The Liberal Paradox: Might Religion Have an Answer?

In this essay I want to try to help articulate some of the dangers, some of the requirements, and some of the opportunities presented by the puzzling spiritual condition in which our political life finds itself, as we enter a historical period that I think it may be useful to conceive of as “the postmodern political era.” The word postmodern is today used so often, in so many differing contexts, and for so many varying purposes, that it risks becoming a buzzword that obscures more than it clarifies. Nonetheless, I think the term can have a reasonably precise and powerful significance when applied to contemporary politics and political philosophy.

To put it briefly: with the end of the Cold War, we live in a liberal-democratic civic culture whose principal institutions and mores—the free market, unhampered technology, human rights, checked and balanced representative constitutionalism—stand unchallenged by any serious rival. At the same time, however, we find that the underlying theological and philosophic foundations upon which this modern culture was built (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” or History conceived as both a logical and quasi-divine progressive unfolding of truth) are widely regarded as incredible or indefensible; we find, moreover, that the West is pervaded by a vague but profound sense that its modern, liberal self-consciousness lacks an adequately rich conception of the human personality in its full dignity, diversity, and versatility; and, most troubling of all, we hear a growing chorus of intellectual voices condemning the foundations of liberalism, together with much of liberal culture itself, as constituting covertly hegemonic or privileged sources of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression of so-called “marginalized” groups and cultures. These condemners proudly label themselves the “postmodernists.”

We don’t have to accept their postmodern-“ism” in order to acknowledge that they are symptomatic of something new. And the term “postmodern” signals well, it seems to me, what is new or different about our situation. The term signals the paradoxical spiritual condition of liberal democracy today. We feel ourselves the uneasy heirs of a great legacy, the Enlightenment, which in our hands has somehow lost the magic of its invincible convictions and begun to distrust itself morally as well as intellectually. We seem to have arrived too late to share wholeheartedly in the modern spirit, and yet we are not, as the moderns once were in relation to the scholastics, marching to a clear and distinct new drummer or spiritual dispensation; we lack—and it seems we do not even strongly long for—an alternative way of life, an alternative vision or goal. We appear to be resigned to modernity on almost every level except the most fundamental. We are defined by our disenchantment rather than by our enchantment, by our loss of faith rather than by any new faith.

In saying that we appear to be resigned to modernity on almost every level except the most fundamental, I do not for a minute mean to suggest that contemporary political life is not adversely affected by the loss of conviction, the self-doubt, I have just sketched. It seems to me that the most massive political manifestation of the weakness of liberal principles is the contemporary crisis of legitimacy of the state, or nation. The nation-state is the political expression of liberal modernity; the articulation of the moral principles of human or individual rights in theorists like Hobbes and Spinoza goes together with the articulation of the supreme moral legitimacy of state sovereignty. The nation-state, conceived morally as the political entity that most deserves our allegiance, is the distinctive creation of modernity, in explicit and self-conscious contrast to the complex political structures of Christian feudalism and to the polis and empire of the pagan world. And today the nation-state is in serious trouble—serious moral trouble. The claim of the nation-state to deserve supreme political allegiance is increasingly contested.

It is perhaps easier for someone living in Canada to recognize this crisis than it is for a resident of the United States. But the situation of Canada, a country literally on the brink of breaking up, appears all too typical as we look around the world, from Czechoslovakia to India and then to Malaysia further east. It is not merely the Soviet empire that is coming apart; the states liberated from the Soviet grasp are themselves struggling to hold themselves together, or to reconstitute and redefine viable political entities. In Western Europe, the pressure on the independence and legitimacy of the state comes from a different direction: less from disintegrative forces and more from the imperatives of transnational integrative forces. Even in the United States and countries like it, where patriotism and national unity remain comparatively strong, the same forces are at work, raising moral challenges to national unity. Speaking generally, one may say that the state is today being torn from below and above, by the forces of localism and of globalism.

The Global Challenge

Let’s consider first the challenges from above, the global challenges. These include not only military threats (including of course nuclear proliferation), and not only the imperatives of the international economic system, but also the scope and scale of environmental problems, the recurrence of mass famine and disease, and the grim tides of refugees and needy Third World immigrants. These latter human fears and sufferings, brought home by the media, put in lurid focus the all-too-frequent narrowness and heartlessness that seem to characterize sovereign states. These challenges compel us to reflect in discomfort on our unwillingness or incapacity to give adequate relief to our suffering planetary partners.

Yet there seems to result from these concerns little serious talk today of “world government,” or of a search for solutions through larger, continental super-states or “co-prosperity spheres.” We have learned hard lessons not only from the colonial era and the fascist lunges at domination, but more recently from the Soviet empire. The coming decades appear to hold out the promise of experimentation with confederacy and multilateral organization, in which the present states would not be superseded, but instead limited and guided by stable networks of contractual agreements with other states, issuing in policies implemented by non-sovereign administrators. It seems reasonable to hope that insofar as ideologically or religiously based conflict recedes, such confederate organization and action will indeed become more possible and more effective.

We must not forget, however, an unhappy historical fact: confederacies do not have a very successful track record. There are many reasons for the inefficacy of confederate government, some of which we may hope have been reduced in significance by modern developments in technology and so forth. But I believe that the deepest reason for the great difficulties confederate arrangements have tended to encounter is moral; and that, as such, has not changed. I would explain the difficulty as follows.

A viable political society must from time to time demand real, and sometimes ultimate, but always unequal, sacrifices from individuals and groups within the society. Indeed, to some extent every political society must make such demands routinely and constantly. For if societies are not always at war, they must always be prepared for war and hence must ask a substantial number of the young to train and prepare for the risk of life and welfare; besides, policemen, firemen, emergency relief workers—in short, heroes and heroism—are required literally every day. Now it will not quite do to tell those who must make or risk sacrifice that they do so in order to preserve the goods of the others, especially when the society defines itself in terms of reasonable or prudential collective self-interest. For the question obviously arises, why should the interest for whose protection we erected or entered upon the organization be given up for the sake of the organization, or for the sake of the other self-interested partners?

To demand real risk or sacrifice, a society must be able to claim to stand for something that transcends collective self-interest or security. A society must hold out the promise that the individual or group who sacrifices will be ennobled by contributing to some whole or community that, because of its nature or because of its specific, high ends, counts for more than the sum of its individual parts and interests. A society that demands sacrifices has to present itself as a whole in which the individual can find a significance and a permanence that overshadows his or her poor mortal self. Now confederacies have great difficulty making such a case, because almost by definition the members of a confederacy are each and all more significant than the whole of which they form the partners or parts. When individuals or groups are asked to sacrifice, they must therefore be shown not only how they will advance the purpose of the confederacy, but how their sacrifice will advance or protect the concerns of their own primary group, the group which authorized and created the confederacy, and to which they naturally and reasonably feel a deeper sense of belonging and a higher dedication.

To apply this to our emerging world of multilateral hope and promise, it seems likely that the concerns of the partner states will always trump, in cases of conflict, the concerns of the confederate wholes. It may be, of course, that the cause of Humanity, embodied in the United Nations and kindred multilateral organizations, will counter the centrifugal force of national loyalty. But the United Nations, precisely because it is so all-inclusive, tends to be capable of uniting only on a very few issues, and remains in any case a rather distant and abstract, not to say dubious, embodiment of the moral cause of mankind.

I am inclined to judge, therefore, that while transnational problems, and multilateral authorities created to meet those problems, will become much stronger in the years to come, the nation-states will remain more decisive than any supranational organizations. The most serious challenges to the moral supremacy of the nation-state will arise, and already are arising, from below, from concerns that I have lumped together, rather crudely, under the rubric “localism.” Here the same moral challenge that the nation poses to the confederacy returns, as a still more stern challenge to the nation from more intimate and local subgroupings—communities or communitarianism constituted by linguistic, ethnic, and religious homogeneity rooted in shared histories of suffering and achievement. The intensity of identity with and dedication to one’s cultural group gains added strength from the fact that these groupings are often smaller than the national grouping, and thus hold out the promise of an independent political life that would be more participatory, or that would produce governments closer to the people both in spirit and in scale.

The challenge can be put as follows: what makes the liberal state more than a confederacy of cultures? Because if this is all that the liberal state truly is, does not the claim of each cultural group necessarily trump, in cases of conflict, and for the individuals who belong to the group, any claim the confederate state can make? If the liberal state tries to overcome this trump, not by invoking superior moral principles, but instead by claiming to stand for “neutrality” and even “relativism,” by invoking positivistic laws or procedural “rules of the game” that eschew any moral supremacy but claim somehow to take precedence, must we not begin to grow suspicious? Do the people who invoke and enforce these “neutral procedures” have no interest in them? Do they belong to no identifiable culture? Did they come from Mars? Must we not perceive in this apparent denial or purported honesty a self-deluding or hypocritical manipulation of principles which prove on inspection, “coincidentally,” to serve very clearly the interest of a subtly hegemonic cultural group—for example, secular, rationalist, Eurocentric white males who tend to share a remarkably similar and remarkably barren cultural pattern, in which Homo economicus tends to predominate as the model human type? This, of course, is the argument presented by leading postmodernist multiculturalists such as Stanley Fish, who has summarized this position with brevity, clarity, and candor in an article entitled “Liberalism Doesn’t Exist,” published in the Duke Law Journal in 1987.

As we observe the battering the liberal state and the liberal ideal is taking, from religious fundamentalism in Africa and Asia, from ethnic nationalism in Europe, from multiculturalism in America, we are impelled to rethink the response to these communitarian challenges, to try to bring back into vivid clarity the moral claim to legitimacy of the liberal state. But in doing so we cannot help but become aware, simultaneously, of certain deep difficulties in the liberal answer or claim. Do these difficulties justify the contemporary disenchantment with the fundamental liberal principles and the liberal-democratic state? That they need not, I think, will be most evident if we survey very briefly the history of the liberal conception, doing so under the guidance of liberal democracy’s greatest friendly critic, Alexis de Tocqueville.

The liberal conception does indeed come to sight as a kind of confederacy, or compact, by which human beings create the state in order to achieve collective security for their individual lives, liberties, and properties. But this is a confederacy, not of groups, whose claims to loyalty would then remain preeminent, but of individuals who are conceived in principle to be in a condition—the “state of nature”—stripped of all important group loyalties (with the notable exception of spousehood and parenthood) and characterized instead by (in Locke’s words) an “uncontrollable liberty,” and an equality in this total independence or liberty. The basic argument is that what makes human beings universally the same—the passionate quest for material security and the capacity both to threaten and to reason with one another—outweighs in importance, for the human beings themselves, whatever differentiates them into groups.

Now from the outset, the modern liberal stress on individual rights, and on the creation, by contract, of a new kind of government dedicated to protecting those rights, found itself compelled to fight against regional, tribal, ethnic, and local loyalties of all sorts. But the big fight was against an opponent of an altogether different kind. The big fight was against an opposing universalism, the universalism of Christianity, allied with classical political philosophy as a subordinate partner. This pre-liberal, Christian universalism had argued that what counts, above all, is the universal goal of human aspiration and fulfillment, a goal which can be glimpsed only rarely or dimly in its complete version.

In criticizing this old universalism, the new, liberal universalism observed that precisely the difficulty of glimpsing or making clear the goal of human happiness means that discussion of it remains always controversial, the source of endless disagreement. To make so debatable a concern the anchoring principle of public life is to guarantee a public life of strife and, all too often, of bitter and hateful religious warfare. To end the strife, in practice, the old universalism had to institutionalize some conception of the good or the good life under the rigid, hierarchical authority of a few purported knowers who were in fact hidebound mumblers of formulae who squelched or severely discouraged the independent, critical reflection that is the matrix of all genuine belief. It was in the name, then, not only of peace and prosperity, but also of freedom and philosophy, that thinkers like Spinoza and the French philosophes rose up, in a rebellion aimed at the overthrow of both Aristotelian (or classical) political thought and revealed, organized religion. As Tocqueville puts it in his Old Regime and the French Revolution, “the Philosophy of the eighteenth century,” which was “one of the principal causes of the Revolution,” was profoundly irreligious; the philosophes “opposed the Church with a sort of fury” and “wished to rip up the very foundations of Christianity.”

This great and relentless antagonism between liberal-democratic modernity and the Christian tradition has both enriched and blighted the spiritual history of the modern European continent. While the opposition between reason and revelation led the greatest thinkers to depths of reflection never achieved in England or America, the consequences for civic culture were deleterious.

Critics on the left and right came to associate liberal rationalism and universalism with dogmatic, godless scientism, and hence with a homogeneous shallowness of soul, with loveless commercialism and the reduction of human relationships to calculation and the cash nexus. Tocqueville discerned with clarity the first stages in this development, and foresaw with prescient trepidation something of the outcome. He strove through his writings to convince his fellow Europeans that the American experience revealed a very different, far richer and more symbiotic relationship between religion and liberal-democratic modernity. He strove, that is, to show that the American experience was not necessarily unique, but could serve as a model to be imitated, mutatis mutandis, as democracy spread throughout the world and encountered, inevitably, the opposing force of traditional religion or religiosity.

Now how exactly is this Tocquevillian perspective useful or necessary for us here and now? The postmodernist or multiculturalist critique of liberalism and rationalism that we see and hear all around us is in large measure the result of the importation into America of the late-modern radical criticisms of modernity and of rationalism carried out from left and right by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger and Marx. To be sure, contemporary multiculturalism and postmodernism has abandoned the frightening political alternatives which these great philosophic critics proposed as replacements for liberalism. But contemporary multiculturalism and postmodernism retain, in a more light-hearted, playful, and therefore in a sense more contemptuous spirit, much of the fundamental negative interpretation of the true meaning of rationalism and liberalism in human life. Yet this interpretation springs from perspectives that view liberal democracy through the prism of the experience of continental Europe.

While none of the thinkers at the source of postmodernism and multiculturalism can be called religious, all of them promulgated doctrines that evince an unmistakable longing for a substitute for religiosity. Each of these radical critics forged a curiously idealistic atheism that attempted to secularize the spiritual, moral, and artistic depths they had found missing or dying out in liberal modernity and that they had found overwhelmingly alive in the emphatically theistic Biblical and Greco-Roman cultures. Each of them carried forward in some sense—to be sure in highly original and deeply reflective ways—the critique of liberalism born in the religious reaction to what was perceived to be the godless and loveless philosophies of thinkers like Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. And our contemporary postmodernists continue this critique, while showing themselves more blithely willing to accept or live within the spiritual desert of nihilism and vulgar power struggle that they diagnose to be the outcome of the triumph of liberalism. Now Tocqueville tries to show that the American experience exhibits a viable version of liberal democracy and rationalism that is, if not immune, then at any rate resistant to this criticism. Might not a rethinking of the American experience, along Tocquevillian lines, and then a drawing on and reviving of that experience, so rethought, afford us a basis for defending liberal democracy as a model that does not necessarily imply the spiritual barrenness, the closedness to religion, that the multiculturalist and postmodernist indictment suggests?

Postmodern Marriage Bells

Tocqueville’s argument for the symbiosis of religion and liberalism is emphatically not an argument that is very flattering to either of the marriage partners. In fact, the reason why the two can go well together, in his view, is because each desperately needs the other as a supplement or compensation. This means that each of the partners has to be made aware of, has to admit and seek remedies for, those deficiencies which the other can ameliorate. So if we are to follow Tocqueville, we must begin from a clear-eyed assessment of certain specific dangers to freedom and spirituality presented by modern democracy left to itself.

As is well known, Tocqueville identifies the “tyranny of the majority” as the primary threat to the human spirit in the age of democracy. When the individual compares himself to all those who surround him, Tocqueville says, “he feels with pride that he is equal to each of them”; but, “when he comes to contemplate the collectivity of his fellows, and to place himself alongside this great body, he is overwhelmed by his own insignificance and weakness.” In other words, to continue with the words of Tocqueville, “the same equality that renders him independent of each of his fellow citizens taken one by one leaves him isolated and defenseless in the face of the majority.”

This sapping of the individual’s capacity to think in genuine independence from public opinion goes hand in hand with a shrinking of the citizen’s belief in and inclination to significant involvement in public life. Tocqueville discerns in the democratic way of life a specific new behavioral and emotional syndrome for which he invents a word: individualism. Individualism is something different from selfishness or egoism. Individualism, in Tocqueville’s words, “is a quiet and considered sentiment which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and retire into the circle of family and friends.” Modern democratic society, with its anti-traditionalism, its opening of opportunity, its restless mobility, its stress on individual initiative and autonomy grounded in the moral principles of universal rights, uproots and detaches citizens one from another, steadily constricting the avenues and possibilities for any one person to shape or care for the lives of others.

The powerful tendency of the democratic personality to withdraw into the narrow circle of immediate acquaintances is intensified by the inordinate taste for physical comfort that is yet a third dangerous proclivity of modern democratic society. To grasp the peculiar character and intensity of this passion in modern democracy, Tocqueville insists we need to begin from this premise: “what most vividly seizes the human heart is not by any means the quiet possession of a precious object, it is the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess it, accompanied by the incessant fear of losing it.” Now in modern democracy, Tocqueville observes, when “the ranks are blurred and privileges destroyed, when patrimonies are divided and enlightenment and liberty spread, the longing to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor and the fear of losing it haunts the spirit of the rich.” What is more, “a multitude of middling fortunes are established, whose possessors have enough material enjoyments to acquire a taste for them, but not enough to be contented; they never procure the material enjoyments without effort and do not indulge in them without anxiety.” Accordingly, “they ceaselessly attach themselves to pursuing or to retaining these material enjoyments that are so precious, so incomplete, and so fugitive.” As a further result, the democratic soul tends to be characterized by an unprecedented truncation of its conception of the future, in terms both of responsibility and of regard for long-term consequences.

From the combination of all these peculiarly democratic debilitations grows what Tocqueville calls “the secret anxiety which reveals itself in the actions of Americans.” “He who has constricted his heart to the sole quest for the goods of this world is always in a hurry,” Tocqueville writes; “the recollection of the brevity of life goads him on continually”; “apart from the goods he al¬ ready possesses, he imagines at every moment a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying, if he doesn’t hurry.” Yet the passion for physical pleasure, while feverish, is at the same time easily discouraged: since the goal is enjoyment, the means must be prompt and easy or they contradict the goal. As a consequence, Tocqueville argues, in modern democracy there is a tendency for the souls to be “at one and the same time ardent and soft, violent and enervated.”

Religious Virtues

It is religion, Tocqueville insists, that can most contribute to remedying these specific ills of modern democracy. To begin with, religion counteracts in manifold ways the “secret anxiety” to which democratic man is prey. “Most religions,” Tocqueville submits, “are only general, simple, and practical means for teaching to men the immortality of the soul.” In worship that inspires and is inspired by belief in the immortality of one’s soul, the inhabitant of democracy is momentarily liberated “from the petty passions which agitate his life and from the evanescent interests which preoccupy it.” Moreover, “religions instill a general habit of behaving with the future in view”; “in this respect,” Tocqueville adds, “they work as much in favor of happiness in this world as of felicity in the next.”

Religion does not merely counter the anxiety peculiar to democratic man; it goes to the root causes of that anxiety by opposing both materialism and individualism. It is this, Tocqueville judges, that is “the greatest advantage of religions” for democracy. “There is no religion,” Tocqueville writes, “that does not place the goal of the desires of the human being beyond and above earthly goods, and that does not naturally elevate his soul toward regions far superior to those of the senses. Nor is there any that does not impose on each certain duties toward the human species, or in common with it, and that does not thus draw one, from time to time, away from the contemplation of oneself. Religious peoples are, then, naturally strong precisely where democratic peoples are weak; this shows clearly how important it is that men preserve their religion in becoming equal.”

One of Tocqueville’s great themes is the way in which Americans combat the effects of individualism through “the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood.” In an oft-quoted passage, Tocqueville says that this enlightened utilitarianism or egoism “does not inspire great sacrifices, but every day it prompts some small ones; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous, but its discipline shapes a lot of orderly, temperate, moderate, careful, and self-controlled citizens.” But he adds, in a passage that is often over-looked, that if this doctrine “had in view this world only, it would be far from sufficient; because there are a great number of sacrifices which cannot find their recompense except in the other world.”

Precisely because the private sphere assumes such importance in the lives of modern democrats, it is crucial, Tocqueville argues, that in their domestic lives they experience an oasis of order, tranquility, love, decency, and trust. The family is more likely to provide such an oasis if it is grounded on and elevated by some sort of religious sanction.

The First Political Institution

In short, the Americans’ religious denominations, though they do not directly intervene in politics, must nevertheless “be considered,” Tocqueville says, “as the first of their political institutions.” The various denominations and priesthoods make no claim to participate in earthly legislation, but they remind citizens of supramundane limits that the citizens, even when gathered together in the majority, are obliged to heed, in thought as well as in action. “Thus,” Tocqueville says, “the human spirit never sees an unlimited field before itself; however great its audacity, it feels from time to time that it must arrest itself before insurmountable barriers.” “Up until now,” Tocqueville adds with some caution, “no one has ever been found, in the United States, who has dared to advance this maxim: that everything is permitted in the interests of society—an impious maxim, which seems to have been invented in a century of liberty in order to legitimate all the tyrants to come.” For “what can be done with a people that is master of itself, if it is not subject to God?” Christianity, Tocqueville observes, has “preserved a great empire over the spirit of the Americans, and—this is the point I wish to emphasize [he says]—it does not at all reign only as a philosophy adopted after examination, but as a religion that is believed without discussion.” Religion, precisely because or insofar as its basic teachings are authoritative, and thus not subject to the arbitration of public opinion, provides a powerful counterweight to the sway of public opinion.

On the strictly political level, Tocqueville thus helps us appreciate the advantages derived from the fact that the churches or religious denominations in modern democracy, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, are institutions whose authority and structure are neither dictated by, nor intermingled with, nor simply subordinate to, the constituted political authorities. The churches do not directly compete with democratic political authority, but they do stand apart, reminding all citizens of a higher law and a higher legal authority.

This brings into view the other side of the coin: that is, the way in which liberal democracy saves religion from some of its own worst political impulses. Tocqueville argues fervently and repeatedly that the strict but friendly separation of church and state in American democracy, so far from representing a compromise of religion’s influence and strength, in fact creates the condition under which religion’s true strength and influence can flourish. “Considering religions from a purely human point of view,” Tocqueville argues, their real strength lies in the overwhelming natural human desire for immortality. When a religion founds itself on this, “it can aspire to universality”; “it can draw to itself the heart of the human species.” But when it allies itself to political powers or governments, religion mortgages its universal and permanent appeal to the limited and temporary prop of a specific regime. “It augments its strength over some but forfeits the hope of reigning over all.” In addition, “it is sometimes constrained to defend allies who are such from interest rather than love; and it has to repulse as adversaries men who still love religion, although they are fighting religion’s allies.” In the long run, religion allied with any specific political authority is compelled to share in some measure the mortality and ultimate fragility of any such specific regime.

These general considerations take on heightened significance in democracy, where the struggle of parties, factions, and individuals produces a natural agitation and restless instability in political life. Moreover, Tocqueville adds, since “in times of enlightenment and of equality, the human spirit is loath to receive dogmatic beliefs, and senses vividly the need for them only in religion,” it follows that “in these centuries, religions ought to restrict themselves more discretely than in other ages to the limits which are proper to them”; “for, in wishing to extend their power beyond religious matters, they risk not being believed in any matter.”

Reminding his readers that he speaks “as a practicing Catholic,” Tocqueville concedes that what he describes as the felicitous situation of religion in modern democracy is contrary to the historical practice and, what is more, the traditional spirit of Roman Catholicism. But “I think,” he avers with uncustomary hesitation, that the experience of American Catholicism shows that “one is mistaken in regarding the Catholic religion as a natural enemy of democracy.” In fact, Tocqueville goes on to argue, a wise Catholicism would see in liberal democracy its greatest political friend, precisely because liberal religious pluralism saves Catholicism from its own self-destructive proclivities. “Every religion has some political opinion linked to it by affinity,” Tocqueville declares, and for Catholicism the affinity is with absolute monarchy; but in politics as in life generally, it is our affinities that reveal our temptations.

Catholics “are not,” Tocqueville admits, “strongly drawn by the nature of their beliefs toward democratic and republican opinions.” But at least they aren’t naturally opposed to democracy, and in a pluralist society “their social position, as well as their being in a minority, make it a law for them to embrace those opinions.” In America, Catholics “are led, perhaps in spite of themselves, toward political doctrines which, maybe, they would adopt with less zeal were they rich and predominant.” Catholics ought to bless the fate that throws them in with powerful Protestant sects in a pluralist republican society. In such a society they can discover that they share with their Protestant fellow citizens the recognition that the practice of “civil liberty” affords “a noble exercise of the human faculties, the world of politics being a field opened up by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence.” Catholics can discover, in other words, that obedience to authority in the highest sphere—that of revelation and concern for the life to come—can in practice harmonize with, can even help provide the healthy basis for, a proud spirit of independence and self-government in the political sphere.

Roundabout Path to Faith

Tocqueville is keenly aware of the grave difficulties that attend his project. He does not suppose that the complementarity of religion and liberal democracy is natural or even easy to bring about. He worries about powerful democratic tendencies to skepticism, to vacuous pantheism, and to febrile revivalism. Above all, he recognizes a threat to religious belief that arises from his own argument. For this argument tends to value religion, not for its truth, but for its usefulness in remedying or limiting the secular ills of a secular society. But to thus esteem religion for its service to worldly political ends is to risk denying what is, from the religious point of view, the supreme value of the essentially otherworldly ends of religion itself. As Tocqueville repeatedly remarks, he is viewing religion “from a purely human point of view,” and in that perspective, “what is most important for society is not that all citizens should profess the true religion but that they should profess religion.” Insofar as the democratic citizenry come more and more to share this perspective, Tocqueville admits, “religion is loved, supported, and honored, and only by looking into the depths of men’s souls will one see what wounds it has suffered.”

“I do not know,” confesses Tocqueville, “what is to be done to give back to European Christianity the energy of youth: God alone could do that.” Yet Tocqueville cannot shirk the duty of attempting to discern how government might foster religious faith without violating religious liberty. “I think,” he declares, “that the only effective means which governments can use to make the doctrine of the immortality of the soul respected is daily to act as if they believed it themselves. I think that it is only by conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great affairs that they can flatter themselves that they are teaching the citizens to understand it and to love and respect it in little matters.” But Tocqueville knows that this is not enough. “Governments,” he adds, “must study means to give men back that interest in the future which neither religion nor social conditions any longer inspire”; “in accustoming the citizens to think of the future in this world, they will gradually be led without noticing it themselves toward religious beliefs. Thus the same means that, up to a certain point, enable men to manage without religion are perhaps, after all, the only means we still possess for bringing mankind back, by a long and roundabout path, to a state of faith.”

Tocqueville’s discussion leaves us wondering which of the two partners—religion, or democracy—is the more in need of the other, or which partner’s health Tocqueville is himself more concerned with fostering. But is not this ambiguity part of the virtue of his analysis? Is not this ambiguity an essential, and profound, aspect of the model—of citizenship, of statesmanship, of political commentary—that he means to provide for us?


  • Thomas L. Pangle

    Thomas L. Pangle holds the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and Yale University. He is a student of Leo Strauss.

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