The Fall of Religion and Republic

Whether or not he was always a pious man himself, Tocqueville stressed the importance of religion in the maintenance of a democratic society. Witnessing American life at a time when religion was the norm and atheism was the exception, he understood firsthand how religion contributed to a stable society and counteracted the forces of despotism. In modern America, religion has been on the decline — and so too has democracy. Although common wisdom attributes the democratic backsliding in this country to racial discrimination, private money, and hyperpartisanship, perhaps the impact of religion, or the lack thereof, on democracy should not be underestimated.

In terms of the direct influence that religion has on democracy, it promotes a sense of equality of conditions. Tocqueville recalls the words of a priest who preached that the Lord “[does] not permit despotism to come to deform thy work and to maintain inequality on earth.” In his eyes, Catholicism appeared particularly conducive to such conditions. This seems due in part to the nature of the faith, but also due to the conditions that rendered Catholics poor and in the minority in early America, not to mention Tocqueville’s appeal to his French audience. Yet Catholicism did not reign alone in America, for there existed “no single religious doctrine that shows itself hostile” to the republic. Although some may argue that some theologies preach more tolerance than others, the vast majority of religions teach fundamental principles that maintain deference to authority, devotion to tradition, and ethical codes. In a nation where authority and tradition lie in the Constitution, religious virtues apply themselves to create a respect for the political philosophy of our Constitution and the equality of conditions it creates. 

Not only does religion promote equality and liberalism, the beliefs of a religious society also indirectly promote stability and tranquility. The root of community lies in the home. Everything stems from the state of family life until it reaches the life of the state. Tocqueville makes this distinction between European and American affairs quite apparent, for “the American draws from his home the love of order, which he afterwards brings into affairs of state,” yet “the European seeks to escape his domestic sorrows by troubling society.” With a belief in, or merely respect for, religion, the “bond of marriage is most respected” and men possess more restraint, contrary to the situation in Europe, where “men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder.” Citizens of the United States did not dare “to advance the maxim that everything is permitted” as this would certainly be “an impious maxim.” Religion tames the temptation for base desires and quells the belief that anarchy breeds freedom. The rule of law is what allows for the maintenance of individual rights, preventing the fall into despotism whereby those protected rights would be scorned. 

There remains a key caveat if religion seeks to uphold the mores of a democratic state: the separation of church and state. If religion and politics are intertwined, religion “must adopt maxims that are applicable only to certain peoples,” and thus it “loses the hope of reigning over all.” Religion loses its power to act as an equalizing force when integrated with government. It must remain an authentic, apolitical power that “finds its force in the sentiments, instincts, and passions” so that “it can only be destroyed by another religion.” One can look to the current state of Iran, among others, to exemplify this point. For the Islamic Republic, political legitimacy stems from religion. Thus if the state were to fail, both the ayatollahs and Islam would be undermined. By divorcing religion from government, religion maintains its character across political regimes and leadership, allowing it to flourish independently of time and circumstance. 

Above all else, laws and natural endowments included, mores serve to best protect the democratic state of the United States. Regardless of the need for laws and favorable endowments, Tocqueville believed that people gave “too much importance to laws, too little to mores.” What good are laws without a society that respects them? How are laws properly enforced if not for a majority, or powerful minority, who seek to uphold them? The stability of a republic cannot hold in a state that antagonizes the rule of law. Either despotism or anarchy would ensue. Citizens must hold a belief in, or respect for, the distinction between good and bad to sustain the legal code that dictates right from wrong. No other force exists to provide such a distinction, while transcending the wisdom of the crowds, political authority, or time, than that of religion.

The United States still maintains a separation of church and state. In 1962, in the case of Engel v Vitale, the Supreme Court deemed official school prayer to be unconstitutional and in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although school-sponsored prayer may not be allowed, the individual student or student groups still maintain the ability to pray on their own. Public schools may not have the capacity to instill religious beliefs in their students, but parents certainly do. For those who are fortunate enough, private or parochial education may reinforce these beliefs. If the nation desires a healthy, stable republic, Americans must regain their belief in, or at least respect for, religion. If the majority of the nation, or perhaps a powerful minority, rejects the mores and ideas that stem from religion, we may find ourselves without the freedoms that maintain a democratic character. As Tocqueville warns, “Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”

Gabriel Diamond is a sophomore in Branford majoring in Political Science. He is also a writer for the Sycamore Institute, an undergraduate think tank dedicated to domestic and international security, and the Yale Review of International Studies. Feel free to contact him at gabe.diamond@yale.edu.