CS: Chris Staron (host)
JB: Pastor Justin Butler (guest)
CS: Here we are. Just over a year away from the next presidential election in the United States. The debates are already going. Candidates are stumping, making speeches, shaking hands. Some of them, many of them, are making claims. About their religion and what it means to be a believer.
Religion to many of us is important in elected officials. It helps us understand how they view the world. Thought, at least in the United States, people on both sides claim Jesus. Whether or not those confession are sincere… we may never know.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the United States. And it’s not new. Not by a long shot.
Okay, picture a leader. A strongman figure. Who believes in a well-funded army. Who has international reach. People, regular people, love him. And many hate him too. The nation is tired of war, but fires keep getting started and they have to be put out. The leader is kinda heavyset and is capable of going off the handle, likes to twist arms to get what he wants.
This leader used religion to get what he wanted. Made friends… and then enemies with the clergy. Certainly didn’t talk like a man of God. He came to power in a nation that was moving into atheism. Sometimes it seemed he was at war with the church, at the same time he we was trying to court it. He was considered by some to be the savior and others considered him the antichrist.
I’m talking, of course, about Napoleon Bonaparte.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
CS: Our tour guide on this journey is Pastor Justin Butler.
JB: I’m Justin Butler. I’m a Napoleonic historian and a pastor.
CS: He’s the senior pastor at Highland Christian Church in Maysville, KY.
JB: Being not only a Napoleonic historian but a pastor is a pretty unique field.
CS: He’s written a lot on the subject. Including a book called Double-Sided Power: Studies in the Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Together we’re going to explore Napoleon Bonaparte’s relationship with religion. Which was a tenuous one at best
JB: Because it’s not really for him so much as a system of beliefs and life changing elements. It’s more like, ‘how can I use this to my advantage’.
CS: To understand Napoleon, we first have to understand his times. He came to power during the French Revolution. Which started in 1789. Shortly after the American Revolution.
JB: France, politically, was not in a good spot.
CS: People were organized into three different classes, or estates. The first estate, the highest social order was the clergy. They were at the top of the social ladder. The next rung down was the nobility, people who were given certain titles and positions. The third, at the bottom of the ladder, was everyone else.
JB: The first two estates could always out vote the third, but the third estate, which is the common people, made up 97% of the population.
CS: Which, you know, gets pretty old after a while. Having no representation. It created a tense situation in France. Now, we as Americans don’t tend to think highly of the french. Often making jokes at their expense because of their relatively quick surrender during World War II. But back then, in the late 1700’s, France was maybe the most powerful country in the world. Lead by Louis the 16th, who wasn’t keen on being king.
JB: Louis doesn’t care. He’d much rather have tinkered with his clocks. He was very interested in clocks. So he would much rather have played with his clocks and sat in the palace than actually governed. So the French Revolution is brought about as a movement of the people. The people were tired of having no voice. They were tired of having a monarchy that didn’t care. And so the French Revolution is a movement of the people towards having a voice.
CS: It wasn’t just that the people were upset about being underrepresented. Ideas about class, religion, and society were changing.
JB: There’s a movement, a philosophical movement in Europe at this point called The Enlightenment. I’m sure you’re aware of it.
CS: The Enlightenment. You’re probably familiar with this term from your high school history class, but maybe you need a refresher. If you were going to boil the the movement down…
JB: The Enlightenment basically said, don’t go based on what your superiors tell you. Come up with your own hypothesis. Think it out for yourself, test it for yourself and go based on your own assumptions. So this Enlightenment movement kind of powered this revolution. Hey, why are we taking this from our superiors when we can come up with our own ideas and systems.
CS: If the goal is to question authority, to push back against the ruling structures… who are you going to protest? Your political leaders and… your religion. Questioning the church became a foundational part of the French revolution. It was a largely atheistic movement. In part resisting the overreach of the church.
JB: Because people back then, and this really started in medieval times, but people back then… you know, you weren’t…. your life wasn’t characterized by your life, you’re born on day and your death day. Your life really was categorized by baptism and last rights. So the church was everything. And, uh, many people had become tired of the church saying, ‘this is what you believe’. And the group of these philosophers, these people in the Enlightenment in France said, ‘why are we taking this from our superiors’ and a lot of them were in the church. ‘Let’s develop our own ideas’. So, you’re right they really became an enemy of the Church. And it ended up, uh, the Enlightenment ideals really really were destructive for the Church later on, in fact, crushed it. The Catholic Church was decimated during the French Revolution.
CS: That is not an exaggeration. On the outside of the Notre Dame Cathedral, on the western facade, there are 28 statues. One for each of the kings of Judah from the Old Testament. People were so upset that they cut off the statue’s heads thinking they were of previous kings of France. Beheading was the capital punishment of choice for the revolution. It’s how they killed King Louis and Marie Antoinette. So it made sense to do the same to the statues. In 19771, 21 of the heads were found during a construction project. No word yet on those of the king and queen. Which is probably for the best. People were upset with the church. And they finally felt like they could question it. While there were many leaders in this moment. One in particular stands out.
JB: When you get into the revoltion you can’t get too far into studying it without taking about a guy named Maximilian Robespierre.
CS: Robespierre was a law student. Very influenced by the darker edges of the Enlightenment.
JB: He sort of takes the Revolution to what it was never supposed to be. This was really supposed to be a movement of the people and he’s the one that takes it into things like the Reign of Terror, um, which is basically when they’re executing anybody who opposed the revolution in any way shape or form. Um, and Robespierre is actually going to dismantle traditional religion and instead, establish something called the Cult of the Supreme Being. In which reason is to be worshipped more than God. Human reason is supposed to be worshipped more so than God. And so in Notre Dame, since you brought that up, he sort of established Notre Dame as the place for Reason to be worshipped and in one particular point, uh, there’s a bunch of people who have come into Notre Dame to, I guess, worship is such a weird word to use in this instance… but there…. they’ve come into Notre Dame to take part in the cult of the Supreme Being, if you will. And, uh, Maximilian Robespierre has this gigantic paper mache mountain that’s been put in, uh, the middle of Notre Dame. And when this service, if you will, starts, Robespierre himself walks down the mountain dressed all in white and that’s when the people really began to see the negative side of Robespierre and they began to say, ‘you know what, I think he’s wanting to be worshipped instead of reason’. And so that’s not why people start to turn on Robespierre towards the end of it, but that definitely plays a part in it. People were like, ‘yeah, this is not what he said it was going to be’. And then of course they end up turning on Robespierre.
CS: Robespierre himself was beheaded in 1794. The French Revolution was a truly brutal event. But it was this movement that ushered in the era of Napoleon.
JB: Napoleon owed everything to a revolution in which he played no part whatsoever in bringing about or directing. Albeit until it was losing it’s momentum.
CS: He was out of town for much of the revolution. Doing his duty for the French military, working his way up. Until he was in charge of the French military campaign in Italy. Which is where we see his first confrontation with the Catholic church.
JB: Napoleon is brought up Catholic. He is baptized Catholic, you know, but is never really practicing.
CS: So he ends up in Italy. Headed for a clash with the pope. In modern times, we think of the papacy being restricted to the Vatican. That wasn’t so back then. The church controlled what was called the Papal States, just one of the many ways that Italy was divided up amongst different rulers.
JB: Napoleon in that instance when he’s sitting, you know, when he’s going across Italy is demanding that Pope Pius XII surrender the Papal States to France. And when he does not do that, that then creates a whole set of problems.
CS: Not the least of which is that the pope still had a large following all over Europe. The revolution was an atheistic movement that dared to overthrow a monarch. The pope could be persuaded to denounce this thing. He could, if provoked, rally catholics to fight France and join the coalition meant to stop the revolution. The countries around France certainly didn’t want their subjects to know that they could just overthrow their leaders. They had to protect the idea of monarchy. And for his part, Napoleon certainly didn’t need the pope siding with the kings or he’d be in even greater trouble. So he had to get Pius the 7th on his side.
JB: It’s at that point I think that Napoleon really begins to see the power that the papacy has. He sees that the pope is incredibly influential in rallying the people. Pope Pius the 7th of course is fairly new when this begins happening so, talk about a first day on the job. But he’s fairly new when this starts happening and he was very into modern ideas, Pius the 7th was. He was quite a progressive thinker and matter of fact, he actually gives a sermon, Pius the 7th does, in which he talks about there is essentially no conflict between Christianity and democracy.
CS: That idea sounds kinda obvious now. But the Bible says that it’s God who appoints the rulers of this world. He puts them into power. Therefore, He put their offspring into power too. So it’s best not to depose them, or… you know, cut their heads off. The idea that the people, average people, could have a voice in who leads them… was kind of radical. The pope actually came out and said that democracy is not necessarily against the church. An important endorsement because Napoleon, in his rise to power, wants the illusion that he is elected. So, you know, the pope might be a good guy to have on your side. Why not reunite the church and France?
JB: Not only does Napoleon become a threat to the papacy when he’s trying to reunite it, but in becoming a threat he gets wing, ‘hey, I can use this to my own advantage’. And from that point he begins working to gain the backing strength of the Vatican, which would have been a daunting task.
CS: Because the revolution has been talking trash about the church. Cutting heads off of statues. Building temples to reason. Now Napoleon wants to court the church. But why? Why go back to the old ways? Napoleon gets an idea.
JB: I could, by gaining the support of the papacy, restoring the Catholic church to France, the people will absolutely love me.
CS: What he’s going to do is bring the Catholic church back when he comes into power. A gesture to the masses of people who weren’t too keen on the atheistic beheading motif. And that way the little folks will support him.
JB: Here’s what Napoleon says and I’m quoting, he said, “he is persuaded that this is the only true religion which can provide a well ordered society with true happiness and reinforce the foundations of good government.”
CS: Essentially, Napoleon is saying in a goofy way where he talks about himself in the third person, that Christianity will be helpful to him. To restore order. And get him some brownie points with the average people who were still largely Catholic.
JB: So what Napoleon’s going to end up doing is he’s gonna begin negotiating what is going to become known as the Concordant. The negotiations for that begin in July of 1800. And Napoleon doesn’t take part in the negotiations himself. What the Concordant is going to do is it’s going to restore the Catholic church as the official religion of France once again. So I think he’s gaining the support and the trust of the Vatican by being the one to say, ‘hey, we’re going to restore you back to power here in France’. And that sounds pretty good to the pope because prior to the Revolution, France is an incredibly Catholic nation and the revolution completely destroyed that, so for the pope to hear, ‘hey, we’re gaining back the nation of France through this guy’, this sounds pretty good.
CS: The negotiations began in July of 1800. Napoleon himself didn’t take part. Because, what they did with this document would dictate how the church would operate in the country. They weren’t going back to the way things were. The church could return… on a few conditions.
JB: Napoleon only wants the church back so that the people will see him bring the church back. And so while Pius, Pope Pius is…. poor thing, he’s just being used as a puppet here. He thinks they’re being reestablished to what it was before the Revolution because Napoleon may or may not have lead that one. But after this the Concordant sort of passes… after they’re enacted… Napoleon hamstrings the church because he releases something called the Organic Articles.
CS: The Organic Articles tightened Napoleon’s controls over the church in France. In some pretty restrictive ways.
JB: Now, he’s not making himself the head of the church. But, let me tell you what Article One of the Organic Articles states. Article one states, and I’m quoting, “no bull, brief, rescript, decree, injunction, provision, signature serving as provision, nor other documents from the court of Rome, even concerning individuals only, can be received, published, printed, or otherwise put into effect without the authorization of the government.
CS: In other words, the church could not do anything in France without Napoleon’s approval. They couldn’t play political games like they used to. Not unless Napoleon was on board.
JB: But it was really becoming all the more obvious that while Napoleon had the utmost respect for the Catholic church, he had a greater mission, and that mission was to use the church as a means of governing the people, rather than bringing religion back to the recuperating… or the nation that was recuperating from the revolution. He felt that his reinstallation of Catholicism would raise the morale of the french people so that they would be more open to the changes and ideals that were being set forth by his new consulate.
CS: At this point, Napoleon was just one of three people at the head of the country. It didn’t take long to change that.
JB: Napoleon promotes himself to First Consulate in 1802 because he’s a humble individual…
CS: Or not. He wasn’t really that humble. And now that he’s the first consulate, he’s the big cheese. He’s almost emperor. Almost. Now that he’s at the top, he can reveal those secret meetings with the Vatican.
JB: He waits to pass the Organic Articles until he promotes himself to First Consul. So that everyone says, ‘hey, he brought back the church. Thats great. We’ll do whatever he says. He must know what he’s doing’.
CS: He stalled the negotiations with the church until he was completely in charge. So he’d get all the credit. And he passed the Organic Articles without seeking the pope’s permission.
JB: And this angered Pius the 7th. He had not been made aware or agreed to these new suffocating terms that had been brought forth by him.
CS: The pope didn’t know about Napoleon’s demands. Those rules saying that all of the church’s businesses had to go through the government of France first. Meaning the church wouldn’t have the same kind of power that it once did. The Pope was irked and hoped to rework the agreement.
JB: And then you get to 1804 and this is the year that Napoleon declares himself Emperor over the country of France. And Pope Pius travels from his home in the Vatican to Paris to take part in the ceremony. But it was kind of an unexpected visit. This visit to Napoleon’s coronation was not meant to pay tribute to the new young ruler. Though it may have appeared that way. Pius had hoped that Napoleon would accept some modifications to the Organic Articles. That’s actually why he attends the coronation, is to see if, ‘hey, listen Napoleon. Can you back off or can we at least talk about these’. Because they didn’t get to negotiate the Organic Articles. Can we talk about this a little bit? You know, he also hopes to restore these lands that belong to the Papal States that are currently under French control, because, as you said earlier, Napoleon is a threat. He wants the Papal States surrendered to France and some of those lands indeed were. And the pope wants those back too. So he wants to work with Napoleon. But both of those were unfortunately proven fruitless.
CS: Napoleon didn’t budge on the Organic Articles and he didn’t budge on the Papal States. There is a painting that I love of Napoleon’s coronation at Notre Dame. It’s the background on my computer’s desktop and I have a printout of it on my wall. Napoleon is just about to crown his first wife as queen. There are soldiers and nobles. His mother is at the center of the background…. even though she wasn’t there on that day. To the side, away from the action, is pope Pius the 7th. Sitting down. Watching the whole thing. In fact, when it came time for Napoleon to be crowned, he crowned himself. Not allowing the pope to do it as popes has done with previous kings. And Pius has this cowed expression on his face. Just kinda sitting there. Meanwhile, the only light in the room seems to be coming from the new emperor himself. Napoleon was cool with the pope being there because it made it look like he was endorsed by the Church.
JB: And he fully expected the pope’s support, which is weird. He wants papal backing as he begins his wars again. But pope Pius preferred to stay neutral, and from a papal standpoint that only makes sense.
CS: He was neutral. To a degree. The pope would not support France’s embargo on British goods. You see, Napoleon wanted France and all of the lands he controlled, and all of his allies to stop doing business with England. To ruin England’s economy. Because the British, going back a long time, were the sworn enemies of France. Napoleon couldn’t beat them at sea, so he tried to block their access to trade across the continent. And since the pope would not support this…
JB: Napoleon invaded Rome in 1808.
CS: He didn’t get what he wanted, so he invaded Rome! He got right up in the pope’s business when the pope wouldn’t let him do things his own way.
Now… stop me if I’m wrong, but… those don’t seem like the actions of a catholic man. Sure, he was crowned in a catholic church, the pope was there, he attended mass from time to time, and he had contracts with the Vatican. But it’s clear that Napoleon’s motive, the reason why he courted the church, was to get more power. To earn the love and respect of his nation. Not out of religious devotion.
This is how Napoleon behaved. He did what it took to get the job done. To the point where historians disagree as to what he really believed. Sure he did some catholic things… but it’s also been suggested that the ruler of the largest European empire since ancient Rome may have been a Muslim.
JB: There’s a lot of debate on that.
CS: It happened before he was the emperor, but after his Italian campaign. You see, Napoleon loved to study ancient empires. And one of his favorite characters from the ancient world was Alexander the Great. Who conquered much of the world as it was known back then.
So, armed with the excuse of blocking Britain’s trading routes, the French invaded Egypt. Napoleon came prepared, having familiarized himself with the Koran.
JB: He’s almost becomes infatuated with it. And he very highly respects Islam.
CS: He had a template for how to treat people of a different country and religion. Napoleon loved Alexander the Great, who was good at this kind of thing. Alexander, when conquering Egypt in 332 BC, went to the Temple of Amon in Siwah. Why? To consult the oracle there. Alexander took part in the local culture and their beliefs. To win their trust. Napoleon considered this ‘a great stroke of policy’ by Alexander and said ‘It enabled him to conquer Egypt.”2
JB: This is just my personal opinion… it’s just another instance of, ‘hey, religion in this part of the world is Islam. And it’s fascinating and these people are devout to it. So now that we’re in Egypt, let’s use that’.
CS: Napoleon wanted to be seen as understanding their belief system. Taking part in it. So he wasn’t some foreign atheist come to conquer them, but a savior setting them free from oppression. Napoleon took part in ceremonies and salutations of the Islamic people of Egypt. But Selim III still declared jihad against the French in Egypt3.
JB: Yeah, because they’re not going to wage holy war against one they think is devout in their own faith. They probably don’t thing you’re Muslim, Napoleon.
CS: He even went so far as to say that if he’d just worn a turban and baggy pants more than once then the Egyptians might have taken to him4. He stopped doing it because his men made fun of him. While some historians argue that he became a Muslim, he made remarks two decades after his time in Egypt that tell a different story.
He said ‘Fighting is a soldier’s religion; I never changed that. The other is the affair of women and priests. As for me, I always adopt the religion of the country I am in.”5
JB: As far as gospel transformation, Napoleon is probably not interested. He says he adopts the… whatever he’s in. Many of those nations that he is in are in Europe and are devoutly Catholic. But, same thing when he’s fighting the Mamluks at the battle of the pyramids. By that quote it would imply that while he’s in Egypt he’s devout to Islam.
CS: There is another piece of evidence, of course. One that went deeper that the hat and pants he wore. It was his brutality.
JB: Because at the battle of the pyramids, Napoleon tells his soldiers to wait and fire on the Mamluks until they’re 50 paces from the french lines so that the Mamluks have no chance to turn around. And if they do they’re still withing range. So Napoleon goes in and is just absolutely brutalizing the Mamluk and the Muslim’s that are there. It’s no wonder that they declared jihad against him.
CS: Napoleon, it’s safe to say, had no problem using religion to his own ends. To strong arm the pope, to at least attempt to fool the Muslims in Egypt. Ultimately, to try and win the love of his fellow man. And he’s a complicated figure – a brutal war monger. A military leader who spent a lot of time talking with the lowest of his soldiers, but who didn’t hesitate to send them into hopeless battles. A man who loved his his first wife, and cheated on her repeatedly. Then left her for a younger woman in hopes of having a son. He got rid of the favoritism among the ranks in favor of a merit based system. Then he made his ner do well brothers kings. He rose to the height of power, the most famous man in the world, then spent the end of his life exiled on a small island called St. Helena. Far away from his adopted country, his seat of power, and his second wife.
We have a word for men like him. Men of two minds. Who say one thing and do another. I’m just going to say it. He was a poser. He went through the motions of piety in public, but it didn’t impact who he really was. Not deep down. The thing is, when we pretend to have a relationship with God, when we pretend to follow Jesus, it doesn’t take long to see through our act. We know what a double minded man he was. A two face. While anybody can see his military genius and his skill with world powers, nobody could argue that he was a virtuous man. Using the cross of Christ for public gain can only get one so far. Our character will still betray us. We may get to public office, the tops of our profession, to the admiration of those around us. We miss the point when we think our hope comes from people of this world. From the various iterations of King Cyrus who give us what we want. You see, when the good news of the gospel truly sinks in, it’s more than a transformation within us. Something more powerful than the government, more powerful than religious actions, more powerful than all the armies of the world.
Some would say it’s a revolution.
Special thanks to Pastor Justin Butler. His book is called Double-Sided Power: Studies in the Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. I’m also deeply indebted to Andrew Robert’s book “Napoleon: A Life”. It’s gigantic, but also really engaging. True is a listener supported show. You’ve heard me say that before, but let me be frank. I’m about $3,000 in the hole on this project right now, more if you count my trip to the Podcast Movement convention. I need your help. Every dollar you can provide means a lot. I wonder if you, your Bible study, or your church would consider sponsoring this podcast as a mission to the Internet. I’d love to do this full time and, with your help, we can make that happen. You can find links to my Patreon, Paypal, and other methods of giving on the website at trucepodcast.com.
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This is the end of the second season! Can you believe it? We’re going to take a little break for a month or two to regroup. I need to do some marketing for the show and figure out a way to get more listeners. I’m aiming to be back the first week of October. Subscribe to our feed so you’ll get every new episode as it comes out. This has been a great season, you guys. Thanks for your prayers, emails, and comments on social media.
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.