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Liberalism’s Recovery of Religion

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“Disbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.” Tocqueville’s insight here—that religion is an original and permanent feature of human life—distinguishes the moderate strand of the Enlightenment from the radical one. 

Tocqueville, a representative of the moderate strand, recognized that the “taste for the infinite” and a “love of what is immortal” are enduring aspects of human nature. Spinoza, on the other hand, whom Jonathan Israel has presented as the purveyor of radical Enlightenment, built his entire political philosophy upon a thoroughgoing critique of religion. He supposed that religious passions, rooted in fear and ignorance, would steadily decline amid conditions of earthly prosperity and scientific advancement.

Aaron L. Herold argues in his excellent book, The Democratic Soul: Spinoza, Tocqueville, and Enlightenment Theology, that Spinoza’s religious psychology is wrong. And this matters, because an inaccurate conception of religion prevents us from fully understanding the present crisis of confidence in liberalism, the essence of which is theological. By exchanging Spinoza’s radical religious psychology for Tocqueville’s moderate one, Herold suggests that we can better understand the nature of the crisis and “defend liberalism more adequately.”

Faith in Some Authority

Herold, in the first half of The Democratic Soul, masterfully guides the reader through Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise. As the structure of the Treatise indicates, Spinoza’s political vision is embedded within a very specific philosophical framework, a specific belief system. Central to that belief system is the idea that philosophy and theology are distinct. Philosophy pertains to “truth and wisdom.” Theology, meanwhile, pertains to “piety and obedience.” In Spinoza’s liberal regime, philosophy proudly asserts its independence and refuses anymore to serve as a handmaiden to theology.

Since revealed religion is characterized by obedience—i.e. subservience to scripture, priests, and tradition—the liberal way of life demands liberation above all from clerical authority. But Spinoza argues, more generally, that freedom of thought and expression—the ultimate aim of the liberal republic—requires liberation from intellectual authority of all kinds. There is no freedom in a liberal republic, by Spinoza’s lights, if one is obedient to anything other than the dictates of individual reason, freely exercised.  

This position is redolent of Tocqueville’s description of the philosophic method of the Americans. Although few Americans had actually read Descartes, they tended to live out his skeptical methodology in their daily affairs, by forming opinions not in reliance on family, tradition, or class, but on their own individual reason. The Americans whom Tocqueville observed in his trek through the United States in the 1820s questioned everything and, with a pragmatic bent, displayed a clear preference for practice over theory.

Tocqueville, though, put the myth of the purely rational individual to rest by arguing that the individual cannot provide evidence, whether experiential or historical, for every single opinion he holds. And the individual, no longer bonded to family, religion, or guild, desperately seeks some other group to second, and support, his opinions. That group, in a democracy, is the majority. But majority opinion can prove to be as despotic a master as an unlimited sovereign. It is perhaps more dangerous, because it wields its power secretly.

Instead of using the threat of eternal damnation to keep people in line, like the priests of old, the majority uses shame, ostracism, and ridicule to enforce conformity to its views. But the move from obeying priests to obeying the majority constitutes a trade of one kind of subservience for another. Faith does not disappear. It only gets tucked under the rug of the regular push-and-pull of politics.

As Tocqueville maintained, we are not our own masters. We cannot prove the truth of every opinion to which we assent by our own experience, observation, or experimentation. We frequently rely on the intelligence and experience of others, along with the wisdom of the past, to make our way in this world.

Tocqueville makes the point that human beings necessarily place faith in some authority. We accept some dogmas. The dogma that lay at the center of political life in America, according to Tocqueville, is belief in popular sovereignty, the idea that in political life, all power flows from—and back to—the people, by means of regular elections that keep vigilant citizens in command of their public servants.

The Puritan Compact

Herold affirms that Spinoza, too, admitted that subservience and devotion cannot be expunged from public political life. They exist, simply in new guise, in the staunchly independent, allegedly post-religious liberal republic he described in the Treatise. Spinoza articulated a myth of his own, which he derived from the social contract, in order to reconcile the conflict between obedience and freedom. Spinoza supposed that citizens of a liberal republic, by obeying the law, obey themselves. It is thereby in each individual’s interest to obey the law, which is made, by the people, for their benefit.

In his analysis of both Tocqueville and Spinoza, Herold focuses on the pervasiveness of superstition in public life. Even Spinoza, who described devotion as a pre-modern virtue attributable to primitive religion, argued that devotion could not be eradicated among the vulgar masses, but had to be shifted from the church to the state.

Spinoza’s political writings were anti-biblical and anti-theocratic, but they were not anti-theological. He fostered faith in a new religion of reason. And he encouraged his readers to place their faith in the workings of the social contract. But this, of course, required that citizens read the Bible in a new way and, indeed, as Herold notes, “look down on the Bible in the name of political and intellectual liberty.” Spinoza intended for a new faith in obedience without subservience—in obedience to reason alone—to replace religious faith in his liberal republic.

Tocqueville operated in a European world saturated with Spinoza’s philosophy. But he searched for a new way to reconcile “the liberal sentiment and the religious sentiment.” Unlike Spinoza, whose political philosophy begins with the critique of religion, Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America, begins with a different “point of departure,” the arrival of the Puritans in New England.

Tocqueville, by illuminating how a liberal democracy might provide healthy outlets for the religious impulse, can direct us “toward a recovery of liberalism in the most authentic sense.”

While the revolutionaries in 19th-century France viewed Christianity solely as a force of reaction, a defender, with the nobility, of the ancien régime, Tocqueville presented an alternative historical narrative according to which Christianity was the pivotal influence moving society toward greater levels of equality. It is a short leap from belief in equality before God—which Christianity engendered—to belief in equality before law. This is one reason why Tocqueville argued that Puritan political theory and practice were essentially democratic and republican.

Interestingly, though, it was the social state, the equality of conditions—not Spinoza’s philosophical system—that shaped the beliefs, mores, and practices of the American people, preparing them for a democratic way of life. And if there were a system of thought responsible for the incredible early success of the American democratic experiment, it was that which the Puritans brought to the shores of the new world in 1620.

Long before the Federalist’s new science of politics and over half a century before Locke’s social contract theory, the Puritans birthed a new society founded upon a compact that combined the biblical concern with piety, the classical concern with civic virtue, and the modern concern for individual rights protections. In this sense, the Americans surpassed Spinoza in combining the wisdom of classical and modern political thought, the Judeo-Christian heritage, and the new science of politics.

Tocqueville dismissed the Spinozist starting points of the critique of religion and social contract theory in favor of the Puritan point of departure. And he progressed toward his stated goal of reconciling religion and liberty by surveying how the Puritans combined “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” But this combination was certainly not always harmonious. It was tension-ridden, as Tocqueville noted in his analysis of Connecticut’s Code of 1650, which, with its (very) strict legal restrictions, prioritized virtuous conduct far more than the preservation of individual liberty.

Thus, when Tocqueville declared, “I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores, like the whole human race in the first man,” Tocqueville perceived not what Spinoza did, namely, a primitive religion arising out of ignorance and fear to be stamped out through the implementation of rational-scientific philosophy, but the permanence of this tension, between religion—and the demand for orthodoxy—and freedom—which when unlimited, even in democracy, leads to tyranny.

Tocqueville was a blind admirer of neither religion nor democracy. He viewed neither as an unmitigated good. But while he made note of the dangers of each, he also elaborated upon their strengths. Religion, as “the first of [America’s] political institutions,” served as an essential limit on the power and scope of government. It not only purified mores, instilling in citizens the moral limits required of stable self-government, but it also schooled citizens in the science of association, which Tocqueville viewed as the antidote to the apathy and withdrawal characteristic of individualism.

The Place of Religion

Herold turns to Tocqueville, providing a close reading of Democracy in America in the second half of the book, to argue that the radical attempt to discredit biblical religion, to battle superstition, and to institute a religion of reason proved insufficient, and has continually proven untenable, given the continual presence and influence of the religious spirit in public life. We would be wise, Herold thinks, to learn from Tocqueville’s prudent statesmanship in order to strike a better balance between religion and liberty in public life.

One of the many strengths of this book is Herold’s clear-eyed understanding of liberalism’s limits, especially regarding religion. Liberalism, after all, casts judgment on religion not according to its truth content, but according to its utility. And Tocqueville acknowledges in Democracy in America that he is writing about religion’s political utility, not its truth. But can a religion like Christianity, favored because of its function, not its truth, be as robust as is necessary to serve the limiting function Tocqueville assigns to it?

One of the fundamental puzzles that enlivens Herold’s narrative is this: if you make a traditional religion strong, then it becomes a threat to modern liberal democracy. If you make it weak, then it cannot sustain liberal democracy with its universal moral teaching.

What remains present in Herold’s presentation of this puzzle is the baseline view, with which Spinoza would agree, that traditional religion is the foremost threat to a liberal polity. Traditional religion and liberalism, in this formulation, exist in opposition.

Liberalism cannot escape the sociological perspective. It inevitably psychologizes religion. And liberalism places judgment on God. It does not permit God to cast judgment on it. After all, as Rawls’ political liberalism indicates, liberalism considers “reasonable”—and permissible—only those religions that abide by its terms, that are indifferent to doctrinal distinctions and capable of providing a universal moral code to sustain the liberal order. Supreme devotion belongs either to the God of Christianity or the god of liberalism.

To soften this stark dichotomy, perhaps the utmost we can do, from a liberal perspective, is to acknowledge that the ever-present religious impulse, which makes us desirous of transcending material concerns and finding meaning through self-sacrifice, demands an outlet. Tocqueville, by illuminating how a liberal democracy might provide healthy outlets for the religious impulse—which is an original and permanent feature of human nature—can, according to Herold, direct us “toward a recovery of liberalism in the most authentic sense.” In the end, we can state our appreciation, in the most general terms, for traditional religion. We just can’t take it too seriously.



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