Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville
j. judd owen
cambridge, 182 pages, $95.00


J. Judd Owen’s Making Religion Safe for Democracy challenges both secular and religious thinkers. As Owen argues, the ascendant form of philosophical liberalism, with its tenuous claims to be a space without any religious commitments, is “not well equipped to confront a world of resurgent religion, particularly religion that is uneasy with or rejects liberal democratic principles.” The problem affects the secular minded, whose theological shallowness leaves them unable to respond to religious movements, and also religious thinkers and conservatives, who engage in the public square but are uneasy with the liberal order. For Owen, the re-grounding of democracy is more likely to come from the religious liberalism of the latter group.

Contemporary liberal philosophy is unable to respond to theological challenges because it cannot account for religious people who are actually religious. As Owen shows, contemporary liberalism requires that religious beliefs be bracketed out of the public square, which is why liberalism is unable to understand or even converse with these religious movements. This form of liberalism is “manifestly inferior to Enlightenment liberalism” because earlier liberals were engaged in religious disputes utilizing their own theology. Oddly, though, he fails to draw the contributory link between the two. Early liberalism sought to construct a theology without any claims to the supernatural, the heavenly, or theological claims grounded in revelation. Contemporary liberalism turns out to be the natural culmination of the earlier attempt to neuter religion.

Owen looks to Enlightenment liberalism for responses to the theological shallows of contemporary liberalism. While the book has weak points—most notably regarding Isaac Backus, the 18th-century baptist minister and author of the important treatise Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed (1778)—who appears and then disappears without much clarity on how he fits the argument—it is generally an incisive interpretation. Owen particularly shines in his chapters on Hobbes and Tocqueville, since the choice that secular and religious liberals have is ultimately between these two. In Hobbes, Owen finds “not unbelief, but a radical reorientation of human concerns to goods of this life. . . . not unbelief but indifference.” The ideal Hobbesian/liberal state needs this indifference to the supernatural in order to buttress obedience to the state. Owen ingeniously contends that Hobbes thought Europeans were still in the state of nature (nasty and brutal) in part because of their theological convictions, which undermined the Leviathan state. We need to slough off theological ideals and accept the true theology, he countered, which is concerned only with total acquiescence to the state.

The ideal subject of such a liberal state does not worry about the supernatural, does not hope for heaven, and, consequently, minds his mundane business. This leads to a hard-working complacency that makes for good consumers content to have a distant government manage major questions (this should sound familiar). While Locke and Jefferson differ from Hobbes regarding liberty, they hold similar theological commitments. All three thinkers know you cannot serve two masters; their political theologies are designed to ensure that citizens are aware that “civil authority is supreme.”

Tocqueville (whom Owen inexplicably fails to call a conservative) presents a rival vision of religion in democracy. For Tocqueville, all polities, especially democracies, need religion because religion grounds a loyalty to transcendent ideals. Religious people serve another master; they are better able to serve their political communities. Thus, religion prevents the degradation of our values “by serving to elevate and ennoble the soul” while also resisting the soft tyranny of the “gentle central power.” For Tocqueville, a vigorous public square cannot endure if the state is the only master. We need citizens with diverse loyalties culminating in their loyalty to a transcendent authority.

Owen ultimately wants us to consider whether we can be “simultaneously democratic and religious?” For the dominant liberal tradition, the answer has basically been “no.” This “no,” grounded in Hobbes, has tended increasingly to a policy of exclusion of religion, causing a flattening of human life and a sense of spiritual emptiness. Conversely, for certain religious movements, the answer has been that we can only be religious. For Owen, we must be both. Figures like Dorothy Day and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are paradigmatic of ‘unsafe’ religious figures because their loyalty to the transcendent undergirded their work for the nation. For Owen, a liberal democracy needs such figures to avoid the soft tyranny of a consumerist and bureaucratic state inured to higher justice. Meanwhile, religion itself needs democracy to avoid its own pathologies. Democracy and religion are unsafe without each other. Can our increasingly closed political discourse hear his message? I certainly hope so.


Terence Sweeney is a Ph. D. student in the Villanova Philosophy Department. He lives in Philadelphia and is a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales.

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