Tag Archives: Alexis de Tocqueville

ANDREW JACKSON AND DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier.  Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.   An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years.  During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return.  The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life.  It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson.  I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes.  The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.”  But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him.  His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh.  He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

Sound familiar?

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

TOCQUEVILLE ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

I’ve noted previously that I spent much of the past summer with Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville wrote about so many facets of American politics and culture that hardly a week has gone by this autumn without something in the news bring one or more passages to mind.

This was the case last week when reports began to come in of an off-the-record summit meeting at Trump Tower in New York between the president-elect and a host of media executives and news anchors.  Reports of the gathering diverge widely.  Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway described the meeting as “very cordial, very productive, very congenial,” but an unnamed source likened it to a “firing squad” in which Mr. Trump attacked his guests mercilessly, and Breitbart News exulted “Trump Eats Press.”

However things went down, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s relationship with the press has been more openly hostile than for any major presidential candidate in U. S. history.  He will assume the presidency having pledged to change federal libel laws (something he evidently believes the president can do unilaterally) so that when the “dishonest media” write “negative and horrible and false articles . . .  we can sue them and win lots of money.”

All of which brought to mind Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic Democracy in America.  The Frenchman was no great fan of American journalists.  “In America,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835,

The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices.  Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.

Sounds a lot like Breitbart News.

And yet, if Tocqueville could not bring himself to admire journalists, he valued journalism, believing that a free press was absolutely integral to the preservation of liberty.  In vol I, part II, chapter III of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that it was impossible to curb the excesses of the media without creating a threat to freedom.  “When it comes to the press,” he concluded, “there really is no middle ground between servitude [a press that is wholly subservient to the state] and license [a press that is wholly unrestricted].  In order to reap the priceless goods that derive from the freedom of the press,” he went on, “one must learn to accept the inevitable evils that it breeds.”

Acknowledging that the “destructive tastes” that journalists often indulged and promoted, Tocqueville’s final defense of a free press as unqualified:

The more I consider the chief effects of the independence of the press, the more convinced I am that, among the moderns, independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.  A people that wants to remain free therefore has the right to insist that the independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.

 

 

HOW THE PILGRIMS’ STORY MIGHT CHALLENGE AND CONVICT US

Only TWO more days until Thanksgiving. My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Yesterday I shared with you that I find the Pilgrims’ story both inspiring and encouraging. I also find it challenging and convicting. To explain what I mean by the latter, here’s an extended excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

“. . . From where I stand, though, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. Far more important than its indictment of the holiday, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

. . . I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.”

First Thanksgiving

TOCQUEVILLE ON TUESDAY’S RESULT

Count me among those who are still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election.   Eventually, I want to write about what it all means, but I’ve got to do a lot of thinking.  Our social-media-driven age demands instant analyses—the simpler and shallower the better—and as Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has observed, almost the only response that’s unacceptable is the plea for more time to think and ponder and reflect before pronouncing.  I don’t care.

For now, all I can do is share what I read in my notes this morning from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I spent much of the past summer with that nineteenth-century Frenchman.  I read three biographies about him, devoured his letters from America, and lingered for weeks over his two-volume classic Democracy in America, surely the most trenchant conservative assessment of American politics ever penned.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

As a historian, I believe there are many good reasons to pay attention to the past, but one of the most important of those is the possibility of entering into a life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Alexis de Tocqueville needs to be one of our conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen.  And we do stand in need of a distinctively conservative critique, given that neither major party in America today is either able or inclined to offer one.

So what would Tocqueville think about the outcome of Tuesday’s election?  I’d be blowing smoke to say that I know for sure.  But below are some observations that Tocqueville shared after his visit to the United States in 1830-1831.  I find them eerily prescient.  You can read them and decide for yourself.

  • “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”
  • “What democracy lacks . . . is not always the capacity to choose men of merit but the desire and taste to do so. . . . 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.”
  • “Our contemporaries are constantly wracked 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 console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors.”
  • “For my part, I own that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty which seems to animate my contemporaries. I see plainly that the nations of this age are turbulent, but it is not clear to me that they are freedom loving.”

Your thoughts?

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE AMERICA IS GOOD”–AGAIN

Apart from its implications for the nation and the world, last night’s second presidential debate was very humbling for me personally.

First, I learned that Donald J. Trump’s followers on Facebook and Twitter exceed the number of subscribers to my blog by a factor of fifty thousand.  (Notice that I said “factor.”  Mr. Trump doesn’t have fifty thousand more followers than I do.  He has fifty thousand times as many.) Second, and this wounds me as well, it became abundantly clear that, despite my extensive reflections on the topic, Hillary Clinton still thinks someone somewhere once sagely observed that America is great because America is good.  That sound you heard last night was me banging my head against the wall.  Not once, but twice last night Secretary Clinton repeated the vacuous comment long falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

As I concluded in an earlier post,”America is great because she is good” is, at best, a meaningless platitude.  At worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound. I have explained my case at length (here, here, here, here, and here), and if you happen to have connections to Ms. Clinton’s inner circle, feel free to forward the links to her and her speechwriters.  In the meantime, here is my executive summary–the five reasons why we should place an immediate moratorium on the phrase “America is great because she is good”:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words.  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.

 

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”–CONCLUDING THOUGHTS AND A SOLEMN RECOMMENDATION

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

For the past three weeks I’ve been writing about the best remembered lines from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I’d like to wrap up the series with a recommendation: I propose an immediate moratorium on the aphorism “America is great because she is good.”  Let’s banish it to the place where tired clichés go to die.  At best it’s a meaningless platitude; at worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound.  We’re better off without it, and here are five reasons why:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words. (You know this by now if you’ve been following along.)  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.

Thanks for reading.

TOCQUEVILLE ON AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY: PART FIVE OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

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.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

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.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.  The word "individualism first appeared in the English language in this book.

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

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.”

Tocqueville LettersAnd 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.

George Caleb Bingham, "The Verdict of the People," 1854-55

George Caleb Bingham, “The Verdict of the People,” 1854-55

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.”