Not Quite Secular: Montesquieu on the Political Utility of Faith

Is religion a useful or dangerous feature of political life? This paper analyzes an argument made by Montesquieu, a liberal philosopher whose writings were highly influential in the American founding. Montesquieu contends, in Book 24 and 25 of The Spirit of the Laws, that the moral and political effects of a religion depends on its doctrines. Such a claim links faith closely to mores. In other words, doctrine as doctrine cannot simply be expelled from the political realm – each article of faith must be weighed in the balance of political utility. Montesquieu therefore seems to reject Pierre Bayle’s famous defense of a society of moral atheists. At the same time Montesquieu quietly argues that these doctrines are often matters of indifference, and suggests that some key Christian doctrines – in particular – are less than salutary. This paper brings out this tension in Montesquieu’s thought, a tension that reveals why Montesquieu fails to go along with Pierre Bayle’s more radical enlightenment secularism.

On the Original Goodness of Work in St. Augustine

The moral status of work is a central concern of political theory. From Aristotle to Marx, philosophers have expressed unique interest in the goodness and potential limitations of work, on both the levels of theory and practice. In addition, much discontent with the liberal-democratic way of life can be traced to a loss of faith in work. So there is an urgent need to think hard about the nature of work.
This paper discusses the origins and contemporary experience of work as depicted by a famous Christian thinker, St. Augustine. He depicts work as good in its original condition – both in its focal meaning (God’s work) and for human beings. Yet as with every human institution, work is subject to the fall. To wit, work is not a curse, but has indeed been cursed. This dissertation chapter articulates Augustine’s defense of the original goodness of work and its subsequent corruption in his theory of the Fall.


By Nature Social, by Corruption Quarrelsome: Sociality in St. Augustine’s Account of the Fall
In the history of political thought, much ink has been spilled for and against the contention that people are social beings. Are they naturally sympathetic and friendly, or are they by nature contentious, irascible beings, prone to erode the possibility of a common good? And that is only one aspect of a very deep question. Augustine believes that mankind is by nature social, yet quarrelsome by corruption. My challenge is to figure out what Augustine means by original sociability and what he thinks about its subsequent corruption. This essay examines St. Augustine’s answer to this question by emphasizing his philosophical defense of the Fall.

By attending closely to his theory of the fall in Dei Civitate Dei, we learn that people have become slaves to disordered desire, their longings corrupted by a cataclysmic event. In particular, Augustine thinks that material desires are politically problematic for fallen mankind, in its disordered and desperate race for wealth, power, and sexual pleasure. So this chapter builds on the subsequent one. Yet Augustine also believes in mankind’s natural and original sociability; the restoring of this sociability constitutes a real good that the City of God can render to the City of man.

Tocqueville Reconsidered: On Secular Morality and Religion’s Place in Liberal Democracy

with Douglas Walker

Alexis de Tocqueville attempts to harmonize religion and politics in liberal democracies by providing both believers and unbelievers reasons to support politically powerless but socially dominant religion. He argues that disestablishment strengthens religion in democratic society, and that disestablished religion in turn benefits society by sustaining moral beliefs and mores. This paper analyzes Tocqueville’s reconciliation of religion and liberal democracy in Democracy in America and in his correspondence with Arthur de Gobineau. It reveals two assumptions underlying his case: that morality will be recognized as dependent on religion, and that democratic moral views will be homogeneous. These assumptions, we find, are questionable. Secular moral theories have thrived, leading to the proliferation of competing moral worldviews. Consequently, the harmony between believers and unbelievers assumed by Tocqueville has broken down, intensifying moral and political conflict along religious lines.