Tocqueville on the naturalness of religious belief

In considering the relationship between Christianity and modern democracy, Tocqueville was bound to offer some explanation of the fact that democracy in America was hospitable to that faith while democracy in France was hostile to it. Such an explanation could of course also help explain why, in America, the Reformation and the Enlightenment were and have remained allies while, in much of Europe, the Enlightenment and the Counter-Reformation were, until recent times, vehemently opposed. And it could also shed light on the persisting phenomenon that Americans even now are typically more “religious” than Europeans.

One might have thought that the difference between French and American had something to do with the origins of the two democracies: American democracy took hold in an overwhelmingly Protestant environment, while French democracy arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. Indeed, Tocqueville himself observed that the early Puritan settlers of America brought with them “a form of Christianity which I can only describe as democratic and republican,” and that the circumstances of America’s founding were thus “exceptionally favorable to the establishment of a democracy and a republic in governing public affairs.” Democracy in America at 336 (Bevan trans.). To understand America fully, Tocqueville suggests, we must keep its Puritan origins in mind: “[i]t is religion which has given birth to Anglo-American societies: one must never lose sight of that.” Id. at 496.

In fact, however, Tocqueville’s explanation of the (sometimes amicable, sometimes antagonistic) relationship between Christianity and democracy followed another course. The crucial distinction, he argues, is not between Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity, but between religion in its “natural” state and religion as a “political” institution. When a political régime permits religion to remain in its “natural” condition, and religion for its part does not seek a “political” role, religion will flourish and, moreover, the régime may find itself stronger for that fact. On the other hand, if a régime seeks to instrumentalize religion or if religion seeks political power, religion will inevitably suffer and any benefits to the régime from its alliance with religion will be fleeting.

Although Tocqueville says that “[a]longside every religion lies some political opinion which is linked to it by affinity,” id. at 336, and acknowledges that “Catholicism resembles absolute monarchy,” id. at 337, he nonetheless insists that neither Protestantism nor Catholicism is especially fitted to or congruent with any specific type of political régime. “[I]n the United States there is no single religious doctrine which is hostile to democratic and republican institutions.” Id. at 338. If anything, Tocqueville believes that Catholicism, despite its apparent affinity for monarchy, would be a better form of Christianity from the standpoint of democracy than Protestantism. Catholicism leads men towards equality, while Protestantism leads them towards independence, id. at 337; and the former condition is more favorable to democracy. Thus, although Catholics retain “a firm loyalty” to their form of worship and are “full of fervent zeal” for their beliefs, they are “the most republican and democratic class in the United States” id., at once “the most obedient believers and the most independent citizens,” id. at 338.

Such, in brief, is Tocqueville’s main line of argument. But as we shall discover, many qualifications to it are needed and some significant problems for it arise. Let us begin by considering his analysis of the situation in pre-Revolutionary France.

Two Trends in French Enlightenment Thought

The French Revolution, Tocqueville thought, saw two great passions at work: political and religious. Of these, the anti-religious passion was “the first to be kindled and the last to be extinguished.” Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ançien Régime and the Revolution 21 (original ed. 1856; Bevan trans. 2008). The Revolution’s hatred of religion was largely the handiwork of eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosophy which, he says, “is correctly considered as one of the main causes of the Revolution” and which was “profoundly anti-religious.” Id.

But French Enlightenment thought exhibited two distinct and separable trends: one concerning political and human rights; the other concerning the Church. The first trend was interested in promoting such basic principles as “the natural equality of men” and the consequences that flow from them, including “the abolition of all racial, class, and professional privileges, the sovereignty of the people, the predominance of social power,” and so forth. The accomplishments of the Revolution in realizing these principles represent “all that is fundamental, lasting and authentic” in the Revolution. Id. at 21-2.

The other trend consisted of attacks on the Catholic Church – “its clergy, its hierarchy, its institutions, its dogmas” and, in the end, “the very foundations of Christianity.” Id. at 22. But as the Revolution succeeded in making ever greater political gains, the attacks on the Church correspondingly diminished. That was because the attacks were directed against Christianity, not so much “as a religious faith,” than “as a political institution.” Id. What stirred “uncontrollable loathings” of the Church was not “that the priests claimed to regulate the affairs of the other world” but that the Church had occupied “the most privileged and powerful place in the old society.” Id. As the dust settled, the hatred of the Church died down, not only in France, but throughout Europe. Christianity had a new lease on life.

Tocqueville takes this development to show that Christianity, if it refuses political associations, can remain a vital force, even in an age of democracy. There is, he suggests, something natural in religious feeling that causes faith to survive (at least among “the people”), so long as it is detached from politics:

To believe that democratic societies are by their nature hostile to religion is to commit a great mistake. Nothing in Christianity, not even in Roman Catholicism, is totally contrary to the ethos of these societies and several aspects are very favorable to them. Furthermore, the experience of every century has revealed that the most vigorous roots of religious feeling have always been planted in the hearts of the people. Every religion which has perished found its last refuge in the people and it would be odd if those institutions which tend to uphold the ideas and passions of the people should involve the necessary and permanent outcome of thrusting the human spirit towards irreligion. Id. at 23.

Why Religion flourishes in America

Tocqueville remarks that on his arrival in the United States, he was struck by its “religious atmosphere.” Democracy at 345. This made a sharp contrast with France. “In France I had seen the spirit of religion moving in the opposite direction to that of freedom. In America, I found them intimately linked together in a joint reign over the same land.” Id. Exhilarated by also puzzled by the happy American situation, Tocqueville says that he sought an explanation by questioning “the faithful of all communions” he encountered, but especially with Catholic priests. Id. (Tocqueville made notes of an interview with one such priest, a Fr. Mullon. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America 32-35 (J.P. Mayer ed. 1959)). These observations, and later reflection on them, led him to conclude that “the real power of a religion [comes] to be increased by reducing its apparent strength.” Democracy at 146. Religious belief, he concluded, is the natural state of man. Unbelief is due to an “extraordinary incidental cause,” viz., “the close union of politics and religion.” Id. at 351.

Despite its length, Tocqueville’s analysis of the natural human inclination towards faith in Part I of Democracy must be quoted:

Never will the short span of sixty years close down a man’s imagination; the imperfect joys of this world will never satisfy his heart. Man alone of all created things shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense longing to exist; he despises life and fears annihilation. These different feelings constantly drive his soul toward the contemplation of another world and religion it is which directs him there. Religion is thus one particular form of hope as natural to the human heart as hope itself. Men cannot detach themselves from religious beliefs except by some wrong-headed thinking and by a sort of moral violence inflicted upon their true nature; they are drawn back by an irresistible inclination. Unbelief is an accident; faith is the only permanent state of mankind.

Democracy at 346-47. How then can the “accident” of unbelief arise? This happens when a religion confuses God’s things with Caesar’s, throwing its weight behind a particular political régime, faction or cause:

[T]here are occasions when religion can add support to its own influence the artificial strength of laws and the support of the material powers which control society. We have seen religions closely linked to earthly governments, dominating men’s souls by both terror and by faith. I am not afraid to say that it acts as would a man by sacrificing the future for the present and risks its legitimate authority by gaining a power to which it has no right.

Democracy at 347. When it makes such a Faustian bargain (or, shall we say, yields to such a Constantinian temptation?), religion exchanges the things of eternity for those of time:

So long as religion relies upon feelings which are the consolation of every suffering, it may attract the human heart to itself. When it is mixed up with the bitter passions of this world, it is sometimes forced to defend allies who have joined it through self-interest and not through love; it has to repel as enemies men who, while fighting against those allies of religion, still love religion itself. . . .

As long as religion derives its strength from opinions, feelings, and emotions which are found to recur in the same form at every period of history, it can brave the assaults of time, or, at least, it can be destroyed only by some other religion. But when religion aims to depend upon the principles of this world, it becomes almost a vulnerable as all other powers on this earth.

Id. at 347-48. Although the danger to religion from forming political alliances “exists at all times,” it increases with the coming of democracy. For democracy ensures that political power holders, constitutions and laws are continuously being challenged, weakened or strengthened, appearing or vanishing. “Agitation and instability” are the hallmarks of democratic politics, just as “immobility and somnolence” are those of absolute monarchies. Id. at 349. Thus “if Americans, who have handed over the realm of politics to the experiments of innovators, had not placed their religion somewhere beyond its reach, what could it hold on to in the ebb and flow of human opinions? Amid the struggles of parties, where would it find due respect?” Id. Fortunately, the Americans grasp this. Hence American religion “restricts itself to its own resources of which no one can deprive it; it operates within a unique sphere which it occupies entirely and rules effortlessly.” Id.

Benjamin Constant on the religious sentiment

Once again, in reading these passages in Tocqueville, we may be struck by their remarkable resemblance to the ideas and even the language of Benjamin Constant. (As we have seen, if Constant did influence Tocqueville, the debt went unacknowledged.) In Book VIII, ch. One of his Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1815; O’Keefe trans.), Constant offers an account of natural religion that in crucial respects is identical with Tocqueville’s. Like Tocqueville, Constant finds “religious sentiment” as “the most natural of all our emotions.” He must therefore explain why religion has so often been feared or despised. Like Tocqueville, his explanation is that religion has often become politicized:

But how does it happen, therefore, that religion . . . has in all ages been exposed to frequent and bitter attacks? How comes it that the class which has declared itself its enemy has almost always been the most enlightened, the most independent, and the most educated? It is because religion has been distorted. Man has been pursued into this last refuge, this intimate sanctuary of his existence. In the hands of government, religion has been transformed into a menacing institution.

Revivalism

While making a subtle but significant change in his position, Tocqueville returns to these ideas in a short chapter in Part II of Democracy, entitled “Why Certain Americans Display an Exalted Form of Spirituality.” This brief essay is an analysis of revivalism “in the sparsely peopled lands of the West,” where you will find “preachers hawking around the word of God” and “[w]hole families, old men, women, and children cross[ing] difficult terrain and forc[ing] their way through untrodden deserts” to hear them. Democracy at 621. Tocqueville visited America in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, and likely encountered revivalism during his visit to America. (We know from a short, unpublished fragment entitled “Sects in America” that he had attended Quaker, Methodist and Shaker worship on his visit to America. See James T. Schleifer, Alexis de Tocqueville Describes the American Character: Two Previously Unpublished Portraits, 74 S. Atlantic Q. 244 (1975)). Whether he attended a frontier revival meeting or not, he recorded a conversation with a hotel proprietor in Michigan who described one for him, and Tocqueville’s own account in Democracy follows that description closely. See Journey to America at 344-45.

Tocqueville is extremely sympathetic to the popular religion he saw at work in revivalism. In a nation whose “dominant passion” is “the desire to obtain the good things of this world,” he is delighted to find some whose souls “rush impetuously toward heaven.” Democracy at 621. This, he says, should not be surprising. The “taste for infinite things and the love of what is everlasting . . . have their firm foundations in human nature. . . . The soul has needs which must be satisfied. Whatever efforts are expended upon diverting itself from itself, it soon grows weary, anxious, and restless amid the pleasures of the senses.” Id. Thus, we should expect to find, even in “the very heart of a nation that considers only earthly matters, a small number of individuals whose gaze is fixed only upon heaven.” Id. at 622.

Notice, though, that those who seek spiritual revival are represented here as an exceptional minority. The American “nation” “considers only earthly matters.” Only a “small number” seek something higher. How can this be if religion is “natural” to man, and will only encounter opposition if it has been made to serve political purposes?

Democracy and Unbelief

Tocqueville thinks that American democracy is hospitable ground for religious belief because American religion respects the boundaries between the eternal and the temporal: it is not offered, and it does not accept, a political role. As a matter of human nature, therefore, religion should flourish here. As against this, however, Tocqueville warns of a powerful tendency in American democracy to foster doubt and disbelief, especially in the case of dogmatic religions. “Men who live in democratic times are . . . predisposed to slide away from all religious authority.” Democracy at 519. (The situation in Europe, he thinks, is worse: there, “religion has lost its sway over men’s souls.” Id. at 366). In egalitarian America, where tradition counts for little, intellectuals are not esteemed and every belief is subject to private judgment, dogmatic religion is always exposed to doubt: “[e]ach man . . . retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.” Id. at 494.

How can Tocqueville explain this democratic predisposition, which operates in a way that is directly contrary to what he had considered to be the workings of “human nature” and “the heart”? In different places scattered through his work, he considers possible explanations. The most important or dangerous of the forces that tend to undermine religious belief is what he calls “materialism.” Materialism, Tocqueville thinks, is a metaphysical belief system to which American civilization is particularly prone. “[E]quality, which brings great benefits into the world, arouses in men . . . very dangerous instincts. . . . It exposes their souls to an excessive love of material enjoyment.” Id. at 512.

I shall discuss Tocqueville’s analysis of materialism in my next posting.

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