A Brief History
On October 5, 1793, Christian Europe was rocked by the Revolutionary Government of France declaring the disestablishment (or dechristianization) of France, a move specifically intended to remove the influence of the Catholic Church upon France and the French people. The Catholic Church had made the French (and other) monarchies “legitimate” by giving the monarchy the mantle of having the will of God behind who the king or queen was. Additionally, the ability of the Church to demand tithes (a sort of 10% tax on gross income if you are not familiar with this) and the power of the Church exercised through declaring any dissident a “heretic” and killing off enemies of the Church under the veil of “God’s Will.”
Revolutionary France pretty much had had it with monarchs and the Church using their doctrine to keep the masses in their place, and this was a big step toward equality through secularization. The revoking of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 had outlawed any religion in France other than Catholic, although small minorities of Jews and Protestants did exist, especially in the outer provinces. The Catholic Church was by far the largest landholder in France, and controlled civil records such as births, deaths, and marriages. The income of the Church was enormous, and so was its power, a situation poor working slobs did not find amusing. The Church also provided most of the education and hospitals in France, further cementing their hold on the population.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August of 1789 had paved the way for the dechristianization of the country by declaring Freedom of Religion as part of the doctrine of Liberty which took away the monopoly on religion the Catholic Church had enjoyed. On October 10, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly went a step further and seized the property held by the Church and put it up for sale, while in July of 1790 the Civil Constitution of the Clergy made the Catholic Church officially subservient to the Government, a situation not surprisingly not endorse by the Vatican.
Religious statues, crosses, and bells were destroyed, and religion was replaced by the Cult of Reason (and later the Cult of the Supreme Being). In 1793 any clergy that had not sworn an oath of loyalty to the State and any person harboring such a “non-juring” clergyman would be put to death.
This situation of casting out the Catholic Church and Christianity in general was overturned by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Concordat of 1801 in which a sort of détente was reached between France and the Catholic Church. The Church had regained much of its power, but at the expense of recognizing Napoleon’s authority. Napoleon, probably an atheist or agnostic, was a master of manipulating populations of France and conquered territories through religion.
Historically a similar disestablishment of religion took place during the consolidation of the Communist Revolution in Russia (1917) when the Communists declared the country officially atheist and greatly curtailed activities of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.
Question for students (and subscribers): Will the United States ever see something similar to the above situations, perhaps by doing away with the tax free status of churches? Should we? Please give us your opinions on these subjects in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804. The Catholic University of America Press, 2000.
Van Kley, Dale K. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. Yale University Press, 1996.