Robert Delahunty on Alexis de Tocqueville and Religion
Date: August 25th, 2013

Back in the 1830s, a young Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to the United States to write a report about its prison system.  Although he did write such a report, the trip became more notable when Tocqueville put pen to paper and generated a two-volume set of observations about American political and social life known as Democracy in America.  While the book contains many profound observations, we invite Prof. Robert Delahunty (University of St. Thomas) to discuss Tocqueville’s thoughts on the importance of religion in a democratic society based on a series of posts he recently wrote on the Center for Law & Religion Forum hosted by St. John’s University Law School (see below).

Our discussion begins with an examination of the historical setting for Democracy in America, namely the Jacksonian era of U.S. history.  Prof. Delahunty reviews the many social, economic, political, and religious changes taking place in this fledgling nation.  He then reviews the personal background of Alexis de Tocqueville, who was only in his mid-20s when he journeyed to America.  His early life as a Catholic is covered as well as his “deconversion” at about age 16.  Interestingly, though harboring doubts about his Catholic faith, Alexis continued to participate in the Catholic Church throughout most of his adult life.  Robert notes how these personal experiences come to shape Tocqueville’s views of American relgion, most notably the more mainstream form of Protestantism typical of the northern US at the time, and also how he understands the growing Catholic presence in America during the 1830s.  Robert makes an interesting historical observation that Tocqueville seems to have overlooked the dynamic ferment that was the Second Great Awakening in America.  We also cover Tocqueville’s political outlook, noting how his parents had been persecuted during the French Revolution and how Alexis was also influenced by various French Enlightenment thinkers.

We then plunge fully into Tocqueville’s thinking on church-state relations and the role of religion in society more generally.  Robert connects Tocqueville to a long tradition of Western political thought about religion dating back to Niccolo Machiavelli.  This dialogue with previous philosophers, and Machiavelli in particular, helps to anchor our conversation.  Robert notes that religion has been seen as being connected to governance in three ways.  First, religion has historically been used to sacralize or legitimize secular authority and the state.  Second, religion serves to moralize the population in ways that are beneficial to a smooth-functioning society.  Finally, he notes that religious groups and leaders have served a “prophetic role” of challenging abuses of state authority.  It is the latter two functions, Delahunty argues, that Tocqueville comes to increasingly see as the important aspect of religion in a democratic republic.  Tocqueville is concerned that American Protestantism may not be sufficiently prophetic enough in the era in which he observed the nation.  Nonetheless, we explore how important religion is, and could be, in limiting what Prof. Delahunty calls the “political immagination.”  Religion, as a force in civil society, helps to restrict the options before democratic political leaders preventing it from devolving to mob rule.  We close with Prof. Delahunty’s thoughts about how Tocqueville’s philosophy could be useful for understanding church-state relations and the role of religion in America over the past half century.  Recorded: August 23, 2013.

RELATED LINKS

 Prof. Robert Delahunty’s bio at St. Thomas University.

Prof. Delahunty’s short blog articles on religion and Tocqueville at the Center for Law & Religion Forum.

Russell Moore: From Moral Majority to ‘Prophetic Minority’,” by Naomi Schaeffer Riley in Wall Street Journal (mentioned in podcast; subscription required for access).

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