We say all the time on BreakPoint that reason and faith go hand in glove. But in revolutionary France, the disciples of reason unleashed one of the bloodiest revolutions in history.
Last week, fireworks exploded over Paris, lighting up the Eiffel Tower. French citizens were celebrating the two-hundred and twenty-ninth anniversary of Bastille Day, a holiday recalling the storming of the Bastille fortress at the beginning of the French Revolution.
But not everyone in France was celebrating—and with good reason.
While people tend to view the French Revolution in a positive light, many of its darker elements have been forgotten, or suppressed. As my friend John Zmirak wrote in Crisis magazine, Bastille Day “marks the beginning of the greatest organized persecution of Christians since” the fourth century. And he argues that these brutal attacks spawned the killing sprees carried out by revolutionary leaders over the next two hundred years.
French radicals inspired by secular, Enlightenment philosophy, wanted to expunge all religious influence and replace it with “reason.” This ideal was exemplified at Notre Dame, where revolutionaries removed Christian symbols and replaced them with “Goddesses of Reason”—women dressed provocatively in Roman attire who danced about the cathedral—now a Temple of Reason. All clergy were ordered to declare allegiance to the state rather than the church.
Catholic peasants in the Vendee region revolted; Some 300,000 of these rebels were killed, most in terrible ways. It was, writes historian Francois Furet, “massacre and destruction on an unprecedented scale” and revealed “a zeal so violent that it has bestowed as its legacy much of the region’s identity.”
Ironically, Zmirak notes, the French monarchy helped sow the seeds of its own destruction back in 1767, when the King began the suppression of the Jesuits because they were loyal first to Rome and not to the crown.
The result: Children who would have been educated at Jesuit schools instead had their heads filled with Enlightenment teachings. They reached maturity right around 1789—the year the French Revolution began. Having been taught vicious lies about the behavior of nuns and priests, they heartily approved of their slaughter.
And the atrocities didn’t stop with French revolutionaries. In 1993, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke at the opening ceremonies of a museum in Vendee dedicated to the memory of those who were butchered two hundred years before. He noted that Russia’s Communist leaders “studiously re-enacted on the body of Russia many of the French revolution’s cruelest methods.”
Nazi leaders also took a page out of the French revolutionary playbook: In France, radicals made off with church property, claiming that they were merely engaging in “secularization.” One hundred and fifty years later, the Nazis stole Jewish property, and called what they were doing “aryanization.”
Today, secular academics celebrate Enlightenment thinking, crediting its embrace of “reason” above all else for great advances in science. But lost is the full story of what happens when “reason” is enshrined above all else: a bloodbath so terrible that, even today, citizens of Vendee wear black armbands on Bastille Day.
And this is what we ought to remember when we see efforts to drive religion—and religious believers—from the public square. In America, hostility toward the faithful is at an all-time high. And—as with the French Revolution—we ‘re seeing determined efforts to force Christians to, in effect, pledge allegiance to the state over the church.
On Bastille Day, we ought to remember the victims of the French Revolution, and remind our neighbors what really happened during the years the French fought for liberté, égalité, and fraternité: Revolution attacked religion, and God was replaced with the guillotine.
Mourning Bastille Day: “Reason’s” Radical Assault on Christianity
To read John Zmirak’s article “Bastille Day: Baptism by Blood,” click on the link in our Resources section.
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