The Priest and the Prince: Co-Opting the Church
The Hume-Gibbon attack on Christianity brought to bear harsh criticism of a church which used its political power to crush its spiritual rivals. Pagan Rome was relatively tolerant of diverse religious practices—a favorable circumstance for the advancement of the freedom of thought in the view of Hume and Gibbon—and the predominately civic character of the theologically primitive polytheistic cults seemed to appeal to both of these philosophic historians. Hume’s Natural History and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall link the phenomena of religious intolerance and chauvinism inexorably to the growth and development of the monotheistic doctrines that emerged in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the history of Christianity, as Hume and Gibbon present it, the political development of the church, with a jealously protected body of doctrinal truth and with its increasing power and influence, puts into play a highly visible but unstable tension between the aspirations of otherworldly spirituality and this-worldly ambition. In the history of Christianity we observe the development of a class of spiritual professionals (the clergy) who balance their spiritual designs with their rivalry for material goods, including political power. In the church Hume and Gibbon saw a slavish and uncritical devotion to orthodoxy and a vested interest in the elevation of superstition.
KeywordsPolitical Power Original Italic Religious Toleration Religious Ideology Philosophic Historian
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