Tocqueville on Religion and Liberty

"Tocqueville on Religion and Liberty," American Political Thought, Spring: 2016.


Tocqueville declares himself to be a “new kind” of liberal, and the most striking feature of his reform is to propose, and to find in America, an alliance, rather than hostility, between religion and liberty. As opposed to an overt foundation in the state of nature, he sets the actual practice of religion in America, which brings moderation and limitation to liberty. Religion also supplies the notion of soul, which validates the prideful free agency of humans as against the determinism and materialism of the state of nature. It helps to secure modern democracy against the evils Tocqueville discerned and so notably described of individualism and mild despotism. And it provides the basis for the art of the legislator, a classical function revived by Tocqueville to use both nature and convention in cooperation, instead of distinct and at odds.


I stop the first American I meet … and I ask him if he believes religion to be useful to the stability of laws and to the good order of society; without hesitation he answers that a civilized society, but above all a free society, cannot subsist without religion. … Even those least versed in the science of government know that much.

(Tocqueville 2011, 3.2, 140)

Alexis de Tocqueville was a liberal, but, as he once said, a “new kind of liberal.”1 “One of the noblest enterprises of our time,” he added, would be to show that “morality, religion and order” do not need to be opposed to “liberty and the equality of men before the law.” For us today, no feature of his new liberalism is more remarkable than the alliance between religion and liberty that he sees in America and proposes to be imitated, wherever it can, in every free society. That alliance is part of his attempt to make liberalism political. For in his view the early, original theory of liberalism, by beginning from outside politics through a concept of the state of nature, rather than from the practice of politics, was never able to find politics, or return to it, once its practice was left behind.

The reason for abstracting from politics was its potentiality for religious conflict, as revealed in the actual wars of the seventeenth century that convulsed Europe but not America. Tocqueville goes on to say that even though there is no country where the boldest political doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophes were applied more than in America, the antireligious doctrines for which they were best known never appeared there. We learn from his writings that the wisdom of ordinary Americans, in this regard and in general, not only illustrates the science of government but indeed, through the self-government Americans practice, provides the source of that science. “That great science of government,” apparently the same as the “new political science” said to be needed in the introduction to Democracy in America, is never elaborated by Tocqueville but rather left to be discerned by his readers. They will find it “only in the play (jeu) of free institutions,” that is, in America, not in theories or in the Old Regime of France (Tocqueville 2000, introduction, 7; Tocqueville 2011, 3.1, 132).

In liberalism today, there is a debate over the question whether liberal theory needs or should avoid a “foundation.”2 Tocqueville is not surely on either side of this debate. He may seem to take the foundational side, as he uses the words “first foundation” (premier fondement) to say what an individual needs to “build the edifice” of his own thoughts. This foundation is not chosen by his will; rather, the “inflexible law of his condition” constrains him to it. This law for “man separately” is not explained. A society, any society, needs “dogmatic” beliefs, for without common ideas there could be no common action. Neither of these is an intelligible “foundation” in reason of the kind foundational liberals desire and supply. Neither mentions “nature.”

Tocqueville never mentions the “state of nature,” the standard foundation of seventeenth-century liberalism, and in Democracy in America he omits any reference to the Declaration of Independence with its ringing foundational assertion that “all men are created equal” (Winthrop 1991, 415–16). Yet, if he avoids laying a foundation in reason, he also thinks that religion is essential to political liberty because of certain “very fixed ideas” or “ready-made beliefs” that it offers to ground the practice of self-government (Tocqueville 2000, 2.1.5, 417; 2.1.2, 408; Tocqueville 2011, 3.2, 132). These are doctrines of faith, since for Tocqueville “religion” means revealed religion, not a rational or natural religion, such as “deism,” which other liberals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had proposed to replace revealed religion.3

If these doctrines of faith are not natural religion, they yet rest on “an immovable foundation in [human] nature,” for the human soul has needs—a “taste of the infinite” and “a love of what is immortal”—that must be satisfied (Tocqueville 2000, 2.2.12, 510–11).4 This foundation in nature leads directly away from the liberal state of nature that reveals the need to satisfy man’s bodily self-preservation. It reveals the need for the supernatural—an “edifice” of faith that eclipses even while it satisfies man’s natural desire for the spiritual as opposed to the material. Faith is in accord with human nature yet not rationally constructed upon it, as is liberal society according to the early liberals. There are, to be sure, articles of reason encompassed in religious faith. Tocqueville was a strong opponent of divine right and a strong proponent of the separation of church and state. Although he praised the Puritans highly as being the “point of departure” for democracy in America, he criticized its theocratic character (Tocqueville 2000, 1.1.2, 32–35; 1.2.9, 266–67; 2.1.19, 468; n. V, 680–83; n. VI, 688–89). Personally, he seems to have suffered a crisis early in life when, as he recounts it, he came upon the books of eighteenth-century materialists in his father’s library and promptly lost his faith, as far as we know never recaptured. The loss was not confined to religion but extended to “all the truths” that supported his beliefs and his actions.5

Questions arise that are still with us: What does Tocqueville hold against the introduction of foundational philosophical principles in democratic politics, and how can they be kept out? What is the relationship between philosophy and religion, given the hostility of modern philosophers (particularly the French philosophes) to religion and his desire to make an alliance between the two? Just what essential support does religion supply to political liberty—the essential liberty according to Tocqueville—so that, despite the separation of church and state necessary to political liberty, he can say that religion “should be considered the first of [the Americans’] political institutions” (Tocqueville 2000, 1.2.9, 280)?

University of Chicago Press