Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
POLITICAL SCIENCE, DEMOCRACY, AND RELIGION

ALAN WOLFE


POLITICAL SCIENCE CATCHES UP

“Scarcely any political question,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in one of the most widely cited sentences in Democracy in America, “arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.”1 If he were writing today, Tocqueville might be tempted to say that however any political question ends up, it originates as a religious one. Scarcely an election takes place or a policy is proposed before someone brings religion into the conversation. Some celebrate its presence, while others condemn it, but both agree that to understand what is happening in American politics, religion has to be accounted for.

Since at least the writings of Seymour Martin Lipset, Tocqueville’s analyses of democracy have been elevated to the status of social science classics, joining the ranks of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.2 Every time we talk about voluntary associations, public opinion, self-interest rightly understood, or the tyranny of the majority, we echo themes first touched on by our French visitor. Tocqueville’s reputation as a social theorist can be exaggerated because he was not a systematic thinker and never really compared the United States to other countries. But his recognition of the power of the democratic forces being unleashed in the first decades of the nineteenth century lives on.

Much the same could be said for Tocqueville’s writings on religion. Just as he was a Frenchman writing about America, Tocqueville was a Catholic discussing the pervasive influence of Protestantism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” he proclaimed, a statement that not only reflects the Second Great Awakening that immediately preceded his visit but extends to the many religious revivals that have taken place since.3 Every time we talk about the importance of the local congregation, the voluntaristic impulses of America’s faith traditions, or the tendency of American religions to grow by recruiting new members, we are indebted to Tocqueville’s analysis.

Tocqueville may have been the most insightful visitor to explore the relationship between democracy and religion in the United States, but he

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