Religion’s role in Government
In Paul Henri Dietrich’s entry within, The Encyclopedia of Diderot, one can see the tension intellectuals at the time were dealing with, as they tried to discern what the role of religion was within the government. Dietrich specifically focuses on theocracy, “a government in which a nation is submitted immediately to God, who exercises his sovereignty over her, and who makes her know his will by the organ of the prophets and ministers to whom he is pleased to manifest himself,” but his critiques of such a form of government seems to correlate with other intellectuals of the time’s view of religion’s role in the government. For instance, even though decades before Dietrich wrote his entry, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s, The Turkish Embassy Letters, grapples with the same type of religious deception and government corruption that Dietrich is concerned with.
Throughout her letters Montagu is constantly showcasing the religious art of deception that is taking place in the towns that she visits. A common characteristic she focuses on is the fact that many of the common people worship religious relics. In her 4th letter, Montagu describes her visit to the “Jesuits’ church” as, “I could not enough admire the magnificence of the alters, the rich images of the saints (all massy silver) and the enchasures of the relics, though I could not help murmuring in my heart at the profusion of pearls, diamonds, and rubies bestowed on the adornment of rotten teeth, dirty rags, etc.” Montagu seems to be taking a jab at the fact that the common people have bestow the same value for beautiful jewelry as they do these relics that are said to have value because of some religious relevancy. Montagu, being as intellectual as she is, was able to see those relics and know that the priests had deceived their followers into believing something like a rotten tooth would be of value.
Similarly, in her 6th letter, she describes visiting a church in which they proclaim to have jewels surrounding their pieces of the Cross, but Montagu is able to discern that they were false. She relates, “I don’t doubt but they were at first jewels of value, but the good fathers have found it convenient to apply them to other uses, and the people are just as well satisfied with bits of glass,” showcasing religion’s ability to make its followers complicit in the priests’ deceptions.
Furthermore, in her 12th letter, Montagu, in a rage, states “I never in my life had so little charity for the Roman Catholic religion as since I see the misery it occasions so any poor unhappy women, and the gross superstition of the common people, who are some or other of them, day and night, offering bits of candle to the wooden figures that are set up almost in every street.” Here, Montagu is criticizing as specific denomination of Christianity for its deception of its people; one, for tricking women into nun-hood, which seems to be a type of imprisonment, and two, for convincing the common people to submit offerings to a wooden figure with what seems to be a lack of reasoning, besides the power of the religious priests’ to convince people on the grounds of divine understanding that is out of reach for the common people.
Montagu did not only expose religious deception through the acknowledgment of fake relics, but also through the means of what the priests’ actually taught the common people. For example, in her 28th letter, Montagu states, “But the most prevailing opinion, if you search into the secret of the effendis is plain deism, but this is kept from the people, who are amused with a thousand different notions, according to the different interests of their preachers,” explicitly confronting the fact that the preachers understand natural reasoning, but are choosing to deceive the common people in order to gain something for themselves. In the same letter Montagu speaks with a preacher that explains why preachers should be able to drink wine, even though the religious text says no one should, and it is explained in a way that simply asserts priests are at a higher understanding, and can be above the laws that they preach. This of course would raise red flags and alarms to those of the age of enlightenment, because this directly contradicts the idea that all humans are rational creatures that are able to come to the understanding of the world around them, as well as God, by pure experience and reflection. Priests seem to be inserting themselves into that process and tainting the common people’s understanding. This would especially strike a cord with Montagu, seeing as she's a philosopher in her own right, passionate about travel and experiencing the world for herself. Her travels have allowed her to perceive the world differently, and would find priests acting as government officials, with the power to manipulate the masses' thoughts, as a hinderance on the very important self discovery of one's philosophy.
As Montagu brings religious deception to the forefront in many of her letters, she also tackles the ideals of government. In letter 28, Montagu relays that “Indeed, the janissaries had no mercy on heir poverty, killing all the poultry and sheep they could find, without asking who they belonged to, while wretched owners durst not put their claim for fear of being beaten. […] such is the natural corruption of a military government,“ these observations paired with the frequent commentary on religious deception makes the reader notice an eerie similarity. Both the military government, and the religions being practiced seem to be exploitative, and Montagu seems to be charging them with guilt for misleading and mistreating the common people. This theme is further explored in the writings of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, where God and his followers are the reason for the corruption, enslavement and violent death of Oroonoko. So through Montagu's letters, she is stressing that neither a military mindset, nor a religious one, is the way to lead people, and it seems that this would fit right at home in the age of enlightenment in which the power should be in the individual.
In the same way Montagu seems to scorn military rule as a form of government, she also criticizes absolute monarchies. Even in one of her earlier travels, in her 5th letter she states, “’tis impossible not to observe the difference between the free towns, and those under the government of absolute princes (as all the little sovereigns of Germany are). In the first there appears an air of commerce and plenty,” expressing that absolute rule seems to stiffen the individual’s abilities, which is the privilege of communing in commerce. Likewise, in letter 29, Montagu writes about absolute government that is in Adrianople, and states, “This is the blessed condition of the most absolute monarch upon earth, who owns no law but his will. I cannot help wishing (in the loyalty of my heart) that the Parliament would send hither a ship-load of your passive obedient men, that they might see arbitrary government in its clearest, strongest light, where ‘tis hard to judge whether the prince, people or ministers are most miserable.” Montagu seems to suggest that it is foolish to want an absolute monarch, because it leads to complete societal unhappiness. She mocks that some of the men of England should travel to Adrianople just to experience the absolute monarchy that they seem to wish for, and that if they witnessed it themselves, they would stop trying to create a type of absolute monarchy supported by the religious deception that the English kings have a divine right to have complete power. The critique of both an absolute monarchy that resembles a theocracy is a key factor in showing the lack of trust intellectuals of the time had of religion, or of one man’s ability to run a society.
Overall, Dietrich’s reflections on theocracy seem to be well grounded in the beliefs of the time, as people like Montagu, decades before, witnessed countless religious deceptions that kept common people from being able to use their own reasoning, and corruption in governments that wield too much power. As long as religion can be used to deceive and people are greedy for power, freedom to think is the only way in which a society can be successfully governed.