Scofield and Untermeyer planted fields that William Blackstone and D L Moody had earlier plowed.

The best explanation I have been able to discover for the emergence of the US as a "Judeo-Christian" nation harks back to the years shortly after WWII, when American Christians were made to feel guilty for their part in holocaust and to make efforts to fully incorporate Jewish people into American life.

Anonymous said...


With respect to "Mohammedanism," neither Judaism nor Islam is doctrinal, nor do either have a hierarchical structure; Christianity/Catholicism are both doctrinal and hierarchical.

Islam and Judaism are closely related in that they both interpret writing in Torah/Talmud/Mishna and Quran/Haditha, to arrive at judgments about how rules should be observed, a proper life led, etc.
I am following a discussion on another website that has just begun: the question it is attempting to grapple with is whether Sharia, especially Sharia finance, is more closely aligned with Adam Smith's notions and practice of capitalism or with the form of capitalism practiced by Nathan Rothschild, as described in books Niall Ferguson has written, based on Ferguson's access to the Rothschilds's personal papers (up to 1914). Ferguson concurs with the opinion of the Victorian journalist he quotes at the beginning of the Rothschild books: Rothschild capitalism was "essentially different" from "English banking," which I think is fair to identify with Adam Smith-style capitalism.

It is my view that Sharia laws of finance are almost entirely consistent with Adam Smith-style capitalism, and even incorporate Smith's notions of Christian ethics, which Smith published some 17 years before "Wealth of Nations" was produced.

The goals of zionism are political and financial; the intention of Rothschild capitalism is to produce very great wealth for a relatively small group. American Christian zionists were drawn on board that project under false pretences, or, at least, under pretences that are not entirely consistent with either New Testament values or essential, Jeffersonian American values.

And that is part of the reason the US finds itself in the mess it is in, financially and internationally.

One last note -- it is worth pointing out thatin 1911, W. Morgan Shuster was asked by the "Mohammedans" of Iran to come to Iran and help them create a fair and equitable finance system to run their country in the democratic fashion that they wished to pursue. Shuster was expelled, not by Iranians but by the combined-and-competing forces of British and Russian empires, who each wanted their piece of Persia undisturbed by notions of indigenous self-rule.

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Pastor Earl said...

Thank you for quoting what Montesquieu said about religion's reflection on a government. View “The Biblical Basis of The Bill of Rights” at:
to see how America was founded upon the application of the Bible to civics!

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