The Spirit of Religion and the Spirit of Liberty

In his enduring classic, “Democracy in America (1835-1840),” Alexis de Tocqueville located the distinctive character of American civilization in the unforced blending of “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” In America, unlike revolutionary France, liberty did not assert itself against religion but rather saw in it “the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its rights.” Religion reminded a commercially minded people about the things of the spirit and prevented them from succumbing to an excessive engrossment in material things.

If the political realm remained “agitated, contested, and uncertain”—as it always will— the moral world, informed by religion, resisted the pull of lawlessness and limitless self-assertion. It gave human beings a sense of limits and an understanding of the ends and purposes that ought to inform the exercise of human freedom. Despots, who necessarily have contempt for all restraints, could do without religion, Tocqueville argued, but a free people could not.

For a century and a half, this understanding of the connection between religion and democratic liberty remained the American consensus. Americans didn’t confuse liberty with moral relativism or indifference to truth. While the consent of the governed was our sacred political principle, our political heritage always discreetly bowed before the sovereignty of God. Unlike totalitarian revolutionaries who wished to deify man, the American revolutionaries wisely affirmed what Tocqueville called “liberty under God and the laws.” Such was the path of a decent, ordered liberty that resisted fashionable efforts to separate freedom from a humble deference to truth and moral conscience.

Liberals once applauded religion, at least as an instrument for justice and as a reminder that everyone, including the highly placed and powerful, remained subject to the judgment of God. Abolitionism, the Social Gospel, and the civil rights movement were peopled by ministers and people of faith who freely appealed to moral conscience informed by the Gospel. Today’s left, with a few notable exceptions, appeals to a highly moralistic conception of social justice and doctrinaire equality. Their conception is shorn of any real emphasis on human sinfulness as a universal attribute, or on humility—and with it, the concomitant need for repentance, forgiveness, and mutual accountability. Those accredited with “victimhood” are said to be without sin, thus having no need for humility and self-limitation. Victimizers, ever more arbitrarily defined, are condemned as guilty for who they are rather than what they have done.

In this worldview, aggressive secularism and moralism go hand in hand with the reckless condemnation of whole groups and peoples. “White privilege,” for example, plays the same role that “kulaks,” Jews, and class enemies played in the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. (If the practice is not yet totalitarian, the theory most certainly is.) The deification of alleged “victims” and the demonization of the police and the majority population invites ostracism and “canceling” of many imperfect but decent people. Such acts of “woke” despotism are made possible by an arbitrary repudiation of common morality, religious humility, and the awareness of shared imperfection, all of which make repentance and forgiveness possible.

It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the anarchists and proto-totalitarians among us in Antifa and Black Lives Matter (the movement, not necessarily the slogan) mock biblical religion, common morality, and the traditional family. BLM’s statement of purpose is a series of aggressive and predictable ideological clichés, rooted in a blatant repudiation of the moral and religious heritage of the West. These self-proclaimed “trained Marxists” do more than speak a wooden ideological language. Their adherents publicly assault innocents, burn Bibles, attack statues of historical figures and religious icons, and publicly display guillotines—guillotines!— while swarming the homes of prominent Americans, including liberals, whom they seek to threaten and humiliate. Politicians, corporations, and churchmen shamelessly apologize for, and even underwrite, these repulsive revolutionaries. Such self-destructive indulgence of totalitarian nihilism is evidence of just how deep our current crisis has become.

A word to the wise. A civilization that vilifies and dismisses religion and traditional morality would be a dark one—in truth, it would be no civilization at all. In “The American Commonwealth”—an 1888 book that ranks an honorable second place behind Tocqueville’s as the most thoughtful, penetrating, and morally serious guide to the considerable strengths but also the weaknesses of, and threats to, the integrity of American democracy—James Bryce imagines a democratic civilization without religion. He reminds us that religion has exerted a “stimulating presence on the thought and imagination” of even unbelievers, and he wonders if “social polity” would become unstable, and morality diffused and threatened, in a world where human beings “cease to believe that there was any power above them, any future before them, anything in heaven and earth but what their senses told them.” Bryce could not imagine civilized liberty (or human existence more broadly) without a healthy deference to religion and moral conscience informed by it.

Nothing in our recent experience suggests that he was wrong.

Daniel J. Mahoney and over 1,000 similarly concerned scholars and citizens recently made common cause in an Open Letter published on RealClearPolitics. This article is part of an ongoing “Liberty and Justice for All” series.

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About Daniel J. Mahoney

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University and is, for the 2020-2021 academic year, the Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is completing a book called The Statesman as Thinker: Ten Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, to be published by Encounter Books.

Photo: Salvator Barki/Getty Images

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