Alexis de Tocqueville has some interesting thoughts on the role that religion and the Catholic Church play upon the concept of equality in the United States. Tocqueville claims in the passages of “Democracy in America” that the Church has “erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy”, and that Catholicism seems to be one of the sects of Christianity that is “most favorable to the equality of conditions” (349). Tocqueville characterizes Catholicism by “styling [it as] a democratic and republican religion”, while Catholics “constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States.” (348, 349).
Tocqueville proceeds to describe a sermon delivered by a ‘priest in ecclesiastical robes’, who states: “Thou, who didst create Man in the likeness of the same image, let not tyranny mar Thy work, and establish inequality upon the earth.” (351). Ultimately, Tocqueville’s aim here is to claim that “Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other…” (355).
There appears to be a tension in the text here, as later passages attribute the recurrence of slavery to Christians of the sixteenth century. Slavery thus would appear to be “an exception” to their social system, “restricted to one of the races of mankind” (413). How then can equality of humankind be related to the existence of slavery? It is not clear that Tocqueville applies a unified front to the issue of Christianity, equality, and subsequently slavery that places an immutable tension on this relationship.
Given the time of Tocqueville’s birth, he would most certainly have been familiar with the Calas Affair which prompted Voltaire to write Candide. The page (http://www.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/idehist-voltaire-calas.htm) greatly illustrates the relationship between these two events.
Historian Lynn Hunt, in a speech delivered in the fall semester of 2010 at the University of Michigan, attributes the Calas Affair and Candide that followed as a “click phenomenon” in the proliferation of human rights and equality of conditions.
Here is the powerpoint from the University of Michigan lecture: Human Rights, Hunt
The claim Hunt makes is that it was an opposition to the oppressive stance of the Catholic Church that ultimately triggered the spread of human rights and equality (both of which are fundamentally linked). Taken in the context of Tocqueville’s writings, there would appear to be a tension between Catholicism instilling manners of equality on the one hand, and tyrannically oppressing equality on the other. Could this tension be explained by a differentiation between the Church of Rome and that of the United States?
When considering the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, “an oppressed American”, who regards the hypocrisy of equality under god in the Christian faith with “contemptuous sarcasm”; it is not altogether clear that Christianity in the United States promotes equality in the congregation or the rest of the country (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 661).
Fredrick Douglas takes this ‘contemptuous sarcasm’ a step further in his speech “What to the slave is the 4th of July”. Douglas refers to churches and ministers of the country as “stupidly blind” and “wickedly indifferent”, as the Fugitive slave act is “one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty” (14). This lackadaisical stance of the church(es) towards inequality, embodied by slavery, constitutes a “declaration of war against religious liberty”, implying that religion is simply “an empty ceremony, not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards men”. (14). Douglas continues this charge, claiming the ‘church of this country’ is more than indifferent, as “it actually takes sides with the oppressors”, making itself “the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters” (15). Douglas proceeds to champion ‘infidelity’, ‘atheism’ and anything other than the hypocratic “gospel, as preached by those Divines” (15).
When considered with relation to Jacobs and Douglas, it does not appear that there is much of a difference between the oppressive stances of the Church of sixteenth century Rome and the stances taken by the church a little closer to home. I will open it to the readers to determine if the tension noted in Tocqueville’s writing can be reconciled.