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In case you don’t know, Peter’s The Restless Mind is one of the very best books there is on Tocqueville. Either the best, or in the top three. His post below, which contains a number of fascinating angles for further inquiry, and particularly about Tocqueville’s (scattered, and perhaps incomplete) analyses of the South, suggests why.

Here, I simply want to pick up on one thematically minor part of his post, the place where he notes that Tocqueville predicts that eventually all Americans will be Catholics or atheists. I want to provide a little Protestant push-back (against Alexis, not Peter), and to expose a little of my own academic work in Postmodern Conservative, since I actually do not spend all my time philosophizing about pop music! So what follows is a relevant bit from my dissertation on Plato and Tocqueville, adapted accordingly:

Tocqueville provides us with five guideposts for thinking about the future relation of democracy and religion. First, as the title of a key chapter puts it, the American example shows that religion can “Make Use of Democratic Instincts” in a manner mutually beneficial to itself and democracy; second, sustainable democracy needs religion, which means we can expect democratic peoples to remain attached to its continuance or at least potentially receptive to its revival(cf. II, 2.17, #s 17-20); third, democratic times, because they are enlightened times, tend to be ones of increasing doubts about religion; fourth, the relevant religion for America and Europe, Christianity, will be tugged against and perhaps eroded by powerful and ongoing democratic currents toward liberationist and materialist mores; and fifth, religion’s authority in democratic society will always rest upon common opinion.

The fifth point is the most important. Tocqueville says that “if one looks very closely, one will see that religion itself reigns there [America] much less as a revealed doctrine than as common opinion.”(II, 1.2, #18) This judgment, offered in the context of his larger teaching about the irresistible authority of common opinion in democratic times, indicates that despite their adherence to the Bible and other standards of doctrinal authority, the Americans could abandon or adapt Christianity whenever the gradual working of democratic currents made such changes attractive to a majority. And Tocqueville suggests that when and if democracy reaches its most advanced stage, whether in Europe or America, democratic man would be inclined either to the non-religion that is materialism, or to a quasi-religion heavily shaped by democratic dogmas and instincts. Pantheism, or some sort of faith in human progress, would be the most likely forms of quasi-religion. In my view, the three chapters which immediately follow the most famous one about religion and democracy (II, 1.5) respectively concern the primary religious options Tocqueville thinks will be viable in the far democratic future: Catholicism, pantheism, and a faith in “indefinite human perfection.”

I am inclined add to the two quasi-religions a third sort, a doctrinally re-worked Christianity. I am so inclined due to Tocqueville’s teaching on common opinion, and in the light of certain 20th-century articulations of Christianity found in theologically liberal Protestant denominations or Catholic factions.

Tocqueville was aware of American Unitarianism, (ltr. to Kergolay, 6/29, 1831) and it seems the reason he did not discuss it in Democracy is that he saw it as “an inert work . . . without strength.” He probably would have had a similar view of late-19th and 20th century theological liberalism. In the same letter he argues that Catholicism will be the only lasting form of Christianity; this argument also appears in Democracy, as Peter mentions, but without mention of the letter’s key point that Protestantism is a half-way house between “reason” and “authority” that cannot maintain its contradictory position over the long run, and which thus must lose its adherents to these two poles. Traditional Protestantism, and other positions on the spectrum between rationalism and Rome, such as Unitarianism, will disappear. While this prediction accords with some ongoing dynamics of Christian history, and while it might be vindicated several centuries down the line, the persistent vitality of traditional Protestantism, as well as certain ecumenical moves by both Catholics and Protestants, suggest this was a kind of pro-Catholic wishful thinking on Tocqueville’s part, as well as a too determinedly logical kind of thinking. In my judgment a reworking of Christianity along progressivist lines, i.e., along lines which teach God’s insistence upon democratic dogmas and which discern doctrine-altering “Revelation” in democratic social trends, remains an ongoing potentiality, whether initiated by “Protestants” or “Catholics”; this follows, I hold, from Tocquevillian premises.

This was one of about ten places in my 500-page dissertation where I said Tocqueville was wrong about something! The First Things-y take-away point is that Catholics and Protestants (and the Orthodox, too) are in at least one theological battle together, the one against efforts to adapt Christianity into a quasi-religion of God-Ordained Democratic Progress.

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