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Democracy & Christian thought

Contrary to what is usually reflected in the mass media, Christian thought has been Alexis de TocquevilleAlexis de Tocquevillehighly relevant in the evolution from absolutism to democracy and its eventual struggle against totalitarianism. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th Century and Jacques Maritain in the 20th Century, through Leo XIII from the Holy See and the resulting Church Social Doctrine are notable exponents of the relevance of Christian teachings and their influence on democratic ideas. The following article offers an excellent analysis of this topic. 

Frenchmen in America: How Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacques Maritain Discovered America

Jacques MaritainJacques Maritain(...)

At first glance, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacques Maritain would appear to have little in common. An aristocrat from one of France’s oldest families, Tocqueville had many doubts about the truth claims of Christianity, though we have good reason to believe that he returned to the Catholic faith on his deathbed. Tocqueville also wrote very much as what we would call political sociologist, even a type of political scientist. Though obviously familiar with Christian sources and thought – indeed, he never stopped attending Mass – it’s clear that he was as much influenced by reading Rousseau, Voltaire, and especially Montesquieu as he was by reading Augustine.

By contrast, our second figure, Jacques Maritain, was raised as a Protestant. For a time, he was an agnostic before converting to Catholicism in 1906. Aristotle and Aquinas were Maritain’s lodestones, and his thought forms part of that great revival of Thomas Aquinas’ thought occasioned by Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris. A fierce critic of Voltaire and even more so of Rousseau, Maritain authored over 60 books, which focused on subjects ranging from metaphysics to the nature and role of the state. Maritain was also viewed as a type of representative of 20th century Catholic intellectuals. It was not a coincidence that Pope Paul VI presented his “Message to Men of Thought and of Science” at the end of Vatican II to Maritain.

These differences in background and interests should not, however, distract us from some similarities between the two men. Apart from being scholars, Tocqueville and Maritain were very involved in public life. Tocqueville was a member of the Chamber of Deputies during the July Monarchy and a member of the Constituent Assembly of 1848 during the Second Republic. He also participated in the Constitutional Commission which wrote the new Constitution of the new short-lived republic. Tocqueville was a vocal supporter of General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac’s use of the army to suppress the workers uprising in Paris in what came to be called the “June Days.” As a member of the parti de l’Ordre, Tocqueville served as minister for foreign affairs in the government of Prime Minister Odilon Barrot under Prince-President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.

Maritain’s involvement in politics was also very public, especially for a Catholic theologian. For a while he was associated with the royalist-nationalist movement Action Française, but broke with it following Pius XI’s condemnation of Action Française in 1926 and the placing of its newspaper and several of Charles Maurras’s books on the Index. In the late 1930s, Maritain’s unwillingness to enthusiastically endorse the Spanish nationalist cause during the Spanish Civil War was noticed. In 1940, Maritain rejected the Vichy regime and endorsed Free France relatively early. After World War II, Maritain was appointed French Ambassador to the Holy See by General Charles de Gaulle, and played a role in the development and drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much of his writing inspired the growth of Christian Democratic movements throughout Western Europe as a way of uniting Catholics, Protestants, and others anxious to establish a bulwark against Communism.

[ Read the full Introduction HERE

Religion and Liberty

We see then Tocqueville and Maritain sketching out a clear link between America’s commitment to economic liberty and its character as a commercial republic with a decidedly non-materialist outlook on life. We also see them establishing a strong correlation between the American habit of free association with non-materialism and a religious culture. There is, however, a third aspect of life in America upon which both Tocqueville and Maritain focused. This concerned the ways in which the world of liberty and the world of religion in America had, for the most part, avoided the conflict between the forces of freedom and the promoters of faith, especially Catholic faith, which marked much of post-Enlightenment Europe.

Though Tocqueville struggled for most of his adult life with the claims of Catholic faith, he could not help but be fascinated by how his fellow Catholics fared in the United States. Tocqueville’s France was, after all, a society in which Catholicism had long been intimately involved in politics. While the Church in France had fought many battles with the monarchy during the age of absolutism, Catholicism in late-eighteenth century France emerged as perhaps the strongest bulwark of opposition to the French Revolution and its invocation of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Tocqueville was deeply conscious that the Catholic Church in France and other countries had endured savage persecution at the hands of France’s Revolutionaries. The Constitution civile du clergé passed by France’s National Assembly on 12 July 1790 represented an attempt to control the Church’s inner life that went far beyond anything attempted by the Bourbons. As if overnight, the Civil Constitution created a basis for mass resistance to the Revolution on the part of devout French Catholics. Catholics in France also found it hard to forgive, let alone forget, the mass killing of bishops, priests and religious by revolutionaries who professed to be promoting liberty, not to mention the thousands of Catholics slaughtered in the Vendée in what some have described as a genocidal effort in exterminate opposition to the Revolution.

Given this background, it is understandable that Tocqueville was so surprised to find that Catholic clergy and laity in America numbered among the strongest defenders of America’s commitment to religious liberty. “In France,” he wrote, “I had seen the spirits of religion and of freedom marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land.”xviii

When Tocqueville asked one American Catholic priest for his opinion on whether the civil power should lend its support to religion in the sense of European-like establishment arrangements, Tocqueville was taken aback to hear the priest say:

I am profoundly convinced it is harmful. I know that the majority of Catholic priests in Europe have a contrary belief; I understand their point of view. They distrust the spirit of liberty whose first efforts have been directed against them. Having, besides, always lived under the sway of monarchical institutions which protected them, they are naturally led to regret that protection. They are therefore victims of an inevitable error. If they could live in this country, they would not be long in changing their opinions…xix

This American Catholic commitment to non-establishment represented no concession to the idea that it was best to marginalize or exclude religion from the American public square. Catholic Americans favored the strong distinction between the temporal and spiritual realms precisely because they believed it allowed religion to exert a civilizing influence upon American society.

After hearing these views expressed by priest after priest during his time in America, Tocqueville concluded that continental Europe had something to learn from the American approach towards religious freedom. In our own time, the same claim has been made by no less than Benedict XVI.

Pope Emeritus Benedict is not uncritical of contemporary American culture.xx Nonetheless he repeated on many occasions that one reason why America has avoided many of the disputes between Christians and non-believers that have plagued continental Europe since the various Enlightenments was the American Republic’s decision to have no established church. Interestingly Benedict also specifically invoked Tocqueville’s claim that one of the reasons that “the unstable and fragmentary system of rules on which . . . this democracy is founded” somehow managed to work was the commitment to Christian religious and moral convictions that permeated American society.xxi

Part of the genius of America’s religious arrangements, Benedict argued, was the insight that “the State itself had to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely.”xxii Truth, religion and liberty were consequently reconciled in America.

When Maritain first visited the United States, he instantly noticed that Americans thought about the relationship between the state and the church in ways which were very foreign to the vast majority of European societies. Somehow America had managed to become what some have called a society in which “the voluntary establishment of religion”xxiii prevailed.

In his time, Tocqueville thought that this state of affairs owed much to the way in which the North American colonies had been settled, especially given the number of settlers who came to North America to escape religious persecution. That included Puritans, for example, but also the Catholics from England, Scotland and Ireland who established the colony of Maryland. Almost 130 years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom in 1777, the early Maryland colony established by Lord Baltimore and other English Catholics in the 1630s was specifically committed to a high degree of religious freedom by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649. This stated that “No person or persons . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his religion nor in the free exercise thereof.xxiv”

Most of the early colonies were not religiously tolerant places. Indeed less than five years after it was passed, Maryland’s Toleration Act was repealed by a combination of Anglicans and Puritans: a legislative action accompanied by provisions specifically banning Catholics from publically practicing their faith, voting, or holding public office.

Perhaps it is because Maritain was primarily interested in ideas rather than in history per se, but his explanation for the happy marriage between liberty and religion in America was to describe it as an achievement of the American Revolution and the American Founding. Though Maritain recognized that the writings of the American Founders were “tinged with the philosophy of the day”—i.e., various Enlightenment thinkers—Maritain’s surveys of those same Founders and their writings led him to the following conclusion: While, he said, “[t]he Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians . . . their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.”xxv

What Maritain was pointing to here was a two-fold phenomena. First, with some notable exceptions, Enlightenment thought in America had not taken on a specifically anti-Christian tone or emphasis. In North America, for example, prominent Catholics such as the Carroll family were both religiously-devout and well-read in Enlightenment thought. In their libraries, books such as Saint Francois de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life sat next to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.

This leads to the second point noted by Maritain: the American way of arranging the relationship between the temporal and spiritual realms was based on something that Maritain regarded as the essence of life: which is the search for truth. Religious liberty in America, as Maritain saw it, wasn’t about simply securing social peace and reducing conflict. Religious freedom in America was, according to Maritain, considered important because truth was important, and religious truth was the most important truth of all. That was why religious liberty was a right: it was the right to seek truth, to embrace truth, and live that truth, consistent with the freedom of others to do the same. Religious freedom, for the American Founders, wasn’t about a blessing of religious relativism. It was about protecting people as they pursed to know and live religious truth.

It’s not hard to see why Maritain would have been very receptive to this type of thinking and admiring of America for developing an emphasis on grounding religious freedom in our search for truth. For it amounts essentially to a natural law argument for religious freedom which, in 1958, he and other Catholics were seeking to develop as a way for the Church to engage the modern world without compromising the Church’s insistence that, as Dignitatis Humanae would state, the “one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.xxvi” Perhaps it’s for this reason that Maritain subsequently pleaded with Americans in his book Man and the State to “not let your concept of separation veer round to the European one.”xxvii

Criticisms and Conclusions

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** Dr. Samuel Gregg is a Research Director of the Acton Institute