The Essential Role of Religion in Public Life


Dinner Remarks from the 2012 Summer Seminar Weekends

By Dr. Michael F. McLean
President, Thomas Aquinas College

We thank you for your attendance, for your preparation, and for your participation in our conversations.

This being a presidential election year, and with the challenge to religious liberty posed by the HHS insurance coverage mandate, we thought it timely to devote this year’s summer seminars to a reflection on the character of America and its founding principles. A wide range of readings were possible, but after some research and deliberation we settled on a short piece of Hawthorne’s fiction (written in 1857); two of the seminal political deliberations of James Madison from The Federalist; and selections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s wise and penetrating observations of American government, religion, and culture, Democracy in America, volume 1 of which was published in 1835, volume 2 in 1840.

In Federalist 10, Madison notes in America “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion.” This is one of the “latent causes of faction” which he says are “sown in the nature of man.” Hawthorne’s “The Maypole of Merry-Mount” dramatizes this zeal and one possible way of resolving religious conflict. “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” the narrator says, “the Votaries of the Maypole … rich with the old mirth of Merry England” feuding with “a settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches …” who, “if they danced was round the whipping-post, which might be termed the Puritan Maypole.”

A plausible interpretation of the story, which Hawthorne himself called “a sort of allegory,” would be that the conflict depicted is that between two competing but extreme moral or religious visions. The first is one in which pleasure, vanity, and mirth are the highest goods; the other is one in which these are shunned as the work of “devils and ruined souls,” (code, perhaps, for Catholics or Anglicans) to be replaced by “stern faith,” prayer, preaching, and tedious toil. One of the virtues of Hawthorne’s story is that it gets us thinking about the character of religion and morality and the role they will play in American life. Our narrator says, “the future complexion of New England [and, I might add, America] was involved in this important quarrel.”

The wedding of two of the Maypolers, Edgar and Edith, provides the occasion for the resolution of the conflict. “What is the mystery in my heart?” asks Edith. The mystery, it seems, turns out to be true love and real passion, committing them “to earth’s doom of care, sorrow, and troubled joy,” and forever banishing them from the Merry Mount of their youth. Recall, by the way, Tocqueville’s observation that “religion reigns over the soul of woman … and woman forms our moral habits.” The resolution of the conflict is completed, not by Endicott’s physical destruction of the maypole or by the “stripes” the Puritans wish to deliver, but by Endicott’s (“the Puritan of Puritans”) recognition in Edgar and Edith of “an air of mutual support, and of pure affection, seeking aid and giving it, that showed them to be man and wife, with the sanction of a priest upon their love.” In Hawthorne’s story, arguably, the true religion of the Gospel — Christianity, or perhaps even Catholicism — incorporating the better elements of each of the story’s previously competing visions, has prevailed. Note again Tocqueville’s remark that “it is by regulating the family that religion works to regulate the state.”

Madison, of course, is concerned principally with structural, not religious or spiritual, safeguards against the evils present in “faction.” As he says in Federalist 10, “the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.” In Federalists 10 and 51 he presents a brilliant defense of the republican and federal character of the government envisioned by the Constitution. These safeguards do, however, presume a high level of wisdom and virtue in the representatives and confidence that a majority will only unite in efforts which are just and ordered to the common good. He seems to be counting on robust religious faith and quality liberal education, among other things, to insure the success of republican government.

As I already have indicated, Tocqueville, in our selections, is concerned with religion and its essential role in American democracy. “Religion,” he says, “is the first of America’s political institutions.” “Religion’s principal advantage,” he says, “is to provide clear answers to fundamental questions”—questions about God’s existence, human nature, man’s ordination to a supernatural life, and the nature of justice and human goodness—and to provide a counterweight to some of democracy’s most dangerous tendencies.

Tocqueville here echoes St. Thomas Aquinas, whom we often read in our summer seminars. St. Thomas stressed the dependence of the human law on the eternal and natural laws and the ordination of government to the common goods of moral, intellectual, and ultimately theological virtue. It is good for Catholics to be reminded of the essential role religion plays in public life.

In so reminding us, Tocqueville anticipates the words of one of our modern popes, Pope Pius XII, who in his 1944 Christmas Message quoted Pope Leo XIII’s 1888 encyclical Libertas, in which Leo wrote that “it is not forbidden to prefer temperate, popular forms of government, without prejudice, however, to Catholic teaching on the origin and use of authority…” adding that “the Church does not disapprove of any of the various forms of government, provided they be per se capable of securing the good of the citizens.”

After quoting Pope Leo, Pope Pius outlines in his own words the nature of true democracy and its ideals of liberty and equality: “in a people worthy of the name, the citizen feels within him the consciousness of his personality, of his duties and rights, of his own freedom joined to respect for the freedom and dignity of others; in a people worthy of the name inequalities based on the nature of things, inequalities of culture, possessions, social standing — without, of course, prejudice to justice and mutual charity — do not constitute any obstacle to the existence and the prevalence of a true spirit of union and brotherhood … on the contrary, so far from impairing civil equality in any way, they give it its true meaning: namely, that, before the State, everyone has the right to live honorably his own personal life in the place and under the conditions in which the designs and dispositions of Providence have placed him.”

We hope that this has proven to be a stimulating and rewarding weekend for you, and we thank you again for helping to make it possible.


Posted: July 18, 2012

MFM at 2012 SS Weekend
Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97)

“The diverse and in-depth education I received at Thomas Aquinas College was extremely valuable, first and foremost, for my soul; but it also proved to be more beneficial for my vocation as a physician than all the ‘hard sciences’ combined, perfectly blending the practical with the philosophical, and allowing me to see Christ in all whom I treat.”

– Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97)

Internal Medicine Hospitalist

“Thomas Aquinas College is one of the premiere liberal arts colleges in the country and the pride and joy of the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region.”

– Most Rev. Robert E. Barron

Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles