Liberal theology in the age of equality : Tocqueville and the Enlightenment on faith, freedom, and the human soul
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The increasing importance of religious and moral issues in American politics makes salient once again the question of the relationship between religion and democracy. The United States is in the midst of a debate pitting secularists and those who adapt their faith to progressive outlooks against conservatives who see a need to ground liberal-democracy in something Biblical. Taking up this debate, I argue that the viewpoints of both secular progressives and religious conservatives suffer from key oversights. While the former fail to notice that their commitment to toleration rests on certain absolute claims, the latter overlook the extent to which religion has been transformed and liberalized. Seeking a more nuanced version of this debate, I compare the Enlightenment’s case for toleration to Tocqueville’s claim that democracy requires religion for moral support. Examining Locke and Spinoza, I argue that the Enlightenment sought to achieve freedom, prosperity, and a rich cultural and intellectual life through the weakening or liberalization of religious belief. I then turn to Tocqueville’s friendly critique of the Enlightenment and try to elucidate his solution for preserving, in times of liberalism and equality, the great human devotions which he saw as inextricably linked to religion. I conclude that that by describing a civil religion capacious enough to permit tolerance but substantive enough to encourage real devotion, Tocqueville gives us a kind of moderate politics seldom found in today’s debates.