The Republic had passed its paroxysm of fever, of demagoguical madness, of persecution. The Directory had finally concentrated and regulated the republican power. This government was composed of men, naturally moderate and tolerant, or made so by the experience and the lassitude of anarchy; the moderate principles of the Revolution of 1789, and of the constituted Assembly, regained their level, thanks to a natural reaction, limited by good sense, as happens after every revolution that overshoots its mark. The priests officiated, without obstacle, in the temples restored by the municipalities to the faithful, religion was entirely free, even favored by public respect, and by that care for good morals which all serious governments feel. Faith, taking refuge in men's consciences, was, moreover, more sincere and more active, because it was neither constrained, nor favored, nor altered, nor profaned by the hand of government.
This was, perhaps, the moment when there was the most religion in France, -- for this was the moment when, after having had its martyrs, the religious sentiment had a life in itself, and owed nothing to the partial and interested protection of the powers of the State. For, the less the State imposes upon you a God of its own fashion, or its own choice, the more does your conscience rise, and the more does it attach itself to the God of your own reason, or your own faith!
Bonaparte, whose genius was entirely military, but who, in affairs of moral, civil, and religious government, made it a matter of policy to contradict and extinguish all the truths of the Revolution, hastened to change all this. He wished to parody Charlemagne.
Charlemagne had been the philosopher and revolutionary organizer of his time; Charlemagne had bound together the spiritual and temporal, crowning the Pontiff that he might be crowned by him in turn. Bonaparte desired a State religion, an agreement in which religion and the empire should mutually engage and mutually check each other; a Pope to subdue, to caress, to drive away, to recall, to persecute, by turns; a coronation by the hand of an enslaved Church; then a Church to chastise, when it did not obey; -- in one word, all that shameful and scandalous simony of ancient times, when the temporal power played, in the sight of the nations, with the idea and name of God, in a manner as contemptuous as it was odious.
The People, who saw clearly through this intrigue of an indifferent sovereign, -- an Atheist at Toulon, a crafty politician at Marengo, a Mussulman in Egypt, a persecutor at Rome, an oppressor at Savona, a schismatic at Fontainbleau, a saint at Notre Dame de Paris, -- protector of religion and profaner of consciences by turns, -- felt their belief shaken anew. They asked themselves, |What then is God for us, poor souls, since God is such an instrument of power for great men, and such a police machine for governments?| Scorn threw them back into Atheism. This was natural.