Rousseau concludes his Social Contract with a chapter on religion. His view on the subject is subtle and interesting; and moreover, I maintain that it provides us with one of the keys to Rousseau's thought. Rousseau's near-deification of the General Will has led many analysts to argue that Rousseau's state is merely secularized Christianity. A careful examination of this chapter may well help us understand to what extent this thesis is correct.
Rousseau's Typology of Religion
Strangely, Rousseau begins by telling us that there are two types of religion, but winds up giving us three. "Religion, considered in connection with societies, whether general or particular, can be divided into two categories, the religion of the man and the religion of the citizen." (p.181) The religion of the man is informal and unorganized, centering on morality and the worship of God. The Christianity of the Gospels is Rousseau's example. In contrast, the religion of the citizen is what has been called "civil religion." This is the religion of a single country, a national religion. Such a religion is organized and hierarchical, with formal dogmas. It teaches love of country, obedience to the state, and martial virtues.
The religions of ancient peoples like the Romans fit this mold. To this list Rousseau adds a third religion. Unlike the religion of the man, it is organized and hierarchical, with precise dogmas.
Unlike civil religion, it is independent of the state, in the sense that it is international and has its own agenda. It may counsel patriotism, but only in a limited fashion, because it is the religion of many nations rather than one. A religion of this kind is a competitor to the state for the allegiance of citizens, and it produces internal division as a consequence. Catholicism is Rousseau's favorite example of this kind of religion.
Rousseau's Critique of the Three Types
Rousseau is clearly not hostile to religion as such: "no state has ever been founded without religion at its base." (p.180) But he does have serious complaints about each of the three types of religion. Let us examine his complaints, then see what Rousseau judges to be the least defective of the three. To begin with, Rousseau will have no truck with the third kind of religion - organized yet separate from the state. As Rousseau tells us, "The third kind is so manifestly bad that the pleasure of demonstrating its badness would be a waste of time. Everything that destroys social unity is worthless; and all institutions that set man at odds with himself are worthless." (p.181) The problem, in short, is that this kind of religion competes with the state for the total allegiance of the people; in consequence, society is divided.
Individuals might think that conscience demands disobedience to the state, and they would have an organized hierarchy to back them up and marshall resistance. To a convinced corporativist like Rousseau, this is intolerable. Let us turn now to the first type of religion, exemplified by the Christianity of the Gospels. At the outset, Rousseau tells us that this form of religion is not only holy and sublime but true.
While that would appear to settle the matter, it doesn't for Rousseau. Instead, he moves on to complain that simple Christianity is bad for the state. Christianity is other-worldly, and therefore takes away from citizens' love for life on earth as exemplified by the state. As Rousseau explains, "Christianity is a wholely spiritual religion, concerned solely with the things of heaven; the Christian's homeland is not of this world." (p.183) In consequence, Christians are too detached from the real world to fight against domestic tyranny. Moreover, Christians make bad soldiers, again because they are other-worldly. They won't fight with the passion and patriotism that a deadly army requires. Why any of this should count against Christianity after its truth has already been conceded is hard to understand. We then turn to civil religion. It has much to recommend it: "The second kind of religion is good in that it joins divine worship to a love of the law, and that in making the homeland the object of a citizens' adoration, it teaches them that the service of the state is the service of the tutelary God." (pp.181-182) If the sole purpose of religion is to butress the state, then a civil religion is the one to pick: it inspires obedience and service, but could never become an independent standpoint from which the state might be criticized or called to task for misdeeds. Religion is necessary to provide the state with moral underpinnings; but if religion is separate from the state, then there is always the danger that the decrees of religion will fail to match those of the state, and instead positively mandate disobedience. Yet Rousseau cannot give a whole-hearted endorsement to civil religion either. For one thing, "it is based on error and lies, it deceives men, and makes them credulous and superstitious." (p.182)
Again, this would appear to be a fatal blow; but for Rousseau, it is just one bad point to keep in mind. Civil religion also makes the people "bloodthirsty and intolerant" and Rousseau doesn't like that either. 4. Rousseau's Compromise and the General Will After considering the advantages and drawbacks of different sorts of religion, Rousseau figures out a compromise. Tolerance should be granted to all religions that will grant it to others.
Apparently, Rousseau believes to some extent in religious tolerance; at the very least, uniformity is no longer achievable in the modern world. In this sense, religion becomes a matter for private conscience. But that is not the end of the story. Rousseau wants to have a public religion in another sense. Namely, he wants all people on pain of banishment to accept some religious doctrines, "not strictly speaking as religious dogmas, but as expressions of social conscience." (p.186) The state should not establish one religion, but it should use the law to weed out any religions which are socially harmful. All legal religions must accept: "The existence of an omnipotent, intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract and the law." (p.186)
In addition, they must forswear intolerance; not only "civil" intolerance (The state must crush unbelievers) but also "theological" intolerance (There is no salvation outside the church). Rousseau makes an important exception to the last point mandating tolerance: "unless the state is the church and the prince is the pontiff. Such a dogma is only good in a theocratic government; in any other, it is pernicious." (p.187, emphasis added) In principle, then, the state may be as intolerant as it likes, so long as it is theocratic.
This exception is particularly interesting in light of the remainder of Rousseau's political theory. For suppose that the General Will (in practical terms, the majority) believes that there is no salvation outside of their church? Would it be wrong for them to vote to establish their own view and crush all dissent? On Rousseau's terms I can see no objection. It appears to be another legitimate exercise of the General Will; and if the minority disagrees, it is merely mistaken about what it wills and must be forced to free. Rousseau's principles do not imply a theocratic state; but so long as a majority of the people want it, it is not only morally permissible but morally required. The charge that Rousseau's system is just a secular version of Christianity is not exactly correct; as a matter of fact, Rousseau's system gives a secular justification for any form of popular intolerance, both secular and religious.