Does Religion Kill Democracy?

Several commentators (such as the book-writing team of John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge) have documented the recent rise of religion across the globe. The resurgence of religion is a direct challenge to the “secularization thesis,” the idea that as enlightenment, scientific knowledge and technology spread, the force of religion contracts. Other writers (Larry Diamond, for example) have called attention to the decline of democracy on a global scale, and in particular the “democratic deficit” in parts of the world where religion remains a powerful force.

Is there a relationship between these two trends? Does religion undermine democracy? There may be a statistically significant, inverse relationship—as political scientists are wont to say—between the two but it is not clear if, how, or why religion and democracy are incompatible.

Of course many try to explain the democratic deficit, and the role religion plays in it, through extensive empirical study and statistical analysis. But this approach is unlikely to work for two reasons.

First, one must identify and parse the numerous plausible alternative variables to religion. For example, does the society in question have a history of authoritarianism? Does it suffer from sectarian conflicts? Does it show an overreliance on natural resources? Does it lack basic infrastructure?

Second, even if such a study were undertaken, and well carried out, it would still not answer the question of why religion may be unsafe for democracy. Couldn’t some religious doctrines and ideas—like equality or cooperation—even be helpful to a democratic society? No merely quantitative analysis will serve up answers that satisfy.

Perhaps, however, if we engage the question on the level of theory, examining the compatibility of the perennial principles of religion with those of liberal democracy, we might arrive at the explanations we were looking for. J. Judd Owen’s Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville does precisely this.

In the words of Owen, an Emory University political scientist, liberal political theory “is not well equipped to confront a world of resurgent religion, particularly religion that is uneasy with or rejects liberal democratic principles.” Contemporary liberals no longer know how to speak the language of religion. But earlier, Enlightenment liberalism grew out of conflict with religion, so Owen’s method is to take us back to this first great confrontation: the clash between Enlightenment liberalism and Christianity. He speaks to us through great Enlightenment thinkers—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville—who not only thought and wrote about this confrontation, but to a considerable degree shaped it.

The force of Christianity has waned, Owen argues, since this initial clash in significant measure because of the efforts of Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson. Yet the democratic world that Tocqueville experiences is one where religious zeal is rare, at least relative to 18th century Europe and the Founding period in America. Following this religious transformation, and the philosophical narrative that underpins it, we can see clearly what is at stake in the relationship between religion and democracy.

The book begins by presenting the principal theoretical divide on the question of religion during the period of the American Founding. Separation of church and state was the order of the day, but this separationist movement contained strange bedfellows. The “Enlightenment” separationists (represented in America by Jefferson) sought toleration and a weakening of religion in the public sphere. The Protestant evangelical separationists (represented by Calvinist-Baptist Isaac Backus) supported religious freedom in order to protect the church from the state; it would, Backus believed, “lead to revival and the spread of the true church (Calvinist-Baptist) throughout New England and the New World.”

In other words, the evangelical Protestants wanted freedom to practice religion; liberal philosophers like Jefferson—and Hobbes and Locke before him—wanted freedom from oppressive religious sects and practices, and believed that separation would tame religion over time. Owen is clear that it is the Jeffersonian notion of separation that has largely triumphed in America. But to understand this massive change one needs to go back to Hobbes.

The philosophy of Hobbes starkly advances the “secularization thesis.” Through an adept, close reading of Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), Owen uncovers the radical Enlightenment project that sought a gradual weakening and eventual abolition of religious belief. Hobbes’s philosophic materialism and authoritarian political science collaborate to extinguish the “dark,” “imaginary” superstitions of supernatural religion and “awaken human beings to the natural primacy of their worldly material concerns,” in Owens’ words.

Over time, this will lead not to unbelief, Owen shows, but to indifference to the concept of belief. The religious drive is very powerful indeed, according to Hobbes, and a greater power—the mighty Leviathan—is required to stamp this drive out. Those familiar with the basics of Hobbes’s philosophy won’t find much that is new here, but it will be helpful to the uninitiated.

While the author’s interpretation of Hobbes is both faithful and, at times original, he does fail to note the importance of historical context to Hobbes’s project of suppression. Hobbes wrote in the wake of the Thirty Years War, the deadliest religious conflict in Europe’s history, which influenced his political philosophy and political theology alike. Surely, this struggle led Hobbes to see the need for a “mortal god” (authoritarian government) to replace what had become an extremely problematic and troublesome immortal God. Still, the chapter is thorough, and Owen persuasively exposes Hobbes’s theory of a neutered Christianity, a “minimalist” theology that is later inherited by Locke and Jefferson.

I found the following chapter—on Locke and toleration—to be meticulously researched and profoundly compelling. It is twice as long as any other chapter, and in it Owen mines major portions of the Lockean corpus to unearth his teaching on religious toleration. In particular, Owen demonstrates how Locke’s ideas on epistemology, politics, and religion, which are spread across several of his works, can be made coherent. Owen further explicates how these dimensions of Locke’s philosophy culminate in a defense of toleration.

I will only make a few brief remarks about religion here, but the chapter is well worth the read for anyone who wants to know how Locke’s thought fits together as a whole. For Locke, religion will always serve a vital social function; it cannot be abolished entirely. Religion undergirds morality in society; only the few can understand morality through reason alone. For the vast majority of human beings, both religious custom and belief in a supernatural order are necessary for moral commitments. Yet religious belief will still come in the form of a minimalist theology, as we see in Hobbes. Owen further shows that, paradoxically, Locke does not believe the religious drive to be as powerful as Hobbes believes it is. Oppression breeds fanaticism, while toleration reduces it. Hence, the way to tame religion and make it safe for democracy is through toleration, not religious suppression, which view is taken up directly by Jefferson a century later.

Making Religion Safe for Democracy culminates in a chapter on Tocqueville, who discovers in the 1830s an America where the minimalist theology of the Enlightenment has taken hold.  Religious fervor is largely absent, and democratic individualists are free to pursue material well-being. But while religious practice is relegated to the sidelines (relative to the earlier enlightenment period), there is an “uncluttering that allows religion’s natural power over the human soul to be strengthened,” writes Owen. Tocqueville does not believe that religion must be snuffed out or tamed; he finds democracy and religion to be mutually supportive.

In particular, religion counterbalances some of the pernicious forces of democracy: emphasis on narrow pursuits of material gain; vulnerability to a soft tyranny due to individualism and loss of recognition of one’s place in the greater social whole; and a leveling of ambitions, tastes, and moral sensibilities. Religion can refocus the soul on more elevated or nobler goals than those which democracy sets for us. Americans, Tocqueville argues, seem to understand the need for religion on a cultural level. While separation of church and state remains the institutional form, religious associations and private beliefs provide nourishment to a culture left empty by a liberal political order.

The book’s treatment of Tocqueville is superb, and I was impressed with Owen’s grasp of the entirety of Tocqueville’s project. While the focus on religion is interesting, what is most remarkable is the introduction to Tocqueville’s thought as a whole. As someone who has published work on Tocqueville and is familiar with the literature, I cannot think of a better entry into his thoughts on American society than that provided here.

The conclusion largely restates the lessons derived from the Tocqueville chapter: namely, the insight that democracy is not only compatible with but, in fact, needs religion for cultural, moral, and spiritual health. Yet the conclusion appears shockingly short (it is a mere three pages), and upon reflection I came to view it as a missed opportunity. After deftly weaving a coherent narrative—one spanning three thinkers and as many centuries—about the dynamic tension between religion and democracy, Owen fails to draw any practical conclusions or pose any salient questions.

Given his sensible method of remaining at the level of theory, we might forgive the author for not delving too deeply into empirics. The philosophical conversation carried on throughout the book would have been unnecessarily interrupted by searching for empirical examples, of which any number could be given. But that there should be no discussion whatsoever of the practical consequences, or possible practical consequences, of this theoretical investigation—the natural place for which would be in the conclusion—is a cause for regret.

Foremost in many readers’ minds will be the role of religion in Europe versus its role in America. Europe appears to be where the “secularization thesis” is most fully entrenched. There we see not only the prominence of secular worldviews, but even open hostility towards religious belief, both in cultural practice and institutional forms (for example, the ban on religious symbols in public spaces).

To borrow from Owen, the European approach to religion appears Hobbesian.

America, on the other hand, appears Lockean, at least institutionally. Separation of church and state has not led to a similar degree of animosity or hostility in America, but rather a relatively stable, tolerant relationship between church and state. Culturally, however, America may be more Tocquevillian, with citizens who check the dangers of secularism through religious belief and engagement with religious associations.

All of which prompts certain questions: Is Europe Hobbesian, and to what extent? Would it be  accurate to call the church/state relationship in America a mixture of Lockean institutions and a Tocquevillian religious culture, and is this mixture smooth enough? When all is said and done, which continent is better off? Which, if any, could serve as a model for others?  Are the experiences of Europe and America since the Enlightenment clear enough to adjudicate the claims made by these thinkers?

Owen’s lessons could also be applied to Islam, and the movement of Muslims in the non-Muslim world. For the conscious, dedicated liberal, should the response to the presence of Islam be Lockean toleration or Hobbesian suppression? Is there, or should there be, a Tocquevillian response to the geographical spread of Islam?

These are just some of the tantalizing threads of inquiry left untouched, despite the fact that the preceding pages render Owen particularly poised to take them up.

His book does nevertheless provide us with the philosophic understanding necessary to make these inquiries ourselves. It prods us, moreover, to question the role of religion in American society today, almost two centuries after Tocqueville. Material well-being is much more widespread than it was in the 1830s (rampant allegations of inequality notwithstanding), but it does not seem as though happiness and spiritual fulfillment are equally ubiquitous. It is not clear that in America democracy has been sufficiently ennobled. The greater question, which Owen poses through Tocqueville, is whether it is just as important to make democracy safe for religion as it is to make religion safe for democracy.

Whatever one’s answer to that question, the virtues of Making Religion Safe for Democracy are many, and it should satisfy a wide range of readers. For those whose interest in religion is mild, it is an excellent entry into the political philosophies of three crucially important liberal thinkers—certainly three of the most important for understanding American liberal democracy. And for those interested precisely in the questions of religion’s role in society, and the compatibility or incompatibility of resurgent religion and spreading democracy, this volume is required reading.