Tocqueville on Religion and the Limits of the Political Imagination

In my last post, I argued that despite the existence of important areas of agreement, Tocqueville rejected (what he took to be) Machiavellianism because he found that it left the ruler “capable of doing anything.” For Tocqueville, it appeared, there were certain inviolable moral limits to political action. Without such limits, Tocqueville feared, a society’s liberty would be lost. The question thus arises: how did Tocqueville think that such limits were to be defined and enforced?

The most obvious answer would seem to be: through religion. Indeed, by restraining political leaders and democratic peoples from pursuing certain courses of action, Tocqueville argues, religion performs one of its greatest services for human society. This is especially so in a democracy, for whose vitality religious beliefs are “more necessary” than they are in other systems. Democracy in America at 632 (Bevan trans.).

Tocqueville’s thinking on this point seems to have deepened in the five years that separated the publication of Part I of Democracy (1835) and Part II (1840). In a passage in Part I, he suggested that religion and morality usually regulated political action effectively in America, even when a democratic majority supported such action. He wrote (id. at 465; emphasis added):

Republicans in the United States value customs, respect beliefs, recognize rights. They hold the view that a nation must be moral, religious, and moderate in proportion as it is free. What is called a republic in the United States is the quiet rule of the majority, which is the communal source of power once it has had the time to acknowledge and confirm its existence. But the majority is not all-powerful. Above it, in the world of moral issues, lie humanity, justice, and reason; in the world of politics lie rights acquired. The majority acknowledges both these limits. . . .

If the majority should ever fail to observe such moral and political limits, Tocqueville says, “it is because, like any individual, it has its passions and . . . it can act badly even though it knows what is good.” Id. The American people, in other words, may, in episodic fits of “passion,” suffer from weakness of will; but “know[ing] what is good,” it will eventually correct itself.

In Part II of Democracy (published in 1840), Tocqueville offered a more penetrating analysis. Here he argues that the strength and pervasiveness of Christianity in America ensure that the American people and their leaders will observe certain defined moral limits. Christianity operates to set bounds to the moral imagination, so that certain courses of action become literally Read more

No Catholic Burial for Richard III

I imagine some of our readers already know this, but here’s a follow up on a story we covered earlier this year. In February, archaeologists confirmed that they had discovered the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester. Richard died in battle at Bosworth Field in August 1485; the Tudor victors gave him a rather unceremonious burial in what was then a local abbey. Richard will now be re-interred in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, most likely next May. Back in February, some Catholics objected that Richard, who was Catholic, should by rights be buried in a Catholic ceremony in a Catholic sanctuary. According to the Law and Religion UK blog, however, the Catholic Church in the UK will not insist. The Catholic Bishop of Nottingham states:

The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years. Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial.

A little hard to follow, but the meaning seems to be, as the government has already decided to bury Richard in the Church of England, the government can also decide on the ceremony. So that’s that. The event will surely be less tense than Richard’s coronation. But will they serve strawberries at the reception?

Robinson, “Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State”

This September, Stanford University Press will publish Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State by Shira Robinson 0804788006(George Washington University).  The publisher’s description follows.

Following the 1948 war and the creation of the state of Israel, Palestinian Arabs comprised just fifteen percent of the population but held a much larger portion of its territory. Offered immediate suffrage rights and, in time, citizenship status, they nonetheless found their movement, employment, and civil rights restricted by a draconian military government put in place to facilitate the colonization of their lands. Citizen Strangers traces how Jewish leaders struggled to advance their historic settler project while forced by new international human rights norms to share political power with the very people they sought to uproot.

For the next two decades Palestinians held a paradoxical status in Israel, as citizens of a formally liberal state and subjects of a colonial regime. Neither the state campaign to reduce the size of the Palestinian population nor the formulation of citizenship as a tool of collective exclusion could resolve the government’s fundamental dilemma: how to bind indigenous Arab voters to the state while denying them access to its resources. More confounding was the tension between the opposing aspirations of Palestinian political activists. Was it the end of Jewish privilege they were after, or national independence along with the rest of their compatriots in exile? As Shira Robinson shows, these tensions in the state’s foundation—between privilege and equality, separatism and inclusion—continue to haunt Israeli society today.

Ryan, “Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy”

This month, Columbia University Press published Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America by Michael W. S. Ryan (Jamestown appFoundation).  The publisher’s description follows.

By consulting the work of well-known and obscure al-Qaeda theoreticians, Michael W. S. Ryan finds jihadist terrorism strategy has more in common with the principles of Maoist guerrilla warfare than mainstream Islam. Encouraging strategists and researchers to devote greater attention to jihadi ideas rather than jihadist military operations, Ryan builds an effective framework for analyzing al-Qaeda’s plans against America and constructs a compelling counternarrative to the West’s supposed “war on Islam.”

Ryan examines the Salafist roots of al-Qaeda ideology and the contributions of its most famous founders, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a political-military context. He also reads the Arabic-language works of lesser known theoreticians who have played an instrumental role in framing al-Qaeda’s so-called war of the oppressed. These authors readily cite the guerrilla strategies of Mao, Che Guevara, and the mastermind of the Vietnam War, General Giap. They also incorporate the arguments of American theorists writing on “fourth-generation warfare.” 

Through these texts, readers experience events as insiders see them, and by concentrating on the activities and pronouncements of al-Qaeda’s thought leaders, especially in Yemen, they discern the direct link between al-Qaeda’s tactics and trends in anti-U.S. terrorism. Ryan shows al-Qaeda’s political-military strategy to be a revolutionary and largely secular departure from the classic Muslim conception of jihad, adding invaluable dimensions to the operational, psychological, and informational strategies already deployed by America’s military in the region.