Tocqueville on Keeping Our Countercultural Churches
by Peter Lawler
To begin with a simple point, one basic insight of Tocqueville is that things are always getting better and worse. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Tocqueville could be used to defend the advantages of religious establishment. He, more generally, is unrivaled in arousing a kind of selective nostalgia that helps us remember the advantages of aristocracy. He says, in Democracy in America’s conclusion, that aristocracy is better in cultivating great individuality, and, as a partisan of greatness himself, he’s chilled when he thinks about how little room there will be for men such as himself in a democracy. Democracy, however, is more just. Tocqueville takes the Creator’s view, and not his own, by preferring democratic justice to aristocratic greatness. His tasks are to make democracy as compatible with greatness as possible, and to see greatness in democracy.
Tocqueville says modern democracy is, in fact, Christian in inspiration. What Aristotle and Plato taught was, in the crucial respect, untrue:
The most profound and vast geniuses of Rome and Greece were never able to arrive at the idea, so general but at the same time so simple, of the similarity of men and of the equal right of freedom that each bears from birth; and they did the utmost to prove that slavery was natural and would also exist […]
All the great writers of antiquity were part of the aristocracy of masters, […] and it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.
There’s a lot here opposed to the Aristotelian idea that it’s the function of the state (or city) to inculcate a higher or spiritual/aristocratic understanding of moral virtue in people. The classical view was that all human beings—except perhaps the rare philosopher—are stuck in the natural slavery of the “cave” or the political order. But the truth taught by Jesus—the truth about persons—is that all creatures made in God’s image have “the equal right of freedom” from some comprehensive civil theology or even from some established or politicized church.
Tocqueville almost begins Democracy with a judicious appraisal of a Christian heresy that was the basis of the first American founding. The Puritans, he explained, were educated political idealists who founded a real and unprecedented democratic country that was less distorted by political prejudice than even Plato’s city in speech. They were all about egalitarian political participation and the education of everyone as beings with souls. Their egalitarian idealism was admirable and remains an indispensable feature in elevating our democracy above individualistic self-concern. But the Puritans erred by criminalizing every sin, using Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as the foundation for civil legislation, and for intrusively offending the right to freedom of conscience. There’s nothing about the teaching of Jesus, Tocqueville claims, that could justify making political life that comprehensive for religious reasons.
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