It was a glorious afternoon in Wheaton and I took advantage of the perfect weather to spend several hours at St. James Farm, a former horse and dairy farm that is now a 600-acre public forest preserve. I took a cold drink and my copy of Democracy in America and had a grand time.
I’ll return in a day or two to my series on the aphorism “America is great because America is good,” but I was so struck by a passage from Tocqueville on a different subject—in this case, lines that the Frenchman actually wrote—that I had to share them with you right away. The passage in question comes from a section in vol. I titled “On the Principal Causes of Religion’s Power in America.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850
Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville begins by noting that European philosophers had been predicting since the eighteenth century that religious zeal would inevitably fade as liberty and enlightenment increased. The opposite pattern seemed to hold in America, however. In America Tocqueville found “the freest, most enlightened men living in the happiest circumstances to be found anywhere in the world,” and yet religion also seemed to flourish. “When I arrived in the United States,” he relates, “it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention.”
Surprised by this discovery, Tocqueville interviewed a variety of clergymen about what he had discerned, and “to a man, they assigned primary credit for the peaceful ascendancy of religion in their country to the complete separation of church and state.” This prompted him to ask further questions about the role that the clergy played in America. “As I listened,” Tocqueville related,
I learned that in God’s eyes no one is damnable for his political views so long as those views are sincere, and that there is no more sin in erring about matters of government than in being mistaken about how to build a house or plow a furrow.
Interesting. Tocqueville continues,
I saw them [the clergy] carefully mark their distance from, and avoid contact with, all parties as zealously as it if were a matter of personal interest.
In the rest of the chapter, Tocqueville compares religion’s great vitality in the United States with its moribund state in France and explains the difference by comparing the separation of church and state that existed in the United States with the close alliance of church and state that had characterized France prior to the French Revolution. When French advocates of political liberty had struck at the French monarchy, they had naturally seen the Catholic Church as an ally of the Crown and an enemy of the cause of freedom. He then generalizes,
When religion allies itself with a political power, it increases its power over some but gives up hope of reigning over all. As long as a religion rests solely on sentiments that console man in his misery, it can win the affection of the human race. But when it embraces the bitter passions of this world, it may be forced to defend allies acquired through interest rather than love, and it must reject as adversaries men who love it still even as they do battle with its allies. Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire. . . . But when religion seeks the support of worldly interests, it becomes almost as fragile as any temporal power. Alone, it can hope for immortality; linked to ephemeral powers, it shares their fortune and often falls with the fleeting passions that sustain them.
I don’t know about you, but when Tocqueville writes of Christians being “forced to defend allies acquired through interest rather than love,” my mind goes to the awkward (and I believe horribly misguided) alliance of evangelicals with Donald Trump. Tocqueville believed that such an alliance had greatly weakened the spiritual influence of French Christians. “In Europe,” he writes.
Christianity allowed itself to become the close ally of temporal powers. Today those powers are collapsing, and Christianity finds itself buried, as it were, beneath their debris. A living thing, it has been lashed to cadavers.
Democracy in America is not Scripture and Alexis de Tocqueville was not a prophet, yet this passage has me wondering what long-term effect evangelical leaders’ support for Donald Trump will have on the Church’s witness to a lost world.