BOOK REVIEW :: Hugh Heclo, Christianity and American Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2007)

December 02, 2011
Author: Jeffrey C. Tuomala(1), Professor of Law at Liberty University School of Law

Every Christian and every secularist who has an interest in the role of religion in public life should read Hugh Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy. The core of the book comprises a lecture that Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, delivered at Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies.2 Heclo’s basic thesis is that vibrant traditional Christianity has been essential to the success of American democracy. He concludes that “[t]he truly odd (and democratically threatening) thing is to imagine that American democracy would be safer and healthier if . . . Christianity . . . could somehow be kept out of our contested public life.”

One characteristic that makes the book captivating is Heclo’s penchant for writing not only as social scientist but as Christian apologist and prophet. Most readers will find Heclo’s storyline, written as social scientist, to be engaging if not intriguing. Writing as apologist, Heclo exposes the secularist’s pretenses of neutrality and objectivity while equipping and emboldening the Christian reader who wishes to engage secular culture. His prophetic portrayal of contemporary evangelicalism is designed to discomfort and spur the faithful to reform.

Writing as social scientist, Heclo begins with Tocqueville’s observations regarding the relationship of democracy and Christianity in early nineteenth century America. Tocqueville was astonished to find that the spirits of Christianity and democracy were equally flourishing. The conventional wisdom of enlightened European intellectuals was that Christianity and democracy were incompatible. If God is sovereign over all nations demanding total obedience, they reasoned, then Christians must logically insist upon a state-established Church and deny religious liberty to all others. Most European governments and Christians agreed with those conclusions.

In early America there were so many different Christian sects that none could long maintain its privilege as the established church. Heclo acknowledges that America’s unique circumstances prompted it to break free of European modes of thinking, but he recognizes that religious liberty in America was grounded on Christian conviction, not practical necessity. Heclo gives considerable attention to Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” for proof of his assertion that religious liberty is a dictate of the Christian faith. Heclo writes that Christianity further contributed to the success of democracy by teaching the art of living freely, by providing the stability of a law-abiding and morally self-governing citizenry, and by defending principles of human dignity that prevent democracy from disintegrating into a kind of simple majoritarianism—the kind of democracy that triumphed briefly through the French Revolution before giving rise to militaristic imperialism.

In the 1960s, America experienced what Heclo terms a Secular Awakening. Although traditional Christians had been moving forces in most reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they withdrew from public involvement after suffering a series of “body-blows” in the 1920s and 30s. As they withdrew, secularism gained ascendancy through the means of public schools, judicial decisions, and the consumer arts (especially mass media). By the late 1960s, reform movements were dominated by secularists. Not until the 1970s and 80s did traditional Christians,3  energized largely through Francis Schaffer’s writings, reenter the public arena to counter secularist agendas. Heclo fears that the secularist’s success in driving traditional Christianity from public life, combined with the Christian’s compromise with secular culture, will have disastrous consequences for American democracy.   

Although Heclo does not disclose his religious affiliation, the reader can hardly be faulted for suspecting that he is a conservative evangelical of a Calvinistic bent. In countering the secularist perspective that Christians should confine their religious beliefs to the private realm, Heclo adduces evidence of the ameliorative effect that Christianity has had on America’s public life, but his most noteworthy contribution as apologist is his demonstration that secularism is open to most of the charges that it makes against Christianity.

Citing Tocqueville’s observation that “faith is the only permanent condition of mankind,” Heclo dispels the secularist pretense of neutrality as he notes that secularists, as well as Christians, reason from certain unproven presuppositions. He further notes that most secular public discourse today is as emotionally-based and reason-free as anything secularists accuse the religious right of offering. Additionally, he asserts that traditional Christianity, with its emphasis on doctrine, is no enemy of reason, which it uses as a means of understanding, explaining, and defending the faith. Heclo sketches the deliberate program that secularists have pursued in the public schools to impose secularism as a comprehensive counterpart to, and substitute for, a Christian view of the world.

Speaking as prophet, Heclo warns evangelicals against being absorbed into popular secular culture, equating patriotic fervor with the Kingdom of God, and withdrawing from public life, as these courses of behavior are inconsistent with Christianity’s instructive, corrective, and protective role in society. Heclo believes that America’s birth as an independent constitutional republic was in large measure a result of the First Great Awakening, which was epitomized by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, and marked by the Calvinistic doctrines of original sin, salvation by grace, individual self-government, and providence. He observes that the brand of Christianity that gained ascendency in the nineteenth century, largely as a result of the Second Great Awakening, was epitomized by the emotionally-driven revivalism of Charles Finney and was strongly influenced by Arminian theology, and even worse, Pelagianism. Heclo believes that twenty-first century Christianity has been further debased by a feeling-focused, narcissistic, non-judgmental, relativistic, and anti-doctrinal religiosity.

Heclo also warns against American evangelicalism’s practice that tends to expropriate the Church’s commission to redeem the world and to bestow it on the United States. This distortion of Christianity, in which America is depicted as the Redeemer Nation, is exemplified in President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. Heclo stingingly notes that if America is the Redeemer Nation then it is the Christ of history, a notion that “may be inadvertent, but is blasphemy all the same.”

Heclo fears that many Christians are withdrawing from public engagement into a kind of pre-Constantine relation with civil powers. He states that this is reflected in the homeschool and Christian school movements. It is here that Heclo fails to recognize the full implications of one of his key insights. Although he recognizes that secularism is a faith that parallels Christianity, he fails to recognize that state schools violate the same founding principles that established religion violates—that “God hath created the mind free” and, therefore, the state has no jurisdiction to establish orthodoxy of belief, be it religious or secular. Heclo even promotes a system of funding Protestant and Catholic schools on the German model, despite the fact that Patrick Henry’s proposal to establish such a funding scheme for education provoked Madison to pen his Memorial and Remonstrance. Heclo makes the same error that Jefferson made. Although Jefferson wrote that it “is sinful and tyrannical” to “compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves,” he nevertheless established the tax-funded University of Virginia.

Heclo depicts the relationship of American democracy and Christianity through the imagery of a double-stranded ascending helix with the strands closely related and mutually supportive. He fears that the strands will split apart and that secularism will completely displace Christianity. Heclo’s thesis would be strengthened by emphasizing the fact that Christianity exists as a separate strand in the helix because it is not simply an ideology; it necessarily takes an institutional form—as the Church, the body of Christ. Paganism, on the other hand—be it in a secular, Islamic, or classical Greco-Roman form—has no institution other than the state to which it can attach. In a Christian society the state will always be jurisdictionally limited by the God-ordained and God-defined institutions of Church and family. Pagan society can produce only a single-stranded helix that, in winding its way, subsumes everything (including education) in a single institutional form—as the state, Babylon.

Heclo makes a compelling case for his claim that the relationship between Christianity and democracy defined the American Republic and continues to be essential for its health. For the serious student of that relationship—the student who is ready to move beyond the string of quotations from Founding Fathers that contain such words as God, Bible, Christianity, and Divine Providence—this one’s for you.   



1 Dean Jeffrey Tuomala teaches Constitutional Law at Liberty University School of Law.
2 Three other eminent scholars (Mary Jo Bane, Michael Kazin, and Alan Wolfe) comment on Heclo’s lecture, and Heclo in turn responds to their comments.
3 (with evangelical Protestants now in partnership with Catholics)