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  • Does Democracy Need Religion?
  • Hillel Fradkin (bio)

“On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention,” Tocqueville reports in Democracy in America (I, 308). Tocqueville’s wonder embraces admiration as well as surprise. Though religion is not formally a part of the American political system, Tocqueville goes so far as to describe it as the first of America’s political institutions by virtue of its indirect effects upon political life (I, 305). For him, only one other extrapolitical factor is more important—that when America became a political democracy it already enjoyed “equality of conditions.” Yet he regards the latter as almost certain to endure under any and all foreseeable future political arrangements; the future vitality of religion he sees as far less certain. Accordingly, the role of religion forms one of the most important themes of his reflections on the blessings, problems, and prospects of democracy as such. He not only devotes several chapters and even groups of chapters to the subject but also presents observations about it throughout the rest of the work.

Tocqueville considers this theme to be of special importance to his French and other European readers. It goes to the very heart of the “great problem of our times”—“the organization and the establishment of democracy in Christendom” (I, 325). The project of establishing political democracy in Europe had heretofore been, in Tocqueville’s opinion, a failure. Among the principal causes of that failure was that “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom [were almost always] [End Page 87] marching in opposite directions.” In America, by contrast, “they were intimately united” (I, 308). Though the Americans have not entirely resolved the problem of democracy and religion, “they furnish useful data to those who undertake to resolve it” (I, 325). Of course, Tocqueville was chief among those who aimed at a solution. It was, in fact, his duty, one impossible for decent men not to face.

Reconciling Democracy and Religion

The problem for the rest of Christendom was manifold. Many religious forces and institutions in Europe, and the French Catholic Church in particular, were inclined to see democracy as the inevitable and implacable enemy of religion and hence were opposed to the establishment of democratic republics. Tocqueville, on the other hand, citing the American experience, proposes that democracy can indeed become a friend to religion and may even be crucial to its future vitality. The first objective of Tocqueville’s discussion of religion in America is to persuade the partisans of religion and of democracy to join forces.

But the simple establishment of democracy in Europe is not his most fundamental concern, nor is the support that American religion gives to democracy its only, or even its chief, virtue. In his introduction to Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that the inexorable advance of equality of conditions has made the march of democracy through Europe inevitable. It is, Tocqueville concludes, of divine provenance. No action, however intended, fails to abet it. European Christianity cannot stop the democratic movement and will only succeed in destroying itself if it proceeds on its present course.

Yet increasing equality of conditions will not necessarily lead to freedom and liberal democracy. It could as easily result in a new form of despotism, unprecedented in its capacity for oppression, evil, and degradation. The only possible historical precedent is the tyranny of the Caesars, though Tocqueville seems to think that modern democratic despotism will surpass it in evil (I, 328). In this, he was, as we now know, remarkably prescient.

Hence the most fundamental question is whether one can prevent democracy from degenerating into despotism. Here is where the study of America was indispensable: The United States had avoided that outcome and offered fair promise of continuing to do so. According to Tocqueville, religion had been crucial to this success. “If it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it” (I, 305). This is vital because democratic despotism and the temptation to succumb to it are the result of certain features of democratic life, among them individualism and materialism; when these are taken to an...