September 19, 2004


Democracy & Religion in America: Tocqueville’s surprising linkage. (Michael Novak, 10/02/02, National Review)

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.

By its own inherent tendencies, democracy tends to lower tastes and passions, to devolve into materialistic preoccupations, and to undercut its own principles by a morally indifferent relativism. Further, democracy left to itself tends to surrender liberty to the passion for security and equality, and thus to end in a new soft despotism, tied down with a thousand silken threads by a benign authority.

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; and 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, in forms that are clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very durable. Moral clarity is a great gain in times of crisis.

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. A sin is not merely a failure to do one's duty, but in addition to that an injury to a person, who has extended the hand of friendship.

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, and thus render populations unfit for self-government in democracies and more prone to authoritarian forms, in comparison with the high honor paid the marriage bond and the greater severity of domestic mores observable in America. This quiet regulation of home life is another contribution of Jewish and Christian beliefs to the sustainability of American democracy.

In an America where religious faith remains such a dominant force in society and the value of democracy is universally accepted it's easy enough to acknowledge all that, but Robert P. Kraynak , in his book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World, suggests two interesting problems:
The difficulty is that modern democracy's need for a religious basis is no guarantee that one is readily available. As disturbing as it might be for modern believers to admit, the critics of religion have a legitimate point: Christian faith is derived from a revealed book, the Bible, and from church traditions that are not necessarily liberal or democratic in their teachings. The Christian notion of human dignity, for example, is derived from the biblical idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. But it is not clear if the Bible's idea of the divine image in man--the Imago Dei--entails political notions like democracy and human rights, in fact, many great theologians of the past understood it to be compatible with kingship, hierarchy, or authoritarian institutions. The Christian view of human dignity is also qualified by a severe view of human sinfulness and by other difficult doctrines--such as, divine election, the hierarchical authority of the church, and the priority of duties to God and neighbor over individual rights. These doctrines are not always easy to square with democratic norms of freedom and equality, nor are they easily discarded without removing the core of Christian faith.

Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.

Thus, it seems unlikely that the secular nations of Europe are going to prove capable of sustaining themselves as democracies--or sustaining themselves at all. Meanwhile, to the extent that the religiously derived values that we seek to vindicate via democracy are undermined instead, we must be prepared to limit democracy in their favor. The Founders, after all, did not establish a constitutional order for the purpose of creating a democracy, but sought to use rather severely circumscribed democratic means to: "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2004 3:02 PM

I wonder if Europe might be ripe for a strong missionary push by evangelicals and mormons. If I was debilitated and demoralized by secularism and beset by a surging Moslem population, I'd grasp at any belief system that offered hope for something better than dihimnitude.

Posted by: David Rothman at September 19, 2004 9:12 PM