Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Religion, rudder of America’s democracy

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

In his book, “Democracy in America,” the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville identified religious belief as a key factor in understanding our nation’s political system. While he wrote it in the mid-19th century, his insights about the role religion plays in understanding human nature and democratic norms remain relevant today.

He observed that though “the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

And he warned: “When authority in the matter of religion no longer exists, nor in the matter of politics, men are soon frightened at the aspect of this limitless independence. … As everything is moving in the world of the intellect, they want at least that all be firm and stable in the material order; and as they are no longer able to recapture their former beliefs, they give themselves a master.”

These comments come to mind as I review the present political landscape, scarred as it is by polarization and acrimony, which is alienating so many young people. In a parallel way, young people are becoming disenchanted with religion. It is disturbing to read recent polling that 40 percent of millennials are now categorized as the “nones,” that is, religiously unaffiliated.

All of this prompts the question: What will become of our democracy if so many young people disengage from both religion and politics? While we surely want young people to continue practicing the faith, so as to pass it on to following generations, it is also important to keep in mind de Tocqueville’s insight that faith can have a moderating influence in a democratic state.

De Tocqueville identifies a number of ways religion contributes to democracy, which are worth recovering.

First, religion correctly frames worship as worship of God, as opposed to any human project. When polarization and partisanship corrupt politics, it risks becoming idolatrous to the point that we begin to accept as absolute the statements and policies of a party, no matter how obviously they are in error.

Worship of God is replaced by a strong allegiance to political leaders who can do no wrong. Religion can serve as an important corrective to such exaggeration.

Our worship of God as totally other also keeps us humble, for it reminds us that only God is perfect. So many in the political arena speak as if they have all the answers and cannot be challenged in their views.

At its core, religion calls us to conversion — and also forgiveness. This too reminds us of our imperfection, yet it is not a hopeless reminder, for we always have the possibility of redemption.

Religion provides a space to deal with our doubts. The Scriptures and the history of the saints are full of stories of people of faith who had doubts. So often people who allow for no doubt in their lives, as if doubt is a sign of weakness, rigidly hold on to points of view only because they would be shaken if they admitted uncertainty. Religion allows us to be human, and humans are full of doubts.

Religion also brings us together in community, easing some of our deepest fears that we are all alone. Community life is where burdens are shared, important moments are celebrated, we experience the comfort of depending on one another and we learn most about ourselves.

The Irish novelist James Joyce famously wrote that Catholic means, “Here comes everybody.” Today, Chicago parishes celebrate Mass in no less than 25 languages. Our diversity as a faith community mirrors the profile of our immigrant nation and provides us with an experience of a new kind of unity that values, rather than fears, the differences each of us brings to community life.

In a word, religion practiced by a community marked by diversity serves as a leaven in society, allowing the best in each person to be appreciated by all.

De Tocquville worried that if we did not worship God, we might be tempted to worship the powers of this world. We would lack the humility to deal constructively with our human frailty and negotiate our doubts. We would give in to individualistic impulses and fear, rather than value the differences of a country that has always been proud to welcome newcomers.

As we turn the corner on the pandemic and our churches reopen, it might be worthwhile to have discussions with our families about the need to return to regular religious practice — yes, for our own spiritual well-being — but also for the good of our country. We need to encourage young people to become involved in democracy, but also in our faith communities that serve as schools for learning how to live together and appreciate our differences.

I close with this quote from de Tocqueville, which is worth considering as we take up this discussion with young people: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”



  • u.s. government