For the last two posts I have been sharing about Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832 and later penned his observations in a two-volume treatise titled Democracy in America. I now want to share some of Tocqueville’s reflections on the nature of religion in the United States and the role that it played in American life. His observations on the topic are both rich and extensive, and it will take at least two posts just to hit the high points.
When we enter into conversation with figures from the past, our primary goal should be to love them. This is easier said than done. Ever since the Fall, self-love has been the predominant sentiment in the human heart. This means that there is nothing natural about loving others. By nature, we love ourselves and use others. It makes little difference whether they are living or dead.
I mention this now because I suspect that, for Christians interested in the American past, the temptation to use Tocqueville—to cherry-pick quotes that support our agendas—may be particularly acute. If you’re troubled by our culture’s increasing commitment to a secular public square, Democracy in America offers an arsenal of powerful counter-arguments. Democracies need religion, Tocqueville emphasized over and over. That’s a truth we like to hear. But Tocqueville also said things about American Christianity in its supposed heyday that should trouble us—observations that we need to hear more than want to hear. We should purpose in advance to listen to both. We don’t have to agree with Tocqueville completely, but we do need to hear him out. Christian love constrains us to listen respectfully. Christian humility admonishes us to be teachable.
“The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States,” Tocqueville reflected in Democracy in America. No wonder. The Frenchman arrived in the U. S. during the height of the Second Great Awakening, a period of recurring religious revivals that rippled back and forth across the country from the late 1790s through at least the 1830s. It was during the Second Great Awakening that an essentially unchurched America gave way to a predominantly Christian country. The proportion of Americans who were formal church members roughly tripled, and Christianity influenced American culture more than ever before.
This discovery was hugely significant to Tocqueville. Remember that this French visitor was writing about America but not for Americans. His primary audience was his homeland, and in France many of the most politically progressive writers and thinkers took for granted that religion was the enemy of political freedom. The situation in the United States exploded that prejudiced assumption. America, as Tocqueville described it, was simultaneously “the most enlightened and the freest” of nations and “the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.”
Far from being an obstacle to political liberty, religion “teaches the Americans the art of being free,” Tocqueville concluded. To understand his reasoning, we need to go back to Tocqueville’s greatest concern about democracy in the United States, namely the potential for the majority to run roughshod over the rights of the minority. In Federalist #51, James Madison had famously acknowledged that, “if a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” Tocqueville agreed. Unlimited power is always dangerous, he argued, and in the United States the power of the majority was potentially unlimited. To make his point, Tocqueville posed and answered a series of questions:
When a man or party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms. A jury? The jury is the majority with the right to pronounce judgment . . .
The conclusion was ominous: nothing in the American political system in and of itself provided an adequate barrier against the tyranny of the majority. “When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny.”
And yet—and this is the crucial observation that so intrigued Tocqueville—the majority did not fully utilize its power to oppress the minority. Acknowledging the enormous exception of southern slavery, Tocqueville believed that, on the whole, in America the potential for injustice vastly exceeded its presence. To use Tocqueville’s terminology, in America the majority was omnipotent but not tyrannical. Why was this, Tocqueville wondered?
To the degree that justice prevailed in the United States, Tocqueville concluded that this had less to do with Americans’ form of government than with their values, what he sometimes referred to as their “habits of the heart.” In terms of political significance, the most significant habits of the heart were “habits of restraint” grounded in Christian doctrine. In the United States “Christianity reigns without obstacles,” he observed. As a result, “the human spirit never sees an unlimited field before itself; . . . from time to time it feels that it must halt before insurmountable barriers.” When one believes in God, not everything is permitted.
Tocqueville marveled that
“no one in the United States has dared to profess the maxim that everything is allowed in the interests of society, an impious maxim apparently invented in an age of freedom in order to legitimate every future tyrant. Thus, while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.”
This, more than any other reason, is why Tocqueville determined that “religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions.” With Tocqueville it was axiomatic that freedom is endangered whenever power exists without obstacles to restrain its course. The American form of government presented few such obstacles to the omnipotence of the majority. It was the values of the American people, preeminently their religious values, which constituted the most effective check against tyranny. If religion “did not give them the taste for liberty,” he concluded, “it singularly facilitates their use thereof.”
The principle was not limited to the Americans, Tocqueville hastened to add. When the French Revolution had erupted two generations earlier, the friends of liberty had foolishly coupled their assault against monarchy with a campaign against Christianity. Their decision had been well-intentioned but tragically misguided. “Despotism may be able to do without faith,” Tocqueville observed, “but freedom cannot.” Religion is actually more necessary in a republic than a monarchy. “How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”
Nearly two centuries later, the question still confronts us.
Back in a bit with more.