Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls: Alexis de Tocqueville on Religion in Democratic Societies

ALAN S. KAHAN
AMERICAN POLITICAL THOUGHT 4.1 (2015): 100-119

Abstract: For Tocqueville, well-balanced souls were as important to freedom as a well-balanced constitution. Such spiritual checks and balances were essential, in his view, for the preservation of political freedom and individual human greatness. Religion was the prime source of such spiritual checks and balances, offering a parallel source for the checks and balances to democracy provided by secular mechanisms such as associations and self-interest well understood. Tocqueville envisaged religion from two different viewpoints, utilitarian and perfectionist. From a utilitarian perspective, religion helped to limit democratic societies and preserve them from excess. From a perfectionist standpoint, it encouraged human beings to become great. Not all religions, however, were equally capable of performing these functions.