Temple to the Nation

Patrick Deneen (Democratic Faith, xiv) tells the story of the desacralization of the Cathedral of Saint Genevieve in 1791. The national assembly decided to “rededicate the basilica as a resting place for France’s revolutionary heroes. Above its doors were carved the words, ‘Aux grands hommes la Patrie reconaissante’ (The nation honors its great men).”

The former cathedral remained a central site of France’s culture wars through the following century: “Battles over the status of the building continued through the nineteenth century, with the building’s resacralization in 1821 after the Bourbon restoration and its subsequent rededication as the ‘Temple of the Nation’ in the Second Republic. Rousseau had written in praise of purely civil forms of religion for its ability to inspire social concord and manly courage in civil life, even as he had criticized Christianity for its enervating effects on wholly civic virtues. That a Christian church was converted to a secular pantheon in order to display his remains is both at once appalling – regarding Rousseau’s disdain for Paris – yet also curiously fitting, given his praise of the role of civil religion in the service of civic virtue.”

The particular choice wasn’t accidental. Deneen calls it an “inspired” decision: “St. Geneviève became known as the patron saint of Paris for her role in saving the city as it faced imminent invasion by Atilla and the Huns in 451. . . . Wholly exposed to the invading forces renowned for their merciless butchery of civilian inhabitants, the people of Paris left their fate in the hands of God and believed their prayers answered when Atilla and his invading forces turned southward and instead attacked the city of Orleans. In contrast to the fighting female saint that would later come to defend that benighted city, Jean d’Arc, Geneviève was canonized as the patron saint of Paris for her faith and her ability to stoke the faith of others – a faith in divine intervention that required no action or intervention on the part of humanity, with the exception of prayer that importuned but did not demand or set terms. She was a protectress of the city who did not protect, a defender who did not fight, one who surrendered but who did not lose faith.”

Deneen concludes, “To desacralize the church raised in her honor, declaring the city’s preeminence over God’s, and celebrating the role of men of action and men of thought whose ideas sparked action, represented in the most direct terms a repudiation of the frail and uncertain faith of the ancients, and an affirmation of modern secular belief in human ability, power, and autonomy.”

It marked a turn from a city protected by the worship of God to a city defended by the worship of the nation.

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