Christianity and Democracy: Some Remarks on the Political History of Religion,
 Or, On the Religious History of Modern Politics (Part II)

[Editor’s note: Part I of Christianity and Democracy ran in the January issue.]

Democracy and religion according to Tocqueville

Tocqueville, like most liberals of the XIXth century, has the feeling that there was something artificial and violent, artificially violent, if it can be put that way, in the hostility that the XVIIIth century exhibited towards Christianity and the Church. It is necessary to return to a more “natural” situation: “It is by a kind of intellectual aberration, and assisted by a sort of moral violence exercised on their own nature, that men distance themselves from religious beliefs: an invincible penchant leads them back to them. Unbelief is an accident: faith alone is the permanent state of mankind.” Tocqueville does not concern himself to justify such considerable propositions, but their political import is clear. If religion has its anchor or support in nature, it can do without the support of political institutions. Therefore, the dismantlement of the Old Regime, and even the separation of Church and state, contrary to what most French Catholics think, are not at all contrary to the interests of religion. Better yet—and here we have one of the principal assertions of his argument and of post-revolutionary liberalism in general—it is by being separated from the political order that religion can best exert its political beneficence: “Religion which, among the Americans, never mixes itself directly in the government of society, must therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for, if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates for them its use.”

How does religion so singularly facilitate the use of liberty? The answer lies with the relationship that religion has with the will.

Modern democracy — this theme is the guiding line of my exposition — is founded on the emancipation of the will. This emancipation, leading to the idea of a total liberty of man to decide his destiny, has two opposite but equally disastrous consequences. The first is fear before this unlimited liberty. Under the empire of this fear, the modern individual is tempted to renounce this liberty, this sovereignty of the will that modern democracy proposes to him, and presents to him as legitimate and even as sacred. “There are weights too heavy for the hands of men . . . Not only does he recoil before this new liberty, but he even risks abandoning his former liberties: “When there no longer exists any authority in religious matters, as well as political affairs, men soon are quite frightened at the sight of this independence without any limits. The perpetual agitation of all things renders them anxious and exhausts them. Since everything is in motion in the intellectual order, they desire that at least in the material order everything should be firm and stable. And, no longer able to accept their former beliefs, they give themselves a master.” Paradoxically, the emancipation of the will in this way can move men to consent more easily to despotism, because of the intellectual and moral uncertainty in which they are obliged to live.

But it has another consequence which is basically its opposite, and which is perhaps more natural. Instead of giving rise to fear, it can give men the desire to exercise this will in all its new amplitude. Democratic man spontaneously has the feeling that the human will, in the form of the will of the people, has the right to will everything and anything; it willingly approves that “impious maxim” that “in the interest of society all is permitted.” Thus modern democracy gives rise to a new passivity and a new activism. These two contrary consequences of the new liberty together and equally foment a new despotism.

Now religion, by determining and fixing the moral order, by putting order in the soul, renders less pressing the democratic desire for “material” order, all the while, to be sure, rejecting the impiety that “all is permitted.” “At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion stops it from conceiving of everything and forbids it from trying to do everything.” Simultaneously tempering the new activism and the new passivity, religion helps democratic man to keep his balance. The coin, however, has another side.

In the United States, religion is separated from the state, from the political order; but it has a power of influence and opinion in society. It exhibits therefore the disadvantages inseparable from all power of opinion, in particular that of hampering liberty. Tocqueville goes so far as to write: “The Inquisition never was able to inhibit the circulation in Spain, in large number, of books contrary to religion. The rule of the majority does even better in the United States: it has taken away even the thought of publishing such books.” Even in the United States religion does not escape from the fatality of power: it no longer has political power, no longer is a state religion, but it has become a “social” power, a “social religion,” if one may put it that way. And it appears from Tocqueville’s acknowledgment that “liberty” has not gained in the process.

We find ourselves, then, before a strange contradiction. Tocqueville seems to be suggesting that religion in the United States singularly facilitates the use of liberty by singularly diminishing the quantity of liberty. This in fact is his thought, but we must immediately state it more exactly: Religion in the United States singularly facilitates the use of political  liberty by singularly diminishing the extent of intellectual liberty. So put, there is no contradiction. We understand easily in fact that the dangers of political liberty are decisively limited when — contrary to what happens, alas, in Europe — citizens do not entertain “revolutionary ideas” concerning man and the world, but rather are content with ideas transmitted by the religious tradition for the essentials of their moral life.

In truth, however, this social power of religion is more a social power than a religious power. The shocking comparison with the Spain of the Inquisition runs the risk of leading us into an error: there is no question here of religious fanaticism. Americans themselves basically share Tocqueville’s analysis; the latter only reproduces for us the awareness that Americans have of themselves. Religion is a part of their social habits: it is in this light that they are attached to it. It is a matter then of conformism and not fanaticism. Tocqueville writes: “It is also in this light [that of utility] that the inhabitants of the United States themselves consider religious beliefs. I do not know if all Americans believe their religion, for who can fathom the depths of hearts? But I am sure that they consider it necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is held, not by a class of citizens or a party, but by the entire nation; it is found among all ranks.”

To be sure, we are left with a great difficulty. How can religion be truly useful if it is viewed by the faithful from the point of view of utility? Certainly the utilitarian conception of religion is as old as politics, but it assumes at Rome, according to Machiavelli, for example, the class difference between an unbelieving patriciate and believing, even superstitious, plebs. But is it possible for this difference to pass into the interior of the soul of each citizen, so that each American should be simultaneously the unbelieving patrician and the sincere plebeian? This is what Tocqueville assumes. This, obviously, is inconceivable, unless the American citizen allows what he truly believes and what he truly thinks to fall into a propitious penumbra. Such a social and religious situation presupposes as one of its necessary conditions a general absence of intellectual rigor.

Tocqueville, we recall, claimed that religious belief is inscribed in the nature of man, that therefore it did not need the support of the state, and that contrary to what French Catholics and even the Church herself thought, a separation of Church and state is both desirable and possible. But what happens to this fundamental assertion if it appears that men thought to believe “naturally” in fact believe “socially”? The religion of Americans is founded in principle on the rigorous — because natural — separation of faith and politics; it appears in fact, however, as the most political of religions. The separation of religion and the state produces a confusion of religion and society. If political liberty benefits as a result, religion loses in sincerity, and intellectual life loses in clarity and honesty. One sees that the very reasons Tocqueville advances to justify and promote the rapprochement between the old religion and modern democracy also provide motives for the refusal, so long maintained, by the Roman Catholic Church to lend itself to this reconciliation.

The most important lesson we can and must draw from this examination of the Tocquevillian analysis is to bid farewell definitively to the opinion, advanced and refuted by Tocqueville, that there is a “natural,” hence apolitical, state of religion. Now we are in a position to envisage the political history of Christianity in an impartial fashion, as a succession of theological-political arrangements, of solutions to the theological-political problem, no one of which can claim to close that history, on the ground that it would be, finally, “conformed to the nature of things” or “conformed to reason.” The solutions are linked not because history is increasingly more rational, but because each solution always ends by revealing itself to be as unsatisfactory as the one which it succeeded. I would like to try to sketch the history of these solutions.


A brief political history of religion

Let us begin by considering the first theological-political solution, the medieval one. The Church is the true republic, the perfect society, the association par excellence in which man finds his ultimate end. All other associations have, so to speak, an ontologically inferior rank. They are therefore logically and “naturally” subordinated to the perfect association which in the person of its head holds the plenitude of authority or power (plenitudo potestatis). This plenitude of power can be conceived as being direct or indirect in character. The direct plenitude is hardly practicable, and, moreover, it is contrary to the divine commandment which enjoins the disciples of Christ to leave to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Creation in itself is good, human nature capable of tolerably organizing the earthly city by the means of reason alone, as the pagan politics and philosophy of Greece and Rome evidence. One can envisage seriously only an indirect authority which leaves a subordinate but very large place for autonomous politics, for the Empire. From this, however, is unleashed a permanent division and uncertainty since two loyalties necessarily share the heart of each Christian. Moreover one of the two great protagonists, the Empire, does not succeed in fulfilling its idea with even a minimum of plausibility. Another solution must be found.

The second solution is that of the absolute national monarchy. Each King wants to be, and acts as if he were, “emperor in his Kingdom.” A plurality of perfect republics emerge, the national monarchies, whose members, first of all their heads, have religious opinions: they are either Catholic or Protestant. The perfect Christian republic, the seamless cloth, which, to be sure, never had existed as such but whose notion had had such a power over the minds of men, henceforth was dismembered. Earlier, one had in an inchoate way Christendom; in its place now there are Christian state religions.

The new historical compromise is the following: religion remains a command, but this command is essentially administered by the temporal sovereign: cujus regio eius religio. That which motivates the adoption of this system, however, is also what renders it intrinsically untenable, because contradictory. A lay or profane human will declares ex officio and obliges his subjects to recognize that the state religion is superior to every human will. In the case of absolutism the prince simultaneously is superior and inferior to the Church that he enthrones. This introduces certain uncomfortable paradoxes such as was already the case with Queen Elizabeth I of England who, although Head of the Anglican Church, is doubly incapable — both as a lay person and female — of distributing the sacraments, i.e., of performing the acts that constitute the life of the Church. This specific form of the difficulty, or contradiction, characterizes in each case the national history.

The national monarchy was intended to overcome the medieval duality of the priesthood and the emperor, “to reunite the two heads of the eagle,” to bring it about that Christian subjects ceased “to see double.” On the contrary, the identity of the body-politic was disturbed at the same time as the identity of the theological-political head, the prince, was ever more divided: ever more absolute, and thus “more superior” to the Church, but in order to be more Christian. This escalation obviously could not continue indefinitely.

The most interesting case in this context is undoubtedly Louis XIV; the revocation of the Edict of Nantes simultaneously reveals the sublimity and the precariousness of his position. Certainly the monarch’s faith was its first cause, but the revocation was more a monarchical than a Catholic act. The monarch who is now proclaimed as the new Constantine or Theodosus has been for some years close to schism with the Papacy. In addition, Innocent XI will let it be known that the Revocation pleases him little. This episode contributed to the contrary movement of the English Glorious Revolution; it rendered complete and definitive the opposition of enlightened European opinion to the system of absolutism. The sovereign of the age of absolutism proved his sovereignty by giving religious commands. By more and more subordinating religion to himself, he increasingly weakened the rationale and vigor of his sovereignty. Another solution then must be sought.

One can distinguish three ways of leaving absolutism. The English solution is entirely unique. It is a simultaneously caricatural and weakened absolutism, which doubtlessly is why it is called “liberal.” At the time of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent Act of Settlement, the English aristocracy imposed upon the King and the people a state religion, or rather, perhaps, a national religion. This religion guaranteed that England would not return to Catholicism and that it also would not espouse too ardent a version of Protestantism. The force of the state was put behind the weakest religion. I say the weakest religion because, of all the versions of Christianity that divided and still divide Europe, the only one that strictly speaking is “unbelievable” is Anglicanism, unless one admits — according to the epigram of Joseph de Maistre — that God became man for the English exclusively. Clearly this version left dissatisfied what remained of the Catholics, as well as the fervent Protestants. The latter readily had recourse to the American solution.

The English Protestants dissatisfied with the state religion since the beginning of the 1620s had acquired the habit of emigrating far from the Old World and of founding in the New World self- governing communities which were homogenous in matters of religion, the townships of Puritan New England. Puritanism is characterized by a certain confusion of religion and politics. Tocqueville observes: “Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine; it merged on several points with the most complete democratic and republican theories.” While absolutism tended, without being able to succeed, toward the exclusive affirmation of political command, while religious commands became the material, the occasion, or the pretext, Puritanism, fleeing absolutism, recognized as legitimate only religious commands. In Protestantism, however, the entire community was alone empowered to make these commands observed. This arrangement is remarkably ambiguous. If, in American Puritanism, religion regulates all the details of social and even personal life, it does so in a special way. This religious power or authority is exercised “democratically” by all the members of the body on each one, and by each one on all. Thus, one can describe this power, not as that of religion over society, but as that which society exercises over itself by means of religion. This equivocation and indetermination contains the subsequent history of America.

Each day there are occasions when society governs itself, when democracy is at work for reasons other than the putting into practice of religious commands. Americans progressively experience that their society is securing its hold on itself, that it acts on and by itself. It remains sincerely religious but religious commands, which, at the beginning constituted the entirety of life, occupy a more and more restrained place. No one wants to abandon them, and they still are held to be respectable, and useful. But the center of gravity of social life is henceforth elsewhere: democracy, understood as the working of society upon itself, becomes self-sufficient. At this point, religion can be completely separated from politics — the situation observed and appreciated by Tocqueville, and which I commented on above.

Now, what happens in continental Europe during this same period? Absolutism, because of the contradiction I underlined, exasperates and hampers the search for an absolute sovereignty of the political order over the religious. It was this search which gave to the movement of continental Enlightenment its political wedge. After the expulsion of the Jesuits — which was heavy with political significance — this movement will culminate in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. With the latter, a theological-political cycle is closed. The Nation is born; it takes upon itself the attributes of the Church; thus it is the vera perfectaque respublica found at last. To be sure, the Nation-form did not put an end to political-religious conflicts. On the contrary, it stirred up new ones, the first, and greatest, as a result of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Let us think also of the Kulturkampf in Bismarckian Germany, of Combism and the expulsion of the religious congregations from France. But beyond its properly political power the Nation exercises such a spiritual power that it succeeds in being — much more so than the national monarchies — both Empire and Church. It is the Nation, even when anticlerical, which more than the Most Christian King “reunites the two heads of the eagle.”

In August 1914, French Catholics, including Jesuits, rushed forward to die with joy for the France whose republican regime a few years before had rather wickedly persecuted them. The Nation inspired throughout Europe sacrifices that no King and no Church had ever obtained.

From the XIXth century onward, moreover, in each country historians and philosophers saw in the construction and development of nations, particularly of their own nation, the meaning or sense of European history. In this way the theological-political problem no longer appeared except as enveloped in a national context. It was more of a French or German problem than a universal problem, the theological-political problem. The Nation truly was the human association par excellence, the sole true respublica. But there were several nations in Europe, and August 1914 marks the beginning of the end of the nation. The wars of the XXth century have worn away the charm of the sacredness of the nation. And in Europe today, the nation, which triumphed over the Church as a perfect republic, is now in the process of taking a back seat in turn.

We are, therefore, at the end of a cycle. The situation seems rather satisfactory in western Europe; at least it is peaceful. The protagonists are weak and tired. The Church has been completely domesticated by the nation; the nation, for its part, is exhausted. Its effacement is inscribed in the dual development whose irresistibility is underscored by authoritative voices: on the one hand, the massive immigration of non-Christian populations; on the other, the construction of a so-called supranational Europe. The instrument and the framework for the solution to the West’s theological-political problem, this Nation-form which for so long appeared as the ultimate political and spiritual horizon, no longer owns the future. Because of this, one can conjecture that there will be a resurrection of the theological-political problem in an unprecedented form. To be sure, the legitimacy of democracy is self-evident today throughout Europe, and the “privatization” of religion, largely accomplished, has suppressed almost all occasions of conflict. However, since the context for the exercise of democracy, i.e., the nation, is on its way out, the problem of the definition of a new framework will swiftly become a problem of the first order. Democracy — understood as the autonomy of individuals and groups — hardly suffices, in fact, to define the public space. Religion is necessarily interested in the increasingly urgent problem of the “self-definition” of Europe.

On the other hand, at the end of this cycle, uncertainty also attaches to religion. The quite visible diminution of religious practice should not lead us to the dogmatic conclusion that this tendency is destined to continue indefinitely. Bossuet perfectly formulated one of the two reasons for our uncertainty on this point: “Religious sentiments are the last thing to be effaced in man, and the last that man consults. . . . ” Whatever the future holds, we can at least try to analyze more precisely the present situation.


The present situation

What defines the Church as an agent in the human world, as a “spiritual body,” is that she bears a specific, proper thought or doctrine: she says something about man. She thereby, as Tocqueville noted, limits the arbitrariness of the democratic will, of democratic sovereignty, by re- minding the latter that man cannot do whatever he wills. At the same time, the Church’s thought or doctrine contains commands, which is its nature, indeed its duty to want to have respected. The Church necessarily tends, therefore, to usurp the role of the solitary instance of legitimate command in democracy, the government.

It is said that this problem has been resolved precisely by the separation of Church and state, the sole viable solution to the theological-political problem. In reality, however, it is when one considers the question of government, or of command, that one sees how much separation — far from being a stable situation which leaves the two protagonists intact — is an endless process which implies the growing and indefinite domestication of the Church.

The political, juridical and moral foundation of separation is that religion is a private matter. Now this idea — polemically decisive in the process of the disestablishment of the Church — is much less consistent than is generally thought. It claims to say that I have the right to observe or not to observe Easter, as I have the right to end my meal with cheese or dessert: Privatsache. The decisive question is avoided: Does or does not the Church have the right to command me? The liberal, and seemingly reasonable response, will be: yes, if you have consented beforehand to its command; no, if not. So be it — but then the question arises, how are the seeking out and obtaining of this consent organized and institutionalized? One cannot speak of consent as if it were a given existing by itself, and simply available or not. It only appears by means of an institution which manifests it, and sometimes produces it. How can the Church make individuals agree with her commands? What facilities does she have, what obstacles does she encounter, when obtaining it? After all, an elected democratic government, founded in principle on consent, requires the obedience even of those who did not vote for it, even if they hate it as Voltaire hated the Church. Does the Church have the right to avail herself of consent of this sort? In short, the separation of Church and state, of the private and the public, is founded on an essential inequality of consents, which gives a decisive advantage to the public institution over the private one. The inequality of the consents demanded or required translates into the essential superiority of the state over the Church in the regime of separation.

In this extremely disadvantageous situation, the Church, the religious institution, basically has the choice of two ways of proceeding. She can accept literally the “regime of separation,” and give the appearance of believing in the Privatsache. Down this path, she then seeks to govern men as much as she can within the context of the limits permitted her by the regime of separation. This is pretty much what the Catholic Church attempted to do in France between the “rally” to the Republic and the Second Vatican Council. However, to govern is to govern. To govern in civil society is not so different from governing in the state. Because the reality of governing undermines the constitutive convention of the regime of separation, the Church’s conduct is very difficult. It is difficult practically, because the state is necessarily hostile, or at least not terribly sympathetic. It is difficult morally, because the Church must now play a role that is structurally hypocritical. She can only fully play her role in civil society by exercising “governing energy,” which gives her a quasi, or parapolitical role — in truth, a political role — a role which she must necessarily deny. I am tempted to say that it is only when she accepts it grudgingly that the Church can play well the exclusively private role conceded to her under the regime of separation. This situation is so uncomfortable, and exposed to so many inconveniences, that the Church embraces with relief the second way of proceeding, the one followed for the most part by the postconciliar Church. She no longer presents herself as the most necessary and most salutary government, doing her best in a political situation contrary to the good of souls. She becomes simply the critic of all governments, including that which was for centuries the government of the Church. She becomes the collective “beautiful soul,” presenting herself to men as “the bearer of ideals and values.” An “ideal,” or “value,” in contrast to a law, cannot be commanded, but are left solely to the free initiative, and “creativity” of each individual — because man is the “creator of values.” The Church escapes from the discomfort of its political situation by substantially transforming the character of her message. For the past generation, the churches propose “christian values,” which, unlike the old Decalogue and also unlike democratic law, are impossible either to obey or to disobey. The Church repeats, in a more emphatic way, what democracy says about itself. Under the rubric of “values,” it is hopeless to make “the gospel message” listened to, or at least heard, except by engaging in humanitarian and egalitarian overbidding. Assuming, along with Tocqueville, that democracy needs a brake or restraint to facilitate the good use of liberty, religion, once arriving at the truly “ideal” state, certainly cannot provide it. It simply accompanies democracy as much in its reasonable as in its foolish conduct.

After this long survey, must we therefore conclude that the first, strongly negative reactions of the Church confronted by democracy were basically well founded? Must we say that after two centuries of an often confused and conflicted history, democracy as the institutionalization of human sovereignty seems to have completely subjected the Christian Churches, and even the long resistant Catholic Church? This conclusion would be rash. As I indicated while considering the destiny of the nation, the foundation of modern democracy — human sovereignty — is not the immediate author of the framework or written code by which it exercises itself. It cannot be so. Whether it busies itself within the framework of the city, the kingdom, the empire, or even the whole Earth, it does not immediately make decisions by itself: determination is not contained in the principles of democracy.

The political momentum, primarily territorial, of democracy is essentially indeterminate. It depends upon historical inheritance, on the action of great men without a mandate, and on simple chance. The actualization of human sovereignty simultaneously manifests human impotence and ignorance, the disproportion between wills democratically registered and the sum of wills. Democracy appears then as a partial and contingent agent, quite brilliantly illuminated, but severed from the fabric of all humanity. For the latter includes the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. This complete Humanity, without a possible political expression but out of which democracy necessarily operates, where can it be found? In which ledgers does it write itself? That of Nature? But it is pre- cisely modern humanity that desires to be the sovereign over nature, creator of its own nature. By affirming its indeterminate sovereignty over itself, democratic humanity basically declares that it wills itself, without knowing itself.

Yesterday’s Church denounced, and with indignation, the impiety of this will. Today’s Church, or its most astute representatives, make known with a benevolence tinged with irony, the import of this lack of self-knowledge.

Thus, the political submission of the Church to democracy is, perhaps, finally, a fortunate one. The Church willy-nilly conformed herself to all of democracy’s demands. Democracy no longer, in good faith, has any essential reproach to make against the Church. From now on it can hear the question the Church poses, the question which it alone poses, the question Quid sit homo — What is man? But democracy neither wants to nor can respond to this question in any manner or form. On democracy’s side of the scale, we are left with political sovereignty and dialectical impotence. On the Church’s side, we are left with political submission and dialectical advantage. The relation unleashed by the Enlightenment is today reversed. No one knows what will happen when democracy and the Church become aware of this reversal.


  • Pierre Manent

    Pierre Manent teaches political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and, as a visiting professor, at Boston College.

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