A Tale of Two Revolutions: Who Is the ‘Supreme Being’?

Written by: John Kenyon, CCO

Today is Independence Day, the 4th of July. Even with our present-day historical amnesia, most know today is the nation’s birth date and that the document that established it is called the Declaration of Independence; now 243 years old. As we mark this anniversary, there is no debate that America is in crisis. 

This crisis is a conflict centered on both political and cultural ideology. In any conflict one can become myopic and unable to see the holes in their own thinking. That is why, in times of conflict, an outsider is often brought to assess the situation. Os Guinness, a British author and social critic, has provided that assessment. 

In his book, Last Call for Liberty (2018), he shares what he sees as the fundamental underlying ideology of this crisis. Publisher Weekly stated:

He asserts that America contains two contradictory impulses: a striving to continue the Christian understanding of freedom found in the American Revolution, and the urge to collapse into … secularist version of liberty espoused in the French Revolution. …. In the end, the book becomes a call for return to what he views as the strong Christian morality of the Founding Fathers …. 

Is it true? Was there a difference in the ideology of the two revolutions?

The Declaration of Independence references God four times. It begins with an appeal to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” and ends with “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” 

Let us now turn to the French Revolution’s founding document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. There is one reference to a ‘Supreme Being’. The document reads, “the National Assembly … proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen.” Yet, this is marginalized as article 3 of that document states, “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.” Another philosopher and writer, Francis Schaffer, summarized the effect of this in his book How Should We Then Live? He wrote, “‘the Supreme Being’ equaled ‘the sovereignty of the nation’—that is, the general will of the people.” 

Schaffer also saw the differences in the two revolutions: the American was grounded in the principles of the Reformation, the French removed “the Christian base and heritage” and looked to Enlightenment principles that “man and society were perfectible.” He noted the failure of the French ideology based on man’s perfectibility when he wrote: 

It took two years for the National Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution (1789-1791). Within a year it was a dead letter. By that time what is often known as the Second French Revolution was in motion, leading to a bloodbath that ended with the revolutionary leaders themselves being killed. 

Ideas, how one thinks, give birth to actions and ultimately to results. The fundamental difference between these revolutions was a contrast of one looking to God the other to man. 

If there is any questioning of this contrast, let the following put it to rest. In the wake of the French revolution, its leadership instituted the Cult of Reason (civic religion), which was atheistic. A Festival of Reason, celebrated in November of 1793, saw the transformation of churches across France into modern Temples of Reason with the altars removed and a new altar raised to Liberty. During that festival Anacharsis Clootz, a leading figure in the movement, proclaimed “that henceforward there would be ‘one God only, Le Peuple’” This a far cry from what was proclaimed by the pen of Jefferson which placed sovereignty in another sphere, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

So what is the point? As mentioned above, ideas produce action that create results. Let’s look at the results.

Since the year 1789 the result of the French experiment is a nation now in its 5th Republic. The 1st Republic quickly led to anarchy in the Reign of Terror and soon after to the establishment of a dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. It would return to a monarchy in 1815 after Napoleon’s exile and would see a change in the monarchy in 1830. The 2nd Republic began in 1848 but lasted only 3 years and once again led back to a dictator in Napoleon III. The 3rd Republic would be established in 1870. After World War II, the 4th Republic would last until 1958 when the 5th Republic was established. In all, it suffered nine changes in 230 years.

America is different. In its 243 year history, there has been one change. The government established on the Articles of Confederation ended in 1788 and the Constitution became the supreme law of the land. Using that date America has now had the same government for over 231 years. It is the longest standing Constitution in the world; a document George Washington said was a “miracle”. 

All this is in no way intended to shed a negative light upon the French people. The success of the American experiment is not founded on man but on God. If the foundational thinking were reversed, the outcome would be different. Madison in The Federalist Papers #51 tells us man is no angel and to acknowledge that enables government to be structured to avoid “reigns of terror”.

What do we do with this?

Let us look to a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America (1835).  As an outsider he saw the influence God had upon this nation. He wrote:

In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common; but there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.

Notice this in particular: de Tocqueville saw the Christian religion as a pivotal influence upon the soul of America, the “most enlightened and free nation on the earth”. 

Today we have almost utterly banished God from our public square; man, deemed perfectible, is the sovereign. The call is to throw off the shackles of the past and relegate God to private musings; this will bring peace and prosperity. There once was a tale of two revolutions, one succeeded and one failed. I don’t know about you, but if I was a betting man, my money would go on the known winner.

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