Essay on Religion’s Role in Preservation of Freedom in a Democratic Society

He observed: “despotism may govern without religion liberty cannot”. Democracy, because of equality of conditions needed moral lies and hence needed religion. He pointed to the utility of religion rather than the truth of any one religion. This extraordinary emphasis on religion was because he regarded it to be crucial to establishing democracy in France and other Christian states of Europe.

He concluded that due to the variance between “the spirit of religion” and “the spirit of freedom” democracy failed in Europe. The alliance between the Catholic Church and the French monarchy, although injurious to religion in itself, was characteristic of a more calamitous alliance between Christianity and the moribund aristocracy.

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The Church considered democracy to be antithetical to religion and consequently an enemy. In America the two were closely linked which explained the success of democracy there.

America, the nascent Puritan commonwealth rejected Europe’s aristocratic heritage and accepted the principles of democracy. The Puritans brought to the New World a Christianity that was democratic, constitutional and republican. Tlzey introduced such principles as the participation by the people to rule, the free voting in matters of taxation, fixing the responsibility of political representatives, guarding personal liberty and trial by jury.

They instilled a love of freedom anchored in religious conviction by teaching Americans that their freedom is a gift from God and therefore had to be taken seriously and used wisely. Christianity associated itself with the principles of liberal democracy that it initiated to create, and hence could hope for an autonomous space that was both enduring and timeless.

Historically, for Tocqueville, democracy began when Jesus unequivocally proclaimed universal human equality thereby making the realisation of democracy possible. Furthermore, the Christian teaching that was important for a democratic society was the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Religion taught human beings to strive for eternal happiness by resisting “the selfish passions of the hour” and thus democratic individuals would learn that only through persistence and hard work something permanent could be attained in both private and public spheres.

They acquired the art of managing their life. By believing in “super sensual and immortal principles” they learnt to focus on the spiritual rather than the base and thus develop an instinctive love for liberty. At a first glance it appeared that religion was divorced from American politics.

The clergy restricted their sovereignty to religious matters and did not criticise the fundamental principles of the republic. However, in reality they actively promoted them. Tocqueville felt that if Christianity did not exercise such self-restraint then it ran the risk of not getting marginalised. American clergy not only accepted the supreme authority of self-interest but also enlisted the selfish passion for the service of religion.

They showed in their congregations that Christian virtues were compatible with freedom and prosperity as well as salvation thus bringing both the head and heart to the altar. Furthermore, the dictum “the things that are Caesar’s” and “the things that are not Caesar’s” made it mandatory that no political or military authority could enjoy complete authority over human beings. This was the primary reason for the end of European feudalism.

Tocqueville, though himself a practicing Catholic, acknowledged, like Max Weber (1864-1920) later, that the Protestant Ethic encouraged individualism and freedom but with proper respect for political authority. With greater social equality and the support of the middle class, this spirit extended to democracy.

The combination of all these factors led to the American success with a harmonious evolution of both Christianity and democracy in America. Interestingly, this unique achievement of America has been made possible by realising the principle of separation of the Church and the state.

This has prevented the consolidation of vested religious interests’ in particular political parties and groups as has happened in Europe. In America there was a harmonious coexistence of religion and democracy. In fact, democracy facilitates the spread of religion by guaranteeing the right of religious beliefs. All religious faiths gained by political liberty and consequently religion also support the separation of state and Church.

Besides religion, the second important factor conducive for democracy in America was equality of conditions. Interestingly, this attribute by itself did not lead to freedom and was compatible with a new kind of despotism made possible by the forces of individualism and materialism that democracy unleashed.

While old aristocracies with its hierarchical class structures allowed people to forge firm and lasting political ties, democracies with its doctrine of equality loosened those bonds. Large number of human beings became economically independent and as a result wrongly assumed that they had complete control of their destinies. This false sense of independence changed the sentiments of obligation that aristocracy fostered into radical self-interest.

Religion emerged as the savior of democracy by checking this degeneration. Tocqueville conceded that religion might not be able to contain the entire urge of individualism and the pursuit of well being, but was the only mechanism of moderation and education.

He saw religion sustaining moderate individualism with drive for material prosperity, both of which were essential for the success of democracy. Instead of seeing religion as an antithesis of human liberation as Karl Heinrich Mars did, Tocqueville felt a happy blending of democracy and religion was possible and desirable.

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