Tocqueville on Religion and the Limits of the Political Imagination

In my last post, I argued that despite the existence of important areas of agreement, Tocqueville rejected (what he took to be) Machiavellianism because he found that it left the ruler “capable of doing anything.” For Tocqueville, it appeared, there were certain inviolable moral limits to political action. Without such limits, Tocqueville feared, a society’s liberty would be lost. The question thus arises: how did Tocqueville think that such limits were to be defined and enforced?

The most obvious answer would seem to be: through religion. Indeed, by restraining political leaders and democratic peoples from pursuing certain courses of action, Tocqueville argues, religion performs one of its greatest services for human society. This is especially so in a democracy, for whose vitality religious beliefs are “more necessary” than they are in other systems. Democracy in America at 632 (Bevan trans.).

Tocqueville’s thinking on this point seems to have deepened in the five years that separated the publication of Part I of Democracy (1835) and Part II (1840). In a passage in Part I, he suggested that religion and morality usually regulated political action effectively in America, even when a democratic majority supported such action. He wrote (id. at 465; emphasis added):

Republicans in the United States value customs, respect beliefs, recognize rights. They hold the view that a nation must be moral, religious, and moderate in proportion as it is free. What is called a republic in the United States is the quiet rule of the majority, which is the communal source of power once it has had the time to acknowledge and confirm its existence. But the majority is not all-powerful. Above it, in the world of moral issues, lie humanity, justice, and reason; in the world of politics lie rights acquired. The majority acknowledges both these limits. . . .

If the majority should ever fail to observe such moral and political limits, Tocqueville says, “it is because, like any individual, it has its passions and . . . it can act badly even though it knows what is good.” Id. The American people, in other words, may, in episodic fits of “passion,” suffer from weakness of will; but “know[ing] what is good,” it will eventually correct itself.

In Part II of Democracy (published in 1840), Tocqueville offered a more penetrating analysis. Here he argues that the strength and pervasiveness of Christianity in America ensure that the American people and their leaders will observe certain defined moral limits. Christianity operates to set bounds to the moral imagination, so that certain courses of action become literally unthinkable, and even the boldest and most revolutionary minds in America will shrink from them. Thankfully, America’s moral horizon is severely limited. Unlike other polities, Christian America is therefore incapable of “doing everything.”

Thus, he writes that because “Christianity reigns without obstacles by universal consent,” in America, “in the world of morality everything is definite and settled. . . . [T]he mind of man never beholds an unlimited field in front of itself; however bold he might be, man senses from time to time that he must halt before insurmountable barriers.” Democracy at 341. Even “American revolutionaries are forced publicly to profess a certain respect for Christian morality and equity.” Id. at 342. Although the American people may in “law” be allowed “to do everything,” “religion prevents their imagining everything and forbids them from daring to do everything.” Id. Hence, religion should “be regarded as the first of [the Americans’] political institutions.” Id.

That morality may benefit from, or even require, limits to the imagination is an arresting idea. Tocqueville may have learned it from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his novel Emile, or On Education (1762), Rousseau raises the question of how we can be happy. Happiness, he writes, consists in establishing “a perfect equilibrium” between our powers and our desires. Achieving that equilibrium requires us to bring our imagination into alignment with our capacities. For imagination “enlarges the bounds of possibility for us, whether for good or ill, and therefore stimulates and feeds desires by the hope of satisfying them.” But the pursuit of the imaginable objects of desire quickly exhausts our strength, without bringing us final satisfaction. Happiness becomes attainable only as the gap between desires and powers closes. Hence we should seek to limit the imagination. “The world of reality has its bounds, the world of imagination is boundless; as we cannot enlarge the one, let us restrict the other.” Emile 52-3 (Barbara Foxley trans. 2009). What Rousseau taught as a prerequisite for individual happiness, Tocqueville refashioned as a prerequisite for public virtue.

Two Problems for Tocqueville

There are, however, at least two major problems with Tocqueville’s account of the power of religion over politics and public opinion in America. These problems leave the reader doubtful as to how, exactly, Tocqueville viewed the relationship between America’s religious and political lives.

The first problem is likely to be the more obvious to us. If the influence of Christianity in America is so powerful, how is one to explain the deeply embedded institution of African slavery, which Tocqueville condemns as a violation of Christian principles, and of the practice of wars of aggression and conquest against the native peoples? Tocqueville found that the Americans’ behavior towards the Indians had been (as we would now say) genocidal, see Democracy at 376, and he believed that its treatment of the African race could well become so, id. at 419-20). Indeed, he says that the threat of a genocidal conflict between whites and blacks in the South “haunts the imaginations of Americans like a nightmare.” Id. at 420. What possibilities are too extreme for the moral imagination of Christian America if slavery and genocide are within its limits?

To be sure, even in Jacksonian America, there was a growing anti-slavery movement rooted in Christian, especially Evangelical, beliefs. See, e.g., John McFaul, “Expediency vs. Morality: Jacksonian Politics and Slavery,” 62 J. Amer. Hist. 24 (1975) and, more generally, Daniel Walker Howe, “The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture in the North During the Second Party System,” 77 J. Amer. Hist. 1216 (1991). For example, the wealthy Evangelical Lewis Tappan joined William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists in 1833 in founding the American Anti-Slavery Society. See Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (1971). But it is also true that in the period up to and during the Civil War, much of American Christianity defended (often on Biblical grounds) the institution of slavery. See Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln 386-91 (2002).

Further, the very fact that the Christian church (or most of it) could acquiesce in, or even defend, slavery for so long raises a second, more conceptual, problem in interpreting Tocqueville: how far does Christian belief shape and control the prevailing public opinion in America, and how far is it shaped and controlled by it? Is there a “world” that is “above” popular opinion whose authority Americans “acknowledge”? Or are the American people as “God” to the moral universe they inhabit? Otherwise put: can the American Church stand apart from American culture and judge it, or is it essentially the reflection, or even the captive, of that culture?

In trying to work out Tocqueville’s answer to these questions, we encounter apparent uncertainty and contradiction. As we have just seen, he affirms that popular majorities in America are “not all-powerful,” and that “above” them, in “a world of moral issues,” are “humanity, justice, and reason.” But in the last post, we also saw Tocqueville describing the sovereign American people as acting “like God over the universe,” see Democracy at 71. Do the “omnipotent” American people create the moral universe in which they act, or is there a moral universe, not of their making, by which their political actions can be judged, and of which they will (usually, if sometimes belatedly) be mindful?

The problem is intensified if we look elsewhere in Democracy. In several important passages near the end of Part I, Tocqueville seems to be saying that in America, religious belief is subordinate to or derivative from political opinion. There we are told that it is belief in popular sovereignty, rather than in Christianity, that saturates American society and provides the foundation of its civil and political life (id. at 466-67):

In the United States, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people is no isolated concept unconnected either to people’s habits or to the mass of prevailing ideas; on the contrary, it can be viewed as the final link in a chain of opinions which binds the whole Anglo-American world. . . . Such is the grand maxim upon which rests civil and political society in the United States.

Moreover, he tells us, their republicanism goes so far as to cause Americans to subject even religion to their private reason and judgment (id. at 467; emphasis added):

Thus, in the United States, the principle underlying the republic is the same rule which governs most human actions. Therefore, the republic, if I may put it so, permeates ideas, opinions, and all American customs at the same time as it underpins their laws; and Americans would have to change themselves almost entirely in order to change those laws. In the United States, even the religion of most people is republican too; it subjects the truths of the next world to the rationality of the individual . . . .

As against this, however, Tocqueville also writes in Part I (id. at 497):

In the United States, . . . . Christianity itself is an established and unassailable fact which no one undertakes either to attack or defend.
The Americans, having accepted without question the main teachings of the Christian religion, are obliged to accept in the same way a great number of moral truths which derive from it and hold it together. That restricts within narrow limits the process of individual analysis and removes several of the most important human opinions from this analysis.

Part II, however, affirms the dominance of public opinion over religion in democratic society:

As men grow to be more like each other and equal to each other, it is all the more important that religions . . . avoid colliding unnecessarily with generally accepted ideas and the permanent interests which exist in the mass of the people. For public opinion increasingly assumes the role of the primary and least resistible of powers, outside of which there is no foothold strong enough to resist its attacks. . . . All American priests are aware of the intellectual power exercised by the majority and respect it. . . . They make efforts to correct their fellow citizens but do not assume a separate stance from them. Thus public opinion is never their enemy.

Democracy at 517-18.

An Unsettling Paradox

Here, then, is the unsettling paradox: Tocqueville seems to be saying both that Christianity informs, shapes, limits and constrains the political beliefs of the Americans, and that the Americans’ political beliefs inform, shape, limit and constrain their Christianity. Are we a nation of republicans who are, incidentally, Christian, or of Christians who are, incidentally, republican? Tocqueville seems to leave it uncertain which he thinks is the correct substantive term and which the correct modifier.

Did he think that in America Christianity and the dominant public opinion are, at bottom, the same? If so, did he, perhaps, view the American model as an extraordinary, nineteenth century version of the medieval Christianitas, in which religious and political societies were united and blended? See Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 47 (Beth G. Raps trans. 1998). Or, to invoke an earlier model that is more native to the American tradition, did he view nineteenth century American society as a latter-day version of the New England Puritan commonwealth, in which Christianity and republicanism were fused, and in which the “moral world” also set unquestionable limits to the “political world”? Democracy at 55-56.

Alternatively, if Tocqueville did not simply equate America’s religious and political societies, does one of Richard Niebuhr’s celebrated models of interaction between Church and society capture their relationship as Tocqueville saw it? See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951). If so, which Niebuhrian paradigm best fits Tocqueville’s vision of America — that of “The Christ of Culture,” that of “Christ above Culture,” or that of “Christ the Transformer of Culture”? See Michael McConnell, “Christ, Culture, and Courts: A Niebuhrian Examination of First Amendment Jurisprudence,” 42 DePaul L. Rev. 191 (1992/93).

Third, it might be that Tocqueville thought that American Christianity and public opinion could diverge, and thus that there could be (more or less acute) tension between them. On this interpretation, Tocqueville could be seen as a religious “functionalist,” slyly advocating a new form of Christianity that would be better adapted to democratic needs than the traditional faith. See Sanford Kessler, Tocqueville’s Civil Religion: American Christianity and The Prospects for Freedom 18, 51-59 (1994).

Finally, it might be that Tocqueville views American religion from different perspectives on different occasions. From one perspective, he exults that an advanced democracy has harmonized respect for Christianity so successfully with liberty and equality. “[I]n America you see one of the most free and enlightened nations in the world fulfilling all their public religious duties with enthusiasm.” Democracy at 345. From another perspective, he is disappointed to see how often American religion is banal and materialistic, how readily it justifies and facilitates, rather than resists, the deplorable tendencies of democracy. Thus, he finds that “[i]t is often hard to know from listening to [American preachers] whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this.” Id. at 615. From a third perspective, he has hopes for the emergence of a better form of Christianity than what he found to prevail in America – specifically, a Catholicism that would at once make Americans better citizens but also be more capable of resisting democracy’s worst effects. “If Catholicism, in the end, managed to elude the political hatred it engenders, I have almost no doubt . . . that it would suddenly achieve extensive conquests.” Id. at 519.

I shall return to these and related questions in my next post.

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One response to “Tocqueville on Religion and the Limits of the Political Imagination

  1. Mark L. Movsesian

    Very interesting. Somewhere in Democracy in America, Tocqueville observes that Americans simply could not see a distinction between Christianity and Republicanism. It wasn’t a question of which took precedence–they were one and the same.

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