Paul Johnson

For Heaven Or Hell

Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War

By

HarperCollins 529pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

This wide-ranging book attempts to analyse the relationship between religion and politics from the French Revolution in 1789 to the start of the 1914 War. The French Revolution is a natural starting point because, although secularisation had been spreading throughout the eighteenth century (indeed, ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 had ended the wars of religion with a compromise), the revolutionaries were the first to legitimise scepticism about the existence of God and to attempt to substitute a state cult for the tradition of Christianity. It was not a success. Bonaparte, when he came to power, felt that something was missing in the process of mobilising the entire nation into a fighting-machine for the conquest of Europe. That factor was religion. The Cult of Reason was a purely intellectual movement which did not stir the emotions. Any attempt to symbolise rationality was ludicrous. Michael Burleigh describes one of the ceremonies from a revolutionary festival: ‘An imposing Egyptoid statue of Nature disbursed water from her multiple breasts into a cup held aloft by the president of the Convention. He then passed this cup to eighty-six elderly men representing the departments, who drank, kissed and uttered patriotic sentiments.’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter