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Democracy and Tradition (New Forum Books)
Princeton University Press, 2003
368 pp., $49.95
by Lauren F. Winner
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that religion was one of many possible guards that could help keep democratic societies running on their rails. Religion, Tocqueville saw, would offer ethical boundaries to potentially amoral democracies. Religion would ensure that democratic citizens were trained in a disciplined life, that their hearts and values were directed towards something other than self-interested material gain. In general, religion would contribute to the formation of good democratic citizens.
Tocqueville, of course, wrote at a time when Christian language was commonplace. A pervasive, if ill-defined theism explicitly shaped both legislation and public talk. Few democratic thinkers argued that the republic would be better off if stripped of its religious patina. Even fewer Christians argued that the churches would be better off if they withdrew from the political sphere (though Tocqueville thought otherwise).
Assumptions have changed. Many contemporary thinkers have challenged the relationship Tocqueville put forth between religion and democracy. Secular philosophers like Richard Rorty have insisted that theism is bad for democracy. With them, some Christian theologians have insisted that democracy is bad for theism.
If religious language still pervades democratic conversations, its authority, and even its propriety, is strongly contested. In recent years, pundits of all stripes have been debating the place of Christian claims in civic life. What role—if any—do religious people and their religious commitments have in the public square?
This conversation, it must be admitted, occasionally gets boring. But it is a necessary conversation, one essential to sustaining democratic culture. The question of how, without surrendering your particularities, to speak in a democracy to people with different particularities is in some ways America's founding question, and recent debates over the public meaning of marriage (not to mention Howard Dean's ...