Pros and Cons of Disestablishment: Did the Separation of Church and State Benefit Religion? Ernest L. Fortin

De Tocqueville is remembered among other things for having taught us that disestablishment or the separation of church and state, which America was the first nation to institutionalize, was good for both civil society and religion. That it should have been regarded as good for civil society is not surprising since state neutrality in matters of religion appeared to be the only effective means of putting an end to the bloody wars that had been tearing the West apart since the days of the Reformation. In the eyes of many, it was the solution to the theologico-political problem, for centuries the central problem of western political life. Few people at the time envisaged the possibility of doing away with religion altogether. The aim was simply to restore a measure of reason to society by creating a setting within which each religious group could feel secure on the condition that it renounce any claim to preferential treatment and grant to every other religious group the freedom that it demanded for itself.

What is less evident is the assertion that the new set-up would serve religion equally well. The churches, Tocqueville thought, had nothing to fear from disestablishment — religion is too much a part of human nature. It has its deepest human roots in the longing for immortality, a longing so powerful that there is no chance of its ever being dislodged from the soul. Rare are the individuals who have the strength to live without religion for any length of time. Recent French history bore eloquent witness to the fact that the vicious attacks mounted against it throughout the eighteenth century had, as usual, ended in failure. No sooner had the Revolution run its course than a massive return to religion began to take shape. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were wrong: the infamy to be stamped out was not Christianity but the oppressive regime with which it was organically bound up. This and nothing else is the true cause of the discredit into which religion had fallen. For Tocqueville, human beings left to themselves lean toward religion and reject it only when external factors intervene to turn them against it (Dem., I.ii, 9).

The American experience was no less revealing. Tocqueville was duly impressed by the vibrancy of the churches in this country and attributed that vibrancy to two factors: religious liberty or the relegation of religion to the realm of private choice, and the willingness of priests and ministers to shun public office. Human beings are prone to rebel against things they are made to accept against their will. What they resent in such cases is not necessarily the thing itself but its imposition. Contrary to what some people had been saying, Christianity and liberal democracy are not enemies but natural allies. The two are made for each other.

For one thing, their moral ideals bear definite similarities. By abolishing privilege and equalizing social conditions, liberal democracy gives due credit to the contribution that each citizen makes to the common life and can thus be thought to promote a a higher degree of justice among human beings. The manners that it fosters are also more gentle than those of earlier regimes, the best of which retained elements of brutality that ran counter to the biblical notion that all human beings are created in the divine image, and that “Jesus had come down to earth to make all members of the human race understand that they were naturally similar and equal.” In retrospect, it was amazing to think that the profoundest and most wide-seeing minds of Greece and Rome had never managed to grasp the very general but very simple conception of the likeness of all men and of the equal right at birth to liberty (II.i, 9; cf. Introd.; I.ii, 9). Even Cicero, who could raise a storm over the crucifixion of a Roman citizen, apparently found nothing wrong with the practice of delivering strangers over to wild beasts for the entertainment of the people, as if their victims were not equally human (II.iii, 1).

There are other resemblances as well, the most important being that liberal democracy, based as it is on rational rather than prescriptive principles, has about it an air of universality akin to that of Christianity which is an ecumenical religion that likewise takes the whole world as its stage. Not since the establishment of the Christian Empire under Constantine and its medieval successor, the Holy Roman Empire, had Christianity found itself in a potentially more congenial environment. The name of its enemy is not freedom but particularity. This is why it had not fared well during the period that witnessed the breakdown of the medieval order and the rise of the modern sovereign state. The spread of liberalism and the crumbling of the barriers that had hitherto separated the nations of the West portended a brighter future. Nothing prevented Christianity from carving out a niche for itself within a society whose global outlook was shared by no other religion. The phenomenon, on which Tocqueville insists, had been noted by the American Framers, Jefferson in particular, who regarded the Christian notion of the unity of mankind as more consonant with reason than were the national religions of pagan antiquity, for example.

All of this pointed to the fact that the marriage, consummated on our shores, between Christianity and liberal democracy was not just a necessary compromise or a marriage of convenience, dictated by the religious pluralism of the age and America’s commitment to the principles of liberty and equality. It was a marriage arranged in heaven. If liberal democracy is divinely mandated as the most just of regimes (Tocqueville does not call it the only just regime), then separatism, which goes hand in hand with it, is itself an expression of the will of God and part of the same providential dispensation. There is no more desirable solution to the perennial problem of the relationship between Christianity, an essentially nonpolitical religion, and the political order.

Needless to say, Tocqueville is not the first political thinker to develop a theological argument for the separation of church and state. Spinoza and Locke, the two greatest theorists of early modern liberalism, had felt obliged to do the same thing, if only for the sake of gaining a wider hearing for their views. Spinoza sought its justification in the New Testament teaching concerning charity or the universal love of one’s fellow human beings, enemies as well as friends. Spinoza finds such charity incompatible with intolerance, persecution, and the inflicting of bodily harm on people whose only crime is to hold opinions that differ from those of the persecutor. In a similar vein, Locke argued that the establishment of religion is a contradiction in terms, for what is established is not religion itself, which is a matter of voluntary acquiescence to the divinely revealed word of God, but the practice of religion, a purely external matter. At best, expressions of piety can be commanded. Genuine piety is something else. In the name of religion, establishment, which is nothing but a subtle form of coercion, must be ruled out. Besides, to speak of a religion as “established” is not to bestow high praise upon it. It is to downgrade it by implying that it owes its existence or its power to the will of a human legislator.

On all these matters, however, neither Spinoza nor Locke could speak with the authority of a firsthand witness. At the time, separatism was still only an idea, for which a more or less plausible case could be made but which had yet to meet the test of experience. Moreover, the arguments in favor of it were hardly unimpeachable. They were inspired by the liberal convictions they were meant to support and could thus be shown to be circular. Tocqueville was in a different and decidedly more advantageous position. He had seen separatism at work and could assess its actual strengths and weaknesses. And weaknesses there were. What gives his book its poignant quality is that, for all its apparent enthusiasm, it is less than sanguine about the long-term prospects for American religion and the American regime in general.

Clearly, a new type of human being was emerging that could be admired in many ways but was not superior in all of them to the one it was destined to replace. The symptoms of bourgeois mediocrity were everywhere present: in the decline of political oratory, in the “squalor” of America’s intellectual and artistic life, in the overriding preoccupation with material well-being. The trouble with America is that it lacked elevation. Its citizens committed fewer “crimes” but developed more “vices,” their concerns were petty, and they had the honor of belonging to a nation that had performed the extraordinary feat of raising egoism to philosophic status.

The best case scenario was that religion, on the basis of experience “the first of America’s political institutions,” would play a key role in curbing the excesses of the regime. It was called upon to moderate the unbridled pursuit of material goods and inculcate the internal restraints that insure their proper use. Without such restraints, America “would gradually lose the art of producing these goods and end up by enjoying them without discernment and without improvement, like animals.” Mores would degenerate and the realm of freedom, which they preserve, would be jeopardized.

The one condition necessary for the success of the enterprise was that the churches stay out of politics. By remaining studiously aloof from partisan squabbles or the “daily turmoil of worldly business” and “confining themselves to their proper sphere,” they could do more for society than by pressing for a share in its governance. To become a party to the feverish agitation and instability that are “natural elements” of democratic republics would only cause them to lose the respect they normally command. It was not part of their calling to become embroiled in the “bitter passions of this world” at the risk of alienating natural allies and alluring tepid but opportunistic friends. As bearers of such moral truths as are independent of the regime and, so to speak, “decided in advance,” they were expected to rise above the “ebb and flow of human opinions,” the incessant turmoil of the market place, and the vicissitudes of political innovation. Theirs was a separate sphere, and it was a sphere they could dominate completely and without effort as long as they restricted themselves to it. Sacrificing the future for the present was not in their best interest and they would have been ill advised to put their prestige on the line for the sake of a power to which they had no inherent claim.

Therein lies the novelty of Tocqueville’s position, which accentuates far more than the earlier Christian tradition had done the separation between the spiritual and the temporal realms while leaving as much room as possible for their continued collaboration. That position, which stands midway between the Christian or sacred democracy that others were calling for and the minimally religious society advocated by Locke, had much to recommend it. Both sides stood to gain by it. Freed of divisive political entanglements, religion would retain its sway over the hearts of men. It might be weaker but its influence would be more lasting; and, if all went well, society itself would be insulated against any further erosion of its spiritual life.

Yet the scheme was anything but foolproof for at least two typically Tocquevillian reasons. The first is that it heightened religion’s vulnerability to the single greatest threat to the life of democratic societies, the tyranny of public opinion. It exempted religion from government control but subjected it that much more thoroughly to the “intellectual domination of the majority.” Clergymen, who sensed the irresistible power of this domination, were forced to “treat it with respect” and, in all matters not contrary to faith, “defer to it.” They could try to “purify, control, and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire in time of equality,” but they knew that any attempt to “conquer it entirely” was out of the question. This much was evident from the sermons preached by clergymen. Priests and ministers had enough sense to eschew politics but their minds were very much on earthly things. In listening to them, it was hard to tell “whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this” (II.ii, 10).

The problem was compounded by the fact that, deprived of state aid, the churches had to compete for their members and rely on voluntary contributions for their subsistence. This put them in the position of having to cater to the changing tastes and moods of their constituencies. No one, not even the clergy, was at liberty to contradict the passions that the commitment to the pursuit of material wealth arouses or to defend any teaching that runs counter to “the prevailing ideas or the permanent interests of the mass of the people.” Henceforward, religion would owe a large part of its vitality to the “borrowed support of public opinion,” outside of which there was no force capable of sustaining a prolonged resistance (I.i, 5).

What was true of morality was also true of the spiritual life generally. The natural tendency of the human spirit is to reduce as much as possible any discrepancy or “cognitive dissonance,” as it is now called, between their personal beliefs and the dogmas of their society. In Tocqueville’s words, human beings tend to “regulate political society and the City of God in uniform fashion” (I.ii, 9). Even people who are “possessed by small worldly goods” feel better when they can combine material prosperity with moral delights, harmonizing as it were heaven and earth (I.ii, 9). The only way to elevate the latter was to lower the former. Under such circumstances, it was unlikely that the religious spirit would be tested and ascend to the heights it had reached in the souls of the great mystics of former ages. America, Tocqueville noted wistfully, had not produced any Pascals.

Granted, there were exceptions to that rule and one did not have far to look for them. America abounded in groups “filled with an enthusiastic, almost fierce spirituality such as (could) not be found in Europe.” Forms of “religious madness” were not uncommon and, from time to time, “strange sects” arose which tried to “open extraordinary roads to eternal happiness.” The point, however, is that these uncontrolled and often violent eruptions of mysticism ran counter to the spirit of the regime and took the form of a “colossal reaction” to it. They were nothing more than the spontaneous manifestations of a nature starved for the spiritual satisfactions that it was habitually denied or “momentary respites” when people’s souls “seem suddenly to break the restraining bonds of matter and rush impetuously heavenward.” Thus, it was no cause for astonishment that “in a society thinking about nothing but the world a few individuals would want to look at nothing but heaven” (II.ii, 12).

The second reason, which is just another facet of the first, is that, while separatism favors the cause of religion by guaranteeing its free exercise, it also saps its vigor by making it a matter of private choice, placing all religions on an equal footing and granting to each individual the right to make up his mind about the truth or falsity of any of them. The problem, one of the leitmotifs of Democracy, is adumbrated in Part I, Chapter 2, where Tocqueville speaks explicitly of “two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with each other but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” At first glance, it makes sense to say that people will be more devoted to a religion or a church that they have chosen of their own accord. Yet this almost pre-Nietzschean blend of perfect freedom and total attachment — one is reminded of Nietzsche’s “free spirit” coupled with a “tethered heart” — has always proved to be more of a dream than a reality.

What sets liberal democracy apart from all other regimes is that it does not seek to define the goals of human existence or produce a specific type of human being. Its object is to provide a neutral framework within which each individual is free to choose his own goal and find his own way to it. By according the same respect to all religions, however, it implicitly denies that any of them has an intrinsic and compelling claim to that respect. To that extent, it inevitably works against religion, for it is improbable that anyone will be inclined to give himself heart and soul to something in which he believes only halfheartedly. Pluralism may be a virtue in some broad sense, but if it is to have any meaning, it must exclude its opposite. Like every other “ism,” it is itself a monism. Its basic premise, asserted absolutely, recoils upon itself: one cannot assert without qualification that all truths are relative. The neutrality on which it prides itself is in fact an illusion. Intentionally or not, liberal democracy does breed a special type of human being, one that is characterized precisely by an unprecedented openness to all human possibilities. What this leads to in the vast majority of cases is not a noble dedication to a freely chosen or freely accepted ideal, nor a rich and diversified society, but easygoing indifference and mindless conformism.

Within wide limits, Americans were allowed to live as they pleased, with little interference from a government that had shed its aura of sacredness and was pledged to the defense of their individual liberties. But now that all other alternatives had been suppressed, the range of their choices was drastically limited. In America, there was no place to hide and no opportunity to be oneself, if only because there were no real selves to begin with. One had to go back to the heyday of the Roman Empire to find a regime that had managed to gain such control over the minds of its citizens. As a result, the freedom with which Americans were blessed was in danger of being swamped by the equality that supposedly removed the impediments to its exercise. In the midst of all the talk about diversity, an astonishing degree of sameness was spreading across the land. Christianity and democracy could indeed live at peace with and support each other, and, anyway, one no longer had much choice in the matter; but it was clear that the new fashioned harmony between them had been purchased at the price of a fantastic accommodation to the spirit of modernity.

Tocqueville was not blind to the danger. His fear was that, instead of elevating the tone of society, the churches would yield to its pressure and permit their own moral vision to be silently undermined by it. Against such an eventuality there was in his opinion one major safeguard, which was to simplify Christian doctrine and ritual in keeping with the democratic penchant for general ideas, and then resist any temptation to make unnecessary changes in them. The remedy may have been too weak for the ill effects it was meant to counteract. It has been observed more than once that he underestimated the power of the radical Left, which had already begun to assert itself, and, in an age that was still dominated by philosophic rationalism, he could not have anticipated the twentieth-century revolt against reason in the name of freedom. One wonders whether from the outset the scale was not weighted in favor of democracy; for the record shows that what the disestablished churches were able to offer society is often little more than what they had received from it.

This brings us back to the question with which we started: was the new regime of separation a boon or a bane for revealed religion? Tocqueville’s balanced and nuanced reply would have to be reexamined in the light of all that has transpired in the century and a half that separates us from the publication of Democracy in America, and it would take another Tocqueville to undertake the reexamination. To the outside observer, the operation appears to have been successful. Religion did not die. There may even be more of it around than at any moment in the recent past. But this does not tell us much about its condition. Even Nietzsche knew that the death of God is consistent with a burgeoning religiosity, something he had seen with his own eyes. There is little comfort to be taken from the fact that according to the latest polls church attendance is up, for if our pollsters were to train their sights on astrology and fortune-telling, they would probably discover that they too are on the rise, and for the same motive. Tocqueville argued that religion tout court, not revealed religion, was natural to human beings, and he traced its origin to the irrational part of the soul. By this he did not mean that people would one day revert en masse to pagan polytheism. Too much had already been said, by Locke and others, about the “reasonableness” of Christianity. Revealed religion, which had held sway for fifteen-hundred years, was here to stay. But he guessed right when he predicted that as time went on it would grow weaker. This is not the place to go into the many historical and ideological factors, not all of them related to the issue of separation, that have contributed to the weakening. What renders any judgment regarding these matters doubly difficult is that we shall never know whether religion would have fared better under a different dispensation. What we learn from Tocqueville, or see more clearly through him, is that some problems do not admit of any universally valid solution and thus call for the exercise of prudence on the part of wise religious and political leaders. By reason of a tradition that is coeval with its founding, America is not about to renege on its commitment to the principle of separation, to which, significantly, both present-day liberals and present-day conservatives profess their undivided allegiance. The other lesson that we learn from Tocqueville is that this principle will yield its choicest fruits if its application is accompanied by an awareness of, and a concomitant attempt to attenuate, some of its less desirable features.


  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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