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Re: Religion in America


Jim, you and James Poulos are on to a quite wonderful bit of Tocqueville, though I think also a bit that highlights some of what the great observer missed about American life. His chapter on why democracies will tend toward pantheism is part of the extraordinary first part of the second volume of Democracy in America, on the intellectual consequences of democratic life.

Tocqueville argues that in democratic societies, intellectually-inclined people will tend to be drawn to very general ideas, because democracy accustoms us to see similarities rather than differences, and so to think in general terms. (He adds, in classic Tocquevillian style, that another reason is that in democratic societies people have more curiosity but less time, so they tend to reach for big overarching concepts that let them feel like they know a lot without having to spend much time learning it). Applied to religion, he argues, this taste for general unifying ideas leads people toward a kind of modern pantheism, which as he describes it sounds a lot like certain kinds of new age pseudo-Buddhism we would all recognize from People magazine profiles. He thinks American religious life would come to consist of only pantheists and Catholics, and for similar reasons.

But his discussion of religion in that section also points to an important gap in Tocqueville’s masterful description of America. He takes the Americans to be democrats and basically nothing else, and so dismisses the social and political consequences of genuine religious enthusiasm in American public life, and he ignores evidence to the contrary. So, for instance, for all his perceptive insights about New England political life in the third decade of the nineteenth century, he somehow manages to say essentially nothing at all about abolitionism. That’s got to be a function of the very problem Tocqueville diagnoses: the effort to fit everything into one large unifying concept, which in his case was the equalizing power of democracy. He vastly undersells the actual intellectual force of particular religious beliefs, and so seriously underestimates the staying power and the political influence of American religion. (A subject taken up by several contributors in this forthcoming book, by the way, if you’ll forgive the plug).

It is hard to imagine, for instance, how an Abraham Lincoln could emerge from the America Tocqueville describes — which of course tells us something about Tocqueville and something about Lincoln.


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