In considering the relationship between Christianity and modern democracy, Tocqueville was bound to offer some explanation of the fact that democracy in America was hospitable to that faith while democracy in France was hostile to it. Such an explanation could of course also help explain why, in America, the Reformation and the Enlightenment were and have remained allies while, in much of Europe, the Enlightenment and the Counter-Reformation were, until recent times, vehemently opposed. And it could also shed light on the persisting phenomenon that Americans even now are typically more “religious” than Europeans.
One might have thought that the difference between French and American had something to do with the origins of the two democracies: American democracy took hold in an overwhelmingly Protestant environment, while French democracy arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. Indeed, Tocqueville himself observed that the early Puritan settlers of America brought with them “a form of Christianity which I can only describe as democratic and republican,” and that the circumstances of America’s founding were thus “exceptionally favorable to the establishment of a democracy and a republic in governing public affairs.” Democracy in America at 336 (Bevan trans.). To understand America fully, Tocqueville suggests, we must keep its Puritan origins in mind: “[i]t is religion which has given birth to Anglo-American societies: one must never lose sight of that.” Id. at 496.
In fact, however, Tocqueville’s explanation of the (sometimes amicable, sometimes antagonistic) relationship between Christianity and democracy followed another course. The crucial distinction, he argues, is not between Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity, but between religion in its “natural” state and religion as a “political” institution. When a political régime permits religion to remain in its “natural” condition, and religion for its part does not seek a “political” role, religion will flourish and, moreover, the régime may find itself stronger for that fact. On the other hand, if a régime seeks to instrumentalize religion or if religion seeks political power, religion will inevitably suffer and any benefits to the régime from its alliance with religion will be fleeting.
Although Tocqueville says that “[a]longside every religion lies some political opinion which is linked to it by affinity,” id. at 336, and acknowledges that “Catholicism resembles absolute monarchy,” id. at 337, he nonetheless insists that neither Protestantism nor Catholicism is especially fitted to or congruent with any specific type of political régime. “[I]n the United States there is no single religious doctrine which is hostile to democratic and republican institutions.” Id. at 338. If anything, Tocqueville believes that Catholicism, despite its apparent affinity for monarchy, would be a better form of Christianity from the standpoint of democracy than Protestantism. Catholicism leads men towards equality, while Protestantism leads them towards independence, id. at 337; and the former condition is more favorable to democracy. Thus, although Catholics retain “a firm loyalty” to their form of worship and are “full of fervent zeal” for their beliefs, they are “the most republican and democratic class in the United States” id., at once “the most obedient believers and the most independent citizens,” id. at 338.
Such, in brief, is Tocqueville’s main line of argument. But as we shall discover, many qualifications to it are needed and some significant problems for it arise. Let us begin by considering his analysis of the situation in pre-Revolutionary France.
Two Trends in French Enlightenment Thought
The French Revolution, Tocqueville thought, saw two great passions at work: political and religious. Of these, the anti-religious passion was “the first to be kindled and the last to be extinguished.” Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ançien Régime and the Revolution 21 (original ed. 1856; Bevan trans. 2008). The Revolution’s hatred of religion was largely the handiwork of eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosophy which, he says, “is correctly considered as one of the main causes of the Revolution” and which was “profoundly anti-religious.” Id.