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Posted March 1, 2005

The Place of Religion in America

A Reflection on Religion on the Eve of the Supreme Court Undertaking the “Ten Commandments in Public Places.”
Taken from The Habits of the Heart
This book is cited in the resources on our website.

If [George] Washington’s analysis of religion was nostalgic for the old hierarchical society, Tocqueville’s analysis recognized its value in the new individualistic one. Alexis de Tocqueville [a French philosopher who studied American democracy] saw religion primarily as a powerful influence on individual character and action. He suggested that the economic and political flux and volatility of American society was counterbalanced by the fact that “everything in the moral field is certain and fixed” because Christianity reigns without obstacles, by universal consent.”

Tocqueville was fully aware of and applauded the separation of church and state, and yet, while recognizing that religion “never intervenes directly in the government of American society,” he nevertheless considered it “the first of their political institutions.” Its political function was not direct intervention but support of the mores that make democracy possible. In particular, it had the role of placing limits on utilitarian individualism, hedging in self-interest with a proper concern for others. The “main business” of religion, Tocqueville said, “is to purify, control, and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being” so common among Americans.

Tocqueville saw religion as reinforcing self-control and maintaining moral standards but also as an expression of the benevolence and self-sacrifice that are antithetical to competitive individualism. He said that Christianity teaches “that we must do good to our fellows for love of God. That is a sublime utterance: man’s mind filled with understanding of God’s thought; he sees that order is God’s plan, in freedom labors for this great design, even sacrificing his private interests for this wondrous ordering of all that is, and expecting no other reward than the joy of contemplating it.”