Tocqueville and Machiavellianism

Alexis de Tocqueville

In my last post, I discussed Tocqueville’s personal religious opinions. Here I extend that discussion by considering his relationship to Machiavellianism.

Few theorists have emphasized the usefulness of religious belief for government and society as strongly as Tocqueville. Yet, if the interpretation of his private views that I sketched out in my previous post is correct, it would seem unlikely that Tocqueville was an advocate of a purely “civil religion.” To be more precise: Tocqueville did not advocate the “Machiavellian” position that the “magistrate” ought to inculcate religion in the “populace” because of its social utility, even while disbelieving it himself.

There are at least three ways by which Tocqueville reached this conclusion: through logic, through personal observation and through the study of history.

The Illogic of the Utilitarian Case for Religion

First, it would have been especially difficult to have advocated this “Machiavellian” policy for America. In the United States, the sovereign “People,” which Tocqueville described as acting “in the American political world like God over the universe,” see Democracy in America at 71 (Bevan trans.), was itself at once magistrate and populace. Hence, to have any chance of being effective, the policy would have required collective self-deception on a mass scale. (Note, however, that one of Tocqueville’s subtlest and most profound interpreters seems to think that this was indeed Tocqueville’s view. See Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy 92 (John Waggoner trans. 1996)).

Furthermore, if the American public generally accepted religion solely for its utilitarian consequences, then its faith would be unable to produce the desired effects: religion can only serve social utility if the public generally believes it to be true. Just as a placebo will do good only if the patient believes that it is a medicine and not a placebo, so religious belief will promote public welfare only Read more

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Conversations: Rodney Stark

Last week, we reviewed a recent book by Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings. In the book, Stark (left) critiques public opinion surveys that purport to show the decline of religion in America and an increase in Americans without a religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones.” This week, Stark kindly agrees to answer some questions. He talks about church attendance in America, now at an all-time high; the surprisingly traditional beliefs of the Nones; and the reasons why the media and academy often ignore the socially beneficial effects of religion–lower crime rates, for example. He also explains why regular church goers may report greater satisfaction in their marriages, and talks about his future projects.

CLR Forum: Rod, we’ve heard a great deal in the past year about the rise of the “Nones.” According to reports, about 20% of Americans, the highest percentage ever, tell surveyors that they have no religious affiliation. Yet in America’s Blessings you note that 70% of Americans, also the highest percentage in our history, belong to religious congregations. What explains these two, apparently contradictory, developments?

Stark: First of all, few of the “Nones” aren’t religious.  Most of them even pray. What they mean when they say “None” is that they do not belong to a specific church. As for the increase in their numbers over the past 20 years, that probably is mostly caused by the decline in the percentage of Americans willing to take part in a survey. Those who do are very disproportionately the less affluent and less educated. Believe it or not, repeated studies going back to the 1940s always show that this is the group least likely to belong to a local church—the more educated Americans are the more religious segment (excluding PhDs). Meanwhile, partly because Americans move less often than they used to, and many more remain in their home towns as adults, membership in local churches has been rising—now estimated at 70 percent, the all-time high.

CLR Forum: You point out that the large majority of the Nones are rather religious, in their own way. How would you describe the religion of the religiously unaffiliated? What are its salient features?

Stark: The unaffiliated are religious in the traditional ways. They believe in God and in life after death–many believe in guardian angels. But, since they do not attend a local church (and probably never attended Sunday school) their faith is unsophisticated and often includes non-Christian supernaturalism—belief in ghosts and the like.

CLR Forum: You criticize the academy and media for ignoring many reliable surveys that suggest the socially beneficial aspects of religion, while focusing on unreliable surveys that show the anti-social impact of religion. Why is this, do you think? How do you think these academics would respond to your criticisms?

Stark: Surveys have demonstrated the irreligiousness of the media and of academics (especially social scientists and at the elite schools).  I am Read more

The Top Five New Law & Religion Papers on SSRN

From SSRN’s list of most frequently downloaded law and religion papers posted in the last 60 days, here are the current top five.  Since last week, Alvare has remained at #1, Perry has remained at #2, Newman has remained at #3, Sepper joins the list at #4, and Smith & Corbin’s exchange moves down to #5, replacing Berg’s article.

1. No Compelling Interest: The ‘Birth Control’ Mandate and Religious Freedom by Helen M. Alvare (George Mason U., School of Law) [209 downloads]

2. The Morality of Human Rights by Michael J. Perry (Emory U., School of Law) [208 downloads]

3. On the Trinity Western University Controversy: An Argument for a Christian Law School in Canada by Dwight G. Newman (U. of Saskatchewan, College of Law) [150 downloads]

4. Contraception and the Birth of Corporate Conscience  by Elizabeth Sepper (Washington U., School of Law [103 downloads]

5. Debate: The Contraception Mandate and Religious Freedom by Steven Douglas Smith (U. of Miami School of Law) and Caroline Mala Corbin (U. of San Diego School of Law) [84 downloads]