Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War by Michael Burleigh - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

For Heaven Or Hell

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


HarperCollins 529pp £25

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.’

So Bonaparte made peace with Pope Pius VII and France officially became a Christian and Catholic country again. But the Church in France was damaged almost beyond reform. It had lost its lands and, very largely, its monastic culture, and had become a department of the state. It kept going,

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