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  1. 18 May '16 14:44 / 1 edit
    I was reading an interesting article about the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville regarding his views of the importance of religion in relation to democracy.

    As many may know, Alexis traveled to America in the 18th century and was amazed at how different American culture was in contrast to European culture. That is, he was amazed that America had such a vibrant democracy devoid of an imposing nanny state he experienced in Europe. He then took to task trying to observe how this could be.

    Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Burke, and Locke, to name of few, all argued of the need for religion to supplant a free government. It was their view that without religion free government could not be maintained. And even though the Founding fathers in America created a secular government, they often reminded us of the importance of religion in the culture. In George Washington's Farewell Address, George Washington reminded his countrymen that religion and morality are the "firmest props of the duties of men and citizens" and therefore use "indispensable supports" of "the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity." He added, moreover, that morality depends on religion: "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." Religion, he then suggested, is necessary to the preservation of "free government".

    So why then did the Founding Fathers create a separation of church and state if they thought that religion was a pillar of society and free government? Tocqueville contended that religion is so powerful in America precisely because of the separation of church and state. Tocqueville argued that the union of religion and politics tends to weaken the citizens attachment to religion by tying it all to the dissatisfaction and animosity that is inevitably caused by wielding political power. An example of this would be the recent Pope coming out and saying that Trump was going to hell and then inviting Bernie Sanders to Rome for a warm embrace and hug and kiss. This does nothing but weaken the Pope's influence among those who may have differing views of both political candidates.

    So why is religion so important to a free government? The answer is easy to see if a free government fosters a free people. If society was full of people who were amoral, their freedom would be used accordingly. To put another way, if society were full of the morality seen in most prisons, then how would one maintain a civil society if those convicts were free to do as they wished? The obvious answer is, the state would then need to impose a police state in order to maintain order. Freedom and self rule require it's citizens to restrict their own actions by some moral order, otherwise it must be done for them and freedom is no more.
  2. Standard member sh76
    Civis Americanus Sum
    18 May '16 14:48
    Originally posted by whodey
    I was reading an interesting article about the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville regarding his views of the importance of religion in relation to democracy.

    As many may know, Alexis traveled to America in the 18th century and was amazed at how different American culture was in contrast to European culture. That is, he was amazed that America had ...[text shortened]... heir own actions by some moral order, otherwise it must be done for them and freedom is no more.
    That assumes that irreligious = amoral, a dubious assumption.
  3. 18 May '16 14:57 / 1 edit
    Originally posted by sh76
    That assumes that irreligious = amoral, a dubious assumption.
    One must first define "amoral".

    Tocqueville offers us a conundrum. How can you have a diverse culture with diverse views of morality and have a free people? Put another way, how can you have half the population thinking that stoning women for adultery is "OK" and the other half thinking that adultery is "OK" coexist?

    On the other side of the coin how he also argues that individualism can lead to despotism. Despotism can arise within democracy when excessive forms of individualism and materialism makes citizens indifferent to their public duties.

    His conclusion was that in America, the majority shared a general consensus on what is "moral" and that included the rejection of materialism. The state did not have to come in and strip away a free economy because by in large citizens focused more on community than they did their bank accounts.
  4. 18 May '16 15:10
    Originally posted by whodey
    I was reading an interesting article about the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville regarding his views of the importance of religion in relation to democracy.

    As many may know, Alexis traveled to America in the 18th century and was amazed at how different American culture was in contrast to European culture. That is, he was amazed that America had ...[text shortened]... heir own actions by some moral order, otherwise it must be done for them and freedom is no more.
    Yes indeed whodey, the 18th Century European autocracies, with their governments devoted almost exclusively to warfare and enriching aristocrats, were quite typical of the "nanny state."

    Your lengthy rant provides no justification whatsoever for your vague claim that non-religious people are "amoral."
  5. 18 May '16 15:12 / 1 edit
    Originally posted by KazetNagorra
    Yes indeed whodey, the 18th Century European autocracies, with their governments devoted almost exclusively to warfare and enriching aristocrats, were quite typical of the "nanny state."

    Your lengthy rant provides no justification whatsoever for your vague claim that non-religious people are "amoral."
    Again, what do you consider to be "amoral"?

    We all have a morality, even if we make it up as we go.

    The larger question becomes, how can a morally diverse culture survive if it is so divided?
  6. 18 May '16 15:24 / 1 edit
    Originally posted by whodey
    Again, what do you consider to be "amoral"?

    We all have a morality, even if we make it up as we go.

    The larger question becomes, how can a morally diverse culture survive if it is so divided?
    An amoral act is one that harms someone else without consent and/or providing sufficient benefit overall.

    The larger question becomes, how can a morally diverse culture survive if it is so divided?

    No culture, however "diverse," can survive - cultures evolve and change over time.
  7. 18 May '16 15:26
    As the new and upcoming generation voted for Bernie Sanders in large numbers, I think the vast majority of Americans have concluded that freedom of the pocket book is no longer a plausible alternative and must be stripped from such an amoral society.

    With Bernie talking about imposing a state morality of the pocket book, who here agrees? I suppose all that is left in terms of freedom will be deciding who you can have sex with and possibly what drugs you can now use to get high.
  8. 18 May '16 15:28
    Originally posted by KazetNagorra
    An amoral act is one that harms someone else without consent and/or providing sufficient benefit overall.

    [b]The larger question becomes, how can a morally diverse culture survive if it is so divided?


    No culture, however "diverse," can survive - cultures evolve and change over time.[/b]
    Have you traveled to Saudi Arabia? There they think that adultery harms the family and deserves stoning. They also think that adultery is detrimental to society overall.

    Now what?
  9. 18 May '16 15:34
    Originally posted by whodey
    Have you traveled to Saudi Arabia? There they think that adultery harms the family and deserves stoning. They also think that adultery is detrimental to society overall.

    Now what?
    I can't speak for what individual citizens of Saudi Arabia may and may not think concerning moral issues.

    I disagree with Saudi Arabia's laws concerning adultery (which, as far as I know, do not include stoning but do include corporal punishments but I may be wrong).

    Now what?
  10. 18 May '16 15:37
    Originally posted by KazetNagorra
    I can't speak for what individual citizens of Saudi Arabia may and may not think concerning moral issues.

    I disagree with Saudi Arabia's laws concerning adultery (which, as far as I know, do not include stoning but do include corporal punishments but I may be wrong).

    Now what?
    How can two such diverse moralities exist?

    One will feel imprisoned by the other.
  11. 18 May '16 15:39
    Originally posted by whodey
    How can two such diverse moralities exist?

    One will feel imprisoned by the other.
    Try reformulating your question into a coherent one that can be meaningfully answered.

    "Diverse moralities" already can and do exist everywhere people live together in societies.
  12. 18 May '16 16:13 / 1 edit
    Originally posted by sh76
    That assumes that irreligious = amoral, a dubious assumption.
    It certainly does not. It just means that there is no set of morals, which means anyone can adopt any morals. As long as people adopt morals that are consistent with living in peace, there is no real problem. The problems arise when people adopt morals that are not consistent with living in peace. It is a major problem among the poor who adopt morals consistent with survival in their world. Often times this means the morality of the prison population. Since prison morality is no worse than any other morality from society's perspective, drug abuse, domestic violence and many other societal problems are more commonly found in the lower socioeconomic part of society.

    Here is a link concerning domestic violence. It has an interesting graph comparing church attendance and the chances of committing an act of domestic violence.

    www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/55373.pdf
  13. 18 May '16 19:38 / 1 edit
    I found the article online.

    In recent years, Americans have lost sight of religion’s positive contribution to creating and sustaining our democracy. We have not forgotten religion’s relevance to our political life; we are continually reminded of that by our ongoing debates about the proper scope of religious freedom. These debates, however, treat religion more as a private preference than a public good. They concern how much liberty private individuals and groups should have in exercising their religious beliefs. These debates therefore do little to remind us of how religion can act as a unifying social force, a set of common beliefs that are essential to maintaining our democratic way of life.

    In forgetting religion’s role as a public institution, we also have lost contact with an old and venerable tradition of political philosophy. Even the great non-theological thinkers in the history of Western political thought—those who considered religion not from the standpoint of the religious teacher concerned with the salvation of souls but from the perspective of the statesman concerned with protecting the common good—tell us that religion is necessary to a healthy political community. This is the teaching of the classical founders of that tradition, such as Plato and Aristotle. It is also the teaching of modern figures such as Edmund Burke and John Locke, who emphasized that free government could not be maintained in the absence of religion.

    Coming closer to home, this is also the view held by the American Founders. They intended to institute a secular government but insisted that it required a religious foundation. For example, in his Farewell Address, George Washington reminded his countrymen that “religion and morality” are the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and therefore are “indispensable supports” of “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” He added, moreover, that morality depends on religion: “[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Religion, he thus suggested, is necessary to the preservation of “free government.”[1]

    In seeking to renew our understanding of religion’s contribution to freedom, we can turn to no better teacher than Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville explained more thoroughly than anyone else why religion, though in some ways a pre-modern and pre-democratic phenomenon, is nevertheless essential to the health of modern democracy. This is one of the key themes of his monumental study, Democracy in America.

    Modern democratic freedom, Tocqueville argues, developed as a result of Christianity’s influence on European civilization, and more particularly as a result of Puritanism’s influence on American civilization. This link is not accidental: Political freedom requires an unshakeable moral foundation that only religion can supply. Moreover, religion is necessary not only to democracy’s emergence, but also to its preservation. Democracy fosters intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom: the tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism. American Christianity acts as a corrective to these perilous democratic tendencies.

    Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes, the preservation of America’s traditional religion is one of the most important tasks of democratic statesmanship. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that religion “should be considered the first” of America’s “political institutions” and even that it is necessary for Americans to “maintain Christianity…at all cost.”[2]

    To summarize Tocqueville’s teaching thus is to be reminded of how much America has changed since he examined it, and this in turn raises the question whether Tocqueville’s teaching is any longer relevant to us. Christianity today possesses nothing like the public moral authority that it had in the 1830s. Today’s America is less religious overall than Tocqueville’s America, and religious Americans today are more diverse in their religious beliefs than were the Americans of Tocqueville’s day.

    These changes, however, do not render Tocqueville’s account irrelevant. He wrote not as a religious teacher aiming to propagate a particular faith, but instead as a political analyst interested in the kind of religious beliefs necessary to uphold freedom and democracy. Moreover, Tocqueville saw democracy’s dynamism and understood its tendency to change the country’s religious landscape.

    Accordingly, Tocqueville wrote not with a view to preserving completely intact a particular religion, but instead to discover the religious essentials of the free society and to explain how and to what extent they can be preserved. His thought therefore invites us not to a fruitless nostalgia for an unrecoverable past, but instead to an intelligent application of the lessons of the past to the obligations of the present—especially our obligation to preserve and pass on the free society that we have inherited.

    Christianity and the Origins of American Democracy

    Tocqueville opens Democracy in America by reminding us of something that we now tend to forget: The freedom we cherish rests upon religious foundations. Modern democracy could not have emerged but for the influence of Christianity on the Western world. Tocqueville emphasizes the historical rise of equality as both an idea and a social fact. This “revolution,” however, cannot be observed in the world at large, but is instead characteristic of “all the Christian universe.” “Conditions are more equal among Christians in our day,” Tocqueville contends, “than they have ever been in any time or any country in the world.”[3]

    The progress of equality, Tocqueville argues, was driven both by Christianity’s influence on society’s institutions and by its intellectual influence. The first occurred with the introduction of Christian clergy into aristocratic societies, which formerly had been divided between the few hereditary rulers and the many who obeyed. “The clergy,” he notes, had opened “its ranks to all” so that “equality” began “to penetrate through the church to the heart of government.” As a result, one who formerly “would have vegetated as a serf” could now take “his place as a priest in the midst of nobles” and “often take a seat above kings.”[4]

    In terms of its intellectual influence, Tocqueville holds that Christianity teaches a theological equality that suggests to men’s minds a kind of political equality as well. “Christianity, which has rendered all men equal before God, will not be loath to see all citizens equal before the law.”[5] Christianity’s contribution here might seem superfluous to us as modern human beings: We instinctively believe in equality before the law and in political equality more generally. As far as we can remember, it has always been a fundamental principle of the societies we inhabit. We are accordingly unlikely to feel much gratitude to a religion that lends theological support to the idea of equality.

    Tocqueville’s account, however, is based on the long view of human history. It reminds us that if we consider the whole story of the human race, democracy and equality are not society’s default position. The political communities of classical Greece and Rome, Tocqueville observes, had deep social and political inequalities that were so well established and so taken for granted that modern ideas of equality and universal rights were inconceivable even to the “most profound and vast geniuses” of the ancient world. Under these conditions, “it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.”[6]

    Christianity in America: A Political Principle

    According to Tocqueville, Christianity is responsible for more than the general rise of equality as a European phenomenon. American democracy owes its birth to the influence of a specific form of Christianity: English Puritanism. The Pilgrims, he holds, laid the essential groundwork for America’s experiment in self-government.

    America grew from a specific “point of departure,” a political and social state that conditions all that comes after it.[7] This point of departure was provided by the northern settlements. The principal ideas of the northern states “spread at first to the neighboring states” and then gradually “penetrated the entire confederation.”[8]

    Religion was in fact the primary reason for the northern settlers’ immigration to the New World. They did not come to improve their material conditions; on the contrary, they left behind a rather comfortable situation to brave the hardships of the American wilderness. They made this sacrifice, according to Tocqueville, in order “to obey a purely intellectual need,” to “make an idea triumph.” This idea was, of course, their conception of the Christian community they wanted to establish. These settlers called themselves Pilgrims because their journey had a religious purpose: They sought to build Puritan communities, to live in America “in their manner and pray to God in freedom.”[9]

    Tocqueville is not an uncritical admirer of the Puritans. He acknowledges that the societies they established were marred by excesses and follies. They copied much of their criminal law—including very harsh penalties—directly from the Old Testament, thus carrying “the legislation of a rude and half-civilized people into the heart of a society whose spirit was enlightened and more mild.” Elsewhere, “forgetting completely the great principles of religious liberty” that they had “demanded in Europe,” they used legal punishments to enforce worship and regulate its conduct.[10]
  14. 18 May '16 19:43 / 1 edit
    Continued

    These errors and abuses proved to be temporary and were corrected by later generations of settlers. The positive political contribution of the Puritans, however, proved to be of lasting and fundamental importance to America’s way of life: establishing and sustaining democratic self-government.[11]

    Puritanism, Tocqueville explains, “was not only a religious doctrine; it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.”[12] The Pilgrims came to establish religious communities, but their beliefs called for such communities to be instituted and administered by the consent of the governed.

    The Mayflower Compact, for example, identified the purpose of the Plymouth colony as “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor” of “King and country.” It also, however, established the colony’s government on the basis of the colonists’ decision to “covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politick” and to “constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.” Other New England colonies similarly “began by drafting a social contract that was submitted to the approval of all interested persons.”[13]

    Puritan churches were governed democratically. “The greatest part of English America,” Tocqueville contends, was “peopled by men who, after having escaped the authority of the pope, did not submit to any religious supremacy.” Thus, they “brought to the New World a Christianity” that Tocqueville characterizes as “democratic and republican.” This fact “singularly” favored “the establishment of a republic and of democracy” in politics as well.[14]

    Although Tocqueville does not spell out the connection here, we can discern it easily enough. The Puritans no doubt regarded the government of their churches as the most important of their duties. It would naturally have occurred to them that if ordinary people are good enough to manage the community’s spiritual affairs without the approval of a pre-existing hierarchical authority, then they surely are good enough to manage its temporal affairs in the same manner. Moreover, their experience of managing their churches in this way would have fostered the habits and skills necessary to democratic self-government in the political realm.

    We might be tempted to dismiss Puritanism’s political contribution to American civilization as worthy but not decisive. From our vantage point, the rise of self-government appears to be a worldwide movement carrying all nations on the path to democracy. Why, we might ask, should the Puritan founders of America get any special credit for going along with what history seems to be doing in any case?

    Tocqueville takes care to remind us, however, that in establishing self-government, the New England settlers were not merely following the rise of modern democracy, but were pioneering it. The Puritans’ democratic political principles turned out to be those “on which modern constitutions rest” in the civilized world. Such institutions were not commonplace at the time they were planted in New England. They were “hardly understood” by “most Europeans of the seventeenth century” and were only “incomplete” even in England.[15]

    America, Tocqueville’s account thus reminds us, owes its democratic origins to its Puritan settlers. The North American English colonists were not uniformly religious, but it was the religious ones who established and nourished the spirit of self-government that later came to characterize the whole country. Moreover, we might add, this debt to the Puritans is owed not only by America, but also by much of the rest of the world. During parts of the 19th century, America was, if not the only democracy, then certainly the only large-scale, successful, and moderate democracy. Without its example, it is doubtful that the world would have moved as decisively in the direction of democracy as it finally did.

    Religion and the Moral Foundations of Freedom

    Besides recounting the historical debt that political freedom owes to Christianity, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. Here his argument may surprise us, because it emphasizes society’s need for certain shared beliefs in order for there to be common action. Freedom certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion, but that freedom in turn always rests on some intellectual foundation in which all citizens must partake. For Tocqueville, religion is best equipped to provide that intellectual foundation for society.

    Modern Americans understand their society to be a free one, believe that they have an obligation to preserve it as such, and think—rightly—that such a society depends on freedom of thought and discussion. We sometimes talk, however, as if this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. This, Tocqueville contends, is a mistake.

    On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.” Society is coordinated action, which requires common beliefs, but it is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at such beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.

    Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.”[16] All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.

    Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” As the author of Democracy in America, Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs.

    Here Tocqueville especially emphasizes religion’s contribution to sustaining public morality. Almost all human actions, he contends, “arise from a very general idea men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.” As a result, men “have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about” such questions, “for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence.”

    Once again, Tocqueville notes the limited power of the individual human mind, which makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Therefore, he concludes, “general ideas relative to God and human nature” are “the ones it is most fitting to shield from the habitual action of individual reason and for which there is most to gain and least to lose in recognizing an authority.”[17]

    We might illustrate Tocqueville’s meaning with an example from recent American history. Fifty years ago, America had a strong national consensus about sexual morality, a consensus that rested on an almost universal respect for the moral teaching of the Bible. Since that time, this consensus has eroded in proportion as respect for the Bible as a source of religious truth has declined. The result, as Tocqueville predicted, is a form of public “disorder and impotence,” with Americans expending vast amounts of social energy fighting each other over political issues—such as the definition of marriage—that arise from disagreements about sexual morality.

    Settled, common religious beliefs about morality are especially necessary, Tocqueville argues, for “free countries.” Without such beliefs, men are faced with a kind of intellectual and moral chaos that renders them incapable of preserving their freedom. “When religion is destroyed in a people,” he claims, “doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.” As a result, each citizen comes to have only “confused and changing notions” about the most important questions—such as the nature of his duties to himself, to others, and to the community.

    Confronted with this uncertainty about the highest things, “one is reduced, like a coward, to not thinking about them at all.” “Such a state,” Tocqueville concludes, “cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the springs of the will and prepares citizens for servitude.”[18]

    There is a connection, Tocqueville’s argument reminds us, between solidity of conviction and energy of soul, or b...
  15. 18 May '16 19:45 / 2 edits
    Continued,

    There is a connection, Tocqueville’s argument reminds us, between solidity of conviction and energy of soul, or between the confidence we have in our moral judgments and our ability to act on them. The latter depends decisively on the former. Those who believe with certitude in the rightness of a cause will fight for it most zealously, while those who are uncertain will fight less zealously or perhaps not at all. Such moral certainty and energy is necessary to the preservation of freedom. Political freedom or self-government requires exertion, and such exertion depends on the citizens’ solid belief in the rightness of self-government, or their belief that they are worthy of governing themselves. Without that belief, they cannot rouse themselves to action, and they will let their freedom slip away.

    Indeed, Tocqueville continues, they might even go so far as to give it away on purpose. The moral uncertainty that follows the loss of religious belief not only weakens men; it also frightens them. When men are no longer restrained by the moral authority of religion, they are “soon frightened at the aspect of this limitless independence.” Because “everything is moving in the world of the intellect, they want at least that all be firm and stable in the material order,” and since they can no longer recover their lost religious beliefs, “they give themselves a master.”[19]

    Human beings, Tocqueville’s argument suggests, desire freedom, but not an unlimited freedom. They want to govern themselves, but they do not want the responsibility of exercising an absolute and unlimited power over each other and the political community to which they belong. When they have firm moral convictions rooted in firmly held religious beliefs, they can be confident that they know how to exercise power justly, but what if they lose their religion and therefore become uncertain about what is morally right while nevertheless retaining a certain decency? In that case, they will no longer want to govern themselves, because they will find the responsibility frightening and oppressive. At this point, they will come to think that they can solve their problem by simply submitting themselves to the state, letting their rulers decide all things for them.

    For Tocqueville, the way to prevent despotism from arising in this way is for a religious country to cherish and try to sustain its commonly held moral and religious beliefs. “As for me,” he concludes, “I doubt that man can ever support a complete religious independence and an entire political freedom at once.” If “he has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.”[20] If they wish to retain their freedom to govern themselves, a democratic people must strive to sustain the common religious culture that underlies their common moral convictions.

    To be clear, Tocqueville is not contending that democracy requires a complete uniformity of religious belief. He never suggests that such a thing is either possible or desirable, and he admits that it did not exist even in the America of his own day. America never had, and a successful democracy does not need, total agreement about the proper modes of worship or the details of theology. Rather, what is required is a common body of religious opinion in support of the common morality that a free democracy needs. In Tocqueville’s own words, democratic citizens need a shared understanding of “God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.”[21]

    Put more simply, democracy requires citizens who believe that the rules of morality—and hence the rights of their fellow citizens—are not merely convenient fictions but are instead rooted in the mind and will of the Author of all things, to whom they are accountable for their actions. Such shared beliefs were held across the various Christian denominations in Tocqueville’s America and are even held, as C. S. Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, across different religions.[22] Accordingly, Tocqueville’s call for modern democracies to preserve their shared religious beliefs is not a rejection of pluralism; it is an effort to preserve the moral and religious foundation on which a successful pluralism can exist.

    Religion as a Restraint on the Tyranny of the Majority

    For Tocqueville, religion not only establishes the positive conditions required for modern democracy to emerge, but also acts as a necessary corrective to some of democracy’s most dangerous inclinations. Tocqueville presents democracy as a new form of freedom that displaced the servitude of the ancient and medieval world. Nevertheless, he warns that this democracy carries within it the possibility of new forms of servitude. Democratic freedom is also a form of power: the power of the people to rule. This power carries with it new possibilities for abuse, and Tocqueville accordingly emphasizes the importance of religion’s ability to impose a necessary limit on the majority’s power.

    Tocqueville sees the danger of majority tyranny. Like America’s Founders, he sees that human nature is flawed and that human beings in any form of government are prone to do injustice to each other if they are not restrained in some way.

    What “is a majority taken collectively,” Tocqueville asks, “if not an individual who has opinions and most often interests contrary to another individual that one names the minority?” If we can “accept that one man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not accept the same thing for a majority?” Men do not change their “character by being united,” nor do they “become more patient before obstacles by becoming stronger.”[23] Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes that the vast power held by the democratic majority carries “consequences” that are “dire and dangerous for the future.”[24]

    Tocqueville understands, respects, and explains in his own work the institutional arrangements, such as federalism and separation of powers, that the American Founders established to restrain majority tyranny. He also holds, however, that the preservation of democratic freedom requires more than just an astutely organized government. It also calls for certain social and cultural institutions. Among these, he emphasizes newspapers, the legal profession, and the country’s impressive network of private voluntary associations. But most important, he also notes the role that American religion plays in checking the tyranny of the majority.

    “In the United States,” Tocqueville observes, “religion” exercises a beneficial “empire over intelligence.” Almost all Americans believe in or at least respect Christianity, with the result that “everything is certain and fixed in the moral world.” Therefore, in America, “the human spirit never perceives an unlimited field before itself: however bold it may be, from time to time it feels that it ought to halt before insurmountable barriers.”

    Tocqueville views this popular sense of immovable moral limits as necessary because of the protection it provides for the rights of those outside the majority, who are subject to the majority’s power. He notes that in America, even the most revolutionary political actors are “obliged to profess openly a respect for the morality and equity of Christianity.” Because of Christianity’s public moral influence, nobody in America up to Tocqueville’s time had “dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim—one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.”[25]

    In the 20th century, ruthless ideologies like Nazism and Communism arose and took hold of certain countries. These atheistic ideologies boldly and shamelessly held that everything was permitted in society’s interests, even to the extent of destroying certain categories of citizens that were held to be socially undesirable. In contrast, Americans, both in Tocqueville’s time and in our own, cannot think or talk about society’s interests without at the same time professing respect for the rights of individuals and minorities. This decent sense of restraint, Tocqueville suggests, is a heritage of Christian morality. So important is this contribution of religion to the decency of the Americans’ political order that Tocqueville goes so far as to declare that religion “should be considered the first of their political institutions.”[26]

    On the basis of these arguments, Tocqueville seeks to correct the anti-religious European thinkers of his day—and, we might add, those of our own day—who fault America for its religiosity, deride religion as nothing but a source of oppression, and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom. For such men, “the freedom and happiness of the human species” require us to believe that human beings can be understood as nothing more than an accidental aggregation of matter and not as beings with souls. When such thinkers “attack religious beliefs,” Tocqueville argues, “they follow their passions and not their interests.” That is, they neglect the interests of society while following their anti-theological animus instead.

    In reality, Tocqueville argues, religion “is much more necessary” in a “republic” than in a “monarchy,” and “in democratic republics more than all others.” It is safe to give the people power to rule only if they believe that there are moral limits on their power that they must respect and if their belief in such limits is sustained by their belief in religion. Thus, Tocqueville asks: “What makes a people master of itself”—or able to discipline itself to respect justice—“if it has not submitted to God?”[27]