The battle that faced French Enlightenment thinkers is a lot like the fight in American politics today: Then, as now, religion, conservative orthodoxy, and real or pretend clerics were bent on banishing ideas, science and keeping citizens uninformed through myth, fear and lying. The pious did nothing good in Paris then and still don’t in Washington – or state capitols – today.
Except for maybe students of the French Enlightenment, not may of us proles know that a fight over god and Christian orthodoxy was as destructive a force in Paris of the 1700s as it is in 21st century America.
Thanks to my spate of medical and other issues, I’ve had time to think about how America’s religious and political right today parallels what went on in France 250 years ago. Then, neither the church nor Paris’ political government – dominates by abbes, lay people who’d studied in Jesuit or Jansenist schools = tolerated heretical thoughts or writing. Neither had any use for science or scholars. Both enforced the purity of its dogma without room for even a whisper of doubt. Penalties for crossing the institutional church ranged from public humiliation to denunciation, banishment, imprisonment or event death – not far from crossing our institutional right wing.
Welcome to the Republican Party of Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann, Congress, groups such as the C Street Family, and Mitt Romney who often sounds more like a Christian radio crazy than a Mormon.
Paris’ conservative establishment was horrified at the emergence of enlightened thinkers.
The emerging French literati promoted atheism because they saw the church use god to terrify and control the uncontrollable rabble. They explained evolution two centuries before Darwin proved it, and discussed advanced mathematics even though the unfathomable formulas that made it work wouldn’t be invented for centuries.
They expounded on natural history to prove that the Earth was much older than the 6,000 years the Bible claimed it to be. Indeed, they showed conclusively how the Bible was a random collection of myths and fables that changed with each new translation rather than being the divine word of a non-existent deity.
If French thinkers were around today, Texas schoolbooks wouldn’t be allowed to mention a word about them.
Actually, my high school teachers in Minnesota never said anything about them either when assigning Rousseau’s Emile or anything by Voltaire. We were told each embodied the Enlightenment yet we read without context. So, we never knew that by the time he wrote Emile, Rousseau had broken with the Enlightenment, returned to Switzerland, descended into profound paranoia and became a champion of brutal totalitarianism, which is what Emile hints at. Nor were we told that the suddenly rich Voltaire became too busy loan sharking for broke German princes and matchmaking for wealthy Italian counts to have time for many profound thoughts beyond court gossip.
The Vatican and French priests fought back ferociously, vaguely reminiscent of ALEC today. By controlling Paris’ censors and using the Pope’s gold to fund their work, priests refused to grant printing permission for books by Enlightenment writers. They had the police threaten and arrest them. They drove writers underground – or at least into the stylish salons of wealthy free-thinkers in Paris.
Except for the prison part, the GOP threatens “moderates” who won’t kowtow to far right orthodoxy. It’s why well-but-secretly funded Tea Party know-nothings intimidate incumbents, why John McCain has become a “centrist” and why St. Ronnie would not win his party’s presidential nomination today. Too bad he did in 1980; we’re still paying the price.
I have problems with the religious ferocity of Christopher Hitchens’ atheism – not over god, on which we agree, but his vitriol. But Hitchens stands in a proud line of aggressive thinkers and philosophers who attacked the power of Christianity. Writers in the 1700s saw this power close-up. But even a French Catholic priest, Jean Meslier, proclaimed in a book he wrote that was published after his death – to protect him from persecution – that when the church messes in government and secular life, disaster results. He told Rome to butt out because it was in cahoots with “princes and sovereigns” to preserve the elite’s power.
Republicans will detest this: Even their guiding economic light Adam Smith and his marketplace’s “invisible hand,” rejected Christianity outright, arguing that clerics maintained religion’s power because people who understood the world would shun the church.
Centuries on, we still face a near-daily pummelling by the religious right and its political spearchuckers who insist that only when America bows to a specific, narrow Christian version of a god will eternal peace and prosperity shine upon us. They infect elections and policies. Our founders knew this was hogwash and enshrined their concerns in a Bill of Rights.
Thomas Jefferson, who crafted most of the Constitution, wrote frequently that future Americans were likely to be atheists or maybe Unitarians, so he had to protect their non-beliefs from the tyrrany of religion and politicians who use divinity as a weapon.
It’s never made a whit’s difference to me if someone follows a religion or worships a god. Their faith doesn’t affect me – as long as they keep it private. Yet having faced down the crisis of my own mortality, I know that America faces its own crisis because far too many politicians insist on throwing their faith in my face, endorsing anti-thought, anti-science and anti-learning policies that fall outside their own narrow view of the world.
French thinkers of the Enlightenment would understand the problem religion and churches pose for us in 2012.
Charley James is an American journalist and writer who lives in Toronto. His memoir, “There’s A Monkey In The Yard!” is due to be published next summer.