Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville considers religion to be one of the few spheres in which dogma is to be preferred. The first principles of God, the soul, and duties to one’s fellow men need to be fixed before any other kind of action is possible. Unfortunately, this is also the realm where it’s most difficult for each person to settle his or her opinions alone. Philosophers themselves, of course, have long struggled in this realm, even as fixed ideas notions about God and human nature are essential for ordinary people in daily life. The only resolution Tocqueville sees is to locate authority elsewhere. Any religion that is clear, precise, and intelligible to most people is useful in restraining selfishness and leading to personal happiness, especially in free countries, where so much else is in doubt. Tocqueville doubts whether total religious independence can ever coexist with total political freedom.
Just as Tocqueville had acknowledged the need for some kind of dogma in regulating social affairs and relationships among people, here he argues that without a certain level of dogma in religion people are left unmoored and confused. Tocqueville isn’t too concerned with whether Christianity or other religions are true—only with the effects that religious belief has on the workings of society. His embrace of religion as a popular authority is thus far more politically than theologically motivated.
Themes
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Tocqueville adds that the usefulness of religion is especially apparent in nations with equality of condition. Equality can be dangerous in its tendency to isolate people from each other by promoting selfishness and materialism. Religion counteracts this, encouraging desire for spiritual rather than material goods and promoting a sense of duty to one’s fellow man. But the human mind is reluctant to accept dogmatic ideas, and religion should therefore confine itself to its own sphere rather than stretch toward the sphere of politics.  
Tocqueville will later return to the idea that equality leads people to behave selfishly or materialistically. Here, he once again emphasizes the importance of religion—not necessarily for the sake of morality or a person’s salvation, but rather because it helps to create a more stable society.
Themes
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Tocqueville acknowledges that, since religions claim universal and eternal truths, they cannot simply adapt themselves to each time and place, but he notes that religions can change their rituals and the ways they perform faith without changing their creed. For instance, today religions may well seek to regulate and restrain the excessive desire for material well-being, but they shouldn’t try to stamp it out entirely, which would be futile.
Tocqueville’s insistence on the importance of religious authority is joined to a belief that religion should limit itself to its own sphere, rather than seeking to extend into the political and social realms—in nations like France, of course, Christianity had long played a central role in political affairs.
Themes
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Tocqueville describes American religion as a separate sphere, where the priest is content to remain. Christianity in America is simple and unadorned; priests acknowledge the importance of earthly affairs even while considering them secondary to spiritual affairs. American clergymen respect the supremacy of the majority: while they don’t participate in party politics, they adopt the opinions of the majority. They attempt to check people’s excesses without countering them with hostility. As a result, religion in America manages to avoid a conflict with the American spirit of independence.
After detailing what he finds to be the ideal characteristics of religion in a democratic or democratizing nation, Tocqueville turns to the American example, which embodies the suggestions he’s laid out. The partial, modest, and humble influence that American priests attempt to assert over their congregations is, Tocqueville thinks, exactly the kind of check on democratic excesses that’s needed.
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Indeed, Roman Catholicism is spreading quicker in America than anywhere else. Tocqueville explains this through another aspect of equality, the desire for unity and simplicity in power. Americans, though not very inclined to dogmatic belief, would rather—once they’ve adopted a religion—launch into it wholeheartedly. They admire the discipline and unity of the Roman Catholic church when compared to Protestantism. He predicts that the future will see many people lapsing from all faith, but many others joining the ranks of Catholics.
While there are many Protestant denominations, Roman Catholicism is far more unitary as a church, which for Tocqueville is explained by another aspect of the American personality—the preference fro simplicity over complexity in intellectual as well as political affairs. These various characteristics are what allow Tocqueville to predict what might otherwise seem a paradoxical future trend.
Themes
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