Codex Per·Fidem - Tocqueville on the Benefits of Religion to Democracy

Tocqueville on the
Benefits of Religion to Democracy

In Democracy in America, Alexis deTocqueville warns that democracy is dangerous. It causes selfish individualism, consumerism, conformity, a disregard for the past and future, and ultimately the establishment of a despotic nanny state. The biggest reason, according to Tocqueville, that the Americans have been able to avoid the pitfalls of democracy is their religion.

Tocqueville identifies several problems inherent to democracy. He argues that Democratic peoples are susceptible to certain attitudes that tend to undo any progress gained by democracy. The first of these attitudes is individualism. There is a distinction between individualism and simple egoism. Tocqueville describes egoism as “a passionate and exaggerated love of self which leads a man to think of all things in terms of himself and to prefer himself to all.” Individualism, however, “is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends.”1 Despite this difference, Tocqueville warns that individualism is merely a stepping stone to egoism.

Individualism appears in democracy because people living in democratic societies tend to be disconnected from their larger family and community. People living in an aristocratic society do not move. Their lives are settled around one town and one career. Family and community are important and immediate concerns for such people. This, according to Tocqueville, means “people living in an aristocratic age are almost always closely involved with something outside themselves, and they are often inclined to forget about themselves.”2 Those who live in a democratic age are always on the move in search of a better life. This causes them to become disconnected from family and community. Often people are merely visitors in their own towns with little knowledge of, or care for, what might be happening in their communities. Therefore, “a man’s interests are limited to those near himself.”3

The same causes which bring about the isolation of the self also bring about an attitude of consumerism. Tocqueville observes that for Americans the “love of comfort appears as a tenacious, exclusive, and universal passion, but always a restrained one.”4 Americans seek to make “life ever easier and more comfortable” and to satisfy their needs as quickly and painlessly as possible.5 This is not greed, but simply a desire for comfort. It is social mobility that causes this attitude. In aristocratic systems, it is impossible for a person to improve his condition, regardless of the amount of work he puts into it. Democratic nations seem to become drunk on the possibility of more wealth and comfort. Therefore, their desires become insatiable.

This attitude is not limited to the middle class, which is uniquely democratic, alone. The wealthy also demonstrate this behavior. Tocqueville reasons that this is so either because the wealthy come from the middle class and therefore share their values of constant improvement through work, or because the upper classes feel they must conform to the majority standards.6

Conformity, therefore, is yet another attitude that threatens democracy. The isolated and individualistic people of a democratic society prefer to think for themselves. Equality causes them to distrust authority and tradition. The opinion that no man is better than any other causes “a general distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything.” However, thinking for oneself is not easy. It requires time and education, and democratic peoples do not have much of either. Tocqueville observes that even though equality causes individuals to distrust the opinion of others, it also “leads them to place almost unlimited confidence in the judgement of the public. For they think it not unreasonable that, all having the same means of knowledge, truth will be found on the side of the majority.”7 A distrust of authority, and a lack of confidence in his own ability to understand, causes the individual to believe that the majority is the only authority which can be trusted. Therefore, people living in democratic societies begin to conform to majority opinion.

Yet another problem with which democracies must contend is the lust for equality that the people soon develop. Of all the things that a democratic society loves, equality is first because it is the foundation of a democratic society. Tocqueville explains that “the particular and predominating fact peculiar to [democratic] ages is equality of conditions, and the chief passion which stirs men at such times is the love of this same equality.” 8 Tocqueville argues that people tend to love equality more than liberty because the benefits of equality come quickly, but its ills “only become apparent little by little.”9 For liberty, however, the opposite is true.

A democratic nation will seek all forms of equality, not just political equality. With the power of the majority on their side, the people will stop at nothing to obtain equality, even if it means they will have to give up their liberty. They love equality more. And their love of equality is debased and insatiable. Therefore, Tocqueville concludes that the people want “equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery.”10

The last of the attitudes that threaten democracy is the collapse of horizons. In an aristocratic society, families are close, and they live in the same area for generations. As has already been discussed, this causes a person to develop an appreciation for things beyond himself. Tocqueville states that in an aristocracy “a man almost always knows about his ancestors and respects them; his imagination extends to his great-grandchildren, and he loves them.”11 Consequently, a man living in aristocratic times has the ability to see beyond himself and his time. He cares for the past and the future.

This is not so in a democracy. There, the lust for equality and material possessions tend to cloud a person's view. It causes a citizen “to get wrapped up in himself.”12 “Democracy favors the taste for physical pleasures,” Tocqueville warns,

This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that nothing but matter exits. Materialism, in its turn, spurs them on to such delights with mad impetuosity. Such is the vicious circle into which democratic nations are driven. It is good that they see the danger and hold back.13

These attitudes common to democratic people will move democracy into a form of despotism which is “different from anything there has ever been in the world before.”14 Old forms of despotic oppression, such as in the Roman Empire, were violent, but limited. Tocqueville is concerned that this new despotism “would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them.”15 These despots will not be tyrants, “but rather schoolmasters.” In its desire for equality and materialism, democracy will create for itself an overbearing nanny state which will offer everything the citizen desires, except liberty.

This will happen, according to Tocqueville, because the citizens of a democratic society are atomized individuals, “each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.”16 Yet, an individual cannot exist like this forever. At times, he will need help. With no family and few friends to which to turn, he is left alone. This is the state of society in a democracy.

However, “over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate.”17 Government is there to help, and it is the only one who can. It is massive and centralized. In its attempt to help, it takes over the lives of the citizens. It makes their choices for them. It thinks for them. “Little by little [government] robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.”18

This is not the old despotism, with torture, dungeons, and secret police. This government “is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, retrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies” until the entire nation “is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”19

Yet, Tocqueville observes that this is not happening in America, the nation which is farthest along on the democratic road. The attitudes inherent to democracy that threaten to destroy it are not found among the American people. They appear to have found a way to make democracy work.

Tocqueville notices that the Americans have formed a government which helps to prevent the attitudes discussed above. The American system of government hinders the advancement of the new despotism.

First, American government is decentralized. With the power of government spread out among the towns, counties, and states, Americans have no choice but to be involved in their government and to care about what goes on in government.

Tocqueville argues that “when the public governs, all men feel the value of public goodwill and all try to win it by gaining the esteem and affection of those among whom they must live.”20 Local government forces people to work together. The genius of the American system is that there are many local governments in which a citizen must get involved.

The decisions of local governments are constantly affecting the individual citizen's daily life. Though he has “little understanding of the way in which the fate of the state can influence his own lot,” he is acutely aware of how the fate of his town affects him.21 The American system keeps these local decisions in the hands of local government. Further, it is not likely that these powers would be removed from the local governments. As Tocqueville explains, the power enjoyed by local government causes the citizen to see it “as a free, strong corporation of which he is part and which is worth the trouble of trying to direct.”22 The Americans resist attempts to centralize power, and thereby prevent the development of a despotic state.

The American fondness for associations also discourages the development of the new despotism. Tocqueville notices that Americans are far more apt to forming associations than Europeans. He notes again that in a democracy, an individual is helpless. He cannot solve problems on his own, and he cannot compel his neighbor to help him. In England, an individual might turn to the aristocracy for help. This is not possible in America. In France, he might turn to government. This could happen in America, but it does not. Americans prefer to turn to associations.23 In this way, Americans have learned to solve their own problems without turning to government or the aristocracy. In fact, associations have more success than government could have. Government can fix larger problems, but, Tocqueville asks, “what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which associations daily enable American citizens to control?”24

By working in associations, Americans develop an attitude of community involvement, and the get used to doing without government. The more government attempts to take the place of these associations, “the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help.”25

A decentralized government and associations are, however, only part of the solution. Tocqueville argues that Americans’ religiosity plays an important role in keeping American democracy strong and off the path to despotism. Americans are far more religious than Europeans, which upsets the theories prevalent in Tocqueville’s time. These theories said that when democracy comes it will push religion out. This has not happened in America because religion is the first of America’s political institutions. The first settlers in America came for religious reasons and organized their new colonies according to their religion. Religion was the first cause of American culture and government, and therefore it remains a powerful force in American politics.

While any religion can provide an effective moral education, Tocqueville argues that Christianity is particularly suited to provide the political education of an enlightened people. Other religions (Tocqueville uses the example of Islam) tell men how to govern themselves, and also the state. Christianity, however, deals “only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man.”26 But, Christianity leaves politics in the realm of the intellectuals and innovators. Thus, Christian nations, such as the United States, are free to find the form of government which best suits them.

The brand of Christianity the settlers brought to the New World was, according to Tocqueville, “democratic and republican.”27 There is, Tocqueville explains, “not a single religious doctrine in the United States hostile to democratic and republican institutions.”28 Religious pluralism in America could cause turmoil in the government. However, the Americans have avoided this because all the churches in America agree on democracy. In Europe, religion is hostile to democracy, therefore democracy is hostile to religion. In America, however, “all the clergy . . . are aware of the intellectual domination of the majority, and they treat it with respect.”29 Therefore, instead of seeking to overthrow religion, public opinion supports and protects it.

Religion further protects democracy by checking the attitudes which bring about despotism in democracy. Without religion “each man gets into the way of having nothing but confused and changing notions about the matters of greatest importance to himself and his fellows.” 30 Individuals cannot live a life which is nothing but a confused mess. Religion promotes democracy by ordering the lives of its adherents. Their lives would otherwise be ordered by a despot. So, Tocqueville states if the individual, “has no faith he must obey, and if he is free he must believe.”31 Faith and liberty go hand in hand, according to Tocqueville.

Equality as experienced in democratic societies “tends to isolate men from each other,” and “lays the soul open to an inordinate love of material pleasures.” However, religion works in the opposite direction. It reminds the individual that he has needs which cannot be filled by material possessions. Religion “places the object of man’s desires outside and beyond worldly goods.”33 Also, religion “imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind.”34 Religion therefore combats individualism and consumerism in a democratic society. Further, by elevating the individual’s view, religion checks the collapse of horizons.

Religion also combats the habit of democratic people to conform. When the individual finds himself helpless and alone in a sea of equality, he finds it difficult to speak out against the majority. Religion, however, convinces him that his opinion is right, even if it is not popular.

Religion promotes strong families by maintaining an ordered domestic life. Unlike Europeans, an American can leave the turmoil of politics aside when comes home in the evening.35 While the European finds turmoil at home and carries that into the public realm, the American finds order and carries that into the public realm. With the reign of religion so absolute in America, “everything in the moral field is certain and fixed.”36 With that settled, Americans are free to debate and experiment in the political realm.

Religion indirectly affects the state by directing mores, which Tocqueville describes as “the whole moral and intellectual state of a people.”37 It is their mores, which are defined by their religion, that keeps Americans on the right track, steering them away from democratic despotism.38 Americans have an internal moral compass which is derived from their religion. Tocqueville observes that religion forms “habits of restraint” that “singularly favor the tranquility of the people as well as the durability of the institutions they have adopted.”39 Accordingly, “no one in the United States has pretended that, in a free country, a man has a right to do everything.” 40 Religion, therefore, encourages the responsible use of freedom by placing an absolute moral standard above the individual.

Religion, however, is not forced upon the Americans, and this is why it succeeds in restraining them. Religion “realizes that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men’s hearts without external support.” 41 Religion rules in its particular realm “by universal consent,” and for this reason it is respected and all the more powerful.42 Religion generates stability in America by creating a universal moral consensus. If there is no such consensus, civil war would break out. For example, the one moral question on which American religion could not agree was slavery. It is not surprising, then, that slavery became the cause of the Civil War.

Religious people, therefore, are strong precisely when democratic people are weak.43 American democracy and religion worked hand-in-hand to create a stable and free society which was unique in Tocqueville’s time. While there were other secular factors involved in the success of democracy in America, the underlying reason was religion. Even American’s habits for associations and decentralized government come from the democratic ecclesiology of the Puritans and Congregationalists who first settled in New England. The key here is that religion causes Americans to freely choose the habits and mores that make democracy work.


1. Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. City: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006., 506.
2. Ibid., 507.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 533.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 435.
8. Ibid., 504.
9. Ibid., 505.
10. Ibid., 506.
11. Ibid., 507.
12. Ibid., 527.
13. Ibid., 544.
14. Ibid., 691.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 692.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., 691.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid., 510.
21. Ibid., 511.
22. Ibid., 68.
23. Ibid., 513.
24. Ibid., 515.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid., 445.
27. Ibid., 288.
28. Ibid., 289.
29. Ibid., 449.
30. Ibid., 444.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid., 291.
36. Ibid., 292.
37. Ibid., 287.
38. Ibid., 291.
39. Ibid., 292.
40. Ibid., 72.
41. Ibid., 47.
42. Ibid., 292.
43. Ibid., 445.


© Copyright 2008, Jason E. Heath
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