Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Theism of the French Revolution:

In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it [emphasis mine], of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness. We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound for ever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.

-- James Madison, 1792

Another title to this post could have been Robespierre Creationist!

American Vision produced a comical video attempting to slam atheists Dawkins and Harris with the horrors of atheistic regimes the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism. One main problem with their notion is that neither Nazism nor the French Revolution were atheistic.

The video singles out Maximilien Robespierre as the poster boy for Enlightenment influenced atheistic slaughter. But Robespierre was not an atheist but a firm believer in God. And, as I pointed out in this much read post, the French Revolution was declared according to a strikingly parallel set of principles/ideals as the American.

The French Revolution, like the US Revolution, appealed to a generically defined God. This shouldn't surprise us given that Jefferson, the author of the US's Declaration, was in France right before their revolution, helping to lay the philosophical grounds for it, assisting in writing the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The two documents, and hence the two revolutions, appealed, at base, to the same Enlightenment principles of God-given rights to liberty and equality. As the French document begins:

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:


1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

As noted, Maximilien Robespierre was not an atheist but a devout worshipper of "the Supreme Being." And Robespierre's Supreme Being was, like the God of the US Founding, one who loved political liberty and hated tyranny. As he wrote in his "Cult of the Supreme Being":

"The day forever fortunate has arrived, which the French people have consecrated to the Supreme Being. Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice. He has seen reigning on the earth tyranny, crime, and imposture. He sees at this moment a whole nation, grappling with all the oppressions of the human race, suspend the course of its heroic labors to elevate its thoughts and vows toward the great Being who has given it the mission it has undertaken and the strength to accomplish it."

Jefferson and Franklin coined the "motto" "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Dave Kopel traces it to an earlier Protestant thinker. However, such motto also perfectly describes Robespierre's "Supreme Being." And by the way, the "Supreme Being" was also one of George Washington's many generic terms for God. He once said:

“No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.”

The Biblical God, on the other hand, seems wholly unconcerned with political liberty, but rather SPIRITUAL liberty.

This isn't to say the two revolutions were identical events. No two historical events are identical. And there were some notable differences in ideology. For instance, the US was more influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and less by the French Enlightenment. Rousseau's "fingers" were more present in the French Revolution.

The ideological origins of the US Founding have been studied in great detail and seriously argued over. If we view the US Founding as a unique historical nexus, and look back in hindsight, we see many ideological tributaries flowing to and from it. Certainly there were tributaries of Christian thought flowing into that point. Jim Babka once detailed all of the Protestant historical documents that recognized subjects' rights to resist tyrannical kings. And Tom Van Dyke has stressed the idea of inherent natural rights can also be traced from our Founders, through various Christian natural law scholars to Aquinas. And Aquinas of course, traces back to the non-Christian Aristotle who was explicitly listed by our Founders (Jefferson in particular) as inspiration.

Yet, the Declaration is a generically theistic document with no discernible "Christian" content. That's not to say it is incompatible with Christianity. Just that it is "a-Biblical," not necessarily "anti-Biblical." Indeed, given America's Declaration of Independence so greatly influenced the French Revolution, the principles contained therein must have been compatible with the original principles of the French Revolution. Indeed, as noted, the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man was modeled after America's DOI, with Jefferson, America's Declaration's author, helping to write the French's original Declaration.

When arguing over the ideological origins of America's Founding, other historical events and documents are often offered as analogies. I therefore stress the closest historical analogy to the American Revolution is the French Revolution. And the most analogous document to America's DOI is the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man. That is, the ideas contained within the US's Declaration of Independence may bear *some* resemblance to, for instance, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay's Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, published in 1579 and the other documents of Protestant origin Jim Babka discussed here. But the US's Declaration's ideas are most similar to those in the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Plus, the events which triggered the writing of those Protestant documents occurred some hundreds of years prior to the American Revolution. Even the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain occurred in 1688 almost one hundred years prior to America's Revolution. The French Revolution began in 1789, right when the US was ratifying its Constitution.

So those who want to contrast America's Revolution with the French's and then attempt to, by way of historical analogy, credit "Christian" sources with America's Founding ought to tread very carefully. An honest examination of the historical record shows the American and French Revolutions to be the closest historical analogies. At least, that's the way James Madison -- the father of America's Constitution -- saw it. (See above quotation.)

Thus, if we view the US's Founding as a historical nexus with ideological tributaries flowing to and fro, my point is simply the French Revolution took place slightly down river to the left. And then the waters got real rough over there, whereas in America, there was smooth sailing along the least until 1861.

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