Rousseau, Civil Religion and Tolerance

Jean-Jaques Rousseau coined the term “Civil Religion” in The Social Contract in 1762. There’s not much in Rousseau’s discussion of civil religion that will commend itself to the Christian mind. He wrote in another era, socially, religiously and intellectually. His approach to Christianity is dismissive and his approach to civil religion is reductionist and cynical.

Rousseau does say one thing, however, that resonates in today’s religious environment:

Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others … (Rousseau, Social Contract, Book 4, Section 8).

It seems to me that one prerequisite for social tolerance toward any religion is that religion’s tolerance of the existence of others. Societies that value civil liberties in general needn’t allow others to use those liberties to destroy them. In the same way, societies that value religious freedom needn’t grant that freedom to those who won’t grant it to others. No nation, group or individual is required to grant the freedom to others to annihilate them.

Rousseau believed that all states had religious foundations. To counter the strife of religious intolerance, Rousseau proposed a lowest common denominator form of religion that he called “civil religion,” to be imposed by the power of the state. He advocated for civil religion not because he believed it to be true, but because he believed it to be expedient for a free society.

What we need, instead, is a civil religious environment that is truly pluralistic. In the realm of civil religion, pluralism is the antithesis of reductionism. A truly pluralistic civil society is marked by religious freedom, deeply held beliefs, personal respect and peaceful coexistence. In a pluralistic environment, I can passionately hold Christian beliefs that are theologically incompatible with those of others who are equally passionate in their faith. Rousseau thought such a society to be impossible to maintain. I hope he was wrong. I believe that religious freedom and tolerance are in the best interest of both the world and the Gospel.

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