‘Une Infinité de Biens’: Montesquieu on Religion and Free Government


Abstract: This article examines Montesquieu’s views on the political utility of religion under free and moderate governments. His approach to this question balances recognition of the past and present abuses of religion with apprehension regarding the political costs of a future decline in religious belief. Contrary to currently dominant interpretations of his thought, the article argues that Montesquieu did not welcome commerce as an agent of religion’s demise; he did not see the devitalization of European religion as a propitious condition for the growth of political liberty; and he did not regard a narrowly rationalist creed as the only one suitable to free peoples. Rather, on his account, religious faith may serve as a source of moral restraint that frees the state to govern mildly. Properly constituted, the spirit of religion may be advantageously joined to both the spirit of liberty and the spirit of commerce