Tocqueville on Unitarianism

In the last two postings in this series, we considered Tocqueville’s thinking onWilliam Ellery Channing natural religion, especially in light of the views on that subject of two of his masters, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Like those two earlier thinkers, Tocqueville is interested in natural religion, not only for theological reasons, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for political ones. All three thinkers shared the view that religion is necessary or useful to government. And since Christianity was (and is) historically the dominant religion in the West, all three recognized that if any religion were to serve that purpose in Western societies, it would necessarily be Christianity. But Rousseau, at least, thought that Christianity, especially in the form of Roman Catholicism, was also potentially highly disruptive to society.Alexis de Tocqueville Rousseau, therefore, seems to have advocated “natural religion” – which he regarded as a purified form of Christianity – as an alternative to the traditional forms of that religion. Natural religion, as Rousseau conceived it, would offer the State the essential benefits of traditional Christianity: it would, e.g., function to integrate and bind the citizens together in a cohesive social union, and it would fashion their characters and inculcate virtuous habits in civically desirable ways. At the same time, Rousseau thought that natural religion would not have the destructive tendencies of traditional, revealed Christianity, among them that of teaching us to love our fellow humans as much as our fellow citizens. Rousseau may have thought that his natural religion was a particularly apt form of belief for democratic states, because its starting points were simple, common ideas that were accessible to people of ordinary intelligence and because its dogmatic teachings were few, undemanding, and generally accepted.

Tocqueville was far more uncertain that mere natural religion will suffice to serve the needs of a democracy. Thus, his position is different from that of Rousseau. True, as we saw in Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I, Tocqueville may be saying, in the chapter of Democracy in America entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” that democratic statesmen will do well enough for democracy if they succeed in maintaining in the general population a bare belief in the soul’s survival of the body’s death. But surely Tocqueville realized that that is an unstable position – a kind of half-way house between traditional, dogmatic Christianity and outright unbelief. Belief in the immortality of the soul at least has the sanction of long tradition and seems to answer to a deep human need; belief that the soul dies with the body is encouraged by the testimony of the senses and has the warrant of materialist philosophers going back to Lucretius. But what credible reason is there to think that the soul has a shadowy existence for a period after the body’s death, only to flicker out indefinitely later? And even if one could find a reason to credit such a belief, how effective would it be in motivating the kind of attitudes and conduct necessary for a vital democracy?

Thus, I am reluctant to think that Tocqueville’s considered view is that natural religion alone provides truly satisfactory and durable support for democracy. The better interpretation, as I shall try below to show, is that he thinks that democracy requires – or, at least, is better served by – a more traditional, revealed religion.

But if that interpretation is right, then Tocqueville would have had cause to question the long-term health and stability of American democracy. For, as we saw at the conclusion of the last post, he believes that Protestantism in America will tend to collapse into mere natural religion. See his Letter to de Chabrol (October 26, 1831). If natural religion is at best a weak and undependable safeguard for democracy, then the future of democracy, in a Protestant society like America, must be clouded.

The June 29, 1831 Letter to Kergolay

Tocqueville gives expression to these thoughts in a long and fascinating letter of June 29, 1831 to his intimate friend Louis de Kergolay. See Selected Letters 45 et seq. Plainly Tocqueville is extemporizing in this letter: it was written in two stages, and Tocqueville tells Kergolay at the start of the second stage that he writes “without knowing just what I am going to say to you.” Nonetheless the tumultuous flood of ideas in this letter reveals much about Tocqueville’s deeper thinking.

To begin with, Tocqueville has a very low estimate of American Protestantism. “Faith is evidently inert; enter the churches (I mean the Protestant ones) and you hear them speak of morality; of dogma not a word, nothing that could in any way shock a neighbor, nothing that could reveal the hint of dissidence.” The “human spirit” loves to “plunge itself into abstractions of dogma” when “a belief has seized it strongly;” but the undogmatic Americans are not seized by belief, although “they were formerly like that.” Their “tolerance” of sectarian differences “is nothing but a huge indifference.” The contrast with the state of religion in France is evident. In America, “religion does not move people deeply; in France those who believe demonstrate their belief by sacrifices of time, effort, and wealth. One senses that they are acting under the sway of a passion that dominates them and for which they have become agents.” To be sure, there are also “brutes” in France who hate “the very name of religion,” and nothing corresponds to them “among the bulk of Protestants.” In general, then, American Protestant Christianity is pedestrian, spiritless and banal: “People follow a religion the way our fathers took a medicine in the month of May – if it does not do any good, people seem to say, at least it cannot do any harm.”

At this point, Tocqueville moves from the level of observation to that of theory. He attributes the low quality of American belief to the inner logic of the Reformation: “How could it be otherwise? The reformers of the 16th century made the same compromise in religious matters that people in our time are striving to make in political matters. They said: this principle is bad in regard to this consequence; but apart from that we find it good and it is necessary to judge it so with us, and vice versa. But ardent and logical minds were encountered who could not stand to stop halfway; as a result, an immense field was opened to the human spirit and I assure you that it has taken advantage of that.” A little later, he amplifies the point that Protestantism is an unstable “compromise”:

It seems clear to me that the reformed religion is a kind of compromise, a sort of representative monarchy in matters of religion which can well fill in an era, serve as a passage from one state to another, but which cannot constitute a definitive state in itself and which is approaching its end.

Thus, Tocqueville argues, Protestantism has a tendency to disintegrate, as is shown by the “infinite subdivisions” of Protestant sects in America. “One might say that [these sects] are circles successively drawn around the same point; each new one is a little more distant than the last.” What is that inner point from which Protestantism progressively recedes? “The Catholic Church is the immobile point from which each new sect distances itself a little more, while drawing nearer to pure deism.”

What Tocqueville here calls “deism” seems to be exactly what we have been calling natural religion. The letter to Kergolay thus displays at greater length the reasoning that led Tocqueville to say to de Chabrol a few months later that Protestantism tends to collapse into natural religion.

“By what will it be replaced?”

Tocqueville’s analysis obviously confronts him with the question: “By what will [Protestantism] be replaced” in America? His primary answer was: Catholicism. Tocqueville’s answer was nothing short of astonishing. As he wrote, Anti-Catholicism in America was reaching ever greater heights of virulence, including the burning of churches, convents and seminaries and the publication of anti-Catholic tracts like the Reverend Lyman Beecher’s A Plea for the West (1835). See George McKenna, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism 96-100 (2007).

Tocqueville knows that there is only “a fistful” of Catholics in America. (In Democracy, he puts the number at a million, out of a total population in 1830 of some thirteen million). But, he says, they are “making use of the tolerance of their ancient [Protestant] adversaries,” while themselves remaining “basically as intolerant as they have always been, as intolerant in a word as people who believe.” Although America’s Catholics are “in general poor,” they are “full of zeal.” “[T]heir priests are completely devoted to the religion of sacrifice they have embraced; they are not in effect businessmen of religion, as are the Protestant ministers.” Although their numbers are constantly being increased by immigration (about 20,000 Catholic immigrants were entering the United States each year in the early 1830s, see Morgan at 97), Tocqueville was much more impressed by what he saw as the frequency of conversions, especially by more thoughtful and pious Protestants:

It is evident that all the naturally religious minds among the Protestants, serious and complete minds, which the uncertainties of Protestantism tire and which at the same time deeply feel the need for a religion, are abandoning the despair of seeking the truth and are throwing themselves anew under the empire of authority.

Tocqueville claims that these conversions are predominantly found in the American working class, not the élite: “Catholicism . . . seizes the senses and the soul deeply and is better suited to the people than reformed religion; thus the greatest number of converts belongs to the working classes of the society.”

Unitarianism

The logic of disintegration that leads many Americans from Protestantism to Catholics also produces, for Tocqueville, an opposing outcome. Just as many Protestants are drawn to Catholicism by the lure of authority, so others are drawn by reason to Unitarianism. As he put it in his Pocket Notebook Number 1, “the same cause, indifference, drives men in two opposing directions. Those whose spirit is ardent, imagination tender or lively, the unfortunates who have much to expect from the other life, stay [?] in the bosom of the most positive, the most imperious and powerful of all the religions. Cool and logical spirits, meditative and tranquil characters, men whose ways are intellectual or learned join, on the other hand, a purely philosophical sect which allows them to make an almost public profession of pure deism. . . . The argument is between authority and liberty in their ultimate extremes.” Journey to America 122 (J.P. Mayer ed. 1959).

Unitarianism, as Tocqueville encountered it, was the product of a long theological struggle in New England over the course of the latter half of the eighteenth century between traditional Calvinism and Arminianism, its more liberal opponent. The controversy extended over original sin and the nature of man, freedom of the will, justification by faith, the relationship of reason to revelation, and other issues of fundamental importance. In a nutshell, the conflict can be said to have reflected the disturbing influence of Enlightenment ideas on orthodox Calvinism. (The story is beautifully told in Conrad Wright’s Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955)). Tocqueville was evidently fascinated by Unitarianism. On October 12, 1831, during his visit to Boston, he had a long interview with the Reverend William Ellery Channing, the leading Unitarian writer, pastor and preacher. Tocqueville was deeply impressed by Channing, then at the height of his powers. We will consider below Tocqueville’s illuminating notes of his conversation with Channing.

Even before meeting Channing, Tocqueville had formed a view of Unitarianism. In his letter to Kergolay, he passes from “one of the ends of the chain,” Catholicism, to “the other end,” Unitarianism:

On the border of Protestantism is a sect which is Christian only in name; these are the Unitarians. Among the Unitarians, which is to say among those who deny the Trinity and acknowledge only one God, there are some who see in Jesus Christ only an angel, others a prophet, finally others a philosopher like Socrates. These are pure deists; they speak of the Bible, because they do not want to shock opinion too strongly, as it is still completely Christian. They have a service on Sunday; I have been to one. There they read verses of Dryden or other English poets on the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. A speech on some point of morality is made, and the service is over.

Like American Catholicism, Tocqueville finds Unitarianism to be effective at proselytization, although its converts generally come from the rich:

The sect is gaining proselytes in almost the same proportion as Catholicism, but it recruits from the upper ranks of society. It is growing rich, like Catholicism, from the losses of Protestantism. It is evident that the Protestants, whose spirit is cold and logical, debating classes, men whose habits are intellectual and scientific, are seizing the opportunity to embrace a philosophical sect that allows them to profess, almost publicly, pure deism.

Tocqueville’s characterization of Unitarianism is more than a little unfair: a man like Channing was certainly not, in his own mind, a “pure deist,” but rather a Christian, if an Arian rather than an Athanasian one. Channing’s devotion to the person of Christ is unmistakable (as can be seen, e.g., in his sermon Jesus Christ, the Brother, Friend, and Saviour, in Henry Channing (ed.), 4 Works of William Ellery Channing 992 (1900)), and he was more apt to speak of “Unitarian Christianity” than of “Unitarianism.” See Conrad Wright, The Unitarian Controversy: Essays on American Unitarian History 157-61 (1994).

Nonetheless there is a fair measure of truth in Tocqueville’s description. And by means of the contrast he draws between Catholicism and Unitarianism, he is enabled to give an edge to his analysis of the disintegrative logic of Protestantism. “Thus you see,” he tells Kergolay, “Protestantism: a mixture of authority and reason, is battered at the same time by the two absolute principles of reason and authority. Anyone who wants to look for it can see this spectacle to some extent everywhere; but here it is quite striking. It is apparent here, because in America no power of fact or opinion hinders the march of human intelligence or passions on this point: they follow their natural bent. At a time that does not seem to me very far away, it seems certain that the two extremes will find themselves face to face.” And then? “Here I am absolutely lost in uncertainty.”

William Ellery Channing

Tocqueville may have become aware of William Ellery Channing through conversations with the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus. Cheverus had been a missionary in New England for 27 years and was named Bishop of Boston in 1808. He returned to France in 1823 and was made a cardinal in 1835. He was a visitor to the Tocqueville household and doubtless discussed his recollections of America with the Tocqueville family. See André Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography 95 (1998). During his years in Boston, the much-admired Cheverus was invited to speak in Protestant churches and probably formed a connection with Channing, who was also, of course, a prominent local clergyman. Channing praised Cheverus, saying “Who among our religious teachers would solicit a comparison between himself and the devoted Cheverus?” See article, Jean-Louis de Cheverus, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03650a.htm.

Tocqueville (rightly) had a very high opinion of Channing. He ranked “the eloquent treatises of Doctor Channing” along with the writings of Washington Irving and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper as works of “the small number of [American] authors who are known by Europeans or who should be.” See Democracy in America vol. III, p. 802 & note d (Eduardo Nolla ed.). In his notes of his interview with Channing, he described him as “the most noteworthy writer in the America of today (in a serious vein).” Journey to America at 63.

Tocqueville recorded the notes of his conversation with Channing on October 12, 1831. (Not long before, on October 1, he had dined with another eminent American Unitarian, the former President John Adams.) Channing and Tocqueville discussed religion in France and England. Channing, who found the French “a religious people,” hoped that they would “not stop like the English in midroad. They have stopped at the Protestantism of the seventeenth century.” Id. Intrigued, Tocqueville pressed Channing on the controversies between Protestantism and Unitarianism. Channing explained that the signal question was “whether the seventeenth century can come back, or whether it is past return. They have opened the road and claim to stop exactly where the first innovator stopped himself. But we, we claim to go on.” Id. at 63-4.

Channing had presented and defended these views at considerable length in a well-known essay, The Moral Argument Against Calvinism (1820), in which he had written that “a large number, perhaps a majority of those, who surname themselves with the name of Calvin, have little more title to it than ourselves. They keep the name, and drop the principles . . . .Calvinism . . . is giving place to better views. It has passed its meridian, and is sinking, to rise no more. . . . Society is going forward in intelligence and charity, and of course is leaving the theology of the sixteenth century behind it.” Channing’s argument would have confirmed Tocqueville in his idea that the logic of Protestantism led irresistibly away from traditional Christianity.

Tocqueville pressed further in the interview, raising the question whether the Unitarians’ effort “to purify Christianity” might end up “making its very substance disappear?” Tocqueville expressed the fear that “the road which the human spirit has taken since Catholicism . . . may in the end come to natural religion.” (That, of course, is precisely what Tocqueville was to say in his letter not much afterward to de Chabrol).

Channing countered that “the human spirit needs a positive religion, and why should it ever abandon Christianity?” Finding the reply unsatisfactory, Tocqueville politely raised “one objection” that applied “not only to Unitarianism, but also to all Protestant sects,” and that had “a great bearing on the political world.” This objection was that the great mass of men will always be incapable of reasoning on “theoretical or abstract questions,” and will discover that “if they have not a dogmatic faith, will believe in precisely nothing.” In other words, Tocqueville hinted, the progressive disintegration of Christianity initiated by the Reformation would inevitably either lead to a return to Catholicism or result in widespread unbelief.

Channing disagreed. He insisted that “for every right-hearted man religious questions are not as difficult as you seem to believe, and . . . God has put their solution within the reach of every man.” Like Rousseau’s Savoyard Vicar, Channing believed that natural religion was inherently suited to democracy. Further, Channing questioned Tocqueville’s desire to find unassailable certainty in a dogmatic Catholicism: “I do not think Catholicism removes the difficulty at all; I admit that once one has admitted the dogma of the infallibility of the Church, the rest becomes easy, but to establish that first point you must clearly make an appeal to reason.” For Channing, then, even “authority” must ultimately rest on “reason.” Tocqueville records that he himself found Channing’s reasoning “more specious than solid.”

Conclusion

Tocqueville was convinced that Protestantism would eventually disintegrate, leaving the American people with the choice between a dogmatic Catholicism and a radically de-Christianized natural religion. Worse, he seems to have thought that natural religion was itself an unstable position, and that it too would tend to disintegrate, reducing the choice ultimately to one between Catholicism and a pervasive unbelief that renounced the supernatural and would be debilitating for democracy.

Most of Tocqueville’s thinking on this matter is found in private letters and journals; it is hard to glimpse in Democracy in America. But it surfaces in two short, neglected and essential chapters in Volume 2 of Democracy: “The Progress of Catholicism in the United States” and “What Causes the Minds of Democratic Nations to Incline Toward Pantheism.” Democracy, Vol. II, Part 1, chh. 6-7.

These chapters will occupy us in later postings; but two things about them deserve immediate notice. First, in delineating the basic trends in American religious belief and sentiment, Tocqueville omits any reference to Protestantism: the dominant religious forces in America, he believes, will prove to be either Catholicism or something else that he calls “pantheism.” Moreover, “pantheism” represents a stage in the evolution of American religion beyond natural religion: it is the degradation of natural religion into unbelief. If the movement of thought that leads from the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards to the Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing is a single extended but continuous phase of American religion, so the movement from Channing to the pantheism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman is the necessary and predictable ensuing phase. (Orthodox Calvinists had also predicted that Unitarianism would lead to precisely such an outcome. See C.H. Faust, The Background of the Unitarian Opposition to Transcendentalism, 35 Modern Philology 297 (1938)).

Second, Tocqueville’s understanding of “pantheism” can be seen as an approfondissement of Rousseau’s thought that natural religion has a particular congruence with or affinity for democracy. On the contrary, Tocqueville believes that natural religion has an appeal for the American élite, but not for the masses (for whom the only viable alternative to unbelief would be Catholicism). If there is a religion (other than Catholicism) that has such an inherent fit with democracy, it is the debased kind of religion Tocqueville calls “pantheism.”

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