The relationship between Catholicism and liberal democracy has been, is and will always be a complex one. To say that the founding fathers of Liberal political thought were less than friendly to the Catholic faith would be to engage in resounding understatement. Even the more allegedly benign ones, like Locke, singled out Catholicism for its inherent incompatibility with Liberalism. Hobbes and Rousseau were more overt. The problem with Catholicism is so obvious, the latter tells us, that it need not even be argued.

But what, exactly, was the problem? Well, obviously we can’t forget that all of the modern political philosophers were reacting to various overreaches on the part of the Church. Hobbes and Locke are reeling from the so-called “wars of religion,” and Rousseau had his fill of the French Catholic Church’s rather too cozy relationship with the French aristocracy (the ancien regime ). Nevertheless, the critique goes much deeper than the abuses of the late medieval-early modern Church.

This becomes clear if we look at the two central aspects of Rousseau’s political philosophy: the social contract and the idea of civil religion. The first is Rousseau’s attempt to retrieve Hobbes (for whom he had significant respect) without the authoritarianism. Rousseau’s “state of nature” is much less nasty than Hobbes’, but equally requires some version of society. Even if the human person is most himself and freest when least encumbered with social, traditional, religious or familial ties, society is a necessary evil which protects as much as possible the freedom of the individual without being much of a threat to it. That society is the social contract, which is designed to express the will of the people.

Like most modern thinkers, Rousseau has an enormous amount of confidence in the ability of the “moral law within” (to quote another Rousseauian philosopher) to point each of us in the right direction. Indeed, the natural law is indistinguishable in his thought from private, individual conscience. And conscience is no longer rooted in something “above” the individual, which therefore needs to be formed by a healthy and traditional community; conscience is a perfectly functioning tool residing already in tact in the heart of every individual.

This leads to Rousseau’s understanding of civil religion. If the social contract is the structure of his thought, civil religion provides its soul. This civil religion is intimately connected to conscience, insofar as it contains very few commands and only one restriction: against intolerance.

Because conscience is present in every individual and corresponds so nicely to the contents of civil religion (i.e., Deism), the role of organized religion (read, the Catholic Church) is thought to be not only unnecessary for but also the enemy of Democratic society. Why?  Because it divides people’s allegiances between two kingdoms, and provides an institutionally robust alternative to the state. Sometimes Rousseau blames this divided allegiance on Jesus himself, but usually he says it’s a result of the Church’s distortion of Jesus’s simple, humanitarian message. In short, Jesus too preached civil religion and the Church came up with a complicated set of rules and dogmas that simply restrict individual freedom and make for unruly citizens.

Rousseau, it turns out, radically underestimated the degree to which the “no-brainer” morality which he attributed to the “moral law within” was in fact the product of the profound influence of actual, institutional, historical Christianity. The allegedly common sense values of Jesus were certainly not those of the Roman Pilate. The way Christians treated “unwanted” babies in the early years of the Roman Empire was quite different from their Roman counterparts. The same could be said for the way they treated their women, their servants, their sick and their dying.

Having just gone over Rousseau in my Christianity and Politics course, the thing that struck my students most was how contemporary he sounded. He was “spiritual, but not religious.” He was okay with Jesus, but not with organized religion. He had a very optimistic view of human beings and their basic goodness. He had a purely negative and individualistic view of freedom. We concluded that he sounded like an educated version of Oprah Winfrey.

It is also interesting that our treatment of Rousseau extended right through the election. I had predicted to them that the Catholic vote would make no difference in this election, that Catholics would vote in almost identical fashion to the rest of America. They, being a little less jaded than myself, were incredulous. It turns out that Catholics voted 49 percent for Romney and 48 percent for Obama. After the election they asked me how I knew and what this had to do with Rousseau. I told them that Catholics used to be the only people in this country who did not practice Rousseau’s “civil religion.”

But this is no longer the case. Catholics now, too, are civil religionists, and in our country this manifests itself in either a “conservative” or “liberal” guise. Conservative Catholics think and vote just like conservative Americans in general; and liberal Catholics think and vote just like liberal Americans in general. And that’s because we’ve also become Rousseuaians who think that the specifics of our faith have or should have nothing to do with politics. Rousseau has won. When a Catholic enters into the public realm, he, too, becomes a Deist and believes that theology is irrelevant. All that’s left, then, is to be a good Republican or a good Democrat; and that is what we’ve become.

Rodney Howsare is professor of theology at DeSales University .

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