Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Religion and Election-Year Politics

160 years after his death, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) still stands out as a pre-eminent analyst of American society and politics. As another election year approaches and the "religious right" is marshaling its forces to try to ensure the re-election of one of the least evidently religious presidents in US history. de Tocqueville's observations about the role of religion in American society seem especially relevant.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed American society in the 1830s, the era of Jacksonian populist democracy (the same era in which Isaac Hecker was growing up and forming his first social and political impressions). He came at the US from a  distinctly French perspective, wondering how American democracy might be different from and more successful than revolutionary movements in Europe and intrigued by how religion (notably his own Roman Catholicism) had developed an altogether different and more positive relationship with an increasingly democratic society from the historically conflicted relationship between them in France (and elsewhere in 19th-century Europe).

Obviously a lot has changed since the 1830s. One would be hard-pressed to argue today that religion plays as prominent a social role as de Tocqueville perceived it to play in Jacksonian America. Such Tocquevillian assertions as "almost all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same" and "there is no country in the whole world. in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America," and " no one, in the United States, has dared to advance the maxim, that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society; and impious adage, which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages" (Democracy in America, volume !, chapter XVIII), such assertions all obviously need some contemporary nuance, although even today they still resonate recognizably. Indeed the third assertion could conceivably be construed as an explanation of aspects of our present moral and political predicament.

That said, there is little that is dated about Tocqueville's observation, based on his 19th-century European experience, that when religion allies itself too closely with governmental power, "it commits the same error, as a man who would sacrifice his future to his present welfare; and in obtaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks that authority which is rightfully its own." If Tocqueville always had France ("the first use which the French made of independence was to attack religion") in his sights, we can consider the more contemporary examples of Ireland and Spain - societies where the Church acquired disproportionate political power only to lose what it had temporarily gained and more. Such examples illustrate in a contemporary context Tocqueville's larger point that "in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few, and forfeits the hope of reigning over all. ... The Church cannot share the temporary power of the State, without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites."

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