Tag Archives: Early United States

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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Schlereth, “An Age of Infidels”

Next month, University of Pennsylvania Press will publish An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States by Eric R. Schlereth (University of Texas).  The publisher’s description follows.An Age of Infidels

Historian Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflict at the center of early American political culture. He shows ordinary Americans—both faithful believers and Christianity’s staunchest critics—struggling with questions about the meaning of tolerance and the limits of religious freedom. In doing so, he casts new light on the ways Americans reconciled their varied religious beliefs with political change at a formative moment in the nation’s cultural life.

After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation felt no guarantee that they would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that had gripped much of Europe for three centuries. Debates thus erupted in the new United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions. Public life in the period included contentious arguments over the best way to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation’s recent political developments.

In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. From the 1770s onward, Americans created a political rather than legal boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression, one defined in reference to infidelity. Conflicts occurred most commonly between deists and their opponents who perceived deists’ anti-Christian opinions as increasingly influential in American culture and politics. Exploring these controversies, Schlereth explains how Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.