So what did Alexis de Tocqueville really think of American Christianity, and why should American Christians care?
For the past couple of weeks, I have been writing about a reassuring adage popularly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, namely that “America is great because she is good.” This line has long been favored by politicians and pundits, and just this summer it’s cropped up in places as disparate as Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention and a policy statement by the Harvard Republican Club.
If you’ve been following the series, you know by now that Tocqueville never penned these exact lines—they’re almost certainly plagiarized (though inaccurately) from the writings of two British Congregational ministers who visited the United States shortly after Tocqueville did. More importantly, Tocqueville didn’t argue anything as simplistic as the bumper-sticker slogan we’re fond of attributing to him. Tocqueville didn’t write as a partisan. He wanted his analysis of what was then the most democratic nation on earth to be useful to a world moving fitfully in the direction of ever greater democracy, but he bristled at the prospect of his painstaking analysis being hijacked in the service of a particular political or religious faction. This is why one of the most prominent features of Democracy in America is its complexity. There’s a good reason why it’s more than eight hundred pages long.
Tocqueville visited seventeen states and conducted more than two hundred interviews during his nine-month tour of the United States, and then he meditated and reflected on what he had seen and heard for the better part of another decade as he sought to make sense of it all. He concluded that there were numerous factors that helped to explain the flourishing of liberty in the United States. Least important, though still hugely significant, were “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will that ease the way for the democratic republic in the United States.” Even more important were laws and political practices inherited from an earlier time, some brought to American shores by 17th-century Puritans, others codified by the Revolutionary generation in the structure of American federalism and the specific features of the U. S. Constitution. More important still were what Tocqueville labeled “mores,” by which he meant “the whole range of intellectual and moral dispositions that men bring to the state of society.” In sketching the latter, Tocqueville described Americans as acquisitive and materialistic, independent-minded, individualistic, rationally self-interested, and religious.
Clearly, this does not boil down to a conclusion that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work,” as Eric Metaxas curiously insists in his recent summary of Democracy in America. But rather than leave it at that, we need to dig deeper into what Tocqueville actually believed about American Christianity. It’s in Tocqueville’s description of the role of religious belief in Jacksonian America that the casual reader will most likely be led astray. Why is this?
The main reason is that, when it comes to the Frenchman’s views on American Christianity, there are really two Tocquevilles. There’s the Tocqueville who underscores the importance of Christianity to American democracy, and the Tocqueville who raises questions about the influence of democracy on American Christianity. This is a historical problem, obviously, in that it makes it harder for us to figure out what Tocqueville is actually saying. But there’s a sense in which it’s also a moral problem. All things equal, we—and here I mean Christian readers—will like the first Tocqueville better. The first Tocqueville pats us on the back, tells us that democracy can’t survive without us, and hands us any number of effective quotes to hit our unbelieving neighbors over the head with. The second Tocqueville is a less pleasant conversation partner. He’s less impressed with American Christianity and seems to suggest that there was a fair amount of conforming to the world among Jacksonian-era believers.
Put simply, the first Tocqueville congratulates us, the second wants to convict us. Because of this, Democracy in America lays bare one of the great temptations that we face when we study history: the temptation to use the past as ammunition rather than learn from it and be changed by it. Consciously or unconsciously, we’ll be inclined to highlight the passages that reinforce what we already believe (or want to believe) and tune out the inconvenient parts that don’t advance our agendas. With regard to Democracy in America, if we’re not careful we’ll be all ears for the Tocqueville we want to hear and deaf to the Tocqueville we may need to hear.
Let’s start with the first Tocqueville, the one who many American Christians will be glad to listen to. Without doubt, Democracy in America offers one of the most eloquent arguments for the importance of religious belief to political liberty ever penned. The “spirit of freedom” and the “spirit of faith” were intimately intertwined in America, Tocqueville maintained, and it was no coincidence that the United States 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.” There was a general principle at work: democracies need religion if they are to survive and flourish.
Let’s review his reasoning: One of Tocqueville’s greatest concerns was what he called the “tyranny of the majority.” “The people rule in the American political realm as God rules the universe,” Tocqueville found, and with this unchallenged popular power came the potential to abuse the politically vulnerable. When Tocqueville spoke of tyranny, he meant not simply absolute power—which he often referred to as despotism—but rather the exercise of power that resulted in oppression or injustice. “In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise . . . from their weakness, but from their strength,” he reflected. “I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”
And yet—and this is the crucial observation that so intrigued Tocqueville—the American 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 actual extent. To use Tocqueville’s terminology, in America the majority was omnipotent but not tyrannical. Why was this, Tocqueville wondered?
Here is where mores come in. Americans, Tocqueville found, had inculcated “habits of restraint” that, becoming second nature, reminded them daily in conscious and unconscious ways that not everything you have the power to do is good to do. Some of these “habits of restraint” were expressions of what Tocqueville called “the doctrine of self-interest properly understood,” which I wrote about in a previous post. Americans had learned that denying themselves short-term pleasures often maximized their long-term well-being. This helped to create “a multitude of citizens who are disciplined, temperate, moderate, prudent, and self-controlled.”
But Americans’ religious beliefs were also a crucial source of these “habits of restraint.” In the United States “Christianity reigns without obstacles,” he observed, which is why
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 contribution was so critical that Tocqueville concluded that, although “religion . . . never intervenes directly in the government of American society,” it nevertheless functioned as “the first of their political institutions.” If religion did not give Americans “their taste for liberty,” he concluded, “it does notably facilitate their use of that liberty.” Yes, we like this Tocqueville.
But what about the second Tocqueville, the one that’s far less reassuring? Let’s listen to him for a while. To begin, it’s important to note that Tocqueville’s focus was always on the external, political consequences of religious belief in America. He commented on American religion in much the same way that a political scientist or sociologist would. This meant, among other things, that he overtly declined to say whether he thought Americans’ religious beliefs were either true or genuine—“for who can read the bottom of men’s hearts?”—although he did hazard the conviction that “hypocrisy must be common.”
Whether Christianity was true or American Christians’ faith was authentic were both irrelevant for his purposes. “Though it matters a great deal to each individual that his religion be true,” he explained, “that is not the case for society. Society has nothing to fear from the other life, and nothing to hope for, and what matters most to it is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion as that each citizen profess some religion.”
And yet in private moments Tocqueville revealed considerable skepticism of American Christianity. In Democracy in America Tocqueville recalled that “it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention.” But in his personal letters home he shared considerable misgivings about what he was observing. Less than two months into his stay, he shared his reservations in a lengthy report to an old family friend. “I even doubt that religious opinions hold as much sway as I originally thought they did.”
Americans were admittedly very strict in their observance of the Sabbath, and Tocqueville saw numerous other examples of external religious zeal, but he remained unconvinced. “Unless I’m sadly mistaken, these external forms conceal a reservoir of doubt and indifference,” he conjectured. “Faith is obviously inert,” he went on. “What was once a strong impulse is growing feebler by the day. Enter any church (I refer to the protestant kind) and you will hear sermons about morals; not one word about dogma—nothing at all likely to fluster one’s neighbor or awaken the idea of dissent.” The conclusion to the young Frenchman was clear: “On the whole, religion doesn’t move people to the depth of their soul.”
Tocqueville was more circumspect about what he shared in public, but he still peppered Democracy in America with observations that should give us pause. For example, even while emphasizing the compatibility between Christianity and political liberty, Tocqueville hinted that Americans had so conflated the two that they tended to support Christianity as an expression of patriotism.
“In the United States, religion never ceases to warm itself at patriotism’s hearth,” he observed. He spoke with numerous missionaries to the American West during his journey and found that “eternity is only one of their concerns.” Carrying Christianity to the frontier was one means of spreading American values and protecting America’s borders. “If you were to question these missionaries of Christian civilization,” he related, “you would be quite surprised to . . . find politicians where you had thought there were only men of religion.”
This emphasis on Christianity’s earthly benefits was widespread, according to Tocqueville:
American preachers refer to this world constantly and, indeed, can avert their eyes from it only with the greatest of difficulty. Seeking to touch their listeners all the more effectively, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs foster liberty and public order, and in listening to them it is often difficult to tell whether the chief object of religion is to procure eternal happiness in the other world or well-being in this one.
In Tocqueville’s view, Americans had effectively married the “doctrine of self-interest properly understood” with their commitments to Christianity. Not only did they “adhere to their religion out of self-interest,” but the self-interest they had in mind was as much about earthly benefit as heavenly reward.
It is no coincidence that Tocqueville uses his observation on American preachers referring constantly to this world as a segue into his chapter “On the Taste for Material Well-Being in America.” The central theme of that chapter is that “love of well-being has become the national and dominant taste, and a sub-theme is that Americans have combined the passion for well-being with religious sentiment, with the result that “the people want to be as well off as possible in this world without renouncing their chances in the next.”
Finally, we need to listen to Tocqueville’s observations about American Christianity in light of what he has to share about American values more broadly. Tocqueville tells us that Christianity “reigns” in America “by universal consent,” but he also tells us that Americans’ near universal motive is self-interest, that they are skeptical of any authority (even within the church) not granted by the people themselves, and that there is “no other country where the love of money occupies as great a place in the hearts of men.” What are we to make of this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In the end, I think we need to listen to both Tocquevilles, the one that underscores the centrality of faith to freedom and the one that reminds us that political influence doesn’t always go hand in hand with spiritual vitality.
I’ll be back in a bit with some concluding thoughts on “America is great because she is good.”