Tuesday, December 10, 2013

De Tocqueville on Church and State

The merging of the missions of Church and State, and the subsequent absorption of one into the other is, not surprisingly, something that Alexis de Tocqueville identified as one of the chief dangers to democracy in America — or anywhere else, for that matter. After describing the proper function of organized religion with respect to the State, i.e., to teach moral behavior and act as a guide to the acquisition and development of virtue, de Tocqueville presciently observed in Democracy in America,

“I am aware that at certain times religion may strengthen this influence, which originates in itself, by the artificial power of the laws and by the support of those temporal institutions that direct society. Religions intimately united with the governments of the earth have been known to exercise sovereign power founded on terror and faith; but when a religion contracts an alliance of this nature, I do not hesitate to affirm that it commits the same error as a man who should sacrifice his future to his present welfare, and in obtaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks that authority which is rightfully its own. When a religion founds its empire only upon the desire of immortality that lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself with a government, it must adopt maxims which are applicable only to certain nations. Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.

As long as a religion rests only upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affection of all mankind. But if it be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it, or to repel as antagonists men who are still attached to it, however opposed they may be to the powers with which it is allied. The Church cannot share the temporal power of the State without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites. (Alexis de Tocqueville, “Principal Causes Which Render Religion Powerful in America,” Democracy in America (1835, 1840), I.xvii. Cf. Centesimus Annus, § 43.)

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