God’s Economy

In August of 1789, after the Parisian insurrection and the taking of the Bastille on July 14, the National Assembly (created the previous June) set about abolishing the elaborate system of privileges upholding the First and Second Estates, from feudal dues and services, to proprietary offices, manorial courts, and tithes and plural benefices, to the aristocracy’s exemption from taxation. The annihilation of such privileges was famously the vision of Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès in What is the Third Estate? But for Sieyès and other republican theorists, abolishing aristocratic privilege was part of a much deeper vision of political transformation. It was a vision of a state-centered “dissociative democracy,” a totalistic politics in which the nation and the state become unified by dissolving all other orders of lawful existence outside of the selfhood and property of individual citizens. By the early 1790s, with decrees against the cloistered orders and secular congregations, and the famous d’Allarde and Le Chapelier laws abolishing trade unions and other corporations, revolutionary liberalism pressed further and further into the corporate and communal structures of French society and its producing classes, the artisans and peasants.

In his recently translated study of anti-corporatism in the French republican tradition (Le Modèle politique français; in English, The Demands of Liberty), the political historian Pierre Rosanvallon brings to light the fascinating legislative debates surrounding the natural legitimacy and legal status of religious communities in the early years of the French Revolution. Pierre Athanase Torné, bishop of the Cher, spearheaded the debate in the National Assembly, introducing powerful anti-corporate themes shaped by a broader political vision which saw the social functions of education, health, poor relief, etc., traditionally performed by religious orders and congregations, naturally being transferred to the state in the service of rationalizing social welfare and the broader social order. Although Germany established the first national social insurance programs in the 1880s, in reaction to the threat of socialism and the political mobilization of labor (what became the German Social Democratic Party was founded in 1869), French thinking about l’État providence (as mid-nineteenth century critics derisively labeled it) originated much earlier as part of the anti-ecclesial, anti-corporatist project of Jacobin liberalism.

Thus, social welfare provision was a battleground in church-state conflict from the very beginning of its modern, liberal-secularist phase in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, even as the Catholic Church and other established or semi-established churches in Europe conceded political disestablishment in many respects by the middle of the nineteenth century, church-state conflict in the realm of social policy only escalated in subsequent decades as emerging welfare states sought to impose various fiscal and regulatory measures designed to restrict the churches’ remaining public offices in education and social welfare. The post-disestablishment encroachments of the welfare state inaugurated a new type of confessional thinking about the role of the church in society, one based on ideas of plural sovereignty and coexisting spheres of lawful existence. As I argue in my new book, God’s Economy, the well-funded but highly devolved and predominantly “faith-based” social-service systems developed by Christian Democratic parties in Europe are one major legacy of this social-pluralist intellectual heritage.

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