To begin with, I would like to express my gratitude to Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian for inviting me to write this month for the Center for Law and Religion Forum.
What I propose to do over the course of the month is to post a series of short essays dealing with the great French nineteenth century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. Specifically, I shall aim to discuss a set of questions arising from his work that concern the relationships between Church and State in the United States and France. These are well-studied subjects, to be sure. But I hope to have some new things to say. Moreover, although my primary interest here will be historical and exegetical, I will also consider the application of Tocqueville’s ideas to contemporary matters.
I need hardly stress that Tocqueville remains a thinker of lasting influence and importance. He plays a prominent role, e.g., in the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s recent book, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (2013). Other significant works on contemporary society and culture bear the impress of Tocqueville’s thought, including Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001) and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (original edition 1985) by Robert N. Bellah (whose death Mark Movsesian noted in this forum this week) and Bellah’s associates. (Indeed, the title of the last of these books encapsulates a phrase of Tocqueville’s.) But however valuable Tocqueville remains as a student of culture and society, his thinking pivots on religion and its varied relationships to political regimes. He was, he wrote, “convinced . . . that man’s true grandeur lies only in the harmony of the liberal sentiment and religious sentiment, both working simultaneously to animate and restrain souls,” and he noted that he had worked “for thirty years . . . to bring about this harmony.” (Letter to Claude-François de Corcelle, September 17, 1853, in Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society 295 (Roger Boesche (ed.) 1985)). The power, depth and complexity of Tocqueville’s analyses of the relationships between the “liberal” and the “religious” sentiments repay close and repeated study.
Tocqueville was the intellectual heir to both the Enlightenment and Christianity. In a sense, his entire work can be understood as a dialogue between these two traditions in his mind. In a letter of October 10, 1836 to his life-long friend Count Louis de Kergolay, he writes that he is passing part of each day reading “three men, Pascal, Montesquieu and Rousseau.” The choice of these three writers is revealing: Tocqueville’s interest in Pascal reflects the Christian (and Jansenist) side of his mind; Rousseau and Montesquieu speak for the Enlightenment side. No less revealing is the fact that Tocqueville does not name any figures from the radical French Enlightenment, such as Diderot or D’Holbach. He appears to have had little acquaintance with or interest in their ideas. Rather, he turns to Montesquieu, the leading figure in the moderate Enlightenment, and Rousseau who, though a revolutionary figure, can be considered to represent the counter-Enlightenment. (For the distinction between “radical” and moderate” Enlightenments, see Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Origins of Modern Democracy (2011)).
Before turning to the particular questions that will concern us in later posts, it will be useful to consider Tocqueville’s personal religious beliefs. These rarely appear in his published works. But we can infer them from his manner of living and from his extensive Read more