7 August 2005 - Sunday

Tocqueville on religion

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, chapter two (trans. George Lawrence):

Thus, in the moral world everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen, and decided in advance. In the world of politics everything is in turmoil, contested, and uncertain. In the one case obedience is passive, though voluntary; in the other there is independence, contempt of experience, and jealousy of all authority.

Far from harming each other, these two apparently opposed tendencies work in harmony and seem to lend mutual support.

Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men's faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere and content with the position reserved for it, realizes that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men's hearts without external support.

Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.

It must be noted that Tocqueville, despite the universal language, is specifically describing American political development, contrasting it with the European experiences. The two elements described here, "the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom," represent "two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one other but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination," as an earlier paragraph explains. This is consistent with Tocqueville's moderate position in post-revolutionary France; he is affirming the compatibility of liberal ideals and traditional faith.

In an earlier paragraph still, Tocqueville tries to explain how religion was able to play a different role in America from Europe. How is it that the Puritans of New England, while promulgating draconian religious legislation, also gave root to modern constitutionalism and self-government?

If one turns from this rapid survey of the America of 1650 and considers European, especially Continental European, society at that same time, one finds the contrast profoundly astonishing. Everywhere on the Continent at the beginning of the seventeenth century absolute monarchies stood triumphantly on the ruins of the feudal or oligarchic freedom of the Middle Ages. Amid the brilliance and the literary achievements of Europe, then, the conception of rights was perhaps more completely misunderstood than at any other time; the peoples had never taken less part in political life; notions of true liberty had never been less in men's minds. And just at that time these very principles, unknown to or scorned by the nations of Europe, were proclaimed in the wilderness of the New World, where they were soon to become the watchwords of a great people. In this apparently lowly society the boldest speculations of humanity were put into practice, while no statesman, we may be sure, deigned to take notice of them. With free reign given to its natural originality, human imagination there improvised unprecedented legislation.
In other words, it was the frontier what done it. The American colonies, Puritans and all, were able to make a fresh start. They shared material circumstances, including the bourgeois background of the early settlements as well as the meritocratic influence of the American soil, that were unfavorable to the aristocratic institutions of the Old World. Thus, cleared of many non-spiritual impediments, even the established churches of America nurtured the growth of democratic society.

What this meant to a mid-nineteenth-century Frenchman was probably much different from what it means to a twenty-first-century American; the United States' experience with institutional religion and secularization movements has been much different from France's. I suspect that it would be very interesting to see Tocqueville's comparison of French religious history with Britain's, since he tended to favor both Britain and America as stable models for emerging democracies to follow; his material model would not explain British church history well at all.

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