Author Archives: Robert J. Delahunty

The Synod on the Family and the Developing World


First World Problems?

Not long after his election, the new Pope explained why he had taken the name “Francis”: “Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.” It was refreshing: the Pope was going to change the basic terms of the conversation between the Church and the world. Instead of waging a grinding “culture war” against a secular West, the Church would instead speak to the most urgent concerns of the global East and South. The first Pope to come from beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin promised to be the champion of those who lived in the parts of the earth where hunger, injustice and persecution abounded. Places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Nigeria had already become the true center of gravity of a global Church, displacing Quebec, Chicago, Milan and Vienna. The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Indeed, even considering “family” issues alone, the non-Western Church was short-changed: how much attention was given to the question of inter-faith marriages, despite its being a major concern for the Church in India? In the Philippines, many marriages break up because poverty forces a spouse or parent to migrate overseas in search of employment, leaving home, spouse and children behind. Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle noted this problem, saying that poverty “goes right at the heart of the family” in his country ; but how much attention did this issue get?

What is more, the organizers of the Synod openly expressed their indifference to – if not contempt for – the opinions of the leaders of the non-Western Church. They spoke as if the opposition of the African bishops to their “modernizing” program could stem only from irrational hatred and prejudice. What the Africans needed, they seemed to be saying, was a good, stiff dose of Richard Posner’s writings. In the controversy over the initial draft of the Synod’s statement, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an octogenarian German theologian and a favorite of the Pope’s, infamously said:

Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

Kasper later denied having made those revealing remarks – a denial that was then proven to be false. In any case, the remarks hardly seemed out of character for the Cardinal. In an interview with the German magazine Focus published under the heading “Third World Land,” Kasper was reported to have said, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.” The German Cardinal obviously notices different things when he is at the airport from what Cardinal Tagle does. The Philippine prelate spoke of his anguish in watching Filipino mothers at airports forced to part from their children because their poverty is so desperate that they must leave their families and search for work abroad.

Not Just Cardinal Kasper

Even if Cardinal Kasper’s statement were merely condescension on the part of the passenger with the first-class cabin towards the passengers in steerage, it would be bad enough. But Kasper and those like him simply did not seem to understand the position. Perhaps the Africans and Asians are not just squinting narrowly at the issue of homosexuality, but rather looking at the state of Western culture as a whole? And perhaps they do not like what they see? Perhaps the cultural exports of the secular West – its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents? (New York Cardinal Dolan’s wonderful defense of the “prophetic” African Church effectively made these points. )

But the problem with the Synod went far beyond the tactlessness and incomprehension of elderly European churchmen. Apparently at the Pope’s insistence, the Synod’s final report included three controversial articles that had received the approval of a Synod majority, but not the supermajority required for consensus. The final report will now go to the Church throughout the world for discussion and debate before the Synod reconvenes. You can be sure that the media coverage of the debate in this intervening period will focus overwhelmingly on the articles that the Pope reinstated. Cui bono? In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.

My former student, Andrew Ratelle, makes the point forcefully:

By upholding the nuclear family, the Church made what was perhaps the most important social investment in history. People in the poorer, more pagan regions of the world where polygamy, polyandry, arranged and child marriages were common, now had a place to look for support when it came to building a life that was most beneficial for themselves and their children. By weakening this support, or at the very least dispersing it to include more “diverse” arrangements, these bishops have weakened the very shield from which the nuclear family has received so much protection. Even in our own country, where “diverse” familial arrangements have almost become synonymous with urban poverty and crime (at least for those who have no gilded safety net to fall into), where should families look to now, since the Church has seen fit to dilute the medicine they have thrived on for so long?

Church leaders in the developing world understand this perfectly well. South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, for instance, wondered how he could deny communion to an African man living in polygamy in accordance with local culture and tradition, if he had to administer the sacrament to a divorced man married to his second wife? “Successive” polygamy, Napier pointed out, is hardly distinguishable from “simultaneous” polygamy.

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Photo from the Catholic News Agency.

Animal Rights Trump Religious Rights

The Great Synagogue, Copenhagen

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The World Jewish Congress reported late last week that the Danish Minister of Food and Agriculture, a 38 year old Social Democrat named Dan Jorgensen, had signed a regulation effectively banning the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for food. Jorgensen explained the ban on Danish television by saying “animal rights come before religion” – or, according to another translation, “animal rights precede religious rights.”

Under the new regulation, all animal slaughter must be carried out after stunning, which is contrary to the Jewish practice of shechita, or ritual slaughter. Denmark’s Jewish community (which numbers a mere 6,000 persons) opposes the minister’s decision. The European Commissioner on Health, Tonio Borg, questioned the legality of the ban, saying that it “contradicts European law.” On the other hand, Jorgensen’s decision was acclaimed by the Animal Welfare Intergroup, of which he had been President.

If the Danish government and parliament let the decision stand, Denmark will join several other western European nations, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Poland and Switzerland in prohibiting such ritual slaughter. (Holland had attempted to ban shechita, but a Continue reading

Tocqueville and Gobineau

It is fitting to end this series with a study of the exchanges between GobineauTocqueville and his younger friend and assistant, Arthur de Gobineau. For if Tocqueville was the explorer of the new age of democracy, Gobineau was the herald of a return to an age of aristocracy, if in an untraditional and modernized form.

Though little remembered now, Gobineau was a prolific and assiduous writer, known chiefly for his defense of racism, the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-55) (“Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races”). Eleven years younger than Tocqueville and, like him, the Essaiscion of a noble family (if a lesser one), Gobineau was probably introduced to Tocqueville by royalist friends of both. Whether or not they had met previously, the two men began a correspondence in 1843. The exchange resulted from an invitation the Académie des sciences morales et politiques had extended to Tocqueville in that year, to prepare a study on modern moral doctrines in order to establish what, if anything, was novel in them. Tocqueville sought to enlist the young Gobineau’s assistance in the project. The ensuing correspondence took, for Tocqueville, a surprising turn, as he found his deepest beliefs about the relationship of Christianity to modern society sharply challenged. Tocqueville abandoned the study in 1848, probably owing to the revolution of that year.

A second major round of correspondence took place beginning about a decade later, around the time of the appearance of Gobineau’s book on racial inequality. This new, illiberal orientation in Gobineau’s thought deeply disturbed Tocqueville, who told Gobineau frankly that he objected to its “fatalism” and its “materialism.” To other correspondents, Tocqueville complained that Gobineau’s “stud farm philosophy” expounded “dangerous thoughts . . . in a journalistic style.” See Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 129 (Beth Raps trans. 1998). For his part, Gobineau exulted that the book had “struck the nerve of liberal ideas at its core.” Id.

Despite their basic differences, Tocqueville befriended Gobineau, launching him on a diplomatic career when Tocqueville became France’s Foreign Minister in 1849. Gobineau did not repay Tocqueville’s kindness: in his 1874 novel Les Pléiades, his used the character of Genevilliers to mock and satirize his benefactor. Mélonio at 128-30.

The interest and importance of the Tocqueville-Gobineau correspondence has been rightly emphasized by several scholars. See especially Aristide Tessitore, “Tocqueville and Gobineau on the Nature of Modern Politics,” 67 Review of Politics 631 (2005); see also Christian Bégin, “Tocqueville et la fracture religieuse,” 32 The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville 167 (2011); Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville 96-106; 126-30 (1994); William A. Galston, “Tocqueville on Liberalism and Religion,” 54 Social Research 499 (1987). The historian John Lukacs has edited and translated most – though unfortunately not all – of the correspondence, and I shall use this translation. Alexis de Tocqueville, “The European Revolution” & Correspondence with Gobineau (John Lukacs ed. & trans. 1968).

The ultimate issues

The confrontation between Tocqueville and Gobineau was played out on at least two levels.

First, as of 1843, Gobineau “might best be described as a radical partisan of the Enlightenment project.” Tessitore at 632. Throughout his career, however, Tocqueville had argued that modern Western society was indebted to both the Enlightenment and Christianity, that the central doctrines of both movements were compatible, and that the tension between them was fruitful and beneficent, each correcting the flaws and excesses of the other. See id. at 639; 652; Galston at 502-04. The core principles of the Enlightenment, such as “the natural equality of men,” were also part of the patrimony of Christianity. See Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the Revolution 21 (Bevan trans. 2008).

For Gobineau, the Enlightenment marks a revolutionary transformation in the West, ushering in a post-Christian era in which morality has come to rest on a wholly naturalistic foundation. See Tessitore at 641. For Tocqueville, by contrast, the coming of Christianity is the only true revolution that the West has yet seen, or may ever see. (The same thesis has been defended at length, but without reference to Tocqueville, in David Bentley Hart’s brilliant Atheist Delusions, cited earlier in this series.). There is, indeed, a radical discontinuity in the dominant ethos of the West; but this is the rupture between classical antiquity and the rise of Christianity, not between the Christian ages and the aftermath of the Enlightenment. True, the morality of the nineteenth century differs significantly from that of the pre-Enlightenment period, notably with regard to the importance of political action and the recognition of life’s material needs. But these changes, Tocqueville insists, merely reflect the development of Christian morality over long stretches of time and its adaptation to new circumstances. They do not constitute evidence of the dominance of a radically de-christianized ethos. See Tessitore at 636; 644-45; 648; Galston at 505-08.

Second, Gobineau’s view of modern morality in the early 1840s laid the foundation for his later teaching about human inequality.

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Tocqueville and Habermas

After their decisive victory over a larger Austrian force in the Battle of Leuthen (1757), the soldiers of the Prussian Army broke out spontaneously in the great Lutheran hymn, Nun danket alle Gott – “Now thank we all our God.” The Prussian King, Frederick the Great, listened in astonishment. A free thinker, friend of Voltaire, and a “benevolent” Enlightenment despot, the Great King exclaimed: Mein Gott! Welche Kraft hat die Religion – “My God! How much power religion has!”

Jűrgen Habermas

Another German free thinker and heir to the Enlightenment seems recentlyHabermas to have made a similarly startling discovery. I refer to the widely renowned German philosopher and public intellectual Jűrgen Habermas. For much of his career, Habermas identified himself as a staunch defender of Enlightenment rationality, the anointed successor of Immanuel Kant. His account of liberal, democratic constitutionalism assumed only secular foundations, and deliberately excluded any reference to the authority of religion. But in recent years, Habermas has veered away from that course; his stance toward religion has changed. First, he has come to accept that religion, even in the West, is not going away – at least not soon. Second, he is prepared, albeit tentatively, to recognize a role for religion to play in public, political discourse. Indeed, he even entertains the thought that “philosophy,” or secular reason, will engage in a colloquy with “theology” and revealed religion.

Reflecting this change of heart, Habermas, as guest of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, engaged then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in debate in Munich in 2004. Habermas’ address has been published as “Prepolitical Foundations of the Constitutional State?” in Jűrgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2012). Subsequently, in 2007, Habermas debated four Jesuit theologians, again in Munich, in 2007. His remarks on this occasion have been published as Jűrgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2010). In a short, penetrating essay entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing” (New York Times, April 12, 2010), the distinguished literary theorist, public intellectual and deconstructionist Stanley Fish reviewed and criticized Habermas’ position in these debates.

Habermas’ later thoughts on religion and politics are relevant to this series for several reasons. First, it is interesting and instructive to compare the ideas of this early twenty-first century thinker with those of de Tocqueville. Tendencies in modern, democratic society whose first stirrings Tocqueville discerned have had almost two intervening centuries in which to work themselves out. In particular, secularization has become far more pervasive. But second and no less important, Habermas’ thinking sheds light on the question raised in my last posting: whether democracy can survive and flourish, despite the perceptible deepening and entrenchment of social and economic inequalities, if Western society is radically de-christianized? The bare fact that a thinker of Habermas’ repute considered it timely and important to raise the question of “prepolitical,” religious foundations for the liberal-democratic, “constitutional” State suggests that there may, indeed, be a possible need here that only religion can serve. Moreover, Tocqueville himself gave attention to the question that Habermas poses, albeit in a less systematic and focused way.

There is, I believe, a particular point of contact between Habermas and Tocqueville in the latter’s correspondence with his friend and assistant Arthur de Gobineau (whom we have briefly encountered earlier in this series). In that correspondence, Tocqueville comes closest to giving us his answer to the question whether modern Western democracy presupposes Christianity. That correspondence will be the centerpiece of my next and final posting.

Habermas on the prepolitical foundations of the constitutional State

A longstanding project of Habermas has been to provide a nonreligious, “post-metaphysical” justification of the normative foundations of constitutional democracy. He finds this type of justification in “political liberalism,” more especially in the form of “Kantian republicanism.” Prepolitical Foundations at 102. While acknowledging antecedents in Christian theology, Habermas insists that “the form of state power that remains neutral toward different worldviews ultimately derives from the profane sources of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy.” Id. Unlike Tocqueville, then, who sees the normative foundations of political liberalism as rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment thought, Habermas locates those foundations solely, or at least primarily, in the Enlightenment. (Habermas’ resistance to giving full recognition to Christianity’s historic role in shaping the modern liberal-democratic State recalls the long debate over whether the Preamble of the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe should include a reference to God or Christianity. In the end, it did not. See Srdjan Cvijic and Lorenzo Zucca, Does the European Constitution need Christian Values?, 24 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 739 (2004) (discussing J.H.H. Weiler, Un’ Europa Cristiana: un saggio explorativo (2002))).

The core of Habermas’ justificatory strategy is to base the legitimacy of the decision-making of the liberal, democratic state on an open, inclusive process of public communication, argument and reflection in which citizens engage on equal terms.

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Tocqueville’s America and Ours

The County Election (1852)

The “democracy” that Tocqueville observed in the United States was a pervasive social condition, not simply a matter of political or legal equality. Indeed, he opened Democracy in America by saying that “[o]f all the novel things which attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcibly than the equality of social conditions.” The “extraordinary influence” of “this fundamental fact” shaped both “civil society” and “political customs and laws.” Democracy at 11.

Tocqueville is sometimes misrepresented as opposing liberty to equality. The fact is that he was a partisan of both. In the chapter immediately succeeding his analysis of soft despotism (which he called a “Continuation” of the latter), he says unequivocally that “all those who now wish to found or guarantee the independence and dignity of their fellows should show themselves friends of equality.” Preventing democracy from slipping into despotism is a question, he says, of “drawing freedom from within the democracy in which God has placed us.” Id. at 809. True, he acknowledges that “[e]quality introduces into men’s minds several tendencies which are a danger to liberty.” Id. at 813. But he holds the “firm belief” that “the dangers imposed by the principle of equality upon human independence” are “not insurmountable.” Id. at 817. Inequality, no less than equality, may pose a danger to liberty in a democracy.

Democracy and social equality

Tocqueville observed social equality everywhere in America. In a short section of Volume I of Democracy entitled “Remains of the Aristocratic Party in the United States” (Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 2), Tocqueville invites his readers to consider the situation of “the wealthy man,” “this opulent citizen.” “Within the four walls of his house he adores luxury; he invites only a few chosen guests.” But in public, “[h]is clothes are simple and his demeanor is modest.” When “he emerges from home to make his way to work . . . everyone is free to accost him. On the way, his shoemaker might pass by and they stop; both then begin to chat. What can they say? These two citizens are concerned with affairs of state and will not part without shaking hands.” True, the rich feel “a deep distaste” for their country’s democratic institutions, and “both fear and despise” the people. But they bow before the force of democratic social conventions. Democracy at 208-09.

Elsewhere Tocqueville describes the manner of Americans towards one another as “natural, open, and unreserved.” “In America, where privileges of birth have never existed and where wealth grants no particular right to its owner, strangers readily congregate in the same places and find neither danger nor advantage in telling each other freely what they think . . . . [T]here is practically nothing that they expect or fear from each other and they make no more effort to reveal than to conceal their social position.” Id. at 656.

Fishtown and Belmont

It would be unrealistic to think of America in such terms nowadays. Consider Charles Murray’s recent work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). Murray argues that America is “coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class” (id. at 12). The white working class, he contends, has become estranged from the nation’s “founding virtues” of “industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” (id. at 131). Basing his Continue reading

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part II

Tocqueville thinks that democracy tends toward a metaphysics of pantheism, and urges noble natures living in a democracy to resist that tendency fiercely. Pantheism is suited to democracy because it captures democracy’s ambivalences. Pantheism both deifies and trivializes the human person. It equates the individual ego with the universe, but also shrinks the ego to an infinitesimal point. It exalts individuality, but also merges it into the totality of things. Pantheism liberates by announcing that the realm of possibility is unlimited, but oppresses by subjecting all things to necessity. It denies original sin, thus opening endless vistas for human action, but it also denies human agency, thus making action impossible.

Perhaps that is why Tocqueville followed his chapter on pantheism with another short chapter entitled “How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Perfectibility of Man” (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. I, ch. 8) (Bevan trans.). If man is at least latently divine, why should he not strive fully to realize that divinity — that is, to perfect himself? If original sin does not foredoom our pursuit of perfection to failure, then why not pursue perfection in earnest? Only aristocratic societies believe that the human situation is inherently tragic and that human history cannot finally be transcended. Democratic societies believe on the contrary that “man can improve throughout all time” and that human history reaches “the end of the long path human beings have to tread.” Democracy at 523.

Tocqueville recounts that he asked an American sailor “why his country’s vessels are constructed to last for so short a time.” The sailor answered unhesitatingly that “the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life for more than a few years.” From this casual remark, Tocqueville “glimpse[d] the general and systematic idea by which a great nation directs its every action.” Id.

As often in Tocqueville, the same cause is held to produce contrary effects. As we saw in the last posting, pantheism produces the beliefs that human individuals are mere ripples on the surface of an infinite ocean, that human action is without lasting consequences, and that the proper attitude to nature is to disturb its eternal order as little as possible. But pantheism also produces the belief that nature is endlessly malleable in our hands, that we should ceaselessly remake and exploit it to serve human ends, and that humanity itself can and should be refashioned to overcome the limits that nature appears to have set for it. In our world, technological rationality in the form of genetic engineering, the continuous effort to modify and improve crops, animals and human embryos, and the search for a cure, not merely for disease, but also for death, are as much a consequence of pantheism as the deep ecology movement is.

In his chapter on pantheism, Tocqueville tells us that he “later” describe how that metaphysical system has “a parallel in politics.” Democracy at 520. We shall soon consider that political parallel, which is democratic “despotism.” But first, let us consider a possible source of, or influence on, Tocqueville’s view of pantheism.

Henri Louis Charles Maret

Henri Louis Charles Maret was a Catholic priest (later bishop) and theologian, born in 1805 (also the year of Tocqueville’s birth). He became a Professor on the Theology faculty at the Sorbonne in 1841, and Dean of that faculty in 1853. He was associated with French liberal Catholics, most importantly the Abbé Hugues Félicité de Lammenais and the circle of like-minded Catholics involved Continue reading

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part I

We have seen that Tocqueville believes that the dominant American faith, Ralph Waldo EmersonProtestantism, will tend to decompose. The process of dissolution will occur in two phases. In the first, Protestantism (or more accurately, Calvinism) will tend to become a form of natural religion, such as he believed he had encountered in Unitarianism. This movement will take place chiefly among American élites; working class American Protestants, he believes, will be increasingly drawn to Catholicism. In the second phase, Unitarianism or natural religion will itself tend to become what he calls “pantheism.” These movements are traced out, albeit in very summary and schematic form, in Vol. II, Pt. I, chh. 6-7 of Democracy in America, dealing, respectively, with Catholicism and pantheism. In a powerful and illuminating study, Peter Lawlor has described these as two of the “least studied and strangest chapters” of Democracy in America. See Peter Augustine Lawlor, Tocqueville on Pantheism, Materialism, and Catholicism, 30 Perspectives on Political Science 218 (2001).

Tocqueville’s notions may seem very wayward and idiosyncratic to us. After Walt Whitmanall, contemporary America is neither predominantly Catholic nor predominantly pantheistic. Nonetheless, when examined more closely, Tocqueville’s analysis is full of interest and even, remarkably, of current applicability.

The “decline” of Protestantism

Since the 1960s, there has been vigorous and ongoing debate over whether American Protestantism – or at any rate “mainstream” Protestantism – is dead or dying. See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The end of American Protestantism (July 2, 2013), available at Equally, the question whether American Catholicism has become, or is becoming, a form of Protestantism also provokes current controversy. (Tocqueville himself had noted the tendency of American Catholicism to be less dogmatic and less ritualized than French Catholicism.) Neither of these interesting issues can detain us here. What is more relevant to our purpose is why Tocqueville should have thought that Protestantism would decline, and whether the evidence from the period in which he wrote might have supported the prediction that it would turn into something radically different from traditional Christianity.


Tocqueville could certainly have derived his thesis from reading the work of the great eighteenth century French Catholic theologian, historian and apologist, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux and the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest child, the Dauphin of France. Probably the greatest work by the prolific Bossuet was his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688; English trans. 1836). Bossuet’s History is a massively learned account of what the author sees as the steady fragmentation of the main branches of Protestantism into different and discordant sects. We know that Tocqueville had studied this work. In his letter of November 15, 1835 to Gustave Beaumont, he says that after finishing reading Machiavelli’s History of Florence, I turned to Bossuet’s Variations. Finding the “distance” between Machiavelli and Bossuet “great,” he writes that “I had never looked at [the Variations] so closely, and I cannot tell you how much I admired its content, and even more perhaps, its form. It is truly a magnificent and powerful arrangement.” Selected Letters 112. In thinking that Protestantism was bound to disintegrate, Tocqueville was very possibly adopting, if quietly, the polemical case that Bossuet had made for that proposition.

Tocqueville seems to have drawn on Bossuet in the places in Democracy in America in which he connects the growth of democracy with Divine Providence. For instance, in Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 17 of Democracy, entitled “A Few Sources of Poetry in Democratic Nations,” he writes that in egalitarian ages, as “each man . . . begins to perceive humanity itself, God reveals himself more and more to the human mind in his full and complete majesty . . . Observing the human race as a single entity, men find it easy to imagine that the same plan rules its destiny and they are inclined to perceive, in the actions of any individual, the trace of that universal and consistent design by which God guides our race.” Bevan trans. 563-64. Likewise, in his Introduction to Part I, Tocqueville speaks of the “gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions” as “a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics: it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.” Id. at 15. In such passages, Tocqueville is echoing another of Bossuet’s works, the Discourse on Universal History (1681), which he had also read. (For a fuller treatment of providentialism in Democracy, which downplays the influence of Bossuet, see David A. Selby, Tocqueville’s politics of providence: Pascal, Jansenism and the author’s introduction to Democracy in America, 33 The Tocqueville Review 167 (2012)).


It is also possible that Tocqueville formulated his thesis about Protestantism on the basis of reading Rousseau. After the publication of The Vicar of Savoy (on which see posting Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II), Rousseau was compelled to defend his views against the Protestant authorities of his native city of Geneva, who accused him of undermining the Reformed religion. Rousseau defended himself in a series of lengthy pieces called Letters Written from the Mountain (1764). In the second of these Letters, Rousseau identifies what he considers to be the “two fundamental points of the Reform,” and contends that his writings fully comply with both. Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 154. These two core principles are “to acknowledge the Bible as the rule of one’s belief, and not to admit any other interpreter of the Bible than oneself.” Id. To this he adds: “Combined, these two points form the principle on which the Reformed Christians separated from the Roman Church, and they could not do any less without falling into contradiction; for what interpretive authority could they have reserved to themselves, after having rejected that of the body of the Church?” Id.

To make the Bible the sole rule for deciding questions of faith and practice appears to be adopting a common standard of truth that transcends any individual opinion; but to take the principle of private judgment to mean that each believer is the final judge for himself or herself of the Bible’s meaning is to abandon the idea of a common authority.

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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.

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Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II

Rousseau: “The Savoyard Vicar”

In my last post, I introduced the subject of Tocqueville’s views on natural religion. As we shall see, Tocqueville believed that Protestantism had an inherent tendency to collapse into natural religion, and indeed that its transmutation into something very distinct from traditional Christianity might not cease there. Because of Tocqueville’s insistence on the importance of religion to American democracy, the transformation or decline of American Protestantism would be, from his perspective, a momentous development.

One of the main sources of Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion, I argued last time, was likely to have been Montesquieu. We reviewed Montesquieu’s thought on that subject in his epistolary novel, The Persian Letters. A second likely influence on Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion is Rousseau’s Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar (1783), which forms a section of Rousseau’s novel, Emile.

Although Tocqueville is silent on the matter, I believe that the Savoyard Vicar exercised a lasting and extensive influence on Tocqueville’s thinking, and I would even conjecture that reading this very work precipitated the shattering crisis of belief that Tocqueville underwent in his father’s library in Metz when he was sixteen.

The Savoyard Vicar is a complex and many-layered work, and I cannot pretend to do anything like full justice to it here. Its complexity stems, in part, from the ambiguity of Rousseau’s intentions in writing it. Although Rousseau’s critics, then and later, found nothing, or almost nothing, of Christian doctrine or sentiment in it, Rousseau himself contended vehemently that the work to provide a more secure foundation for revealed religion, above all Protestantism, that would make it more attractive to his contemporaries. See Robert Derathe, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau et le Christianisme,” in 53 Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 375, 381-85, 410-14 (1948). (As noted in my last post, Rousseau’s hostility towards Roman Catholicism was unremitting.) Furthermore, the work can be read both to extend the Enlightenment’s scathing critique of Christianity and at the same time to point towards a post-Enlightenment return to Christianity. See Arthur M. Melzer, “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity,” 90 American Political Science Review 344 (1996).

The Savoyard Vicar consists chiefly in a lengthy discourse delivered by a Catholic priest (the Vicar) to a young man identified in the story as Rousseau himself in his twenties. The discourse is divided into two parts of unequal length, marked by a short intervention by the young Rousseau. In the first and longer discourse, the Vicar discusses natural religion; the second and shorter speech concerns revealed religion. Rousseau later explained that the “more important” first part was “intended to combat modern materialism, to establish the existence of God and natural religion” and “contains what is truly essential to Religion,” while the second part “raises doubts and difficulties about revelation in general” and is designed to make believers “more circumspect.” J.-J. Rousseau, Letter to Christophe Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris (1763), in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 75 (Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace eds. 2001). In the break between the two parts, the young Rousseau exclaims that during the Vicar’s speech, “I imagined myself attending to the divine Orpheus singing his hymns and teaching mankind the worship of the g Continue reading