Rousseau’s religion Print
By Mary Ann Glendon   
Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The religion that Rousseau “defended” was a radically subjective one, based on inner sentiment – a belief system rooted in being true to one's own feelings. It was the religion of Madame de Warens – the same religion that a U.S. Supreme Court plurality would one day attempt to establish when it announced a “right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 1992).

That private, inner religion was well-suited for the ideal polity outlined in The Social Contract. Once a truly legitimate state has been constructed, Rousseau argued, religion would be helpful in shoring it up-ideally, a patriotic “civil religion.” Sharing Hobbes’ fear of competitors for loyalty with the state, Rousseau held that a well-constituted state could be tolerant of other sorts of religious activity so long as they remained inward and private. Unlike Luther and other reformers, he was uninterested in correcting the defects of institutional religion. He came not to support their critique, but to push it to the limit.
Morality, in Rousseau’s view, was rooted in neither reason nor revelation, but in the natural feeling of compassion. Indeed, he is in an important sense the father of the politics of compassion. As we now know, however, compassion is a shaky foundation on which to build a just society. Compassion, unlike charity, is not a virtue acquired by self-discipline and habitual practice. It is only a feeling, and a fleeting one at that. It yields not only to self-preservation, but to self-interest.


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