Monthly Archives: July 2016


I had the privilege earlier this week to be interviewed by one of my former students, Daniel Davis.  Students like Daniel are one of the main reasons I love being at Wheaton College.  Some of my fondest memories are of the long conversations we had at the campus dining hall over the years, and I left every one of them thankful and encouraged.  Daniel is now working in Washington, D.C., and he and a few other recent Wheaton grads have started an online journal called Ecclesiam, with the goal of promoting constructive discussion of cultural issues in the light of the gospel.  Daniel interviewed me for their podcast, “Point of Contact.”

Daniel and I talked for about 75 minutes in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the importance of history to the Christian, what it means to approach the past Christianly, and some of the light that a historical perspective might shed on the current presidential contest.  If you’re interested, you can view the podcast, titled “Trump, Conservatism, and Christian Witness, here.



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 she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Today is Alexis de Tocqueville’s birthday (he would be 211) so it seems fitting to feature what are arguably the most widely quoted lines from his classic study of American society and politics, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville’s tribute to America has been a favorite of American presidents (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bill Clinton), congressmen, cabinet officials, and other politically-oriented public figures such as Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson.  And if you were listening carefully to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at last night’s Democratic National Convention—thanks to reader Gary Hotham for pointing this out—you may have noticed her implicit tribute to Tocqueville in the course of rebuking her Republican counterpart:

Hillary Clinton II“You know, for the past year, many people made the mistake of laughing off Donald Trump’s comments – excusing him as an entertainer just putting on a show. . . . But here’s the sad truth: There is no other Donald Trump.  This is it. And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good.”

The only problem with these numerous tributes to Tocqueville’s wise assessment of America—as I noted in my previous post—is that Tocqueville never wrote the lines that we attribute to him.

Now, thanks to the timely assistance of reader Lynn Betts (thanks, Lynn!), I am able to tell you that, it is almost certainly the case that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who traveled in the United States in 1834, three years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s more famous journey.  In volume II, p. 226 of the second edition of their book A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches by the Deputation from the Congregational Union of England and Wales (London, 1836), we read where authors Andrew Reed and James Matheson wrote:

Universal suffrage, whatever may be its abstract merits or demerits, is neither desirable nor possible, except the people are the subjects of universal education and universal piety. America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.

Unless the reverends Reed and Matheson were themselves plagiarizing an earlier source, it seems almost certain that they are the authors of the lines so commonly misattributed to Tocqueville.  But even here, note that the quote as commonly repeated differs in one significant sense from the original from Reed and Matheson.  While the English visitors offered a tentative prediction, “America WILL BE great IF America is good,” the quote as politicians and pundits are fond of repeating it is dogmatically assertive: “America IS great because America IS good.”

Tocqueville would have been amused, but not surprised, by this telling modification.  His letters home reveal more than a touch of impatience with Americans’ relentless boasting about their country.  “We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food the people somehow stuff down their gullets” Tocqueville wrote to his mother five days after landing in the United States.  “So far this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways.  People here seem to reek of national pride.”

Over the course of his nine-month journey across the United States, Tocqueville actually found much to admire about American democracy, but his views can’t be reduced to the equivalent of a campaign slogan.  In my next post I’ll have some thoughts on what Tocqueville really believed about the sources of American happiness.

Back soon.


I need to share one more reflection inspired by Democracy in America before I set aside Alexis de Tocqueville for the rest of the summer.  We’ve heard a lot recently about making America “great” again, and that calls to mind a famous quote popularly attributed to that French commentator.  Have you heard this before?

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. . . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. . . . .in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there.  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 she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Democracy in America is widely appraised as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society,” but it is also extremely long (typically 800-900 pages, depending on the edition) as well as extremely complex.  This combination of traits explains why so many politicians (or their speechwriters) feel compelled to quote it without actually reading it.  “America is great because America is good” is a case in point.  Tocqueville never wrote anything remotely resembling that in Democracy in America Bartleby’s dictionary of quotations traces the quote to a 1941 book titled The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, by Sherwood Eddy, a theologically liberal Christian socialist and missionary, who claimed to be quoting Tocqueville.  Wikiquotes has identified an earlier source, a 1922 letter to a Presbyterian magazine called the Herald and Presbyter (vol. 93, no. 36, p. 8).  According to the letter, an official with the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, the Rev. John McDowell, included the quote in a Sunday sermon and attributed it to Tocqueville.  Where Rev. McDowell got the quote is not known, although this much is certain: he didn’t get it from Alexis de Tocqueville.  Even so, a host of public figures have insisted that Tocqueville said these words.

If you don’t believe me, Google the phrase “America is great because she is good” and see what comes up.  Among those who have repeated the quote verbatim in speeches or essays, you’ll find presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.  (Although it’s not clear whether Richard Nixon ever used the quote in a public address, Charles Colson recalled that Nixon was extremely fond of it and used it frequently in meetings.  “I got goose bumps whenever he used that quote,” Colson confessed in his book Loving God.)   It’s also been a favorite phrase of congressmen, cabinet officials, and a variety of political commentators and would-be officeholders, including Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson.  It shows up in highly reputable venues, including The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Forbes.  “America is great because she is good” is arguably the most widely repeated observation that Alexis de Tocqueville never made.

MetaxasBizarrely, in his recent book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas acknowledges that the quote is a fabrication but repeats it anyway on the grounds that, ironic as it may seem, the quote best captures what Tocqueville actually argued.  Indeed, he calls the spurious quotation a “brilliant summation” of Democracy in America, because “we know from the rest of his book that he [Tocqueville] saw clearly that it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work. . . . For him it was inescapable: The secret to American freedom was American virtue.”

It’s hard to imagine a less accurate summation of Democracy in America, and hard to believe that Metaxas has actually read “the rest of the book,” or at least read it closely.  I don’t mean to pick on Eric Metaxas.  A blogger who doesn’t know me from Adam has hinted recently that I am simply one of those “evangelical historians [who] identify with evangelicalism but evangelicals not as much,” and that I have been critical of Metaxas because I want to create some distance between my “public persona” and the prevailing values of American evangelicals.

I am not sure why this writer feels compelled to speculate as to my motives, but here they are: I am an evangelical Christian, born and raised in the Bible Belt, and my heart’s desire, as a Jesus-follower who is also an academic historian, is to be in conversation with other Christians who are interested in what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past.  Eric Metaxas may be the most prominent openly Christian public intellectual in the United States today, and without a doubt his books and other writings will reach far more readers than those of any Christian academic historian.  If I am going to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy, I need to read what they are reading and engage them about it.  It’s that simple.

When it comes to Democracy in America, the tragedy of “America is great because she is good” is two-fold.  First, it misses what Tocqueville was actually arguing by about a mile and a half.  It’s not just that Tocqueville never used those exact words.  He didn’t believe anything close.  Second, what Tocqueville did believe about American values—especially concerning the extent of “virtue” among the people and the role of religion in American democracy—is something that every American Christian who cares about the public witness of the Church needs to hear.  What Tocqueville actually argued should be deeply convicting to us.  Metaxas and others have distilled and distorted his telling critique into a political slogan to be used against our political opponents.

Tocqueville LettersI’ll be back soon to share what Tocqueville actually argued, but before closing I’ll leave you with a teaser.  Tocqueville wrote numerous letters to friends and family back in France during his nine-month stay in the U. S.  Tocqueville’s Letters from America was one of the first titles I read this summer, and I was struck by how he used his extensive correspondence as an opportunity to think out loud, so to speak, to work through the meaning of what he was seeing and hearing as he traveled across the country.  Here is an excerpt from a letter to his friend Ernest de Chabrol, written from New York City on June 9, 1831, in which Tocqueville wrestles with the underlying cause of American happiness:

For openers, my dear friend, imagine a society compounded of all the nations of the world: English, French, Germans. . . . People each having a language, a belief, different opinions; in a word, a society lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character . . . and a hundred times happier than ours.  More virtuous?  I doubt it.  What binds such diverse elements together and makes a nation of it all?  Self-interest.  That is the key.

In my next post we’ll discuss what Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood.”


Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

I just got back from sitting under a shade tree at a nearby forest preserve, where I passed the hours of a muggy afternoon alternately dozing, slapping at bugs, and reading the final chapters of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  It was great.

Although Tocqueville completed his classic 176 years ago, it’s filled with observations that are as timely in 2016 as they were in 1840.  Reading, as I was, with the just-completed Republican National Convention fresh in my mind, here are three of Tocqueville’s observations that jumped off the page:

In light of the total abandonment at the RNC of any pretense of reforming social security and other entitlements, I was struck by this passage:

Standing as I do in the midst of ruins, dare I say that what I fear most for generations to come is not revolutions? . . . I tremble, I confess, that [citizens] might eventually allow themselves to become so entranced by a contemptible love of pleasant pleasures that their interest in their own future and the future of their offspring might disappear. [vol. II, part III, chap. 21]

In thinking about Donald Trump’s claim on Thursday night that he went into politics “so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves”; about his vague promises that “crime and violence will soon come to an end,” that “trillions in new wealth” will come pouring in, and that new jobs will “come roaring back; about his less than humble pledge that “I’m going to make our country rich again” and “I alone can fix it”; and finally, about his repeated exhortations to the convention to overlook the lack of specifics and simply “Believe me, believe me, believe me,” my mind turned to this passage:

When I think of the petty passions of men today . . . what I fear is not that they will find tyrants among their leaders but rather that they will find protectors. . . . Our contemporaries are constantly racked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free.  Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once.  They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens.  They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. . . . They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors.  [vol. II, part IV, chapter 6]

Finally, in listening to the thunderous applause given to a man who promises to solve all our problems while cracking down on freedom of the press, rounding up and evicting eleven million residents, and imposing a religious test for immigration, among other things, these solemn words from Tocqueville eloquently capture my deepest concerns:

As for me, I confess that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty that seems to animate my contemporaries.  I see clearly that nations today are turbulent, but I have no clear evidence that they are liberal [i.e., committed to freedom], and I fear that when the agitations that are rocking every throne in the world are over, sovereigns may find themselves more powerful than ever. [vol. II, part IV, chap. 5]

One of the themes of Democracy in America is that it is human nature to be tempted to sacrifice freedom in exchange for security and comfort.  I heard a lot of applause on Thursday night for a strong man who promised, by virtue of his self-described unparalleled brilliance, to eliminate crime, injustice, poverty, terrorism, and all domestic and global threats to American peace and prosperity.  What I didn’t hear was any serious discussion of what costs this might entail in terms of liberty, or how any of Trump’s promises  might be achieved without clothing our aspiring protector with unprecedented power.

Trump Convention


One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure.  Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention.  Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.”  Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.

That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.”  Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term.  When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today.  Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses.  First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial.  This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)

Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation.  And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure.  The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for.  The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.

In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence.  The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee.  Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention.  Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it.  In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,

My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty.  I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent.  I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose.  What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed.  I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me.  The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him.  Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God).  As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:

If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy?  Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’?  No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government.  He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.

If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here.  When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post.  Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance.  Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.

Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost.  That view was already dying out by the 1820s.

Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump?  I don’t know.  It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future.  I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.

Your thoughts?

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech


No one can know for sure how the country’s Founders would advise the delegates to this week’s Republican National Convention, but it seems likely that they would have little patience with the common claim that it would be unethical to disregard the wishes of primary voters if the delegates were convinced that the people’s preference was ill advised.  In general, the framers of the Constitution expected that occasions would arise when it was necessary for elected officials to stand against their constituents; indeed, the willingness to do so was a litmus test of genuine virtue.  Here are just a couple of example of such belief, drawn from the contemporary commentary on the Constitution called the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays penned in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay:

From James Madison, Federalist no. 63:

James Madison

James Madison

” As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.  In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

From Alexander Hamilton, Federalist no. 71:

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

“It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD.  This often applies to their very errors.  But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. . . .  When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”

Neither Madison nor Hamilton was writing with a party nominating convention in mind, of course, but the underlying principle that animated their observations seems pertinent to this week’s doings in Cleveland.  When a public official is convinced that a popular preference would be disastrous for the nation, there is nothing noble or admirable about yielding to that preference in the name of “duty,” and the GOP shouldn’t have to invent a “conscience clause” to make that apparent.



Some more timely food for thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  As I meditated on the passages below, I couldn’t help but think about next week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and its likely outcome.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

To remind you, Tocqueville was a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and the two-volume work that he penned after his visit to the United States in 1831-1832 is widely hailed as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society.”  Among other things, he called attention to the dangers of excessive individualism and materialism in a democratic culture, identified the ever-present potential of the “tyranny of the majority,” and underscored the crucial importance of religious belief to the success of America’s democratic system.

The quotes below come from a section in volume I on the topic of “The People’s Choices and the Instinctive Preferences of American Democracy” (vol. I, part II, chapter 5).  Writing primarily for a French audience, Tocqueville began by noting that many Europeans assumed that one of the advantages of democracy is that free elections based on universal suffrage reliably selects individuals “worthy of public trust” into important public offices.  “For my part,” Tocqueville confessed, “I must say that what I saw in America gave me no reason to believe that this is the case.”

In the rest of this brief section the Frenchman theorized as to why this was true.  On the one hand, he reasoned, making wise decisions between alternative candidates required “enlightenment,” i.e., informed voters.  “Enlightenment” was not simply a euphemism for intelligence or education.  Tocqueville thought it depended primarily on the amount of time that voters were either able or willing to devote to educating themselves on the issues of a campaign and the strength and weaknesses of the rival candidates.  Regarding the latter, he noted, “What a lengthy period of study and variety of ideas are necessary to form an exact idea of the character of a single man!  The greatest geniuses fail at this, yet the multitude is supposed to succeed!”

Maybe even more important than this, according to Tocqueville, was a vice that democratic society seems to nurture: envy.  So strong was the passion for equality in America’s democratic society, Tocqueville believed, that democratic Americans detested all appearances of superiority among other Americans, up to an including those they elected to office.  “No form of superiority is so legitimate that the sight of it is not wearisome to their eyes,” Tocqueville observed.  “They do not fear great talents but have little taste for them.”

And the consequences of this mindset for American government?  “There is no escaping the fact that in the United States today the most outstanding men are seldom called to public office.”  This was partly due to the votes that the electorate cast on election day, but it also reflected a pattern by which the most qualified individuals refused to become candidates.  And why was this, Tocqueville asked?

While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.

The bottom line for Tocqueville: “I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion.  Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.


Wheaton College political science professor Amy Black has floated a radical idea in the latest issue of The Table, the online journal of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.  “Even though so many voices in contemporary politics are arrogant and angry,” Black notes, “followers of Christ don’t have to join the hateful chorus.”

Black Book CoverIf you don’t recognize her name, Black is the author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason.  I highly recommend it to any believer wrestling with the question of how to think  Christianly about our current political climate.  And if you can’t make the time to add yet another book to your reading list, at least check out her short essay here.  Black draws from Phillippians 2 and I Corinthians 13 to make her case for humility and offers some practical suggestions as to what humility in the public sphere might look like.  In our current political climate we are bombarded with voices that brainwash us into demonizing political opponents, who pander to our arrogance and our insecurity by telling us that those who disagree with us are either evil or stupid (or both).  In contrats, Black exhorts us to listen carefully and lovingly to those with whom we disagree and to be willing to think charitably about their motives.  In our current political context, these are radical recommendations, indeed.

And to Christians who reply that her advice is naive and impractical, Black has a simple response: “Our call as followers of Christ is not first and foremost to win an election or policy battle.  Our fundamental calling is to love God and neighbor; its not about winning or losing in earthly politics.”

Like I said, pretty radical stuff.  Your thoughts?


In addition to working my way through the papers of Abraham Lincoln this summer, I am also revisiting Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I regularly assign portions of it in my classes, but it has been years since I last systematically read it, so I have read a number of biographies of Tocqueville in the last month and am now looking at Tocqueville’s classic itself.  Because Tocqueville deals so extensively with American politics, in this election season I thought I would share with you some passages that might strike you as relevant.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

To remind you, Alexis de Tocqueville was a young French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832, ostensibly to study the American penitentiary system.  After traveling across the country and conducting more than two hundred interviews with Americans of all classes, he returned to France to meditate on what he had seen and heard.  He then recorded his reflections in two volumes, the first published in 1835 and the second five years later.

Tocqueville believed that democracy represented the wave of the future, and he admired a great deal of how it functioned in the United States, but he found cause for concern as well.  As he wrote in the introduction to volume II, “Since I am firmly of the opinion that the democratic revolution to which we are witness is an irresistible fact, and one that it would be neither desirable nor wise to oppose, some readers may be surprised to discover how often I find occasion in the book to be quite severely critical.”  It is best, then, to think of Tocqueville as a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and that is how he wanted his readers at the time to perceive him.  As he put it, “People do not receive the truth from their enemies, and their friends seldom offer it.  That is why I have told it as I see it.”

And so when American readers rushed to buy Democracy in America in translation, they found more than a few observations that were less than flattering.  An example would be Tocqueville’s chapter on “Parties in the United States” in volume I, part II.  The author began by defining two categories of political parties.  “Great parties” are those that “dedicate themselves more to principles than to consequences” and to ideas more than specific leaders.  “Such parties generally have nobler features, more generous passions, more genuine convictions, and a franker, bolder manner than others.”

In contrast, “minor parties are generally without political faith.  Because they do not feel ennobled and sustained by any great purpose, their character bears the stamp of self-interest, which clearly manifests itself in every action they undertake.  They always become hotly passionate for coldly calculated reasons; their language is violent, but their course is timid and uncertain.  Their tactics are squalid, as is the goal they set for themselves. ”

You can decide for yourself whether today’s Democratic and Republican parties qualify as “great” or “minor” parties.  Writing in 1840, Tocqueville had no doubt about the state of things 176 years ago: “America has had great parties in the past,” he noted, “but today they no longer exist.”

"County Election," by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

“County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852


I thought I’d call your attention to a speech that New York Times columnist David Brooks recently delivered to a celebration in Washington, D.C. marking the fortieth anniversary of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.  I’ve often appreciated the conservative columnist’s columns and also recently picked up a copy of his 2015 book The Road to Character.  In his address to the CCCU, Brooks, although not a Christian himself, made a case for Christian higher education that I wish more evangelicals would take to heart.


Here is a sample of what Brooks had to say:

You [Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect.  You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul.  Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it.  From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent.  I visit many colleges a year.  I teach at a great school, Yale University.  These are wonderful places.  My students are wonderful; I love them.  But these, by and large, are not places that integrate the mind, the heart and the spirit.  These places nurture an overdeveloped self and an underdeveloped soul.

Regarding his students at Yale, specifically:

They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self.  They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral and romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic.  The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage.

I’m sure that my colleagues and I at Wheaton don’t fully realize the goal that  Brooks ascribes to us, but I know that we aspire to do so, and being part of that collective endeavor has been rewarding beyond words.