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.