Proceeding with his discussion of religion in the life of a republic, Machiavelli argues that it is perhaps the key feature to the long-term maintenance of an uncorrupted society. (We should here remember that what he means by “uncorrupted” may be very different from our definition of the word.) This is because religions carry within themselves the principle of order. The problem is that as time goes on some citizens—especially the rich and powerful—lose their faith in religion and start to twist its precepts to their own ends. And once the voice of religion becomes the voice of the powerful, the commoners start to disdain it as well. When finally no one in society respects religion, the principle of order it carries is lost and society’s collapse is hastened.
That said, Machiavelli argues that it makes no difference whether we actually believe in the religion of the society or not; we have a civic responsibility to keep it as pure and close to its original forms as possible so that the civic good is maintained. Nor do the doctrines of the religion seem to matter all that much to Machiavelli. Ancient Rome’s paganism was just as good as (perhaps even better than) his contemporary Christianity. So long as it carries the principle of order, the doctrines and standards are irrelevant. And so long as the citizen body respects the established order of its religion, how genuine their faith is likewise is irrelevant.
The Swiss, Machiavelli argues, understand this and “are today the only peoples who live according to the ancients as regards both religion and military orders” (I.12.2). Likewise the Romans not only understood the importance of religion, but were quite willing to use it to shape public policy as needed. This is perhaps never more clear than when they ignored the precepts of their religion in order to accomplish their civic ends (I.15). Even the example of the Samnites, who made an unsuccessful last-ditch appeal to religion for the military salvation of their state, is for Machiavelli only further confirmation of how central and critical religion is to the well-run state. Where I would be tempted to see a counterexample to Machiavelli’s use of religion—the Samnites lost after all—Machiavelli sees a society that, because of its religion, maintained good order until the end.
Machiavelli’s Italy, on the other hand, demonstrates what happens when religion goes wrong. To be sure the Latin Church has dominated Italy for a long time—in that sense religion in Italy is somewhat stable. However, this stability has done more harm than good because it is neither strong nor weak, but a sort of in-between strength that hurts everyone. By this Machiavelli means that the Roman Church is strong enough that no one has been able to unify Italy (as compared with France or Spain), while simultaneously being too weak to unify Italy itself. As a result Italy remains divided with no one possessing enough power to impose order on the region, and so all the states therein are slowly slipping into decay. No one benefits from the order that a better religion would have the potential to provide.
I’m not sure this is the best place to raise this question (it will almost certainly come up again later), but as this was a shorter/simpler reading this might be a good time to raise the issue of the proper role of religion in society. I think that in this case Machiavelli is both right and wrong. On the one hand, I happen to think that religion is an essential part of civic life. It is one of the institutions/customs/traditions/etc. that helps a society maintain order in this generation and pass that order on to the next generation. On the other hand, this sort of usefulness will never fully apply to my own religion: Christianity. That is because Christianity is always to some extent going to be a cancer within civic life (at the very least from the perspective of the civic body, if not also in reality). Christians are always going to give their final and ultimate allegiance to a Sovereign who is above the temporary and fleeting state. Which means that so long as there are Christians in the state, there will be a class of people who say “I don’t care what society demands, I must obey Christ instead.” This is exactly what the early Christians were persecuted for—and if you haven’t read them, Wilcken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them and Chadwick’s Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition are both simply superb. While this resistance does not automatically mean that Christians will be bad citizens, it does mean that the kind of unity and order that Machiavelli (and, if we’re being honest, every political philosopher) desires will have cracks in it as long as there is a faithful church somewhere within the state. Christian citizens can never have the kind of full unity with other citizens that the state demands—whether the organic unity of Aristotle or the glorious unity of Machiavelli or the mechanical unity of Hobbes.
At the risk of getting the discussion too far beyond Machiavelli, I think this also shows why so many attempts to establish “Christian states” have failed so miserably, either as states or as “Christian.” Whether we look at Rome and Byzantium under the later emperors, the Holy Roman Empire, the Puritan republics (whether colonial American, English, or continental), and so on, we always see states that simply cannot survive the tension between competing goals built into their structures from the start.
So the short version is, I think Machiavelli is right that Christianity is somewhat bad for social unity/order/glory/etc., but for very, very different reasons than the ones he gives.
Please feel free to speak up if you disagree!
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.