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Pascal Day Lecture Uncovers Religious Roots in American Politics

How democratic institutions gain strength when religious ideas are welcome in civic discourse will be illustrated during the upcoming Duquesne University Pascal Day lecture on Thursday, Nov. 3.

Dr. Harvey C. Mansfield, the William R. Kennan Professor of Government at Harvard University, will present Tocqueville’s Alliance of Religion and Liberty, at 7:30 p.m. in the Africa Room of the Duquesne Union. The event is free and open to the public.

In addition to being a widely influential thinker in the field of political philosophy, Mansfield is a translator of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman whose travels in the United States in the early decades of the 19th century inspired Democracy in America, the work for which he is best known. The book’s two volumes contain astute observations about the early republic’s political and social institutions, and Tocqueville remains a touchstone for scholars and others attempting to come to terms with the nation’s unique strengths and inherent weaknesses.

Dr. Charles Rubin, associate professor of political science, along with acting McAnulty College Dean James Swindal, organized this Pascal Day lecture as well as the previous two iterations of the event. Tocqueville’s appreciation for the role of religion in civic discourse, Rubin said, was not typical for progressive European thinkers of his era, who were more likely to argue for a rigid separation of church and state.

Tocqueville drew a comparison between the United States and his home nation, where the French Revolution revealed itself to be a bloody experiment resulting in state-mandated atheism and a lingering anti-clericalism. The other extreme, much more common in Tocqueville’s day, is a state-sanctioned religion, with its unavoidable and undemocratic exclusions and privileges.

In the United States, Rubin explained, Tocqueville saw a third way, where an established religion is constitutionally forbidden, yet the free exercise of religion has a moderating and salubrious effect on civic discourse, with benefits to the state, the religion and the individual.

This third installment of the biennial lecture series is sponsored by a grant from the Earhart Foundation. The lecture series is named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French scientist and mathematician. Pascal’s later writings on Christianity reveal a thinker whose faith, far from suffering damage in the collision with what some would see as the obdurate materialism of science, deepened and grew stronger as the intricacy of creation’s workings became known to him.

Rubin feels that it is particularly fitting that Tocqueville’s ideas about the role of religion in shaping American political institutions be explored in a lecture series dedicated to the memory of Pascal.

“The mathematical, the scientific and the religious writings that Pascal left us are all of a piece,” Rubin said. “His legacy is that of a thinker who shows us how inclusive a spirit of inquiry can be.”

For more information, call 412.396.6485.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.