The French Revolution launched a campaign against the Church, known as dechristianization, and it included a number of specific measures. Religious orders devoted to teaching and assistance were suppressed. Church hospitals, universities, and colleges were appropriated and put up for sale. Religious ceremonies outside of church buildings were prohibited, as was the wearing of religious garb, except in religious ceremonies. Priests were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and those who refused to do so were imprisoned and/or deported. And although freedom of religion formally was declared, in practice most churches were closed (Soboul 1975:198-201, 266, 344-50, 581-83).
Robespierre considered the dechristianization campaign to be a political error. He maintained that the Revolution had sufficient internal and external enemies without stirring up opposition by abolishing religion. And he was right: many peasants were opposed to the Revolution because of religious questions (Soboul 1975:349; Ianni 2011:52, 111).
The Revolution attempted to develop a revolutionary civil religion, and here it was on solid ground. A revolution ought to have public acts that recall and celebrate martyrs and heroes of the revolution and that commemorate important dates and events in the history of the struggle. Such rituals pertain to all of the people of the nation regardless of their religious beliefs. They function to establish and maintain national identity, national solidarity, and revolutionary consciousness. The Cuban Revolution, for example, has developed public acts that fulfill these functions. And in the United States, there has emerged in a similar form an American Civil Religion, which has been described by the sociologist Robert Bellah.
But the French Revolution went too far in its efforts to establish a national civil religion. It sought to eliminate and replace the Catholic religion, instead of accepting traditional religious beliefs and practices as private customs that would exist alongside national celebration of the Revolution. In its efforts to eliminate and replace the Catholic Church, the French Revolution decreed the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, thus erroneously moving into a terrain that pertains to personal beliefs (Soboul 1975:377-79).
Marx considered religious conceptions to be a consequence of human alienation and to be functional in the legitimation of the established order. Marx’s view was typical among radical European intellectuals of the nineteenth century, and it made a great deal of sense, given the actual role of the Church in legitimating the feudal social order. But it was an understanding that reflects a particular social context. Marx did not know of popular expressions of religiosity that do not involve a legitimating function and that even would legitimate popular rebellion against the established order. With advances in the scientific study of religion since Marx’s time, we today can appreciate the diverse forms of popular religiosity as well as the role that religion can play as a liberating force.
We now are able to see, therefore, that religion is adaptable. It can legitimate social stratification or it can point the way to human liberation. The religion of ancient Judaism was formulated by a band of escaped slaves who wondered for forty years in the desert and who understood God as the one who acts in history to defend the oppressed and the marginal. The religion of Moses subsequently was modified to adapt to the Kingdom of Israel in the time of David. Jesus later gave renewed emphasis to the God who was with the poor, and the Church established by his followers subsequently became an integral part of the Roman Empire and later the feudal order, functioning to legitimate social stratification. In our time, the liberating components of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been appropriated by Third World movements in opposition to the global system of social stratification. Third World liberation theology affirms that, in the global struggle between the rich and the poor, God is on the side of the poor.
The extensiveness of religious expressions in human societies perhaps suggests that spirituality is a fundamental human need. Even in Cuba, where the people have a relatively advanced revolutionary consciousness, the importance of spirituality among the people can be observed. But expressions of spirituality include a tremendous variety of religious beliefs and practices, and they can include what we generally categorize as art or culture. God can be found in a church or temple, in a poem, or in the dignified struggle of the poor and the oppressed for a more just world.
Taking into account the extensiveness and variety of religious expressions among the people, the correct revolutionary strategy is the separation of religion from the state. Religion ought to be understood as a private matter that should not in any way affect one’s participation in the construction of a just and democratic society. This implies an attitude of religious tolerance, where religious beliefs of all kinds, from religious fundamentalism to liberation theology to atheism, are socially acceptable. Meanwhile, revolutionary consciousness among the people can be developed in national celebrations, in schools and universities, in art and literature, and in the mass media. It is an error for popular revolutions to wage war on religion. If the people want to light a candle or leave a glass of water to obtain the support of the saints or to protect themselves from harm, let it be.
Ianni, Valera. 2011. La Revolución Francesa. México: Ocean Sur.
Soboul, Albert. 1975. The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, French Revolution, religion