Denis Diderot (Enlightenment philosopher, Jesuit, art critic and writer) is quoted as having said “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
The sentiment is a bit excessive, but I’m warming to it.
What got me going was a recent issue of a weekly newsletter I receive called “Sightings.” It is published by the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, and is devoted to issues at the intersection of religion and society. A few weeks ago, the newsletter was titled, “Politics and Priestcraft: Oh where is our Voltaire?”
In our postmodern, global, and increasingly divided society, few thin threads of shared conviction seem to bind us together. One of those spindly threads has been a rejection by many people of our Enlightenment heritage, which fueled democratic revolutions, helped to shape the US Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and, at its best, ignited a drive for emancipation, both hither and yon.
The author acknowledged the recognized deficiencies of the times: yes, there was racism, sexism, exploitation, etc. etc. But there were also profound thinkers and witty philosophes, and as he noted
This Sightings is about an Enlightenment motif that is sadly missing in our public life, and dangerously so. Call this a “non-sighting” of the Enlightenment’s philosophes and their wit and satire against those politicians and priests—of all religions—bent on duping “we the people” and thereby upending democratic sovereignty. It’s a matter of fanaticism and tyranny of the mind. The question is: where’s our Voltaire?
This diatribe was prompted–we learn about halfway in–by reports about several conservative “Christians” who have been peddling the notion that Donald Trump is a modern day King Cyrus, commissioned by God to re-Christianize America. (Actually, as the author points out, America hasn’t historically been all that Christian.– at least not if you are talking about churchgoing folks. But why let facts spoil a good story?)
Evidently, “a charismatic preacher” named Lance Wallnau appeared on a television program that is currently being hosted by disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker (do these disgraced preachers ever just fade into the sunset? Evidently not) to hawk a Donald Trump/King Cyrus gold coin.
He claimed that the coin can be used as a ‘point of contact’ between Christians and God as they pray for the re-election of Trump in 2020.” My goodness, for a mere $45 you too can own this holy talisman to connect you with God, and it’s authenticated by a TV preacher to boot. Such folderol is rife in the religious world, of course… But so too is preying (not praying) on the desperate, the lonely, or those confused and losing hope.
And that brings us to Voltaire (and Diderot).
Such priestly, predatory actions were the target of Voltaire’s wit and that of other Enlightenment philosophes as well. For all of his gleaming faults, too many to recount here, Voltaire campaigned vigorously against superstition and fanaticism.
The author defines “priestcraft” as the use of “religious means” to secure power and to control people. (Priestcraft would be Mike Pence’s ostentatious piety as opposed to the genuinely religious passion of, say, an equally political William Barber.)
Priestcraft… can fuel secrecy, misogyny, and hatred even in the most public forums of social media. Friedrich Nietzsche, on this point a good philosophe, would say that it is driven by ressentiment, that is, feelings of hatred and envy that cannot be acted on and are therefore transmuted into self-abasement or, in the case of priestcraft, wily ways to gain and keep power. If that is the case, then, priestcraft within a democracy usurps the sovereignty of “we the people.” …
We do need to have the truth of conviction to combat priestcraft in all its forms, subtle and crude, and so reclaim some, though (rightly) perhaps not all, of our Enlightenment heritage. At stake is our freedom as a people, religious or not, and, for religious folks, clarity about what really deserves adoration. At least this is what a “non-sighting” of Enlightened social criticism seems to suggest. In Immanuel Kant’s words: “Sapere Aude. Dare to think for yourself.”
For myself, I think Diderot was onto something….