Why Toqueville Was Right

Catholic Citizens and the Renewal of Democracy

An excerpt from the Wednesday, March 31, 2004, Habiger Scholar-in-Residence Lecture

Alexis de Tocqueville was animated by one question: Why does the American polity work? And his answer, I think, would surprise a contemporary audience. For Tocqueville, the key to the success of American democracy was not the novel way in which it separated government powers, nor its constitutional protection of liberty, nor was it the ingenious design of American federalism—however important each of those elements. Rather, Tocqueville maintained that our democracy worked because of the character, that is, as he phrased it, “the whole moral and intellectual condition” of its citizens.

And in this connection, he saw no more important influence than religious faith. Indeed, Tocqueville went so far as to call religion “the first of [America’s] political institutions.”

But what did he mean by this? Of course, he didn’t mean that religion exercises a formal political role through a nationally established church; the First Amendment prohibited this. Rather, he meant that religion profoundly shaped not only the heart and home, but also the mind and will and public actions of American citizens. As he saw it, Christian faith uniquely prompted Americans to do and to forbear in ways that benefited their political community.

Specifically, he noted that religion facilitated the use of their extensive political freedom. As he put it, “[W]hile the law permits Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.” In this vein, Tocqueville criticized what he considered the naïve optimism—and atheism— of the radical revolutionaries of his own country. These men, he observed, earnestly attempt to cultivate a spirit of freedom in their countrymen and often do so by attacking religion as an outmoded constraint. But in doing so, Tocqueville remarked, “they obey the dictates of their passions and not of their interests,” for he insisted that “[d]espotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” Indeed, he argued that religion is more needed in a democratic regime than in any other, for “[h]ow is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”

So one of the benefits of religious faith, as Tocqueville saw it, was the fact that religion has the capacity to constrain human beings interiorly when they enjoy vast external liberty under the law. Or, to put it more positively, it teaches them how to use their freedom well. Another benefit Tocqueville identified was the way in which Christian belief tends to support democratic equality—the sine qua non of successful self-government. In this connection, Tocqueville suggested somewhat counter-intuitively that Catholicism is a great ally of American democracy, observing that Catholics “constitute the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States.” Why? Well, Tocqueville argued that a Catholic ecclesiology favors a sense of human equality; in light of the distinction between clergy and laity, all of the nonordained are on the same plane, irrespective of social station. He also contended that Church authority has an equalizing effect upon the faithful, for it “subjects the wise and the ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and the needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak.” In sum, Tocqueville concluded that Catholicism, by placing men under the same standard, “confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God.”

Now Tocqueville was responding in part to the suspicion that Catholic immigrants would threaten the achievement of American democracy by importing the loyalties and habits of the ancien regime; they would, quite simply, undermine democratic equality. But a resurgent monarchy is not the challenge we face. And so I would take Tocqueville’s analysis in another direction, giving different reasons why Catholic citizens are so important to the vitality of American democracy. My reasons correspond to what I perceive to be three main problems vexing our polity: first, political apathy or, worse, an active disdain for politics; second, confusion about the nature of freedom and law; and third, a frightening reductionism that infects public policymaking. Catholicism offers profound resources for resolving each of these problems.

Let me begin with the first. Commentators across the political spectrum have lamented a growing sense of apathy among the electorate. They attribute this to a variety of factors. E.J. Dionne, for instance, in his book Why Americans Hate Politics notes that the electorate feels alienated by the extreme positions staked out by political activists. Others note that the voters are turned off by the bitterness of political disputes. I would add another factor. There is a pervasive sense that political engagement is a matter of personal preference, in the way that taking up a hobby is a reflection of taste. This, I think, stems from a basic philosophical error, largely unconscious, about the nature of politics. We are laboring, it seems to me, under the inheritance of a contractual model of politics (and, for that matter, most of our other relationships). The political order, so the model suggests, is a human contrivance designed, especially, to protect people from physical harm. Politics is a matter of convention, and the dictates of government hold no special moral weight, but command deference mostly because of the threat of force. Our political obligations, moreover, are matters of choice; if we haven’t contracted the obligations, we’re not bound by them.

At a popular level, it seems to me, this manifests itself in low voter turnouts, attempts to avoid the most basic civic duties (like jury service), and a general disregard of the res publica, in favor of private pursuits. To address these symptoms, we need to address the heart of the problem: How do we conceive of politics?

Catholic social thought offers an important perspective here. It takes its bearings on political questions from several sources, including scripture, a vast body of philosophical reflection, and the works of the encyclical tradition. From the Old Testament, for instance, we learn that God cares about politics, about political justice, the right use of power, honest judges, upright kings, and good laws. From the New Testament, we learn that political authority is a divinely ordained service. St. Paul, for instance, exhorts his listeners to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1), and he counsels the brethren to offer prayers of intercession and thanksgiving “for kings and all who are in high positions”(Timothy 2:1-2). Likewise, Peter enjoins the believers to adopt an attitude of respect for the offices of politics, urging them to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).

Such references are suggestive of what a Christian disposition toward political authority should be, but they do not constitute a developed concept of Christian citizenship. These elemental convictions about the origin of government and the respect it commands require elaboration. I have found one important source for this elaboration in the political theology of the Thomistic tradition. Importantly, Thomas Aquinas rejected the view that government was simply remedial of sin and argued that government of some kind would have been necessary before the fall. This seems implausible to a modern audience accustomed to seeing political authority primarily as an agent of coercion and punishment. For Aquinas, though, the punitive function of government, made necessary by sin, was secondary and accidental to its main function: ensuring the conditions for the fullest moral, intellectual, and spiritual development of persons. In other words, political authority was charged with care for the common good. Even John Calvin, a notable theological critic of Aquinas, vested government with the same important functions and praised political office in extravagant terms. Reflecting upon Paul’s famous dictum in Romans 13, Calvin insisted, “[N]o man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life” (Institutes 4:20).

Now Peter and Paul and Aquinas and Calvin were not naïve. They had an acute sense of sin and the temptation to abuse authority. Political corruption was no less common in their day than it is in ours. Yet, they were able to hold in tension two fundamental principles: first, though an office is ordained by God, there is no guarantee that it will be exercised in a godly way, and second, that the corrupt exercise of an office does not corrupt the office itself. A challenging implication follows: Christians must respect political authority irrespective of who wields it. But what does “respect” entail? Surely it does not entail passive acceptance of grievously unjust laws (the last century testified to the tragic cost of such quietism). Nor does it prohibit the removal of bad men from office. Civil disobedience and, in extreme cases, revolution find warrant in most Christian political thought. (Aquinas and Calvin, for example, identify circumstances in which Christians are bound to disobey the law, and their intellectual heirs identify circumstances necessitating revolt.) Importantly, civil disobedience and revolution in these cases is not anarchistic, but rather aims to restore genuine authority, that is, authority true to its divine ordination.

Under ordinary conditions, however, respect for government requires obedience to the law. But it requires much more than that. Most of us are not in danger of serious lawbreaking; our temptations and choices are less dramatic. As we enter another election season, it is important to consider what these are. Campaigners face the temptation of mudslinging or, worse, character assassination in order to win a seat. Reporters confront the pressure to produce yellow journalism to satisfy consumer taste. Editorial writers wrestle with the lure of the easy ad hominem attack. And private citizens struggle with a secret delight in the foibles of public officials.

If these appear to be small matters, then our perception could stand readjustment. The cumulative effect of such decisions on our polity is dramatic; as a people, we are either degraded or ennobled. But these decisions are not only important in the aggregate. They matter to the individual soul. The wisest teachers in the Christian tradition, starting with the master Teacher himself, sternly warn against sinful words and attitudes that harm the reputation of other people. They inveigh against the sins of detraction, calumny, and rash judgment—categories not much in vogue but pertinent nevertheless. These sensitive observers strictly distinguish between the public airing of another’s defects made necessary for public safety, for instance, and the kind of derogatory speech found in the “politics of attack” that plagues our culture. They forbid false statements—even against a rightly despised opponent, and they condemn the disposition to assume the moral fault of another without sufficient foundation. How different would American politics be if Christians considered the relevance of these categories to our public life? In this election year it is timely to reflect on our ordinary political conduct in light of ancient theological principles. This, too, is due to Caesar. I would argue that recovering a sense of political authority as divinely ordained for high purposes and deserving of respect would go a long way toward remedying the apathy or, worse, toxic disdain for politics we experience in our country.