Does Religion Still Maintain Democracy? What Tocqueville didn’t predict

Aside from all the festering issues our nation faces like the economic downturn, the budget deficit, and unemployment, The House, this past week, passed a resolution reaffirming the official motto of the United States: In God We Trust. With only nine nays, The House easily passed this nonsensical bill, pushing aside those much weightier matters for someone else’s term. Is this a mere political maneuver to appease those religious zealots to bring God back to America or should it be seen as an act by the House of Representatives to gain some murmured applause under the loud, bellowing boos it has constantly been delivered? As a country, though, Do we trust in God? Is this a Godless society? “So make no mistake, I’m no fan of a motto that divides Americans along religious lines. With polls showing increasing numbers of Americans expressing skepticism about the existence of God or defining God in non-traditional ways, the motto is increasingly polarizing” (Washington Post Blog, Nov. 2). Tocqueville didn’t see this one coming.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked that “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in deeply felt religious faith- and I don’t care what it is.” I, for one, think Tocqueville would disagree. At the time he is writing, reporting on the infantile nation, Tocqueville believes that democracy has the power to do whatever it wants, to make any laws it wants, however religions halts the people of the polity from taking the flight of fancy and creating outlandish and unjust laws. But this religion is Christianity. He makes no mention of Judaism, Islam, Atheists, etc. What he cannot predict is, that although our nation was found on Christian ideals, America would become a microcosm of different religious backgrounds. As a French expatriate, Tocqueville came to America to escape the threats against the French aristocracy and his ties to them. I find it especially interesting how he feels so strongly that Christianity maintains democracy, since he has just fled the violent usurpations by the French people and their dismemberment of a national religion. Tocqueville talks at great length of the separation between church and state.

“As long as a religion rests upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affections of mankind. But if it be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it; or to repel as antagonists men who are still attached to its own spirit, however opposed they may be to the powers of which it is allied. The Church cannot share the temporal power of the State without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites” (Tocqueville 358).

The motto, In God We Trust, may suggest that, in a liberal sense, there even is a God, and that there is only one. 

I’m not denying that Christianity took no party in establishing and maintaining democracy in the United States. As Tocqueville states, “Religion in America takes no direct part in government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions” (353). But, the Frenchman would see it very differently today.

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6 Responses to Does Religion Still Maintain Democracy? What Tocqueville didn’t predict

  1. allenle2011 says:

    I agree Toqueville would probably view our nation differently today, but I think he would still recognize that America is still a deeply religious nation. Compared to most nations, especially France, citizens of the United States as a whole are still seen as more church-going than most other nations. Also, there are still about 75 percent of people in America that consider themselves christian. That is a small number compared to when Toqueville came to America, but still a bigger number than I expected.

    Toqueville’s main point about religion in America is that it maintains democracy because it causes people to pass laws that are morally sound. I believe that Toqueville would still think that happens today. Although America more diverse religions than it did in the past, people of these religions still want the U.S. to have laws that abide by morals.

  2. jtgilb says:

    I actually saw saw Jon Stewart talking about it on his show and thought it was really interesting piece of legislation. Like we discussed in class, and like Allenle notes, I think that Tocqueville would still note that our country has religion deeply ingrained in it. The statistics regarding religion in America are overwhelming. We are definitely a religious nation comparatively. In reference to this particular legislation, this vote in the house had nine people vote against it-9-ONLY 9-out of the 435 Congressman in the House of Representatives, that represent the hundreds of millions of people that reside in the United States. I think this statistic alone speaks volumes of the presence of religion in our country’s governmental affairs. In terms of religion upholding democracy because of Tocqueville’s sentiment that it creates a certain set of “manners”-I’m not sure that he would find the same today. In certain respects, religion has definitely become less of a presence, however in other instances, I think that religion and it’s actual values rather than just a general morality has integrated politics in a way that I don’t think Tocqueville could have predicted.

  3. Jonathan Needle says:

    Personally, I think it is evident that Tocqueville was referring to not only Christians but also Catholics as well when he discussed the founding of the nation on ingrained democratic principles. He saw these two dominant sects as able to maintain the democratic and republican institutions of the United States, and not favoring one over the other.

    Tocqueville argued the most free and enlightened people were the ones who were deeply religious, and not simply Christian or Catholic. I believe he doesn’t reference other religions outside of the aforementioned ones because he accepted-as opposed to the monarchy in France’s position-the United States as a religiously tolerant nation that adheres to the acceptance of various beliefs among its populace. This in turn makes for a citizenry that is able to debate issues, ultimately establishing a country full of independent individuals. It’s not that the United States has to be deeply religious in order for its democratic institutions to thrive, rather it is important for society and its members that they acknowledge some religion, because it provides a ‘common morality’ among them. To Tocqueville, religion is a primary political institution because it teaches individuals how to exercise their freedom wisely.

    Tocqueville recognized that there needed to be separation of church and state; how would compromise be made among the multitude of diverse beliefs if not? But he also knew that these two institutions needed to be separate, for he knew that religion did not play a part in politics, but in the expression of individuals who are inherently equal.

    Religion is the most prominent intangible feature of this nation’s history and of its present circumstance as a beacon to those who wish to live freely and equally in the eyes of each other ‘under the god that they trust’.

  4. mrs010 says:

    While I agree that de Tocqueville would look at our country much differently today than he would have in the 1830’s, we have to remember his true outlook on religion in America. The country was founded with strong Christian values, and the first Christians who came wanted their established settlements to be “A City Upon a Hill”. The country essentially remained that way through the 19th century, and because de Tocqueville was not even aware of the 2nd Great Awakening, I think it is even more telling to how much of an influence religion had in democracy from his perspective. With all of the reforms (temperance, education, women’s rights, etc.) stemming from this uptick in religious fervor during this time period, it was very easy to see the effect of religion in the lives of Americans. With that said, the religious and perfectionists movements ended, but not without a lasting effect on how the country was governed. The moral foundations of whatever Christian sect you want to refer to have strengthened our governments ability to make decisions throughout the course of history, though sometimes that is hard to see. There is no doubt that its much different now, but I still believe “In God We Trust” speaks to the character of the US.

  5. Kirsten Meeder says:

    I also think that Tocqueville would view our society different today, especially in regards to religion. This is not only due to the fact that we are not an exclusively “Christian” nation, but also because many religious groups-like the Catholic Church-have politicized themselves.

    In regards to strange religious allusions in the government, another example of this is the Pledge of Allegiance. The fact that it is recited everyday in public schools flummoxes me for many reasons. In its most harmless form it’s a type of mindless propaganda, but also references “one nation under God” which is extremely problematic. This reference was likewise challenged like the “In God We Trust” issue recently and was upheld although both these instances flagrantly disregard the separation of church and state.

  6. stephmfarr says:

    Excellent post comparing Tocqueville’s opinion of American religion to a current event. I think that one of the most important aspects of the post was the mention that this piece of legislation even made it on the agenda for the House- I certainly agree that there are plenty of other bills and resolutions to be voted on that are significantly more important. I think andycraft was completely correct to suggest that the House was looking for praise amidst its quite low approval rating- As of Oct 27, Congress only had a 9% approval rating. It’s quite convenient that the House would pass a nothing resolution the week following this rating. Perhaps to send a message of efficacy?

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