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Of the Principal Causes That Make Religion Powerful in America p - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2.
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Of the Principal Causes That Make Religion Powerful in Americap
Care that the Americans have taken to separate Church and State.—Laws, public opinion, the efforts of priests themselves, work toward this result.—To this cause must be attributed the power that religion exercises on souls in the United States.—Why.—What is today the natural state of man in the matter of religion.—What particular and accidental cause, in certain countries, works against men conforming to this state.
The philosophers of the XVIIIth century explained the gradual weakening of beliefs in a very simple way. Religious zeal, they said, must fade as liberty and enlightenment increase. It is unfortunate that facts do not agree with this theory.q
There is such a European population whose disbelief is equaled only by its brutishness and ignorance, while in America you see one of the most free and most enlightenedr peoples in the world fulfill with ardor all the external duties of religion.
When I arrived in the United States, it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eyes.s As I prolonged my journey, I noticed the great political consequences that flowed from these new facts.
I had seen among us the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty march almost always in opposite directions. Here, I found them intimately joined the one to the other: they reigned together over the same soil.
Each day I felt my desire to know the cause of this phenomenon increase.
To find it out, I asked the faithful of all communions; I sought, above all, the company of priests who are the keepers of the different faiths and who have a personal interest in their continued existence. The religion I profess brought me particularly close to the Catholic clergy, and I did not delay in striking up a sort of intimacy with several of its members.t To each of them I expressed my astonishment and revealed my doubts. I found that all of these men differed among themselves only on the details; but all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of Church and State. I am not afraid to assert that, during my visit in America, I did not meet a single man, priest or laymen, who did not agree on this point.
This led me to examine more attentively than I had done until then the position that American priests occupy in political society. I realized with surprise that they fill no public position.4 I did not see a single one of them in the administration, and I discovered that they were not even represented within the assemblies.
The law, in several states, had closed a political career to them;5 opinion, in all the others.
When finally I found out what the mind of the clergy itself was, I noticed that most of its members seemed to remove themselves voluntarily from power, and to take a kind of professional pride in remaining apart from it.
I heard them anathematize ambition and bad faith, whatever the political opinions that ambition and bad faith carefully used to cover themselves. But I learned, by listening to them, that men cannot be blameworthy in the eyes of God because of these very opinions, when the opinions are sincere, and that there is no more sin in being wrong in matters of government than in being mistaken about the way in which your dwelling must be built or your furrow must be plowed.
I saw them separate themselves with care from all parties, and flee contact with all the ardor of personal interest.
These facts succeeded in proving to me that I had been told the truth. Then I wanted to go back from facts to causes. I asked myself how it could happen that by diminishing the apparent strength of a religion, you came to increase its true power, and I believed that it was not impossible to find out.
Never will the short space of sixty years enclose all of the imagination of man; the incomplete joys of this world will never be enough for his heart. Among all beings, man alone shows a natural distaste for existence and an immense desire to exist: he scorns life and fears nothingness. These different instincts constantly push his soul toward the contemplation of another world, and it is religion that leads him there. So religion is only a particular form of hope, and it is as natural to the human heart as hope itself.u It is by a type of mental aberration and with the help of a kind of moral violence exercised over their own nature, that men remove themselves from religious beliefs; an irresistible inclination brings them back to beliefs. Unbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.
So by considering religion only from a human viewpoint, you can say that all religions draw from man himself an element of strength that they can never lack, because it is due to one of the constituent principles of human nature.
I know that there are times when religion can add to this influence, which is its own, the artificial power of laws and the support of the physical powers that lead society. We have seen religions, intimately united with the governments of the earth, dominate souls by terror and by faith at the same time; but when a religion contracts such an alliance, I am not afraid to say, it acts as a man could: it sacrifices the future with the present in mind, and by obtaining a power that is not its due, it puts its legitimate power at risk.
When a religion seeks to found its dominion only on the desire for immortality that equally torments the hearts of all men, it can aim for universality; but when it comes to unite with a government, it must adopt maxims that are applicable only to certain peoples. Therefore, by allying itself to a political power, religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.
As long as a religion relies only on the sentiments that console all miseries, it can attract the heart of the human species. Mingled with the bitter passions of this world, religion is sometimes constrained to defend allies that have offered interest rather than love; and it must reject as adversaries men who often still love it, even as they fight those men with whom religion is united. So religion cannot share the material strength of those who govern without burdening itself with a portion of the hatreds caused by those who govern.
The political powers that appear most established have as a guarantee of their continued existence only the opinions of a generation, the interests of a century, often the life of a man. A law can modify the social state that seems most definitive and most firm, and with it everything changes.
The powers of society are all more or less fleeting, just as our years upon the earth; they rapidly follow one another, like the various cares of life; and you have never seen a government that relied on an invariable disposition of the human heart and that was able to base itself on an immortal interest.
As long as a religion finds its strength in the sentiments, the instincts, the passions that are reproduced in the same way in all periods of history, it defies the effort of time, or at least it can be destroyed only by another religion. [Political powers can do nothing against it.] But when religion wants to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all the powers of the earth. Alone, religion can hope for immortality; tied to ephemeral powers, it follows their fortune, and often falls with the passions of the day that sustain those powers.
So by uniting with different political powers, religion can only contract an onerous alliance. It does not need their help to live, and by serving them it can die.
The danger that I have just pointed out exists at all times, but it is not always as visible.
There are centuries when governments appear immortal, and others when you would say that the existence of society is more fragile than that of a man.
Certain constitutions keep citizens in a sort of lethargic sleep, and others deliver them to a feverish agitation.
When governments seem so strong and laws so stable, men do not notice the danger that religion can run by uniting with power.
When governments prove to be so weak and laws so changeable, the peril strikes all eyes, but then there is often no more time to escape. So you must learn to see it from afar.
To the extent that a nation assumes a democratic social state and you see societies lean toward the republic,v it becomes more and more dangerous to unite religion with authority; for the time is coming when power will pass from hand to hand, when political theories will succeed one another, when men, laws, constitutions themselves will disappear or change each day, and not for a time, but constantly. Agitation and instability stem from the nature of democratic republics, as immobility and sleep form the law of absolute monarchies.
If the Americans, who change the head of State every four years, who every two years choose new legislators, and replace provincial administrators every year; if the Americans, who have delivered the political world to the experiments of innovators, had not placed their religion somewhere outside of the political world, to what could they cling in the ebb and flow of human opinions? Amid the struggle of parties, where would the respect be that religion is due? What would become of its immortality when everything perishes around it?
American priests have seen this truth before anyone else, and they model their conduct on it. They have seen that religious influence had to be renounced, if they wanted to acquire a political power, and they preferred to lose the support of power than to share its vicissitudes.
In America, religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been in certain times and among certain peoples, but its influence is more durable. It has reduced itself to its own forces that no one can take away from it; it acts only within a single circle, but it covers it entirely and predominates within it without effort.
In Europe I hear voices that are raised on all sides; people deplore the absence of beliefs and ask how to give religion something of its former power.
It seems to me that we must first try attentively to find out what should be, today, the natural state of men in matters of religion. Then, knowing what we are able to hope and what we have to fear, we will see clearly the goal toward which our efforts must tend.
Two great dangers menace the existence of religions: schisms and indifference.
During centuries of fervor, men sometimes happen to abandon their religion, but they escape its yoke only to submit to the yoke of another religion. Faith changes objects; it does not die. The old religion then excites fervent love or implacable hatred in all hearts; some leave it with anger, others follow it with a new ardor: beliefs differ, irreligion is unknown.
But it is not the same when a religious belief is silently undermined by doctrines that I will call negative, because while asserting the falsity of one religion they establish the truth of no other.
Then prodigious revolutions take place in the human spirit, without man seeming to aid the revolutions with his passions and without suspecting them, so to speak. You see men who allow, as if by forgetfulness, the object of their most cherished hopes to escape. Carried along by an imperceptible current against which they do not have the courage to struggle, but to which they yield with regret, they abandon the faith that they love to follow the doubt that leads them to despair.
During the centuries that we have just described, you abandon your beliefs by coldness rather than by hatred; you do not reject them, they leave you. While ceasing to believe religion true, the unbeliever continues to judge it useful. Considering religious beliefs from a human aspect, he recognizes their dominion over mores, their influence over laws. He understands how they can make men live in peace and gently prepare men for death. So he regrets faith after losing it, and deprived of a good of which he knows the whole value, he is afraid to take it away from those who still possess it.
From his side, the one who continues to believe is not afraid to reveal his faith to all eyes. In those who do not share his hopes, he sees unfortunate men rather than adversaries; he knows that he can gain their esteem without following their example; so he is at war with no one; and not considering the society in which he lives as an arena in which religion must struggle constantly against a thousand fierce enemies, he loves his contemporaries at the same time that he condemns their weaknesses and is distressed by their errors.
Those who do not believe, hiding their unbelief, and those who do believe, showing their faith, create a public opinion in favor of religion; it is loved, it is upheld, it is honored, and you must penetrate to the recesses of souls to discover the wounds that it has received.
The mass of men, whom religious sentiment never abandons, then see nothing that separates them from established beliefs. The instinct of another life leads them without difficulty to the foot of altars and delivers their hearts to the precepts and consolations of faith.
Why does this picture not apply to us?
I notice among us men who have ceased to believe in Christianity without adhering to any religion.
I see others who have halted at doubt, and already pretend to believe no more.
Further along, I meet Christians who still believe and dare not say so.
Amid these lukewarm friends and fiery adversaries, I finally discover a small number of the faithful ready to defy all obstacles and to scorn all dangers for their beliefs. The latter have acted contrary to human weakness in order to rise above common opinion. Carried away by this very effort, they no longer know precisely where they should stop. Since they have seen that, in their country, the first use that man made of independence has been to attack religion, they fear their contemporaries and withdraw with terror from the liberty that the former pursue. Since unbelief appears to them as something new, they include in the same hatred everything that is new.w So they are at war with their century and their country, and in each of the opinions that are professed there they see a necessary enemy of faith.
Such should not be today the natural state of man in matters of religion.
An accidental and particular cause is found among us that prevents the human spirit from following its inclination and pushes it beyond the limits at which it should naturally stop.
I am profoundly persuaded that this particular and accidental cause is the intimate union of politics and religion.x
Unbelievers in Europe pursue Christians as political enemies, rather than as religious adversaries; they hate faith as the opinion of a party much more than as a mistaken belief; and in the priest they reject the representative of God less than the friend of power.
In Europe, Christianity allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth. Today these powers are falling and Christianity is as though buried beneath their debris. It is a living thing that someone wanted to bind to the dead: cut the ties that hold it and it will rise again.
I do not know what must be done to give Christianity in Europe the energy of youth. God alone would be able to do so; but at least it depends on men to leave to faith the use of all of the forces that it still retains.
[p. ] In an initial plan of the work:
Nomenclature of the various sects.—From Catholicism to the sect that is furthest from it.
Quakers, Methodists.—Point out what is antisocial in the doctrine of Quakers, Unitarians.
Relations among the sects.
Freedom of worship.—Toleration: in the legal respect; with respect to mores.
Place of religion in the political order and its degree of influence on American society (YTC, CVh, 1, pp. 26-27).
Several ideas of this part are roughed out in a letter from Tocqueville to Chabrol dated 26 October 1831. Tocqueville answers certain questions that Louis Bouchitté had asked him concerning religion in the United States (YTC, BIa2).
This passage is not without many similarities to “Note on the religious movement in the United States” by Gustave de Beaumont, very particularly to part III, “Relations of religions with the State” (Marie, II, pp. 213-25).
[q. ] I have heard it said in Europe that it was very unfortunate that these poor Americans had religion. When you have been in the United States, conviction that religion is more useful in republics than in monarchies, and in democratic republics more than anywhere else. Disastrous misunderstanding in France. Despotic powers of Europe favor religion./
As for these cut-throats, liberty is the greatest gift of God, it is the republicans, I have nothing to say to them . . . but the others . . . may they know that liberty is an almost holy thing [v: what distinguishes us from beasts] (YTC, CVh, 3, p. 57).
[r. ] The manuscript says: “. . . you see the most free and most enlightened . . .”
Hervé de Tocqueville: “Isn’t the expression a bit exaggerated?” (YTC, CIIIb, 1 p. 44).
[s. ] Several times Tocqueville uses the same expression in the book while referring to other aspects that attracted his attention, for example, the activity that reigns in the United States.
[t. ] Few questions have provoked more commentary than the religious beliefs of Tocqueville. All commentators nonetheless take as true the confession of faith made to Madame Swetchine in the famous letter of 26 February 1857 (Correspondance avec Madame Swetchine, OC, XV, 2, p. 315). There Tocqueville says that he lost his faith when he was sixteen years old, after reading several passages chosen haphazardly from his father’s library. His works and his correspondence allow us, however, to guess his assent to several great dogmas of Catholicism. As Luis Díez de Corral (La mentalidad política de Tocqueville con especial referencia a Pascal, Madrid: Real Academia de Ciencias Morales y Políticas, 1965, p. 118) notes, Tocqueville is closer to those who, in the words of Pascal, “seek while groaning,” eternally plagued by doubt and uncertainty, captives to the “wager.” In this regard, the author writes to Francisque de Corcelle:
If you know a recipe for belief, for God ! give it to me. But what power does the will have over the free processes of the mind? If will alone were sufficient for belief, I would have been devout a long time ago; or rather I would always have been devout, for doubt has always seemed to me the most unbearable of the ills of the world; I have constantly judged it to be worse than death and inferior only to illnesses (Correspondance avec Corcelle, OC, XV, 2, p. 29).
A little further in this chapter, Tocqueville explains what perhaps best corresponds to his own sentiment in the matter of religious beliefs. The latter, he says, are abandoned
by coldness rather than by hatred; you do not reject them, they leave you. While ceasing to believe religion true, the unbeliever continues to judge it useful. Considering religious beliefs from a human aspect, he recognizes their dominion over mores, their influence over laws. He understands how they can make men live in peace and gently prepare men for death. So he regrets faith after losing it, and deprived of a good of which he knows the whole value, he is afraid to take it away from those who still possess it (p. 486).
Also see Luis Díez del Corral, El pensamiento político de Tocqueville, Madrid: Alianza Universidad, 1989, pp. 227-71.
[4. ] Unless you give this name to the functions that many among them occupy in schools. Most education is confided to the clergy.
[5. ] See the Constitution of New York, art. 7 #4.
The article of the Constitution of New York is formulated as follows:
And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.
[u. ] What touches me more than the miracles and the prophecies is the very character of Christianity. There is the greatest sign of its divine origin. Give honor to all the religious codes of the world, you will see that they necessarily apply to a certain country, to certain mores, to a particular social state or people. I do not examine the proofs of these religions, and I say that they are false, because they are not made for all times and for all men. But Christianity seems universal and immortal like the human species./
The influence that religion exercises over mores in the United States must not be exaggerated; it is not sufficient to make a virtuous people, but an orderly one./
Its action on the women. It is the women who make mores.
I said that democracy was the form of government in which it was most desirable that the people be happy; it is also the one in which it is most desirable that the people be moral and for the same reason.
I would not hesitate to say, because I write in an irreligious century, that in the United States religion is the first of political institutions. And I even add that I am that much less afraid to say so because of this reason (YTC, CVh, 3, p. 58).
[v. ] In the manuscript: “. . . you see governments lean and rush toward the republic.”
Hervé de Tocqueville: “The words and rush, which are meaningless, must be struck out; you could put and are carried toward” (YTC, CIIIb, 1, p. 46).
[w. ] Hervé de Tocqueville:
Here are two thoughts that do not seem correct to me. Why would people be carried beyond truth because, to do good, they had the courage to defy prejudice? Then, you will never find faithful people foolish enough to believe that unbelief is something new. This paragraph is to review. The author has not arrived at the true cause of the estrangement of the clergy and of pious persons from free institutions. You must seek it in the memory of the persecutions that religion suffered as soon as the word liberty resounded in France, and in the fear that the persecutions are repeating. The impression was so strong that it is not erased and that pious persons believe that the aegis of an absolute power is necessary in order for priests to be out of danger and for religion to be able to resist philosophical intolerance. The author can link this thought well to earlier ones, for he speaks on page 15 of men without religion who persecute those who believe with all the fervor of proselytism.
Édouard de Tocqueville: “I agree with father. You must absolutely mention the memories of ’93 as a powerful cause of the antipathy of the French clergy for liberal ideas” (YTC, CIIIb, 1, pp. 46-48). The sentence “Since they have seen . . . pursue” was added following the comments of the family.
[x. ] As for me, I cannot believe that the evil is as great or as profound as is supposed. Never will the religious instinct perish in man, and what can better satisfy it than the religion of J[esus (ed.)]. C[hrist (ed.)].? Christianity is not defeated, it is only bowed down. Formerly religion [v: Christianity] allowed itself to be mingled with the powers of the earth, and today I see it as though buried very much alive under their debris. So let us try to extricate it; it still has enough strength to rise again, but not to lift the weight that overwhelms it. The Christian religion in Europe resembles an old man whose shoulders are loaded down with a heavy burden; he walks painfully across the obstacles in the road. He bends under the weight; his limbs are heavy, his breathing is labored. He walks only with difficulty and at each step you would say he was about to die (YTC, CVh, 4. p. 67; a nearly identical fragment is found in YTC, CVh, 4, pp. 31-32).