the newspapers have burst with stories: Judges stripping the Ten Commandments
from court-room walls and forbidding students in schools from pledging
allegiance to our flag, and the republic for which it stands, "one
nation, indivisible, under God."
what happens when religion is pulled out from the foundations of the republic?
Alexis de Tocqueville reflected more deeply on the inherent weaknesses
of democracy, stripped of religion, than anybody at the ACLU today.
began with a shocker: That the first political institution of American
democracy is religion. His thesis went something like this: The premises
of secular materialism do not sustain democracy, but undermine it, while
the premises of Judaism and Christianity include and by inductive experience
lead to democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and
its own inherent tendencies, democracy tends to lower tastes and passions,
to devolve into materialistic preoccupations, and to undercut its own
principles by a morally indifferent relativism. Further, democracy left
to itself tends to surrender liberty to the passion for security and equality,
and thus to end in a new soft despotism, tied down with a thousand silken
threads by a benign authority.
the revolution of morals brought on by Judaism and Christianity, pagan
philosophy held that most men are by nature slaves, and that "the
strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must."
was Christianity (drawing on Judaism) that established three necessary
premises for modern democracy: the inherent dignity of each person,
rooted in the freedom that makes each person an Imago Dei; the
principle of the universal equality of all humans in the sight
of God, whatever their natural inequalities; and the centrality of human
liberty to the purposes and principles for which God created the
short, Christianity made the liberty of every individual before God the
bright red thread of history, and its interpretive key. Underlying the
chances of democracy, then, is its faith in the immortality of the human
soul, which is the foundation of the concept of human rights and universal
dignity. Lose this faith, and humans become harder and harder to distinguish
from the other animals, and human rights become ever more difficult to
define, defend, and uphold.
these three principles — dignity, equality, and liberty — John
Locke equivocates. He sometimes seems to be arguing that his principles
are antithetical to Christianity, and sometimes that they are consistent
with a high and faithful reading of Christianity. His followers tend to
be divided as to which side of this equivocation they support.]
addition to these three founding premises, Tocqueville counts at least
five other advantages that Judaism and Christianity bring to democracy.
Judaism and Christianity correct and strengthen morals and manners. While
the laws of a free society allow a person to do almost anything, there
are many things which religion prevents him from imagining or doing.
fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable in the conduct
of daily life, but daily life prevents most men from having time to work
out these fixed ideas, and Christianity and Judaism present the findings
of reason, tested in generations of experience, in forms that are clear,
precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very durable. Moral clarity is
a great gain in times of crisis.
whereas democracy induces a taste for physical pleasures and tends to
lower tastes, and thus weakens most people in their commitment to the
high and difficult principles on which democratic life depends, religion
of the Jewish and Christian type constantly point to that danger and demand
that humans draw back, and attend to the fundamental things. Belief in
immortality prods men to aspire upwards, and to aim for further moral
progress along the line of their own dignity and self-government.
faith adds to a morality of mere reason, whether of duty or utilitarian
advantage, an acute sense of acting in the presence of a personal and
undeceivable Judge, Who sees and knows even acts performed in secret.
Thus faith adds to reason motives for doing things perfectly even when
no one is looking; it gives reasons for painting the bottom of a chair,
and in general for doing things as perfectly as possible. In this way,
faith gives morals a personal dimension. A sin is not merely a failure
to do one's duty, but in addition to that an injury to a person, who has
extended the hand of friendship.
in a democracy such as the United States, Tocqueville observes, religion
does not direct the writing of laws or the formation of public opinion
in detail, it does direct mores and shape the life of the home. It does
this especially through women's influence upon family life and the stable
morals and good order of the home. Politically incorrect as his views
may appear in a feminist and relativist age, Tocqueville lays great stress
on the tumultuous passions that disrupt home life in Europe, and thus
render populations unfit for self-government in democracies and more prone
to authoritarian forms, in comparison with the high honor paid the marriage
bond and the greater severity of domestic mores observable in America.
This quiet regulation of home life is another contribution of Jewish and
Christian beliefs to the sustainability of American democracy.
these eight reasons, then — these three fundamental premises: personal
dignity, universal equality in the sight of God, and the centrality of
human liberty to the story of civilization; and the five additional advantages
just listed — it is clear that the first political institution of
democracy, its most important institution, is religion. That is, religion
of the Jewish and Christian type, as described. For not all world religions
establish the premises of personal dignity, universal equality, and the
centrality of individual liberty. Nor do all add to reason the precise
advantages classically delivered by Judaism and Christianity. Those that
do, or come closest, also bring to democracy certain contributions to
its own stability and progress.
an especially beautiful passage Tocqueville summarizes his view as follows:
have already said enough to put Anglo-American civilization in its true
light. It is the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere
have often been at war with one another but which in America it was
somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous
combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.
. . . Far from harming each other, these two apparently opposed tendencies
work in harmony and seem to lend mutual support.
regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men's faculties, the world
of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play
of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere
and content with the position reserved for it, realized that its sway
is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers
and rules men's hearts without external support.
sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle
of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered
as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of
the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.
Michael Novak delivered these remarks
at the 25th Summer University of Aix-en-Provence in France, to a seminar
early in September. Novak has twice been the recipient of the Cezanne
Medal presented by the City of Aix-en-Provence.