Beyond ‘civil religion’–on Pascalian influence in Tocqueville

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Abstract

In volume two of his work Democracy in America (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville argued that religion could guarantee individual liberties against the tyranny of the majority. However, in volume one of this work (1835), Tocqueville presented a conventional ‘civil religion’ as a phenomenon that was identical to or subsumed by American social mores or opinions. Thus, the following questions are raised: How can such a religion represent a brake on potential tyranny? How can genuine religion be distinguished from common opinion? Consequently, understanding Tocqueville’s approach to religion remains a major problem. This article demonstrates that in the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville suggested a different type of civil religion, one that has a transcendent authority that distinguishes it from public opinion but that, nevertheless, facilitates intellectual liberty. It also shows how Tocqueville resolved the dilemmas of authority and liberty in the civil religion, by focusing on, with his observations of American Christianity, his reading of Blaise Pascal’s works regarding religious authority and human reason, in which Pascal exhorted human beings to willingly recognise the limits of reason.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory of European Ideas
DOIs
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

Keywords

  • authority
  • civil religion
  • democracy
  • Pascal
  • Tocqueville
  • tyranny of the majority

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