September 27, 2010


Tocqueville's leap of faith: a review of TOCQUEVILLE: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION By Harvey C. Mansfield (Jeremy Lott, 9/27/10, Washington Times)

Lockean liberal assumptions about religion form a part of the shared consensus of modern technocrats. They see religion as something to be managed and mitigated - put up with within its own tightly defined, slowly shrinking sphere.

This "Very Short Introduction" counters with Tocqueville's "new liberalism in which freedom is the friend of religion and infused with pride as well as impelled by self-interest." "For Tocqueville," Mr. Mansfield writes, "despotism can do without religion, but freedom cannot." Indeed, he considered religion to be "the first of [Americans'] political institutions" and asserted that "if [man] has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe."

You could argue that what mattered to Tocqueville was not so much the divine truth of religion as its social utility. President Eisenhower was thought to be striking a Tocquevillian note when he said America "is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."

However, that misses an important nuance in Tocqueville's thinking that our Harvard prof teases out. "Americans believe religion to be useful, but it would appear to be useful only if they believe in it because it is true, rather than a political institution," Mr. Mansfield writes.

But true in what sense? Tocqueville believed that religion enabled the intellect by placing a "salutary yoke" upon our doubts, thus preventing paralysis. "Religion," Mr. Mansfield explains, "reassures us that chance does not rule and confirms that human intentions can succeed, human actions make sense." In Tocqueville's telling, it's this leap of faith that makes democracy possible.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2010 6:08 PM
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