What Tocqueville Knew about Religion

Monday, July 30, 2001

Take a drive around our nation’s capital, the New York Times noted recently, "and you will see evidence of the religious diversity that has struck visitors to America since Tocqueville" as church after church, synagogue, and mosque flash by, no two alike. The point of the Times article was that competition produces churchgoers by making members of the clergy work harder, that society is better served by many different religions, each focusing on a different market segment.

But this is not the reason America is open to the widest variety of religious practice. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson recognized that attempts to establish one religion or spiritual issue to the exclusion of others had spawned innumerable religious wars and bloody persecutions in the Old World and driven one congregation after another to seek freedom of worship in the New World. Separation of church and state plus freedom of religion from political controls would equal civil peace, they believed.

Tocqueville, a visitor, saw even more deeply into the importance of religion in America. Only American civilization, he wrote, is the product of what elsewhere are "two perfectly distinct elements": the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. For the United States, "Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men’s faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence;" at the same time, "Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights." Tocqueville follows the logic chain that leads to American liberty. Religion instructs behavior, behavior guarantees laws, and laws maintain freedom. If our freedom, laws, and conduct are not what we would wish, it may be because we are failing to recognize that their sources lie in religion.

The United States should be more vocal, consistent, and resolute in its support for freedom of religion as a fundamental human right for all.

Take a look around the world and you see a very different picture. Religion is a powerful and nonbeneficial factor in country after country. Any list of the bitterest and most intractable wars and confrontations of our time would reveal the ubiquitous importance of religion: Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Indonesia, China, India and Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinians. Contrary to once accepted political and sociological theory, "modernization" has not led people to put aside religion as unnecessary; it has driven them ever more deeply into the arms of religious bodies.

A closer look suggests that it is not religion itself that generates the violence but political systems that suppress, distort, or impose religion in ways that generate conflict. Some countries suppress religion, as China seeks to crush the Fa Lun Gong and Vietnam counters the stirrings of Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists. Countries where one religion has a state-backed near monopoly, like Britain, Russia, and Israel, are marked by their own special forms of pathology: apathy, xenophobia, orthodox-secular tension. And in countries with no constitutional guarantees of religious tolerance, a variety of spiritual causes can become the vehicles for violent political struggles for power, as in Liberia today.

Although it appears that many of the world’s conflicts are caused by religion, a closer look suggests that it is not religion itself that generates the violence but political systems that suppress, distort, or impose religion in ways that generate conflict.

Can or should anything be done about this present disparity between the successful role of religion in America and the deleterious uses to which it is put in so many places elsewhere? Diplomatic theory has tended to consider religion as virtually impervious to the traditional methods of diplomacy, causing religion to be considered, as a recent book called it, "the missing dimension of statecraft." Three steps may be considered. First, recognize the dramatic difference between religion in the United States and in most other places. Second, regard such approaches as the Bush administration’s "faith-based initiatives" not only as inherently appropriate in the American tradition but also as a way to help others—through faith-based foreign assistance programs—acquire something of our system of tolerance. And third, to be more vocal, consistent, and resolute in our support for freedom of religion as a fundamental human right for all. As America works to promote democracy abroad as the avenue toward peace and freedom, our policymakers should recognize that, as Tocqueville perceived, the foundation of democracy, peace, and freedom ultimately lies in religion practiced under guaranteed conditions of tolerance.