Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

MEDITATIONS FOR THE VOTING BOOTH

It’s almost midnight on November 7th, and soon one of the most divisive and controversial presidential campaigns since the Civil War will finally be over (hopefully).  Within the next twenty-four hours somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred million of us will cast our votes for the nation’s highest office (on top of nearly half that number who have already voted).  No matter who wins, it will take a long time for the nation to recover.  Early in his public career, Abraham Lincoln observed that democracy requires three things to flourish: a people who are united among themselves, have faith in free institutions, and are guided by reason.  If he was right, we’re in trouble.

Many of us will go to the polls deeply troubled for the future of our country.  Some of us will also carry a burden for the future of Christ’s Church, fearfully convinced that the outcome of the election will determine its future as well.  Early this summer, I wrote an open letter to evangelical leaders in which I implored them to share the theological principles and scriptural precepts that guide their thinking about politics, in particular their decision to support the Republican nominee.  I am still waiting.

On one hand, we’ve been told that a twice divorced casino mogul known for his bigotry, adulation of power, and contempt for constitutional constraints is a wonderful father and faithful Christian, which should make our decision simple.  Conversely, we’ve been told that character doesn’t matter—we’re “not electing a pastor,” after all—and that a host of pragmatic reasons dictate that we ally with a scoundrel to bring down a villain.   I can imagine Winston Churchill saying such a thing.  I’m not so sure about Jesus.

I’m not qualified to offer a set of systematic theological principles to guide our thinking about the mess that we’re in—that’s why I have so genuinely longed for our leaders to teach us.  Like many of us, I think we’re faced with a set of awful options when we go into the voting booth tomorrow.  It occurs to me that these extraordinary circumstances have exposed the theological shallowness of my own thinking about politics until now.  In years when one major candidate seemed clearly superior to the other, no very deep thinking was required.  But now that we effectively face a choice between the two most unpopular presidential nominees since the beginning of polling, each deeply if differently flawed, I find myself groping for scriptural principles upon which to make a decision.

If Donald Trump had a particle of integrity, and if I thought he truly cared remotely about the sanctity of human life and the importance of religious freedom (instead of stumbling on both positions just recently while reading “Two Corinthians”), and if I thought he could be trusted to make wise nominations to the Supreme Court, and if I thought he possessed the political acumen to steer genuinely sound nominations through a bitterly divided, dysfunctional Senate (which will soon either be almost evenly split between the parties or have a slight Democratic majority), and if history showed that ostensibly conservative nominees to the Court reliably espoused conservative positions once on the bench (which it doesn’t), then we could have a really good discussion about whether the ends justify the means and God would have us ally with someone as morally offensive as Donald Trump to accomplish some greater good.

In case you missed the italics, however, there are way too many “ifs” in that long sentence to base a decision on.  I know that many evangelicals have concluded that a Trump presidency—however distasteful and even frightening—is simply the price we must pay for a conservative Court for the next generation.  Their motives may be honorable, but I fear their reasoning is dreadfully misguided.

So here is what I am meditating on these last hours before voting myself.  I’m suspecting that, however we vote, our decision will say something about our view of divine sovereignty and human identity, that is, how we understand God and how we see ourselves.  In church this past Sunday, our congregation sang a familiar praise chorus with the words “Our God is an awesome God / He reigns in heaven above / with wisdom, power, and love / our God is an awesome God.”  And before I knew it, my thoughts were on the impending election (confession: my mind sometimes wanders in church—sorry), and I found myself asking whether we really believe this when we go into the voting booth.  If so, in what ways will a robust confidence in God’s sovereignty and power inform the votes we cast?  And how, exactly, might our faith in God’s sovereignty and power square with the conclusion that we must support the “lesser of evils” to promote a “Christian” outcome?

And then our pastor began his sermon.  While preaching on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, he took us briefly to a relevant passage in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews.  The verse that caught my attention was chapter 13, verse 14.  In my New King James translation I read, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come,” and again my thoughts turned to Election Day.  When we pull the curtain behind us and cast our ballots, will our actions reflect our identity first and foremost as Americans—more specifically, as Republicans or Democrats—or will we self-consciously remind ourselves, as the apostle Paul taught the church at Philippi, that “our citizenship is in heaven”?

Will we think of ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” to return to the language of the book of Hebrews, or will our identity and motivation be grounded elsewhere?  Will we see the election as our “last chance” to save America or make it great again, or will we believe the Scripture’s assurance (in Hebrews 12:28) that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”?

In context, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is combining assurance with admonition.  The full verse reads, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and Godly fear.”  The full truth of this passage is beyond my comprehension, but the writer seems to be telling us that a key to serving God acceptably is realizing where our identity is grounded and where our hope lies.  You should read these verses in context and decide for yourself how they may apply.  As for me, I’m having a hard time squaring them with the pervasive pragmatism that so many of our leaders seem to have adopted.

I’ll be voting tomorrow, but not for either major candidate.

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON THE CHOICES BEFORE US

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

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In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln grounded his argument on three main points:

1) The “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”

2) Free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

3) Such a negative environment is fertile ground for tyranny.  Ambitious individuals will inevitably arise from time to time, individuals who will “thirst for distinction” and who will attain it, if possible, at whatever cost.  When such a figure arises, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”  When these attributes are not in place, the people may actually embrace the future tyrant and become active agents in their own downfall.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

So how do we guard against such an outcome?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

“Every lover of liberty” should swear to honor the law, Lincoln lectured his lyceum audience.  The people should purpose to make “reverence for the laws . . . the political religion of the nation.”  This didn’t mean blind submission to every government edict, but it did a mindset that patiently addresses injustice within the rule of law, working to alleviate ills without violating the Constitutional forms necessary for liberty to flourish over the long run.

In addition to inculcating such “reverence,” Lincoln called on his audience to promote rationality.  Popular passions may have played a role during the American Revolution, Lincoln admitted, when the patriots of 1776 labored to establish liberty.  But passion is actually an obstacle to ordering and sustaining liberty, Lincoln maintained.   Repeatedly, Lincoln directed his audience to passion as the “enemy” of those who would live by the rule of law.  He speaks of “mob law,” the “mobocratic spirit, “the growing disposition to substitute the cold and furious passions” in the place of “sober judgment.”

Passion “will in future be our enemy,” Lincoln concluded, precisely because, when combined with a loss of “attachment” to the government, it leaves the public ripe for exploitation by the ambitious demagogue who “thirsts for distinction” and will do all within his power to attain it, “whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

So what would Lincoln think of the 2016 presidential campaign?  Who knows.  But you don’t have to go too far out on a limb to conclude that he’d think we’re in danger.  What did he say is the greatest bulwark of our political institutions?  The attachment of the people to the government.  What did he conclude is one of the foremost obstacles to liberty?  A people guided by passion rather than reason.   And what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

Americans have no good choices when they go to the polls next Tuesday.  Through her own apparent dishonesty and dissembling, Secretary Clinton has done her fair share to engender popular disillusionment with the career politicians in Washington and thus weaken “the attachment of the people.”  But what Clinton has accomplished inadvertently, Donald Trump seeks to do intentionally, actively fueling contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.  Fear and resentment, however justified, do not make a sustainable basis for democracy, but they can propel a demagogue to political power.

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IT’S NOT ABOUT DEFEATING HILLARY—IT’S ABOUT THE TESTIMONY OF THE CHURCH

I continue to feel ill at ease when I speak forthrightly in this space about contemporary politics.  I began this blog some four years ago because I wanted to be in conversation with other Christians about the intersection of the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Put differently, I felt a growing burden to speak to the Church about how to remember the past faithfully.  Many of you have been drawn to Faith and American History because of a similar concern.  I value your time and your trust, and I do not want to abuse either.

And yet I feel compelled to take a public stand.  Every year in my senior seminar for graduating history majors, I require the class to read a 1940 essay by Archibald MacLeish, American poet, playwright, and Librarian of Congress.  Written at the outbreak of WWII, MacLeish’s essay, “The Irresponsibles,” was a passionate jeremiad directed at the American Academy.  Germany, France, and Japan had succumbed to totalitarian dictatorship and the world was erupting in flames, but western scholars, MacLeish lamented, were doing nothing to impede the progress of trends that were systematically, inexorably destroying freedom of thought and expression in far-flung reaches of the globe.  Condemning “the organization of the intellectual life of our time,” MacLeish condemned the “scholar” who “digs in his ivory cellar in the ruins of the past and lets the present sicken as it will.”

The crisis confronting the American people in 2016 is not equivalent to the threat posed by European fascism in 1940, but it is ominous in its own way.  Through his repeated claims that the electoral process is “rigged” or “fixed,” Donald Trump is doing his best to undermine the very foundation of American democracy, namely popular confidence in the democratic process.  This is cynical nihilism incarnate, an utterly reckless willingness to destroy if he cannot rule.

But as dire as this threat to our political system may be, as a Christian scholar I am far more concerned by the threat posed to Christ’s Church.  It is a threat inseparable from the Trump campaign, but ultimately posed not by Trump himself but by evangelicals who continue to defend him.  Evangelical support continues to be robust, even after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video so damaging that even Trump himself was temporarily—very temporarily—contrite.  A poll of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute completed after the release of the video still found that two-thirds of likely evangelical voters intended to support the Republican nominee.  And apart from the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the more “fair and balanced” media, Trump’s most outspoken defenders in recent days have been evangelical leaders such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr.

If there is a silver lining to be found, it is the indication that large numbers of evangelicals are still undecided.  A poll released by the Barna Group last week suggests that nearly three out of ten aren’t sure how they will vote.  If you fall into that category, won’t you please take note of the arguments below?

Rather than make the case myself, I can happily refer you to a growing number of prominent, theologically conservative evangelical voices who make the case against Trump better than I can.  In the last ten days, these were some of the most eloquent evangelical arguments against the Republican nominee to appear:

* Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, “Speak Truth to Trump”

* Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “If Donald Trump Has Done Anything Right, He Has Snuffed Out the Religious Right”

* Julie Roys, journalist, blogger, and radio host on Moody Radio Network, “Evangelical Trump Defenders are Destroying the Church’s Witness”

* Collin Hansen, editorial director for the Gospel Coalition, “This is the Last Spastic Breath from the Religious Right before its Overdue Death”

* R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Donald Trump has Created an Excruciating Moment for Evangelicals”

I encourage you to read each of these carefully and prayerfully and decide for yourself, but here is my executive summary of the five pieces linked above, taken as a group:

First, all agree that Trump is morally disqualified to hold our nation’s highest office.  For example, Andy Crouch writes of Trump,

He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.

Al Mohler agrees, observing that “the Republican nominee is, in terms of character, the personification of what evangelicals have preached (and voted) against.”

Married three times, flaunting Christian sexual mores, building his fortune and his persona on the Playboy lifestyle, under any normal circumstances Trump would be the realization of evangelical nightmares, not the carrier of evangelical hopes.

In sum, Mohler concludes, “Donald Trump is not just disqualified from being a Sunday school teacher. Honest evangelicals would not want him as a next-door neighbor.”

Second, these writers make clear that the most important thing at stake in the current campaign is not a Democratic or Republican victory but the testimony of a Church that claims to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Crouch describes the danger this way:

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

Russell Moore offers a similar warning:

What’s at stake here is far more than an election. In the 1980s, many evangelicals quietly cringed when they saw the endless stream of hucksters called “television evangelists” on the airwaves around them. . . . When one after another fell into open scandal, it wasn’t just their prosperity gospel voodoo that was disgraced before the world, but the reputation of the entire church. And yet the damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.

Julie Roys perhaps puts it best.  “How on earth can evangelicals maintain any moral platform from which to speak out against abortion and gay marriage if we’re going to dismiss and normalize adultery and sexual assault?” she asks.

Donald Trump may do less damage to the country than Hillary, but he’s done far worse damage to the evangelical church than anyone in recent history. And let’s remember, the church — not politics — is the only real hope of reforming the character of this nation and saving it from destruction. That’s why the witness of the church is simply not worth trading for a political victory.

Al Mohler sums it up this way: “The stakes could not be higher. Jesus famously asked, ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26)  Those are the questions now faced by America’s evangelicals.”

“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.

 

POLITICAL DEBATES THEN AND NOW

So what will you be watching tonight on CNN?  I’ll confess that I plan on catching at least a part of tonight’s presidential debate, but then I also slow down to look at fender-benders on the side of the interstate when I pass by.  I don’t expect to see anything edifying, but somehow the possibility of witnessing something grotesque is just too hard to pass up.

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Given that I spent much of the summer working through the papers of Abraham Lincoln, I know in advance that I’ll spend much of the evening thinking about how political debates have changed over the last century and a half.  When Lincoln famously debated Stephen Douglas in 1858 for a seat in the U. S. Senate, there was no moderator–only a timekeeper–and no pre-announced topics.  The first speaker had an hour for an opening statement, the second speaker was given an hour and a half for a rebuttal, and the first speaker concluded the evening with a thirty-minute rejoinder.  (Lincoln and Douglas took turns going first over the course of their seven debates.)  Tonight the candidates will offer a series of two-minute responses to six questions posed by a moderator (Lester Holt of NBC News), interspersed with responses to each other of similar length.  The entire debate is scheduled to last for ninety minutes.

lincoln_douglas

The differences are instructive.  Surely they say something about the collective attention span of the Twitter Age, although I realize that in pointing that out I risk being dismissed for the old fogy that I am.  But seriously, who believes that such a format promotes anything but superficiality?  Does anyone seriously expect that a two-minute answer to a question on economic recovery or the federal debt or national security does anything but trivialize these difficult challenges?  The format reminds me of the Miss America pageant, or better yet, American Idol.  Why not replace the moderator with a panel of celebrity judges?

Political journalist Elizabeth Drew had an insightful editorial in today’s Washington Post (“Presidential Debates Seriously Distort Our Democratic System”).  Drew makes the very good point that

The debates test qualities that have virtually nothing to do with governing. Governing requires thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience, the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy. Consider the qualities that enabled John F. Kennedy to prevent the discovery that the Soviets had stationed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba from escalating into a calamity. During that tense showdown, Kennedy most definitely didn’t utilize his considerable wit and zealously avoided publicly humiliating Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet employing wit and one-upping an opponent are the two qualities most prized in the debates.

I think she’s right.  And my concerns were hardly alleviated when I went to the CNN website and saw that they have a feature with film clips from past debates highlighting the “best debate knockout lines“–exactly the one-liners that Drew is descrying as a false criterion on presidential potential.  Sigh.

 

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”—PART TWO

Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back soon.

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