Tocqueville’s america: no place for an atheist

“ Disbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America (284). According to Tocqueville, there are a few main threats that oppose democracy: the need for equality, the desire for individualism, and the love of materialism. When these threats bleed into the real lives of Americans, the chance of despotism increases. In Volume II of Democracy in America, originally published in 1840, Tocqueville makes the claim that the biggest single entity that can combat these threats is religion. The freedom of the press and the right of association help, but Tocqueville writes that faith is the most beneficial of these, both politically and societally. He believes that religion provides a sort of rulebook that teaches people how to exercise their freedom appropriately. The religious leaders teach their followers to focus less on individuality and materialism, and put more thought towards the common good. However, in an ever-changing country where atheism is on the rise and traditional family values are in decline, are Tocqueville’s beliefs on the importance of religion in America revealing themselves to be less and less true?

Tocqueville strongly advocates for the idea that religion as a whole is stronger when it is not directly involved in politics. The text reads, “ When a religion seeks to found its empire only on the desire for immortality that torments the hearts of all men equally, it can aim at universality; but when it comes to be united with a government, it must adopt maxims that are applicable only to certain peoples” (284). Religion staying out of politics is a strategy to cover as much common ground as possible. Tocqueville also states that by avoiding positions where one will inevitably be put up for reelection, it allows religious leaders to evade the demands of the public. What Tocqueville does not envision is a government that is partly comprised of a Religious Right, leaders who weaponize religion as a scare tactic. Religion is no longer as separated from state as Tocqueville may have liked. Since the religious revival in the 1950s, the word ‘ God’ has been sung in our pledge of allegiance and printed on our money. In a world where campaigning political candidates oppose issues like abortion and gay marriage in the name of Christianity, can it still be genuinely said that religion is not regulated by the government? Many citizens probably would not even endorse that claim.

Another outdated premise in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the notion that Catholicism reigns supreme above all other religions. Tocqueville establishes his Catholic support by saying, “ Catholics show great fidelity in the practices of their worship and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; nevertheless they form the most republican and democratic class there is in the United States” (275). The first reason Tocqueville supports Catholicism is because the priest is morally above everyone else. Whereas in society and government, Americans strive for equality by assuring each other that all men are created equal, in the church, there is an understanding that the priest holds the high ground and everyone else is equal below him. While Tocqueville prefers Catholicism, he admits that “ all the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same” (278). While in 2018, Catholicism is still a leading religion in America in terms of numbers, Nondenominational Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, and Atheism are becoming more popular. It is worth asking how Tocqueville’s model changes as popular religious practices change.

Not only do people interpret and practice religion more liberally than a century or two ago, but traditional family values have also transformed. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville asserts that women are more important to shaping mores that men are. Tocqueville even writes that religion itself is stronger in the minds of women, because religion is cultivated in the hearts of a family at home, where women generally spent more time. Even when men have a hard day of facing the outside world of politics and work, they should be able to come home to a loving, devout family. The text reads, “ Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected…” (279). According to Tocqueville, these strong family bonds are what have kept faith so prominent in America. When the nuclear family is eroding and women are rapidly joining the work force, it is undeniable that Tocqueville’s original sentiment is no longer true. Men and women now have an equal responsibility to promote faith at home, and failure or unwillingness to do so can and has weakened that religious bond.

It is important to note that Tocqueville was leaving what, in his mind, was the failed French Revolution when he came to America to study our government and society. Part of the reason Tocqueville was so insistent that religion was the answer to a strong democracy was because he believed that the French revolutionaries discarding religion was what caused their mission to fail. His religious views were reactionary to the discourse in France, and therefore are more relevant to the time they were written than in twenty-first century America. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the harmony between religion and politics would outlast any other enlightenment, but the truth of this sentiment will only be revealed with time.