Over the past year, lots of people, I suspect, have been reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/1840) as they ask themselves how the United States could have found itself having to choose in 2016 between two of the most unpopular candidates ever to face off for the office of president.
Historical factors contributed to America reaching this political point. These range from profound inner divisions characterizing American conservatism to deep frustration with the political class, as well as preexisting philosophical, cultural, and economic problems that have become more acute.
Tocqueville, however, recognized that such problems are often symptoms of subterranean currents that, once in place, are hard to reverse. A champion of liberty, Tocqueville was no determinist. He nevertheless understood that once particular habits become widespread in elite and popular culture, the consequences are difficult to avoid. In the case of democracy—perhaps especially American democracy—Tocqueville wondered whether its emphasis on equality might not eventually make the whole thing come undone.
The Passion for Equality
When Democracy in America’s second volume appeared in 1840, many reviewers noted that it was more critical of democracy than the first volume. In more recent times, Tocqueville’s warnings about democracy’s capacity to generate its own forms of despotism have been portrayed as prefiguring a political dynamic associated with the welfare state: i.e., people voting for politicians who promise to give them more things in return for which voters voluntarily surrender more and more of their freedom.
This very real problem, however, has distracted attention from Tocqueville’s interest in the deeper dynamic at work. This concerns how democracy encourages a focus on an equality of conditions. For Tocqueville, democratic societies’ dominant feature is the craving for equality—not liberty. Throughout Democracy in America, equality of conditions is described as “generative.” By this, Tocqueville meant that a concern for equalization becomes the driving force shaping everything: politics, economics, family life . . . even religion.
Democracy’s emphasis on equality helps to break down many unjust forms of discrimination and inequality. Women gradually cease, for instance, to be regarded as inherently inferior. Likewise, the fundamental injustice of slavery becomes harder and harder to rationalize.
At the same time, as Tocqueville scholar Pierre Manent has observed, democracies gravitate toward a fascination with producing total equality. Democracy requires everyone to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. We consequently start seeing and disliking any disparity contradicting this equality of conditions. Equality turns out to be very antagonistic to difference per se, even when differences are genetic (such as between men and women) or merited (some are wealthier because they freely assume more risks). But it’s also ambivalent about something that any society needs to inculcate among its members: virtue.
The idea of virtue implies that there are choices whose object is always good and others that are wrong in themselves. Courage is always better than recklessness and cowardice. But language such as “better than,” or “superior to” is intolerable to egalitarianism of the leveling kind. That’s one reason why many people in democratic societies prefer to speak of “values.” Such language implies that (1) all values are basically equal, and (2) there’s something impolite if not downright wrong with suggesting that some purportedly ethical commitments are irrational and wrong.
But in such a world, who am I to judge that some of the values espoused by, say, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, or any other political figure for that matter, might reflect seriously defective evaluations of right and wrong? All that would matter is that “they have values.” The truth, however, is that democracies don’t need “people with values.” They require virtuous people: individuals and communities whose habits of the heart shape what Tocqueville called the “whole mental and intellectual state” of a people as they associate together, pursue their economic self-interest, make laws, and vote.
The Religion of Egalitarian Sentimentalism
At the best of times, living a virtuous life is difficult. This is especially true when a fixation with equality makes many people reluctant to distinguish between baseness and honor, beauty and ugliness, rationality and feelings-talk, truth and falsehood. Much of Democracy in America consequently seeks to show how democratic societies could contain their equalizing inclinations.
Some of Tocqueville’s recommendations focus on constitutional restraints on government power. He understood that the political regime’s nature matters. But Tocqueville also believed that the main forces that promoted virtue, and that limited the leveling egalitarianism that relativizes moral choices, lay beyond politics. In America’s case, he observed, religion played an important role in moderating fixations with equality-as-sameness.
Tocqueville didn’t have just any religion in mind. He was specifically concerned with Christianity. For all the important doctrinal differences marking the Christian confessions scattered across America in Tocqueville’s time, few held to relativistic accounts of morality. Words like “virtue,” “vice,” “good,” and “evil” were used consistently and had concrete meaning.
Christianity did underscore a commitment to equality insofar as everyone was made as imago Dei and was thus owed equality before the law. This conviction helped to secure slavery’s eventual abolition. Nevertheless Christianity in America also emphasized another quintessentially Christian theme: freedom—political, economic, and religious. In the United States, the word “liberty” wasn’t associated with the anti-Christian violence instinctively linked by European Christians with the French Revolution.
Religions, however, aren’t immune to the cultures in which they exist. So what happens if a religion starts succumbing to the hunger for equalization that Tocqueville associated with democratic ways? Most often, such religions begin abandoning their distinctiveness, as self-evidently false propositions such as “all religions are the same” take hold. Truth claims and reasoned debate about religious and moral truth are relegated to the periphery. Why? Because trying to resolve them would mean affirming that certain religious and moral claims are false and thus unequal to those that are true.
When Christians go down this path, the inevitable theological void is filled by a sentimentalism that arises naturally from egalitarianism. God is condensed to the Great Non-Judge in the Sky: a nice, harmless deity who’s just like us. Likewise, such Christians increasingly take their moral cues from democratic culture. The consequent emphasis on equality-as-sameness doesn’t just mean that liturgy and doctrine are reduced to inoffensive banalities. The horizons of Christian conceptions of justice also shrink to the abolition of difference. The truth that many forms of inequality are just, including in the economic realm, is thus rendered incomprehensible. In the end, Christian confessions that embrace such positions collapse into pale facsimiles of secular egalitarianism and social justice activism.
A Fatal Combination?
These religions are incapable of performing the role that Tocqueville thought was played by many religious communities in the America he surveyed in the early 1830s. Of course, the object of religion isn’t to provide social lubrication. Religion is concerned with the truth about the divine, and living our lives in accordance with the truth about such matters. However, if religion ceases to be about truth, its capacity to resist (let alone correct) errors and half-truths such as “values-talk,” or justice’s reduction to equality-as-sameness, is diminished.
There’s no shortage of evidence of just how far large segments of American religious opinion have drifted in this direction. We have political operatives demanding, for example, “a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church”—as if the dogmatic and doctrinal truths proclaimed by a 2000-year-old universal church should be subordinated to a twentieth-first-century progressive American conception of equality. Plenty of older Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox clergy offer political commentaries that owe more to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice than to C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, the Church Fathers, or Christ. For many American Jews, Jewish faith and identity is the pursuit of progressive politics. Such religions cannot speak seriously about virtue (or much else) in the face of the relentless drive for equalization in democracy that so worried Tocqueville.
Politics is clearly shaped by culture. Yet at any culture’s heart is the dominant cultus. America’s ability to resist democratic equalization’s deadening effects on freedom requires religions that are not consumed by the obsession with equality that Tocqueville thought might be democracy’s fatal flaw. For Tocqueville, part of America’s genius was that religion and liberty went hand in hand. In the next few years, America is going to discover whether that’s still true.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. His most recent book is For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance can serve the Common Good (Crossroad, 2016).