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Democracy and Religion in America


What happens when religion is pulled out from the foundations of the republic? Alexis de Tocqueville reflected more deeply on the inherent weaknesses of democracy, stripped of religion, than anybody. His thesis went something like this: The premises of secular materialism do not sustain democracy, but undermine it, while the premises of Judaism and Christianity include and by inductive experience lead to democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and sustain it.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Recently the newspapers have burst with stories: Judges stripping the Ten Commandments from court-room walls and forbidding students in schools from pledging allegiance to our flag, and the republic for which it stands, "one nation, indivisible, under God."

But what happens when religion is pulled out from the foundations of the republic? Alexis de Tocqueville reflected more deeply on the inherent weaknesses of democracy, stripped of religion, than anybody at the ACLU today.

Tocqueville began with a shocker: That the first political institution of American democracy is religion. His thesis went something like this: The premises of secular materialism do not sustain democracy, but undermine it, while the premises of Judaism and Christianity include and by inductive experience lead to democracy, uplift it, carry it over its inherent weaknesses, and sustain it.

By its own inherent tendencies, democracy tends to lower tastes and passions, to devolve into materialistic preoccupations, and to undercut its own principles by a morally indifferent relativism. Further, democracy left to itself tends to surrender liberty to the passion for security and equality, and thus to end in a new soft despotism, tied down with a thousand silken threads by a benign authority.

Before the revolution of morals brought on by Judaism and Christianity, pagan philosophy held that most men are by nature slaves, and that "the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must."

It was Christianity (drawing on Judaism) that established three necessary premises for modern democracy: the inherent dignity of each person, rooted in the freedom that makes each person an Imago Dei; the principle of the universal equality of all humans in the sight of God, whatever their natural inequalities; and the centrality of human liberty to the purposes and principles for which God created the cosmos.

In short, Christianity made the liberty of every individual before God the bright red thread of history, and its interpretive key. Underlying the chances of democracy, then, is its faith in the immortality of the human soul, which is the foundation of the concept of human rights and universal dignity. Lose this faith, and humans become harder and harder to distinguish from the other animals, and human rights become ever more difficult to define, defend, and uphold.

[On these three principles dignity, equality, and liberty John Locke equivocates. He sometimes seems to be arguing that his principles are antithetical to Christianity, and sometimes that they are consistent with a high and faithful reading of Christianity. His followers tend to be divided as to which side of this equivocation they support.]

In addition to these three founding premises, Tocqueville counts at least five other advantages that Judaism and Christianity bring to democracy.

First, Judaism and Christianity correct and strengthen morals and manners. While the laws of a free society allow a person to do almost anything, there are many things which religion prevents him from imagining or doing.

Second, fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable in the conduct of daily life, but daily life prevents most men from having time to work out these fixed ideas, and Christianity and Judaism present the findings of reason, tested in generations of experience, in forms that are clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very durable. Moral clarity is a great gain in times of crisis.

Third, whereas democracy induces a taste for physical pleasures and tends to lower tastes, and thus weakens most people in their commitment to the high and difficult principles on which democratic life depends, religion of the Jewish and Christian type constantly point to that danger and demand that humans draw back, and attend to the fundamental things. Belief in immortality prods men to aspire upwards, and to aim for further moral progress along the line of their own dignity and self-government.

Fourth, faith adds to a morality of mere reason, whether of duty or utilitarian advantage, an acute sense of acting in the presence of a personal and undeceivable Judge, Who sees and knows even acts performed in secret. Thus faith adds to reason motives for doing things perfectly even when no one is looking; it gives reasons for painting the bottom of a chair, and in general for doing things as perfectly as possible. In this way, faith gives morals a personal dimension. A sin is not merely a failure to do one's duty, but in addition to that an injury to a person, who has extended the hand of friendship.

Fifth, in a democracy such as the United States, Tocqueville observes, religion does not direct the writing of laws or the formation of public opinion in detail, it does direct mores and shape the life of the home. It does this especially through women's influence upon family life and the stable morals and good order of the home. Politically incorrect as his views may appear in a feminist and relativist age, Tocqueville lays great stress on the tumultuous passions that disrupt home life in Europe, and thus render populations unfit for self-government in democracies and more prone to authoritarian forms, in comparison with the high honor paid the marriage bond and the greater severity of domestic mores observable in America. This quiet regulation of home life is another contribution of Jewish and Christian beliefs to the sustainability of American democracy.

For these eight reasons, then these three fundamental premises: personal dignity, universal equality in the sight of God, and the centrality of human liberty to the story of civilization; and the five additional advantages just listed it is clear that the first political institution of democracy, its most important institution, is religion. That is, religion of the Jewish and Christian type, as described. For not all world religions establish the premises of personal dignity, universal equality, and the centrality of individual liberty. Nor do all add to reason the precise advantages classically delivered by Judaism and Christianity. Those that do, or come closest, also bring to democracy certain contributions to its own stability and progress.

In an especially beautiful passage Tocqueville summarizes his view as follows:

I have already said enough to put Anglo-American civilization in its true light. It is the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another 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. . . . Far from harming each other, these two apparently opposed tendencies work in harmony and seem to lend mutual support.

Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men's faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere and content with the position reserved for it, realized that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men's hearts without external support.

Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.



Michael Novak. "Democracy & Religion in America." National Review (October 2, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

The Author

novak1Novak10smMichael Novak (1933-2017) was a distinguished visiting professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America at his death. Novak was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize and served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. He wrote numerous influential books on economics, philosophy, and theology. Novak’s masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, influenced Pope John Paul II, and was republished underground in Poland in 1984, and in many other countries. Among his other books are: Writing From Left to Right, Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Read a more complete bio of Michael Novak here. For more information, see

Copyright © 2002 National Review
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