Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy and Religion

Alexis de Tocqueville was the French author of Democracy in America (1835), perhaps the best, and certainly the most widely-quoted book ever written about the United States. He was unusual for his time in many ways. One way in which he stood out in nineteenth-century France was his attitude towards religion.

Then as now, many people who held deep religious convictions were suspicious of democracy. In nineteenth-century France the dominant religion was Catholicism, and many devout French Catholics thought their religion incompatible with democracy.  Many religious conservatives wanted to preserve a national religion with a special role in the state, and did not think that a secular democracy in which faith would be left to a citizen's private choice would serve that goal.  On the other side,  many on the nineteenth-century French left thought that Catholicism had to be fought in order to establish real democracy.

In contrast, Tocqueville stood out as a friend of religion who was also a friend of freedom. He thought that a vibrant religious life was essential to the preservation and prosperity of a free democratic society. Tocqueville thought that religion (and he was favorable to almost any kind of religion) was essential to democracy for many reasons. Probably the most important one was that Tocqueville thought that organized religion was the only possible long-term counterweight to some of the main threats democracy faced: materialism on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other. 

With regard to materialism, Tocqueville thought that in democratic societies, where no one had a position secured by birth or aristocratic title, there was a strong tendency for people to become totally absorbed in the search for material possessions.

Unfortunately, people who cared only about such things were apt to sacrifice their political freedom if it seemed like it might interfere with making a living, or at least to become apathetic towards their communities, concerned only with the needs of themselves and their own families. Tocqueville called this attitude “individualism”, and he thought that one of the best ways to fight it was through religion. Religion taught people that there were things in the universe more important than money, and encouraged them to lift their eyes beyond the petty concerns of daily life and concentrate on higher and more distant goals.

Organized religion could also help defuse the threat of religious fanaticism. Tocqueville was afraid that in a materialistic society, a minority of human beings, reacting in disgust against what they saw around them, would become religious fanatics and adopt extreme views. Rather than attempting to persuade their fellow citizens to look up to the heavens, they might attempt to force them to do so.


"The County Election" (1852), by George Caleb Bingham

How was the right kind of religion to be encouraged? For Tocqueville, the best means of doing so was the separation of Church and State, as practiced in America. A government-sponsored religion risked the discredit of religion once the government became unpopular, as all governments must in time. He thought that the real reason so many French democrats hated Catholicism had nothing to do with Catholic religious doctrine, and everything to do with the fact that Catholicism had been so closely identified with the monarchy that was overthrown by the French Revolution. One can easily imagine an Iranian Tocqueville today issuing the same warning with regard to Shi’a Islam and cautioning his readers about the politicization of Islam in his country.

While Tocqueville was a strong supporter of the separation of Church and State, he was also a strong supporter of the practice of religion. Indeed, although he did not comment on it directly, he would have been a strong supporter of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (emphasis added).

Rather than attempting to push religion out of the public sphere, he welcomed it, provided that its influence was indirect and it did not try to turn the public sphere in its own domain. Unlike current French law, he would have had no hesitation about letting students, or teachers, wear headscarves or crosses or yarmulkes in a public classroom (a student or teacher leading in a prayer in a classroom would be another matter, however). In his own day Tocqueville rejected the militant secularism that saw religion as the enemy, and there is no reason to believe he would have changed his mind today. He rejected equally the claim of some religious people that freedom was the enemy of religion. For Tocqueville, the only way for either freedom or religion to prosper in the long run was by recognizing that they were mutually necessary, and mutually beneficial.

Alan S. Kahan is an historian and political theorist who teaches in Paris.

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