In the fall of 2013, Professor Robert Delahunty wrote a wonderful blog series for us about Tocqueville’s view of religion in America (here is the first post). One of the conclusions Robert reached in that series was that Tocqueville believed the Protestantism of early America would eventually change into, first, a type of “natural religion” and, next, what he (Tocqueville) called “pantheism”–a kind of “cosmic egalitarianism” that becomes especially attractive in democratic societies:
Man is obsessed with the idea of unity. He seeks it in every direction; when he believes he has found it, he willingly rests in its arms. Not content with discovering that there is but one creation and one Creator in the world, he is still irritated by this primary division of things and he seeks to expand and simplify his thought by enclosing God and the universe in a single entity. If there is a philosophic system according to which things material and immaterial, visible and invisible within the world are to be considered only as the separate parts of an immense being who alone remains eternal in the continuous shift and constant change of everything which is within it, I shall have no difficulty reaching the conclusion that a similar system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy.
Democracy in America, 521.
The eminent political theorist, Michael P. Zuckert, has a wonderful looking new book on Tocqueville’s understanding of religion–specifically focusing, it seems from the description, on church-state matters: The Spirit of Religion and the Spirit of Liberty: The Tocqueville Thesis Revisited. The publisher is University of Chicago Press, and the description is below.
Tocqueville’s thesis on the relation between religion and liberty could hardly be timelier. From events in the Middle East and the spread of Islamist violence in the name of religion to the mandated coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the interaction between religion and politics has once again become central to political life. Tocqueville, facing the coming of a new social and political order within the traditional society that was France, faced this relation between politics and religion with freshness and relevance. He was particularly interested in reporting to his French compatriots on how the Americans had successfully resolved what, to many Frenchmen, looked to be an insuperable conflict. His surprising thesis was that the right kind of arrangement—a certain kind of separation of church and state that was not also a complete separation of religion and politics—could be seen in nineteenth century America to be beneficial to both liberty and religion. This volume investigates whether Tocqueville’s depiction was valid for the America he investigated in the 1830s and whether it remains valid today.