Tag Archives: Eric Metaxas

“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.”

TOCQUEVILLE ON THE AMERICAN CHARACTER: PART FOUR OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

Did Alexis de Tocqueville think that “America is great because Americas is good,” as scores of politicians and pundits over the years have insisted?  Did he conclude that “the secret to American freedom is American virtue,” as Eric Metaxas has recently claimed to be the Frenchmen’s “inescapable” conclusion?  What did Tocqueville really believe about the American character, and why should we care if he has been misrepresented?

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

In my last post I reviewed the three main categories that Tocqueville identified to explain why liberty had endured in the United States in the presence of unprecedented equality.  He began by pointing to the crucial importance of “providential” circumstances “independent of man’s will,” most notably the propitious geographic situation of the United States and its vast store of natural resources.   More important still were the system of laws inherited from the Founders, especially the overarching structure of American federalism, the safeguards built into the national Constitution, and the key role played by the American judiciary at both the state and national levels.  Finally, Tocqueville underscored the paramount importance of what he labeled “mores,” the habits of heart and mind that shaped the ways that Americans interacted with each other and with their government.

The first two categories had little to do with Americans’ character, and as I mentioned last time, to the degree that they helped to explain the perpetuation of liberty in the U. S., Tocqueville seems to be saying that American freedom has much more to do with divine grace than human goodness.  The third category is different, however.  In turning to mores—to what Americans believed and how what they believed affected how they behaved—Tocqueville is indisputably arguing that part of the reason that liberty is flourishing in America is because of American values.  But what were those values?

Before answering that question, I have to stop and interject what is my single most favorite quotation from Democracy in America. It’s an observation that speaks volumes about Tocqueville’s reading of human nature and also explains why Americans have found it so hard to hear what Tocqueville had to say.  Here’s the quote, which I feature on the syllabus of just about every course that I teach:

A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.

Tocqueville’s sketch of the American character is nothing if not complex, and to condense it to the simplistic assertion “America is good” makes an effective political slogan but misrepresents his argument badly.

Remember that the central focus of Democracy in America is Tocqueville’s quest to understand the consequences of equality on society and politics.  When it comes to the American character, he is most interested in those traits that either are shaped by American equality or shape equality’s effects on American liberty.  He has much to say on the topic—almost the entirety of volume II is relevant—but here are the character traits that I would say Tocqueville finds paramount:  Generalizing broadly, Americans as Tocqueville describes them are materialistic and acquisitive, independent-minded, individualistic (up to a point), rationally self-interested, and religious.  Let’s take each in turn, and as we consider each, ask yourself how each might be viewed in the light of orthodox Christian teaching.

Within days of setting foot in America, Tocqueville had concluded that the United States was far more materialistic than any of the nations of Europe.  “Here we are truly in another world,” he marveled in a letter to his brother Edouard.   “Political passions are only superficial.  The one passion that runs deep, the only one that stirs the human heart day in and day out, is the acquisition of wealth.”  Some of his initial impressions had changed by the time he sat down to write Democracy in America, but this one only hardened.  “I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts,” he informed his readers.  A “breathless cupidity” drove Americans “to nothing but the pursuit of wealth.”  Related to this was a persistent discontentment that propelled the typical American to a relentless striving for things.  “Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit.”

Tocqueville also observed among Americans an “extreme love of independence.”  A love of independence could be an admirable trait in Tocqueville’s mind.  By his own admission, Tocqueville’s greatest “passion” was the “love of liberty,” and Americans’ love of independence could certainly foster that.  But Tocqueville subscribed to the classical view that moral virtues and vices come not in pairs but in threes.  Someone with too little love of independence was “servile,” with a mindset befitting a slave, but someone with an exaggerated love of independence could resent even legitimate authority.  Such a person was “recalcitrant,” and recalcitrance was one of the character traits that St. Augustine positioned at the very heart of human nature after the Fall.  In Tocqueville’s view, Americans’ passion for equality predisposed them to scorn any authority other than the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  This caused them to be resentful of any intellectual, political, or religious authority not actually awarded by the people themselves.

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. The word “individualism” first appeared in the English language in this book.

Americans were also prone to individualism, according to Tocqueville.  Modern-day Americans often view individualism positively, as an expression of admirable self-reliance and initiative, but Tocqueville saw it in a very different light.  Aristocracy “linked all citizens together in a long chain from peasant to king,” Tocqueville explained, whereas democracy “breaks the chain and severs the links.”  Equality placed citizens side by side but “without a common bond to hold them together.”  Owing nothing to anyone, expecting nothing from anyone, men and women gradually withdraw from society into the cocoon of the family.  In Tocqueville’s view, individualism eats away at community and undermines civic life.  Happily, Americans in the 1830s largely offset this tendency with a penchant for joining forces with others to accomplish specific tasks.  Americans were “constantly joining together in groups” to work toward common goals, whether it was the erection of a hospital, the improvement of a school, or the promotion of some moral or political goal.

That they could join forces with their neighbors to accomplish tasks that they couldn’t accomplish alone reflected another of the character traits Tocqueville emphasized: the degree to which Americans were motivated by the rational calculation of self-interest.  The pursuit of self-interest can be impulsive, reckless, and actually detrimental to wellbeing in the long run, or it can be rational, dispassionate, and prudent in a way that brings long-term benefits.  The latter is what Tocqueville meant by “self-interest, properly understood,” and he argued in vol. II of Democracy in America that it was a doctrine that prevailed almost universally among the people of the United States.

While Eric Metaxas insists that Tocqueville believed that “the secret to American freedom was American virtue,” Tocqueville begins his chapter on the “doctrine of self-interest, properly understood” with the contention that the idealization of virtue (defined as the denial of self for the good of the whole) was a hallmark of aristocratic societies, not democratic ones.  In democratic ages, he contends, the ideal of self-sacrifice for the good of others gradually gives way to the belief that the denial of self in the near term can actually further self-interest in the long run.  Americans no longer spoke of the beauty of virtuous sacrifice, Tocqueville found.  Instead, they praised the usefulness of prudent self-denial. If they had a true guiding star among the heroes of the Revolution, it was Benjamin Franklin, whose “Poor Richard’s Almanack” had shown Americans the path to health and wealth through hard work and thrift.

Self-interest properly understood did not lead Americans to classical virtue, Tocqueville acknowledged, “but it does create a multitude of citizens who are disciplined, temperate, moderate, prudent, and self-controlled.”  In many ways such character traits were a blessing to the larger society, but they originated in self-interest, not in virtuous self-denial as a noble act in and of itself.  Americans were no less selfish than the French, Tocqueville reckoned, but American selfishness was “enlightened” in a way that French selfishness was not.  “Instead of blindly yielding to his first desires,” the typical American “has learned the art of combating them and has become accustomed to easily sacrificing the pleasure of the moment to the permanent interests of his entire life.”

Finally, Tocqueville described Americans as surprisingly religious.  “When I arrived in the United States, it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention,” he informed his readers.  To his surprise, the country that was “the freest and most enlightened” in the world, was also the country where religion’s “influence is greatest.”  What Tocqueville had to say about religion in America is so important, and at the same time so complicated, that it will take an entire post to distill his observations.

I’ll turn to that in my next post and (finally) wrap up this series on the oft-repeated claim “America is great because America is good.”  In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.  In characterizing Americans as acquisitive and materialistic, independent-minded and individualistic, rationally self-interested and religious, was Alexis de Tocqueville making the case in the 1830s that “America is good”?

GOD’S GRACE OR AMERICAN GOODNESS? PART THREE OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

Last Thursday we “honored” Alexis de Tocqueville on his 211th birthday by featuring lines that he is famous for but actually never wrote:

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

Not only did Tocqueville not pen these words, but it is a caricature of Democracy in America to claim, as Eric Metaxas has recently, that they constitute a “brilliant summation” of what Tocqueville believed.

Although it’s belated, I think a more fitting birthday gift would be to call attention to what Tocqueville actually argued in his classic work, so I thought I would give my best shot at distilling his complicated and often imprecise observations.  Before doing so, a caveat: There are scholars who focus their entire careers on Tocqueville’s writings, and I’m not one of them. What follows is Tocqueville as I understand him after several careful readings of Democracy in America and a fair amount of additional reading on the book’s context.  When I teach on Democracy in America this fall in my U. S. history survey at Wheaton, here is what I will convey to my students as I try to give them a context for the selections that I ask them to read:

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

* Tocqueville’s central focus: The implications of equality for democratic societies.  Indeed, as often as not, when Tocqueville refers to “democracy” it is equality that he is thinking about.  We are likely to think of democracy in purely political terms, as the process by which a society channels majority rule into political decisions, but Tocqueville’s focus is usually much broader.  He has in mind the larger “social state” of an age or a people.

A commitment to equality is the driving ideal of a democratic society, according to Tocqueville, even if it falls short of the mark (as it inevitably will).  Such a society will generally feature greater equality of condition than an aristocratic society, and even greater equality of opportunity.  It will be more open, more fluid.  The circumstances of your birth won’t be irrelevant to your future prospects, but neither will they wholly determine the life you will lead, as would be the case in a more traditional society.  By this definition, in Tocqueville’s view, the United States in the 1830s was one of the most egalitarian (and democratic) societies known to history.

(Tocqueville was fully aware of the prevalence of slavery in the American South and viewed its presence as a huge exception to almost every generalization he made about the United States.  The Frenchman spent only two weeks of his nine-month tour of the country in the states south of Tennessee, and it is fair to say that when he marveled at the extent of American equality, in his mind’s eye he was thinking of New England or the Midwest.)

* Tocqueville’s key historical conclusion: The gradual transition from aristocracy to democracy in the western world was a pattern that could not be reversed.  When French royalists hoped to turn back the clock and restore Tocqueville’s homeland to the absolutism of Louis XVI, they were on the wrong side of history.  Democracy, as Tocqueville defined it, was the wave of the future, and wise statesmen and philosophers would seek not to obstruct democracy but to channel its development in such a way as to maximize its blessings and minimize its dangers.

* Tocqueville’s essential moral insight: Democracy does not inevitably produce moral outcomes.  Tocqueville did not view greater equality as either intrinsically positive or negative in its implications.  Its consequences could be a blessing, a curse, or a combination of both.  Democracy would eventually prevail, but what kind of democracy would triumph was far from certain.  As he put it in the final sentence of volume II,

It is beyond the ability of nations today to prevent conditions within them from becoming equal, but it is within their power to decide whether equality will lead them into servitude or liberty, enlightenment or barbarism, prosperity or misery.

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.

* Tocqueville’s greatest concern: The threat that equality potentially poses to liberty.  Tocqueville confessed in a letter to the first English translator of Democracy in America, “I have . . . just one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”  The problem was that the rising equality that Tocqueville viewed as irreversible was not automatically conducive to either.  As the concluding sentence of his reflections warns, equality can lead to servitude as well as liberty, which is another way of saying that democracy can result in despotism instead of freedom.

Tocqueville felt deeply the truth of this possibility.  Three members of his extended family had gone to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and his parents had languished in a dungeon for months, all the time expecting the same fate.  In his homeland the rage for equality had led to anarchy and terror and finally to Emperor Bonaparte, not to the flourishing of “liberty and human dignity.”  Throughout Democracy in America, Tocqueville presents equality and liberty as in tension.  Their coexistence is possible, but not natural or inevitable.  Part of the problem is human nature itself.  Tocqueville believes that humans in a democratic age will value equality above liberty, and if forced to choose, they will forfeit the latter to perpetuate the former.  Which leads to the final key point:

* Tocqueville’s Central Problem: How to preserve liberty in a democratic age.  Although Tocqueville is writing of America, he is writing for France.  Years after the publication of Democracy in America, Tocqueville recalled to a family friend, “Although I very seldom spoke of France . . . I did not write a single page without thinking of France or without having France in a manner of speaking before my eyes.”  Tocqueville hoped to glean insights from the American example that might help his countrymen make a successful transition to democracy without reproducing the horrors of the French Revolution.  So if there was a question that animates his investigation, it is not “What makes America great?”  It is “What has allowed Americans to remain so free, given their passion for equality?”

So how would Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, complete the sentence “America is free because . . .”? Would he have argued that America is free “because she is good”?  Eric Metaxas believes so.  In his recent book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Freedom, he insists that the message of Democracy in America is unequivocal. 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.”  (These are Metaxas’ italics by the way.)

There is a grain of truth to Metaxas’ assertion.  Tocqueville certainly believed that Americans’ values and ideals would have a major impact on the kind of democracy that would flourish here.  And he undoubtedly credited American values at the time as one factor helping to explain the survival of American liberty in the 1830s.  Tocqueville’s explanation of America’s enduring freedom was far more complicated than Metaxas allows, however, and we need to remember that a partial truth—simplistically and dogmatically asserted—is a distortion of the truth.  How did Tocqueville explain the persistence of American liberty?

Liberty continued to exist in the United States, Tocqueville maintained, due to three broad factors.  The least important of the three, though one that still “contributed powerfully,” was what I would label “circumstances.”  Tocqueville spoke instead of “the peculiar, and accidental, situation in which Providence has placed the Americans.”

Chief among these was simple geography.  Like the Founders, Tocqueville took for granted that power was a threat to liberty wherever it was located, which meant that a powerful government could just as easily limit Americans’ freedom as nurture it.  One of the reasons that Americans were so free, Tocqueville believed, was that government was extraordinarily small in the United States compared to the nations of Europe, and the main reason it was extraordinarily small was geographical.  The people of the United States required neither a large army nor the high taxes that a large army necessitated because of where God had situated them.  Our neighbors to the north and south were not a military threat, and the country was protected from the leading military powers of the world by a vast ocean.

A second providential circumstance was the great natural resources that Americans enjoyed.  In the 1830s, cultivable land was more abundant relative to the population in the U. S. than anywhere else in the world, and Tocqueville believed that it was easier for the average person to prosper materially as a result.  In Tocqueville’s words, “It was God himself who, by giving them a boundless continent, granted them the means to remain equal and free for a long time.”  All things equal, greater material prosperity meant less social conflict, and less social conflict meant less excuse for government to intrude on the people’s liberties to promote order and foster security.  In the United States “nature herself seems to work for the people,” Tocqueville marveled.

Especially relevant to Metaxas’ emphasis on American virtue is Tocqueville’s argument that the vastness of the United States actually rewarded character traits that in Europe would be considered threats to social stability.  “In Europe we habitually regard a restless spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers.”  Tocqueville found all three traits in abundance in the American character, but concluded that, in a sparsely populated continent, they facilitated western expansion rather than undermining the social order.  “What a happy land the New World is,” Tocqueville concluded, where man’s vices are almost as useful as his virtues.”

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

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

Were the circumstances that Tocqueville highlighted the result of American virtue?  Of course not.  Tocqueville labels them variously as “accidental,” “natural,” “providential,” and “circumstances independent of man’s will.”  From a Christian perspective, it makes sense to think of them as instances of unmerited divine favor, reflections of God’s grace rather than American goodness.

Pretty much the same can be said of the second group of explanatory factors that Tocqueville identified, which he grouped under the broad heading of “laws.”  In this category Tocqueville included, among other things, the federal structure of the American Constitutional system, which the Frenchman greatly admired, as well as the important role accorded the courts as a conservative check on the potential for majoritarian tyranny.  (I leave it to the reader to decide whether the judiciary fulfills that role today.)  These were expressions of what Tocqueville described as “the art of liberty,” that is, the ability of wise political leaders to craft laws and institutions that accommodated equality while promoting liberty and justice.

Tocqueville was quick to note, however, that the laws and institutions he most admired in America were the creation of the revolutionary generation, and  there had been a steady decline in the quality of American political leaders as the society had grown more democratic.  Voters in Jacksonian America were quick to praise the Founders but had no desire to vote for individuals like them in education and ability.  Tocqueville was struck by “the rareness of outstanding men on the political scene” and attributed it to the majority’s aversion to figures of extraordinary education or sophistication.  “The people are not afraid of great talents but have little taste for them,” he concluded.

So again we should ask: Were the factors that Tocqueville grouped under “laws” expressions of American virtues?  Do they provide evidence that Tocqueville believed that “America is great because she is good,” even if he failed to use those exact words?  Again, the answer must be, “No.”  Americans in the 1830s were beneficiaries of the wisdom and leadership of the Revolutionary generation.  Tocqueville admired the laws and institutions that the Founding generation had put in place, but he was under no illusion that the current generation of Americans deserved the credit.  When it came to the laws, they were reaping where they had not sown.

The third and final factor that helped to perpetuate liberty in the U.S. was a category that Tocqueville labeled “mores.”  Writers sometimes equate the term with “habits of the heart,” although Tocqueville defined it even more broadly.  He had in mind not only “the habits of the heart” but also “the differing notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits.”  In their role in the perpetuation of liberty in America, mores were more important than either circumstances or laws, but even here, with apologies to Eric Metaxas, we cannot find Tocqueville arguing that “the secret to American liberty was American virtue.”  Tocqueville found comparatively little virtue in 1830s America, if by “virtue” we mean what the Founders meant (and Metaxas means), i.e., self-denial for the common good.  In my next post we’ll look closely at how Tocqueville described the American character.

Back in a bit.

George Caleb Bingham, "The County Election," 1852

George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1852

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE AMERICA IS GOOD”–PART ONE

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.”

DID TED CRUZ SHOW “VIRTUE” IN WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S SPEECH?

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

ERIC METAXAS ON OUR NEED FOR HEROES

Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.