George F. Will pens a typically insightful essay in the most recent issue of National Affairs: “Religion and the American Republic.” The unique “angle” on this essay is Will’s identification with the 20 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, i.e., the “nones.” From his conclusion:
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America just two generations after the American founding — two generations after Madison identified tyranny of the majority as the distinctively worst political outcome that democracy could produce. Tocqueville had a different answer to the question of what kind of despotism democratic nations should fear most.
His warning is justly famous and more pertinent now than ever. This despotism, he said, would be “milder” than traditional despotisms, but
it would degrade men without tormenting them….It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen….[It] reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
Each of us must decide to what extent Tocqueville’s foreboding has been fulfilled. People of faith might well ask this: Does the tendency of modern politics to take on more and more tasks in order to ameliorate the human condition tend to mute religion’s message about reconciling us to that condition? And people of faith might well worry whether religious institutions can flourish in the dark shade beneath a government that presumes to supply every human need and satisfy every appetite.
And those of us in the “none” camp must confront the other side of the same question: Can our limited government and free society long endure if the work of our civil society, which so often is the work of our religious institutions, is taken up instead by the government? To the extent that the politics of modernity attenuates the role of religion in society, it threatens society’s vitality, prosperity, and happiness. The late Irving Kristol understood this. Although not an observant Jew, he described himself as “theotropic,” by which he meant oriented to the divine. He explained why in these words:
[A] society needs more than sensible men and women if it is to prosper: It needs the energies of the creative imagination as expressed in religion and the arts. It is crucial to the lives of all of our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.
We may be approaching what is, for our nation, unexplored and perilous social territory. Europe is now experiencing a widespread waning of the religious impulse, and the results are not attractive. It seems that when a majority of people internalize the big-bang theory and ask, with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”; when many people decide that the universe is merely the result of a cosmic sneeze with no transcendent meaning; when they conclude that therefore life should be filled to overflowing with distractions, with comforts and entertainments, to assuage the boredom — then they may become susceptible to the excitements of a politics promising ersatz meaning and spurious salvations from a human condition bereft of transcendence.
We know from the bitter experience of the blood-soaked 20th century the political consequences of this felt meaninglessness. Our political nature abhors a vacuum, and a vacuum of meaning is filled by secular fighting faiths, such as fascism and communism. Fascism gave its adherents a meaningful life of racial destiny. Communism taught its adherents to derive meaning from their participation in the eschatological drama of History’s unfolding destiny. The excruciating political paradox of modernity is that secularism advanced in part as moral revulsion against the bloody history of religious strife. But there is no precedent for bloodshed on the scale produced in the 20th century by secular — by political — faiths.
Therefore, even those of us who are members of the growing cohort that the Pew survey calls “nones,” even we — perhaps especially we — should wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life. We do so for reasons articulated by the most articulate American statesman.
In 1859, beneath gathering clouds of war and disunion, a successful railroad lawyer turned presidential aspirant addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. He concluded his speech with the story of an oriental despot who assigned to his wise men the task of devising a proposition to be carved in stone and be forever in view and forever true. After some while they returned to the despot and the proposition they offered to him was: “And this too shall pass away.” Only this, they argued, would be true until the end of time. How consoling that proposition is in times of grief, Lincoln said, and how chastening in times of pride. And yet, he insisted, it is not necessarily true. If we Americans cultivate the moral and intellectual world within us as assiduously and prodigiously as we cultivate the physical world around us, perhaps we shall long endure.
We have long endured. We shall endure further. This is so in large part because of America’s wholesome division of labor between political institutions and the institutions of civil society — including, especially, religious institutions — that mediate between the citizen and the state, and so make freedom possible.