Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America (1835-1840) is commonly said to be among the greatest works of nineteenth-century political writing. It is regarded as the first-ever analysis of democracy to dissect its pathologies. Many of his observations were both astute and prescient (which is remarkable considering that he was only in his 30s).
He was a liberal, but, as he once said, a “new kind of liberal.” “One of the noblest enterprises of our time,” he added, would be to show that “morality, religion and order” do not need to be opposed to “liberty and the equality of men before the law.” Tocqueville stood out as a friend of religion who was also a friend of freedom. The remarkable feature of his thought was that he believed religion was essential to preserve liberty contrary to what hard core secularists thought.
Thus although he emphasized that the separation of church and state is necessary to political liberty, he could say in Democracy in America that religion “should be considered the first of [the Americans’] political institutions”. Probably the most important reason for his support of religion was that Tocqueville thought that organized religion was the only possible long-term counterweight to some of the main threats democracy faced. Democracy fosters intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom: the tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism.
Rather than attempting to push religion out of the public sphere, he welcomed it, provided that its influence was indirect and it did not try to dominate the public sphere. For Tocqueville, the only way for either freedom or religion to prosper in the long run was by recognizing that they were mutually necessary, and mutually beneficial. He wrote not as a religious teacher aiming to propagate a particular faith, but instead as a political analyst interested in the kind of religious beliefs necessary to uphold freedom and democracy. He wrote not with a view to preserving completely intact a particular religion, but instead to discover the religious essentials of the free society and to explain how and to what extent they can be preserved.
“Most religions,” he contends, “are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul.” This teaching “is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives" from religious beliefs and is what makes these beliefs “more necessary to such a people than to all others.” Religion is “only a particular form of hope,” one that is “as natural to the human heart as hope itself.” He reminds us that as responsible citizens of a democracy, we must take care to preserve the country’s inherited religious traditions. This is a difficult task because democratic conditions tend to undermine religion.
According to Tocqueville, democracy presents a new form of freedom that displaced the servitude of the ancient and medieval world. But, he thinks that this democracy carries within it the possibility of new forms of servitude. Democratic freedom is also a form of power: the power of the people to rule. This power carries with it new possibilities for abuse, and Tocqueville accordingly emphasizes the importance of religion’s ability to impose a necessary limit on the majority’s power. He sees the danger of majority tyranny. He sees that human nature is flawed and that human beings in any form of government are prone to do injustice to each other if they are not restrained in some way.
What “is a majority taken collectively,” Tocqueville asks, “if not an individual who has opinions and most often interests contrary to another individual that one names the minority?” If we can “accept that one man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not accept the same thing for a majority?” Men do not change their “character by being united,” nor do they “become more patient before obstacles by becoming stronger.” Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes that the vast power held by the democratic majority carries “consequences” that are “dire and dangerous for the future.”
I take the example of a future time, in the 20th century, when ruthless ideologies like Nazism and Communism arose and took hold of certain countries. These atheistic ideologies held that everything was permitted in society’s interests, even to the extent of destroying certain categories of citizens that were held to be socially undesirable. Tocqueville sees religious belief providing people with a sense of immovable moral limits which he viewed as necessary because of the protection it provides for the rights of those outside the majority, who are subject to the majority’s power.
On the basis of these arguments, Tocqueville seeks to correct the anti-religious thinkers of his day — and those of our own day - who think of religion as nothing but a source of oppression, and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom. For such men, “the freedom and happiness of the human species” require us to believe that human beings can be understood as nothing more than an accidental aggregation of matter and not as beings with souls. When such thinkers “attack religious beliefs,” Tocqueville argues, “they follow their passions and not their interests.” That is, they neglect the interests of society while following their anti-religious feelings instead.
In reality, Tocqueville argues, religion “is much more necessary” in a “republic” than in a “monarchy,” and “in democratic republics more than all others.” It is safe to give the people power to rule only if they believe that there are moral limits on their power that they must respect and their belief in such limits is sustained by their belief in religion.
Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
The despot, Tocqueville observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people as a whole surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.
There are some activities which can be undertaken only if you have a belief in after-life. By teaching the existence of an afterlife with rewards for virtuous living, religion gives men the confidence to undertake certain community activities that the self-interest of individualism prevents. Without such beliefs, doubts would inevitably stifle men’s public-spiritedness. The religious belief in rewards and punishments after death sustains such sacrifices by making their rewards certain. David Sloan Wilson writes in Evolution for Everyone
A given religion adapts its members to their local environment, enabling them to achieve by collective action what they cannot achieve alone or even together in the absence of religion. The primary benefits of religion take place in this world, not the next.
Reaching a similar conclusion by a different route, Hannah Arendt felt that totalitarian elements dominate modernity, and that in a mass society there would always be a majority of people whose dedication to their own social and private interests would make them easy prey for party machines and demagogues (The Portable Arendt). "For the really horrific discovery of totalitarian regimes had been that mass conformists - "job holders and good family men" - were much more pliant, dedicated, loyal, and abundant agents of extermination than the criminals, "fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots" and social failures of the mob. She writes:
The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.