Saturday, December 12, 2009
Democracy & Religion in America
Tocqueville’s surprising linkage
by Michael Novak
[Recently, this blog asked "Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?" In reply, here are excerpts from a longer essay by Mr. Novak.]
What happens when religion is pulled out from the foundations of the republic? Alexis de Tocqueville [1805-1859] reflected more deeply on the inherent weaknesses of democracy, stripped of religion, than anybody at the ACLU today.
Tocqueville began with a shocker: That the first political institution of American democracy is religion. His thesis went something like this: The premises of secular materialism do not sustain democracy, but undermine it, while the premises of Judaism and Christianity include and by inductive experience lead to democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and sustain it.
Before the revolution of morals brought on by Judaism and Christianity, pagan philosophy held that most men are by nature slaves, and that "the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must."
It was Christianity (drawing on Judaism) that established three necessary premises for modern democracy:
--The inherent dignity of each person, rooted in the freedom that makes each person an Imago Dei;
--The principle of the universal equality of all humans in the sight of God, whatever their natural inequalities;
--The centrality of human liberty to the purposes and principles for which God created the cosmos.
In short, Christianity made the liberty of every individual before God the bright red thread of history, and its interpretive key. Underlying the chances of democracy, then, is its faith in the immortality of the human soul, which is the foundation of the concept of human rights and universal dignity. Lose this faith, and humans become harder and harder to distinguish from the other animals, and human rights become ever more difficult to define, defend, and uphold.
In addition to these three founding premises, Tocqueville counts at least five other advantages that Judaism and Christianity bring to democracy.
First, Judaism and Christianity correct and strengthen morals and manners. While the laws of a free society allow a person to do almost anything, there are many things which religion prevents him from imagining or doing.
Second, fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable in the conduct of daily life, but daily life prevents most men from having time to work out these fixed ideas, and Christianity and Judaism present the findings of reason, tested in generations of experience.
Third, whereas democracy induces a taste for physical pleasures and tends to lower tastes, and thus weakens most people in their commitment to the high and difficult principles on which democratic life depends, religion of the Jewish and Christian type constantly point to that danger and demand that humans draw back, and attend to the fundamental things. Belief in immortality prods men to aspire upwards, and to aim for further moral progress along the line of their own dignity and self-government.
Fourth, faith adds to a morality of mere reason, whether of duty or utilitarian advantage, an acute sense of acting in the presence of a personal and undeceivable Judge, Who sees and knows even acts performed in secret. Thus faith adds to reason motives for doing things perfectly even when no one is looking; it gives reasons for painting the bottom of a chair, and in general for doing things as perfectly as possible. In this way, faith gives morals a personal dimension.
Fifth, in a democracy such as the United States, Tocqueville observes, religion does not direct the writing of laws or the formation of public opinion in detail, it does direct mores and shape the life of the home. It does this especially through women's influence upon family life and the stable morals and good order of the home. Politically incorrect as his views may appear in a feminist and relativist age, Tocqueville lays great stress on the tumultuous passions that disrupt home life in Europe. This quiet regulation of home life is another contribution of Jewish and Christian beliefs to the sustainability of American democracy.
For these eight reasons, then — these three fundamental premises: personal dignity, universal equality in the sight of God, and the centrality of human liberty to the story of civilization; and the five additional advantages just listed — it is clear that the first political institution of democracy, its most important institution, is religion. That is, religion of the Jewish and Christian type, as described. For not all world religions establish the premises of personal dignity, universal equality, and the centrality of individual liberty.
Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.