Religion Traditions and Democracy in America
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville is worried about the disappearance of old aristocratic ranks and privileges, and the
emergence of democracy. Tocqueville states that the "key to almost the whole work" can be found in his chapter on the "point
of departure" for the Anglo-Americans (Tocqueville, p. 17). How can this chapter on the early history of Puritan New
England shed light on what European governments can do to adapt to democratization?
It seems odd that Puritans would have much to teach Europeans (or Americans today) about democracy. Tocqueville in
fact outlines how vastly different the New England towns were from what we would call democratic. The leaders who made
these laws were intent on enforcing good morals by using the most extreme enforcement. There is virtually no conception of a
right to personal privacy. Their laws were based on a literal reading of the Old Testament and were extremely harsh. For
example, in Connecticut, blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery and rape are punished with death. It is a capital crime for a son to say
anything disrespectful of his parents.
Tocqueville wants us to focus not on these laws, which he calls "bizarre and tyrannical" (Tocqueville, 27). Instead,
he points out that these tyrannical laws were passed with the "free, active participation of all the interested parties themselves,
and that the morals were even more austere and puritan than the laws" (Tocqueville 27). It is the fact that these communities
were self-governing and independent, with relatively high levels of popular participation in the making of laws, which
Tocqueville finds interesting.
Even more importantly, Tocqueville points out that it is the strict morals of the people in New England that made these
high levels of political participation possible in the first place. In New England, communities combined "the spirit of
religion" with "the spirit of liberty" (Tocqueville 31). More people could take part in governing society because they could
govern their own personal moral lives. They had radical reforms in the way they ran their towns, but would always stop before
making radical changes in their moral values (Tocqueville, 32).
The dilemma emerges when we consider whether this example is relevant today. We live in a multicultural democracy
where there is very little agreement on questions of religion. We have Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists and
many more religions. What kind of moral consensus can we have here that will prevent chaos and conflict? Wouldn't
a society like ours need to conceive of democracy in less participatory and less moralistic terms than the small
New England societies? Probably.
Nevertheless, Tocqueville makes the interesting point that the traditions of the New Englanders, and the political
institutions they created, tend to survive for a long time. Often this means that bizarre laws last for centuries (as in
the example discussed in class where until recently it was illegal for women to go into bars). But also, there are
traditions of civil liberties and democratic political procedures that have lasted a long time too. Often these are
adapted to an increasingly individualistic and multi-cultural society. The U.S. has increased the amount of private
liberty and allowed more personal vices to exist than the Puritans would have tolerated. Yet the Puritan traditions
like the town hall meeting and local government still play important roles here, and they can offer people a chance
to learn and develop skills of governing, while maintaining a stable