A major apparent conflict in Hobbes’s Leviathan is his treatment of religion and authorship. On the one hand, the sovereign’s actions are authored in their entirety by the people, including decisions such as the enforcement of a state religion, which Hobbes states that the sovereign has the right to do. On the other hand, Hobbes also reaffirms that the individuals in the commonwealth have the right to hold any religious beliefs that they so wish, including ones that come blatantly in contradiction with the religion enforced by the sovereign, so long as the citizenry outwardly follows the sovereign’s laws, even if they inwardly believe otherwise. On the surface, this presents a fundamental conflict with authorship – how can citizens, who do not believe the state religion, possibly be authoring the sovereign’s actions when he enforces said religion. Hobbes however brilliantly subverts this expectation, with the way that it institutes this civil religion, subjegating it entirely to the whims of the sovereign who utilizes it for the betterment of the populence. It is not truly a religion, nor is it expected that the people believe in it truly – Hobbes makes a strong distinction between personal belief and expression or action – rather is it another tool at the sovereign’s disposal that is intended to be used for the protection of the people of the commonwealth and the preservation of civil peace. Thus, there is actually inherently no conflict, because this faux religion is being used solely to promote peace amongst the people and is irrelevant to personal beliefs.
The imposition of uniform religious practices is a pragmatic, temporal, political one that should not be confused with a religiously motivated, spiritual imposition of such practices. There are religions that are dangerous to the peace and order of society because they either encourage rebellion against the sovereign or because they cause conflict within the society. It is the sovereign’s duty to harshly repress the expression of these religions, because they are fundamentally problematic in a stable Hobbesian society. However, people’s internal beliefs will never pose a threat to society, as long as they stay internal beliefs and are not expressed via actions. Furthermore, uniform religious practices prevent religious-based conflict within society; one cannot, for example, persecute the Jews, if everyone outwardly appears to be of the same religion, removing a great source of conflict within the commonwealth. This is fundamentally different than a uniformity of religious practice put into place for faith-driven purposes – there is no imposition of standards of beliefs, morals, or ideals upon others, no looking out for the souls of the citizens, and no extra temporality – the Hobbesian sovereign is only interested in temporal ends and is justified in imposing religious practice uniformity upon the commonwealth as a means to achieving those ends. Thus Hobbes needs a religion that he can subvert to his own ends, one that he can make dominated by the will of the sovereign – after all, it is effectively a civil superstition that the sovereign uses to control the actions of the masses – and yet Hobbes also needs something that will be generally acceptable to his readership. And so, he turns to the subversion of Christianity, distorting it into something that that great Leviathan can utilize for the good of the people.
Hobbes argues that the sovereign has the duty to make only good laws, where the goodness of a law is measured by its necessity for the good of the people. Repression of thought and expression beyond what is necessary for political purposes is not only an abrogation of the sovereign’s duty, it is counter-productive, provoking bitterness and resentment, and undermining the loyalty of his subjects. Thus Hobbes cannot consistently argue that the sovereign’s religion be forced upon the people in faith, only in action, and it can only be forced upon them in action if it is for the betterment of the civil good of the people, not the spiritual good of the people, for the authority and responsibility of the sovereign is restricted to the temporal sphere only, and not the domain of the soul or that of God.
Hobbes spends a lot of Leviathan focused on the differences between religions. He begins by contrasting religion with superstition, then observes that they are indistinguishable in contrast with knowledge of God. Initially he presents Judaism and Christianity as above the pagan religions, being divinely guided and concerned with spiritual things, but later, when he deemphasizes its divine institution and spiritual concerns and instead raises the authority of men and the concerns of civil society, he blurs the distinction between these two kinds of religions. Hobbes asserts God’s sovereignty by nature and by compact, but then abrogates the force of this claim by questioning its efficacy. He affirms the authority of scripture as divine revelation and natural law as the standard of moral behavior, but then equates divine law with the interpretation of divine revelation as revealed to the people by the civil sovereign. Thus, by the end of the Leviathan, he has subtly transformed Christianity from a true religious institution into a civic religion; a means of keeping people under control. He has made it indistinguishable from superstition, removed it from the divine realm, and placed it’s authority entirely within the civil sovereign. In actuality, Hobbes is not arguing for a religion at all. Instead, he is carefully crafting a set of secular pseudo-religious cult practices that can be uniformly enforced upon the population, not as a legitimate religious belief, but rather as a means of enforcing civil order and preventing possibly problematic (from the point of view of civil peace) religions from being expressed, by enforcing a uniform expression of religious practices on the people.
Hobbes discusses at length the transfer of power that ended the kingdom of God as a particular nation (Israel), and the promise that Christ will one day return and restore the kingdom of God on earth. Hobbes’s greatest concern about Christ’s kingdom is that it not be understood to mean any institution currently existing on earth. He repeatedly emphasizes that it is a promised kingdom, a kingdom in which Christ will rule as civil sovereign over those who have been granted eternal life (38.5). Hobbes states that “our Savior came into this world that he might be a king, and a judge in the world to come,” but he says further that during his life he “had no kingdom in this world” (40.3–4). If the second kingdom of God is a kingdom only in promise, Christ must be a sovereign only in promise. And while his primary mission was to prepare men for the kingdom to come, he also “taught all men to obey, in the meantime, them that sat in Moses’ seat” (41.5). Although in isolation these passages seem unremarkable, the full implication of Hobbes’s argument appears in the following chapter, where he states that obedience is owed “in all things” to civil sovereigns, and to no one else, and specifically not to the ministers who oppose the sovereign (42.10).
Taken together, these statements mean that, Christ is not a civil sovereign, but also that only to a civil sovereign that obedience is owed, since “they that have no kingdom can make no laws,” casting doubt on if Christ should be obeyed (42.45). When Hobbes states that “Christ came to call to his obedience such as should believe in him” by discussion and miracles, this obligation must be a future one, “whensoever [Christ] should be pleased to take the kingdom upon him,” and that then obedience is owed, not because he is the Christ, but because on that future day, he claims civil sovereignty over humanity (41.3-4). Obedience is not owed to someone who has no lawful right to command it. Switching back to discussing modern times, Hobbes states that he has already shown “that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world; therefore neither can his ministers (unless they be kings) require obedience in his name,” which implies that Christ himself cannot require obedience. Indeed, the only authority that Hobbes thinks Christ gave his apostles was the power to “proclaim the kingdom of Christ,” making them our “schoolmasters, and not our commanders” ” (42.5-6). This seems to be the only understanding consistent with what Hobbes states elsewhere, quoting scripture, that “no man can obey two masters” (20.4). To Christ and to his ministers, one is forced to conclude, no obedience is owed, unless they be civil sovereigns, in which case obedience is owed to the civil figure and no more.
Hobbes further strips down the clergy’s power taking away the power to decide doctrine and placing it in the hands of the sovereign. Hobbes writes that “as none but Abraham in his family, so none but the sovereign in a Christian commonwealth, can take notice what is or what is not the word of God… [and] they that have the place of Abraham in a commonwealth are the only interpreters of what God hath spoken” (40, 4). Thus Hobbes is putting full Christian authority in the hands of the sovereign. Intriguingly, Hobbes makes no reference to the fact that God is the one who gives Abraham power, instead saying that “The covenant God made with Abraham (in a supernatural manner) was thus… Abraham’s seed has not this revelation, nor were yet in being; yet they are a party to the covenant, and bound to obey what Abraham should declare to them for god’s law…” (26.41, emphasis original). Hobbes makes it clear that Abraham, acting as the civil authority, is the one with whom God makes the covenant, and that Abraham’s account and interpretation of this revelation from God as divine law (26.41, also see footnote 17 “why then were the Israelites obliged to consider as divine law what Abraham declared to them to be divine law, except because Abraham had supreme power over his children and his servants?”) This idea is repeated in Hobbes’s subsequent account of Moses and Mount Sinai, and he concludes that “therefore in all things not contrary to the moral law (that is to say, the law of nature) all subjects are bound to obey that for divine law which is declared to be so by the laws of the commonwealth” (26.41, emphasis added).
Now that Hobbes has fully reduced the religion of Christianity to the will of the sovereign, we must reconsider the original question and Hobbes’s motivation for doing so. Hobbes readily agrees that diversity in expression of religion can be dangerous and destabilize society. Hobbes has plenty of firsthand experience with this, living in a time period marked by a myriad of religious conflicts, most notably the Eighty Years’ Wars, decades of civil unrest in France, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the United Kingdom. This unrest is brought about, not by differing religious views per se, but rather the agitation of the churches, making constituents believe acting against other churches to be a sign of the true faith. Hobbes comes up with two ways to prevent civil unrest in Leviathan, firstly by convincing Christians of a civil superstition whose public expression is forced upon the masses and under the control of the sovereign, and secondly by separating public observance from actual faith. Hobbes asserts that “profession with the tongue is but an external thing, and no more than any other gesture whereby we signify our obedience” (42.11). He proclaims that “a Christian, holding firmly in his heart the faith of Christ, hath the same liberty which the prophet Elisha allowed to Naaman the Syrian” who, though truly converted to the Jewish faith, openly pretended to that of the house of Rimmon allowed for a total separation of this secular pseudo-Christian superstition and that the true faith that is implied to be held by the people of the commonwealth (ibid). Thus, Hobbes concludes, a civil superstition and the obligation to follow it’s rituals is completely irrelevant to actual religious belief amoungst the people who actually follow the true faith (implicitly Christianity) and through belief alone their souls will be saved.
On the surface, it seems very likely that the sovereign’s institution of a state religion comes in direct conflict with the idea that the people author all of the sovereign’s actions – after all, why would they author the creation and enforcement of a religion that they might not believe? The key to resolving this conflict is in noticing there isn’t actually any conflict because there isn’t actually a religion, merely a pseudoreligious cult whose practices are required to keep the peace. Hobbes is strongly influenced by the recent history of religious wars destroying Europe, and this enforced uniformity of appearance of faith is his way of addressing that – after all, if everyone seems to have the same religion, that’s one less reason to kill each other.