Tocqueville on Christianity and American Democracy

In his monumental study Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explained why religion, though in some ways a pre-modern and pre-democratic phenomenon, is nevertheless essential to the health of modern democracy and the preservation of freedom. For Tocqueville, political freedom requires an unshakeable moral foundation that only religion can supply. Freedom can be destroyed by democracy’s tendency to foster excessive individualism, materialism, and the tyranny of the majority. Only religion, Tocqueville contends, can successfully counter these dangerous tendencies by teaching men that they are obligated to respect themselves and to respect the rights of others. Changes in American society since Tocqueville’s time do not render his teaching about the political importance of religion irrelevant. They rather invite us to adapt his teaching to our own circumstances so as to preserve freedom in our own time.

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