Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Reply to Lawler on Tocqueville and Religion

Peter Lawler has written a response to my post on "Hume's Religion."

Metaphysical conservatives believe that morality is impossible if it is not rooted in some religious belief in a transcendent moral order. Darwinian conservatives believe that morality is rooted in a natural moral sense, and so while religious belief can sometimes reinforce morality, there is a natural morality that can stand on its own even without religious belief. Tocqueville is often cited by the metaphysical conservatives like Carson Holloway and Lawler as supporting their belief that morality is impossible without religion. But I suggest that Tocqueville is more in the tradition of Cicero, Hume, and Burke in believing that religion is to be judged by how well it supports natural morality regardless of whether religious doctrines are true or not. We can judge the practical truth of religion as conforming to "civil religion" even when we are skeptical of religion's metaphysical claims.

Lawler's response to these claims is confusing. He says that Tocqueville agrees with metaphysical conservatives like himself who believe "that religious belief can actually be true." But then he says that Tocqueville "was not actually a Christian believer." I agree with Lawler on this latter point, because I read his letter to Madame Swetchine (February 26, 1857) as describing his loss of faith at age 16. Tocqueville does, however, suggest that he held onto some vague notions of God and an afterlife, indicating some kind of Deism.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville makes it clear that he is more concerned with the moral truth of religion than with its theological truth. He is interested in "religion considered as a political institution." And for that purpose, it does not matter whether religion is true in its transcendent doctrines, as long as it teaches a proper morality. For example, Tocqueville suggests that the religious doctrine of reincarnation might be just as useful as the Christian doctrine of immortality. "Society has nothing to fear or hope from another life; what is most important for it is not that all citizens should profess the true religion but that they should profess religion."

In formulating the religious beliefs that support American democracy, Tocqueville follows the lead of Rousseau in the SOCIAL CONTRACT (IV, 8): "The existence of a powerful, intelligent, beneficent, foresighted, and providential divinity; the afterlife; the happiness of the just; the punishment of the wicked; the santity of the social contract and the laws. These are the positive dogmas. As for the negative ones, I limit them to a single one--intolerance."

Tocqueville judges the moral teachings of religion by a standard of moral virtue that stands independently of religion. That is clear, for example, when Tocqueville says that the democratic people in America suffer from a lack of grand ambition because they are too humble. For such people, "humility is never healthy . . . what they lack most, in my opinion, is pride. I would willingly surrender several of our petty virtues for that vice." It might seem odd that Tocqueville should have to recommend a particular "vice" in preference to certain "petty virtues." But that awkward position is forced on him by Christian ethics. To endorse pride as a virtue and to disparage humility as a vice, he would have to appeal to pre-Christian moral thought. To promote the human greatness displayed by men of grand ambitions, he would have to revive the pagan virtue of magnanimity--"greatness of soul." Here Tocqueville agrees with Hume who worried that the "monkish virtues" of Christianity--humility, mortification, self-denial, penance--were not really virtues at all.

Some of the commentators on Lawler's post indicate that the dangers of Darwinian science would have been avoided if the South had won the Civil War! This points to a big question about the moral teaching of biblical religion. Proslavery Southerners were able to cite the Bible as supporting slavery, because the Bible never clearly condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. For this reason, the Civil War created a theological crisis in which biblical believers could not rely on the Bible to give them proper moral instruction about the evils of slavery. In the division between North and South, as Lincoln said in the Second Inaugural, "both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

If morality is impossible without biblical religion--as the metaphysical conservatives insist--then we have no natural ground of morality by which we can judge the moral teaching of the Bible on slavery or any other issue. Hume and Darwin believed that we could see the injustice of slavery as contrary to our human nature and our natural moral sense. If we can appeal to such a natural morality, then we can see that any biblical teaching favoring slavery is mistaken, and we can correct it. But if there is no natural morality independent of biblical religion, then we have no ground for correcting the moral teaching of the Bible.

1 comment:

wbond said...

Prof. Arnhart,

Thanks for the link. With all of those comments I thought you deserved one.

The standard, sloppy, bizarre, revisionist neo-confederate arguments in the comments section (and really only politely challenged by Lawler – although I did love the comment about A/C) only serve to marginalize the few U.S. political conservatives who hold them. To me, reading Lincoln and thinking through the political and philosophic issues surrounding the slavery crisis focuses the mind in an unmatched way on the nature of just republican government and classic liberalism.

It strikes me that your differences with Lawler are the differences that result from the inherent tension between reason and revelation – a tension that can only robustly exist among conservatives in 2009. Although you seem fairer, in that I believe you admit the possibility of a true metaphysical religion that goes beyond being merely salutary, but not its necessity for the existence and understanding of a natural human morality (which is largely in agreement with biblical morality).

My own disclaimer is that I have a professional familiarity with human biology (internist) and am religious (mainline protestant) and politically conservative (classic liberal) and find your work entirely compelling and its conclusions not in anyway threatening to a true and traditional Christianity, rightly understood.