View of Central Hall through some blooming trees.

Religious Liberty and Rousseau’s Ideal Commonwealth

Written by Jonathan Ashbach

On February 14, Alyssa Cortes gave Hillsdale’s first doctoral research presentation of the 2018-2019 school year. Hillsdale produced its first two earned Ph.D.s last year, and Cortes is the first of four students expected to complete the degree requirements in the program’s second wave of doctoral graduates. She took the floor to cheers and laughter as she joked that any attendees who would rather be spending their Valentine’s evening elsewhere simply had to be “forced to be free” and learn about Rousseau.

Rousseau was the eighteenth century Genevan social contract philosopher sometimes faulted for fostering the myth of the “noble savage” and laying the intellectual groundwork for the French Revolution. Cortes’s research focuses on the chapter discussing “Civil Religion” in his Social Contract. Her dissertation is titled “Between Numa and the Apostle James: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Conflict between Religion and Politics.” The dissertation panel was chaired by Dr. Matthew Mendham, who has taught Rousseau for the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship. He and Cortes shared a moment of wry humor when she thanked him for his commiseration through the difficult process of making sense out of so elusive a writer.

In the chapter on which her research focused, Cortes explained, Rousseau describes three types of problematic religion and his own ideal as an alternative to these. The Religion of the Priest is the worst form of religion, according to Rousseau, dividing political authority between church and state and thus leading to fanaticism and political confusion. The Religion of the Citizen incorporates religion into patriotism, which unifies the community, but at the expense of making it hostile to all others. And finally, Gospel Christianity, says Rousseau, is beneficial to humankind as a whole but destroys solidarity within a polity, for it focuses the affections entirely on the world to come. In contrast, Rousseau’s ideal involves affirmation of a brief creed that includes the existence of a beneficent God, rewards and punishments in an afterlife, the sanctity of the community’s laws, and rejection of beliefs deemed civilly and theologically intolerant.

Cortes argues that Rousseau was attempting in this chapter to accomplish three things: retain the political benefits of religion, mitigate its political disadvantages, and respect religious liberty. Despite the disadvantages noted above, she says, Rousseau believed that religion offered benefits such as promoting citizens’ voluntary submission to the laws, fostering community unity, and motivating just behavior. It can also serve as a check on tyranny and a motivation to patriotic self-sacrifice. Further, despite the apparent potential for Rousseau’s civil creed to impinge upon traditional religious beliefs, Cortes argues that Rousseau recognized the state’s inability to judge anything other than outward action. Citizens of his ideal commonwealth would therefore in fact be allowed to believe what they pleased, so long as their outward actions conform to Rousseau’s civil creed. While this would not necessarily satisfy orthodox believers, Cortes argues, it does represent a greater degree of religious liberty than that for which Rousseau is typically given credit.

The newly minted Dr. Cortes and her husband, Bruno, have both accepted positions at Founders Classical Academy in Texas and will be teaching there next year. The two are also preparing to welcome their first child, who is due in early June.

Jonathan Ashbach

Written in April 2019