Tocqueville on the Campaign Trail

The latest entry in The Revealer’s forum on writing about religion on the campaign trail.

By Diane Winston

Psst! Was Eisenhower (gasp) too French?

Was President Eisenhower channeling Alexis de Tocqueville when he said, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith, and I don’t care what it is”? Ike’s pragmatic, political appreciation for religion’s national role surely would have resonated with the French nobleman.

One can’t help recalling America’s pet peripatetic philosopher when evaluating political coverage this campaign season. Tocqueville places religion center stage, and gives guidelines for reporting on politics through a religiously-literate lens. Whether exploring faith-based institutions or ideals, reporters can glean political insights by drawing on Tocqueville’s work.

Tocqueville, writing in 1835, called religion the first among America’s political institutions, due to its critical contribution to democratic society. Religion, he wrote, “imparted a taste for freedom” as well as “facilitated the use of it.” Religion inspired civic virtue and provided a divine template by which to judge temporal governments. Thus did the democratic and republican religion that British Protestants brought to the New World shape America’s democratic and republican government.

How do religious institutions and houses of worship facilitate the practice of democracy? According to media accounts, congregations host candidates, prepare voters’ guides and provide volunteer labor for causes they support. Which is to say, most stories don’t dig deeper than an immediate event or a current issue.

Tocqueville, on the other hand, believed that the habits and structures of organized religion cultivated an appreciation for open and representative government. That’s a much richer insight than our current instrumentalist view of religion and public life, which seems to assume a predetermined relationship between faith and civic virtue.

What is the nature of the relationship and who decides the content? Do all religions promote civic virtue? And what to do about the differences in what’s considered to be the highest good?

This year, as in the past, many people of faith believe that sanctity of unborn life is the highest civic virtue. But for others, a candidate’s position on the Iraqi war, economics or the environment may constitute the ultimate faith-based litmus test. How do faith communities come to support specific civic virtues, and how much influence do religious institutions have on civil society? How is that influence exercised? And what civic debates might religious pluralism — and the subsequent panoply of religious goods — provoke?

The religious landscape Tocqueville encountered was radically different than ours today. In 1835, America was a Christian nation, and most of its citizens were Protestants from northern Europe. The divine template by which believers judged human government was, more or less, consistent among Massachusetts’ Congregationalists, New Jersey’s Presbyterians and Virginia’s Anglicans.

According to current statistics, we remain a predominantly (82%) Christian nation, but diversity is a recognizable reality. Today’s new religious communities may not have migrated to the United States with the same republican and democratic traditions as the citizens whom Tocqueville encountered. A comprehensive look at contemporary churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues might reveal models more autocratic, oligarchic or anarchic than democratic. Even if Tocqueville’s thesis holds true, wouldn’t it look different enacted in a first generation, South Asian Texas masjid, or a New Jersey Hindu temple, than it did in Protestant churches nearly 200 years ago?

Religion is a complicating factor, and the role of religion is ever more complicated in an increasingly pluralistic society and globalized world. Old labels no longer serve, just as old assumptions no longer hold. The emerging clash of mutually conflicting absolutes leaves us in uncharted territory, badly in need of courageous explorers and thoughtful observers.

Given what passes for thoughtful, political coverage, one might despair. But then, a local reporter like Tom Kisken pops up. Kisken used to cover religion at The Ventura County Star(free reg. req.), but he switched to the enterprise and investigative beat this fall. His first assignment, one he chose, is to write on the importance of “faith-drive” voters. Over the past month, Kisken has been to services, baptisms, youth activities and meetings at a local evangelical church. He’s been going back and back because he wants to “get” the congregational culture and learn what lies beyond the usual sound bites.

Tocqueville provides a guide but, like Kisken, we need to map the terrain ourselves and, in the process, jettison outworn assumptions. Rather than presume that religion and democracy are indivisible soul mates, political reporters would do well to re-examine how America’s faith traditions — complex institutions peopled with all-too-human believers– make political decisions in an election year.

Diane Winston is the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and a past contributor to The Revealer.

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