A review of Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo

It requires a powerful imagination for Americans today to conceive how large the theological-political problem once loomed in Western thought. What for early modern thinkers was the central problem in politics—the right ordering of one's allegiances to God and to Caesar—seems to have diminished to a question of First Amendment jurisprudence. Hobbes devoted two of four parts of his Leviathan to theological matters, and Locke's First Treatise of Government is also preoccupied with them. The scholarly neglect of these writings is a sign of Americans' confidence that they have succeeded in laying the religious question to rest.

Americans were apparently the first people to arrive at a viable consensus concerning the proper role of biblical revelation in their public life. At just the moment in their history when such questions might have been most troublesome, they concurred in limiting the scope of churchly authority. But they did so in a manner arguably consistent with, even demanded by, the exalted status of revelation itself. Religious believers in America have been among the staunchest defenders of a principled separation between religion and politics. Devout Christians and secularists alike appear to view religion as a fundamentally private matter (though not necessarily for the same reasons). Let it be remembered that the constitutional "wall of separation" confines believers, too. To have persuaded believing Christians to limit their authority not in spite of but because of their faith, is no small achievement.

In his deeply engaging book, Christianity and American Democracy—delivered in outline form at Harvard University in 2006 as the second Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics—Hugh Heclo, George Mason University's Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Public Affairs, acknowledges the magnitude of this achievement, which he calls the "Great Denouement." But he is not content merely to describe it, much less to congratulate Americans for it. The Great Denouement, like all putative forms of progress, has the defect of its virtues. Americans' success in "reconciling Christian religion and civil authority" promotes forgetfulness of the very conditions that made religious liberty arguably choiceworthy in the first place. (The rise of radical Islam may aid in the recovery of an understanding of those conditions.) With forgetfulness comes a diminished ability to assess the new situation that liberty has created. Heclo's book performs a valuable service in revealing that situation to us. While by no means blind to its advantages, Heclo concentrates on the problematical features of the Great Denouement. He does so for reasons that any thoughtful reader of Tocqueville will readily understand. The question, for Heclo as for Tocqueville, is less whether democracy can survive than whether it can be prevented from "running amok and degrading humanity."

The accommodation that Christians in America had arrived at by the 1780s was one that their co-religionists elsewhere had long resisted. European Christians' reservations on this point cannot be dismissed lightly, admits Heclo—after all, "any religion is a comprehensive worldview which necessarily includes the political, social, and all the other dimensions of human life." Tocqueville's French contemporaries were quite sure that the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty could not coexist. Tocqueville himself, of course, found Christianity flourishing in democratic America. But he also found that democracy had changed Christianity, and not always for the better. Tendencies that Tocqueville observed in the 1830s have developed much further in the meantime, and those tendencies appear to have accelerated since the 1960s. The course of American political development over the last century and a half makes Heclo wonder if Tocqueville's compatriots didn't have a point.

The liberal distinction between state and society has never been airtight. No one doubts that Americans' Christianity has influenced and will continue to influence their democracy in profound ways. It can hardly fail to do so when an overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians—approximately 85%, according to a study cited in the book. Less obviously but no less tellingly, American democracy has influenced Christianity in this country. The influence of democratic habits of thought on American Christianity means there is less to Americans' self-professed Christianity than meets the eye. Heclo calls his readers' attention to one sign of change: the fate of John Winthrop's famous image (of which President Reagan made memorable use) of America as a "city upon a hill." That city was indeed to be an example to the world, but possibly a warning example. Winthrop reminded his listeners that "the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work…we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world." What, then, does the American example reveal?

* * *

To begin at the ending, as it were: it was James Madison's friend Thomas Jefferson who best expressed the terms by which faithful Christians could be good democrats. God himself, though "lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either." Madison agreed, writing that only a Christianity that "disavows a dependence on the powers of the world" can be pleasing to Him. Madison's statement of the case for religious liberty in the "Memorial and Remonstrance" to the Virginia legislature implies that a reasonable persuasion is the proper vehicle by which Christians are to spread their faith: "the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men," unless persuaded that those men are right.

In the course of time, however, American democracy has given rise to a Christianity that, in Heclo's words, is "more aligned with the desires of the people…as we would say today, ‘market driven.'" The effect of such theological populism has been to emphasize faith, understood in individualistic terms, at the expense of doctrine. But any attempt to define the meaning of Christianity apart from its doctrinal content is bound to fail. By seeking to de-emphasize doctrine, American Christians have only succeeded in changing its form. A religion that is "nonabsolutist, inclusive, modest and, above all, nonjudgmental" is clearly inconsistent with Christianity's traditional self-understanding. The effort to avoid intricate and contentious doctrinal issues has had a paradoxical result: the embrace of spiritual openness has resulted in a new kind of doctrinal rigidity. The new doctrine at once constitutes "a thoroughgoing claim of what is right and wrong to believe" and "disdains any need to give reasons to others" in support of that claim. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that many of the same Americans who identify themselves as Christians also tell pollsters that all religions teach pretty much the same things.

The exaltation of individual choice above even fidelity to Christian doctrine has, in effect, imposed a new kind of orthodoxy, albeit one that fails to recognize itself as such. Christianity has given democracy, among other things, a view of the person as possessing a unique, God-given dignity. Not a generic human dignity—in the Christian view, each person is individually called to discipleship and will be individually judged. But in the course of American history the idea of judgment, even self-judgment, has largely receded from sight. The new quasi-orthodoxy has no such foundation; "in modern America the exercise of individual autonomy of conscience is ipso facto sanctified, whatever it chooses," Heclo argues. Christians in Tocqueville's France knew they had a "democracy problem." Traditional Christians in modern America who don't know that about themselves might discover it by listening to their opponents—who see "a potential danger to democracy" in virtually every appeal to or defense of traditional doctrine.

This is not Heclo's view any more than it was Tocqueville's. Still, it is a view that needs to be taken seriously—not only because many Americans hold it, but more importantly because it points toward an apparent defect in the original accommodation. It is tempting to conclude that Americans' judgmental nonjudgmentalism constitutes an unraveling of the founders' Great Denouement. Instead, Heclo suggests that the religious state of affairs in modern America may be seen as its fulfillment, though in a perverse way: "Protestantism in a democratic regime of consumer sovereignty has ultimately reaped what it sowed in the Great Denouement." If this is so, it must call into question the appropriateness of the termdenouement. Indeed, "American political development…has reopened the hoary issue of the compatibility of democracy and Christianity." The resolution of this story remains hidden from mortal eyes.

* * *

The volume includes responses to Heclo from three distinguished commentators—Mary Jo Bane (Harvard), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), and Alan Wolfe (Boston College)—along with a final rejoinder. The responses serve mainly to highlight the advantages of Heclo's Tocquevillean approach, which is sensitive to the questions that animate religious believers themselves. This approach helps to minimize the disadvantage of writing about religion from the outside; still, it is a disadvantage that cannot be completely avoided. The outsider's viewpoint is what accounts for such language as the following: "In the ongoing struggles to define their national identity, Americans fitted a political reading of the democratic faith into the millennial framework supplied by certain Protestant versions of the Christian faith." One doubts that the Protestants holding to these versions of the Christian faith would recognize themselves in Heclo's description. But passages like this one give a misleading impression of the book as a whole.

Heclo has set out the framework of the issue between democracy and Christianity, even if he disclaims any credit for having reopened it. Secular-minded democrats are not wrong in seeing a "Christian problem." For Christians, the voice of the people cannot supply the last word on fundamental moral questions. That has always been true. But as developments in psychopharmacology, bioengineering, and "reproductive technology" engage the attention of democratic legislators, it will be increasingly difficult to consign questions of human life to the private sphere. They involve, ultimately, the prospect of turning "humanity itself into another man-made thing." Especially at this time, all Americans should welcome the perspective of traditional Christians, and of Jewish and Muslim believers as well. Fears that the American polity will succumb to theocracy are exaggerated; the greater danger, as Heclo persuasively argues, is that American Christians' own "democracy problem" will induce them to leave the public square to their opponents.