The Cult of the Supreme Being

One of the main factors contributing to the French Revolution was an intensifying contempt for the relationship between the Catholic church and the State. Robespierre alludes to this dissatisfaction in his writing saying, “He did not create priests to harness us … to the chariots of kings”. Robespierre was one of the most influential figures in the French Revolution, but rather than lead a charge against the Church and religion like some of his revolutionary peers, he is able to rally a cause for revolution fueled by new, but fervent religious grounds. The Cult of the Supreme Being calls asserts the existence of benevolent and divine being, “who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice.” It is He who provides the revolutionists with the strength and purpose for their cause Robespierre asserts. Robespierre’s call to action is one based on religious service and natural rights: “Our blood flows for the cause of humanity. Behold our prayer. Behold our sacrifices. Behold the worship we offer Thee.”

Again, this call to sacred action appears in La Marseillaise, which claims a “Sacred love of the fatherland” will guide the revolution to victory over the “impure blood” of their enemies.

From these two readings, it becomes visible just how much the French Revolution is changing perceptions of religion and the people’s place in the State.

French Revolution Political and Cultural Ties

During the French Revolution, the political philosophies and the cultural identity of the people were very closely intertwined. Both influenced by the internalized philosophies of the Enlightenment, the transformations in each category was an attempt to influence the other. It is most apparent of these ties when looking at direct examples of revolutionary culture, and how basic elements of daily life transitioned so that even the smallest changes reflected the desired political philosophies.
The influences of the Enlightenment showed a mentality shift towards reason and progress- to Frenchmen at the time, this meant stepping away from the monarchy and towards democracy. Reason was represented through the presence of Greek culture – the birthplace of democracy- and showed their support of a new form of governing. Exemplified in revolutionary dress, there was a shift towards wearing more Greek- like clothing- embracing the average dress of those within a democratic state. Their progress meant that in daily culture any representation of the monarchy was removed so that nothing showed approval of that system. Simple games of chess, cards, and even names of children shifted in society so that no kings or queens were mentioned. Similarly, in attempts to rebrand the nation, new flags and festivals were created (such as Revolution Day). This obvious cultural transition was simultaneously a political statement- intertwining the use of culture as protest.
Enlightenment philosophies also displayed themselves in the acceptance of religion at the time.  Just as the nation was rebranded with new flags and festivals as its representation, so was religion remarketed to the public with deism. Robespierre needed to accomplish this so that he could use religion to connect with the people- allow them to accept the Enlightenment philosophies of science, yet not neglect the cultural undertones of religion that perpetually exist.
Essentially, the connections between the political and cultural elements of the French Revolution can be seen through Enlightenment principles. As both categories became more and more influenced by them, they simultaneously tried to use them to alter French society as a whole.


Religion in a Revolutionary Context

Religion remained the primary justification of the French Revolution by the citizens of the third estate. Robespierre, the leader of Public Safety, pushed both ideologies of Supreme “Reason” and “Being” in order to provide a more understandable means to motivate revolutionaries. The state religion at the time revolved around a Deist philosophy, the notion that there is no divine intervention and God is a clockmaker who merely wound up the springs of nature and set them into motion. Logically, because God cannot interrupt the flow of the human course, but simultaneously promoted particular virtues that the monarchy did not reflect, it became justified that it was their right to overthrow the atheistic monarch to perpetuate God’s will. Religious sentiments such as these are extremely powerful. When man and woman can be convinced that their violence is justified and the result will bring them higher fortunes, it is very difficult to stop them.

La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem composed during the French Revolution, contained very violent language that no one could find religiously justifiable without it’s context. Phrases such as “Their impure blood should water our fields”, paired with adjectives like “vengeful”, actually caused it to be banned by Napoleon and Louis XVIII due to its revolutionary implications. These documents reveal that revolutionary culture during the French Revolution was fueled by violence while simultaneously being justified in religious contexts.

Values of Revolutionary Culture

La Marseillaise is a remarkably bloodthirsty national anthem, marking the desire for revenge over those who oppressed the French citizenry. It is interesting that Rouget de Lisle was himself a royalist, not only because he composed this anthem in a revolutionary spirit, but also because of the incredibly violent nature of the lyrics:

Aux armes citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons.

To arms, citizens!
Form up your battalions
Let us march, Let us march!
That their impure blood
Should water our fields

These lyrics express a desire to repay blood with blood, which with the limited information about Rouget de Lisle provided, is strange because it would seem that himself, as a royalist, would be one of the ones whose blood would “water [the] fields.” It would seem that he took a great risk by refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new constitution, and he narrowly escaped the guillotine.

The Cult of the Supreme Being by Robespierre at parts seems almost to contradict many of the events of the Reign of Terror. Robespierre says the Supreme Being “created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.” According to him, however, this only applies to those Frenchmen taking part in the revolution, and basically the opposite applies to the oppressors.

These references to the “Supreme Being” are the establishment of Deism as a state religion, meaning that Robespierre and many French revolutionists believed that there was a Supreme Being, or God, who created the universe but did not interact with it. The revolutionists believed that the Supreme Being was in favor of their movement and against all those who opposed it. This, again seems to be contradictory since a main tenet of deism is that the Supreme Being does not interact with the universe which He created.

These works by Rouget de Lisle and Robespierre show us that the values of revolutionary culture were geared primarily at attaining their goal of overthrowing the French monarchy and establishing a new order. They were not necessarily concerned with absolute consistency in their ideals, as is evident in the 40,000 people who were sent to the guillotine while revolutionists preached that the Supreme Being created man to “love each other mutually” and to seek enlightenment. Robespierre says “[m]ay all the crimes and all the misfortunes of the world disappear…Armed in turn with the daggers of fanaticism and the poisons of atheism, kings have always conspired to assassinate humanity.” This seems oddly reminiscent of the way the revolutionists handled their Reign of Terror; one could easily argue that there were a great many crimes and misfortunes inflicted on the world, and a great many assassinations were carried out at the guillotine.

Values of the revolutionary culture

The French National Anthem, written by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle clearly demonstrates the values of the French Revolution. Copies were given to revolutionary forces and it became widespread and well known, so as to inspire and motivate the revolutionaries. One stanza reads, “To arms, citizens! Form up your battalions. Let us march, Let us march! That their impure blood. Should water our fields.” This clearly reveals the blatant violence and fierceness that fueled the revolution. The anthem was composed in 1792, the year the king was executed and the beginning of the period of Terror that would see more than 40,000 people executed. The bloodthirsty nature of the anthem reflects the violence occurring in France during this time and shows that the values were war and violence based, encouraging death to gain liberty, and shedding blood, as the only way to achieve their goal. 

The Cult of the Supreme Being seems at first to encourage more peaceful values than La Marseilles. However upon further reading it is obvious that the document also encourages violence and war. Robespierre states that those actions are justified because that is what God would have wanted. Robespierre says that He did not create anything or anyone to harm the human race, but rather to love and care for each other. However, since these values of compassion towards others are not being upheld, those who go against it must be killed, “Perish the tyrants who have dared to break it!”. War is encouraged in the author’s stating that the earth must be purified of those who go against God, and those who are evil, thus fueling the violent nature of the revolution.


Values and Goals of the French Revolution

The bloodiness of the French Revolution came from its values, which are especially seen in La Marseillaise and The Cult of the Supreme Being. The French National anthem is drastically different from the American equivalent. It promotes values of war and violence to achieve liberty. La Marseillaise inspired citizens to take up arms to end government tyranny. The anthem is appropriate for troops marching into combat under heavy fire whereas the Star-Spangled Banner focuses on the values achieved by the war’s success such as liberty and equality.

The Cult of the Supreme Being, written by Robespierre in the Reign of Terror, represents similar values of violence and rebellion but from a very different angle. Robespierre justifies the call to arms with religion. He merges God with war by saying the He created men to help one another and that it is their duty to “purify the earth which they have soiled.” His radical writings are faith with fanaticism. Robespierre is careful to give “Him” a new name–The Supreme Being–to avoid losing the supports of more religious people of the Third Estate.

The dramatic text is an extreme, twisted version of civil religion. Instead of creating loyalty to the state through religious symbolism, he creates loyalty to the French Revolution with religious symbolism. He is certainly not the first to make his own perspective on religious to further violent goals.

The goals of the famous texts which inspired the revolution were corrupted during the actual revolution. Instead of achieving enlightenment through thinking for oneself or engaging in intellectual debate to better civil society, the goal became a violent overthrow of government tyranny. The French Revolution was an accurate depiction of Hobbes’ state of nature. Perhaps a contributing factor to the French Revolution’s unsuccessfulness (as compared to America) was that the civil religion used to inspire and justify the bloody revolution was never adapted for peacetime. Just a speculation…