The Right To Happiness by Rick Wilcox

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA
Alexis de Tocqueville

Chapter 5

Of the Manner in Which Religion in the United States Avails Itself of Democratic Tendencies

This brings me to a final consideration, which comprises, as it were, all the others. The more the conditions of men are equalized and assimilated to each other, the more important is it for religions, whilst they carefully abstain from the daily turmoil of secular affairs, not needlessly to run counter to the ideas which generally prevail, and the permanent interests which exist in the mass of the people. For as public opinion grows to be more and more evidently the first and most irresistible of existing powers, the religious principle has no external support strong enough to enable it long to resist its attacks. This is not less true of a democratic people, ruled by a despot, than in a republic. In ages of equality, kings may often command obedience, but the majority always commands belief: to the majority, therefore, deference is to be paid in whatsoever is not contrary to the faith.

I showed in my former volumes how the American clergy stand aloof from secular affairs. This is the most obvious, but it is not the only, example of their self-restraint. In America religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go. Within its limits he is the master of the mind; beyond them, he leaves men to themselves, and surrenders them to the independence and instability which belong to their nature and their age. I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States; or where it presents more distinct, more simple, or more general notions to the mind. Although the Christians of America are divided into a multitude of sects, they all look upon their religion in the same light.

This applies to Roman Catholicism as well as to the other forms of belief. There are no Romish priests who show less taste for the minute individual observances for extraordinary or peculiar means of salvation, or who cling more to the spirit, and less to the letter of the law, than the Roman Catholic priests of the United States. Nowhere is that doctrine of the Church, which prohibits the worship reserved to God alone from being offered to the saints, more clearly inculcated or more generally followed. Yet the Roman Catholics of America are very submissive and very sincere.

Another remark is applicable to the clergy of every communion. The American ministers of the gospel do not attempt to draw or to fix all the thoughts of man upon the life to come; they are willing to surrender a portion of his heart to the cares of the present; seeming to consider the goods of this world as important, although as secondary, objects. If they take no part themselves in productive labor, they are at least interested in its progression, and ready to applaud its results; and whilst they never cease to point to the other world as the great object of the hopes and fears of the believer, they do not forbid him honestly to court prosperity in this. Far from attempting to show that these things are distinct and contrary to one another, they study rather to find out on what point they are most nearly and closely connected.

All the American clergy know and respect the intellectual supremacy exercised by the majority; they never sustain any but necessary conflicts with it. They take no share in the altercations of parties, but they readily adopt the general opinions of their country and their age; and they allow themselves to be borne away without opposition in the current of feeling and opinion by which everything around them is carried along. They endeavor to amend their contemporaries, but they do not quit fellowship with them. Public opinion is therefore never hostile to them; it rather supports and protects them; and their belief owes its authority at the same time to the strength which is its own, and to that which they borrow from the opinions of the majority. Thus it is that, by respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself, and by making use of several of them for her own purposes, religion sustains an advantageous struggle with that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous antagonist.


America’s founders never intended to create Utopia.  Their motives were generally in creating an environment conducive to the pursuit of happiness rather than its delivery.  The rule of law under which we live is more of a concert master than a nanny.  Freedom’s delicate life depends on the fragile equilibrium of authority and accountability, both of the government and the governed.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Christians learned over the centuries the limits and role of government. Utopian schemes that associated Christendom too closely with any particular regime almost always led to tyranny and abuse. Too much freedom, however, could lead to social chaos and anarchy. Between tyranny and anarchy was the Christian commonwealth that could maximize public liberty because of the morality of the people.

Read carefully: Tocqueville reminds believers that the liberty of each human soul is of great value. He also reminds us that no earthly state is perfect and that humanity is not perfectible in this life. Tocqueville was a man with modest goals and realistic dreams.

Citizens of any constitutional state owe a debt to him. His support for liberty under law, for public liberty and private piety, persuaded many American readers. Every nation needs more people who love liberty, fear mob rule, and hate tyranny with the consistent logic and passion of Alexis de Tocqueville. He is still quoted by presidential candidates, but too often he’s ignored by presidents, and therein lies the danger.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


On Religion in America

Hugh Hewitt

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States from France in 1831 to observe and report, which he did in two volumes, published in 1835 and 1840. The above excerpt is from the second volume, and from the translation by Henry Reeves, which Tocqueville did not care for. Translations matter, of course, but we do not know if Tocqueville would have cared for any of the later translations either. Reeves well may have been less objectionable to Tocqueville than all the others.
It is good, perhaps, to use a translation criticized by the author of the original, as it should alert the reader to the fact that all translations are suspect. Be on guard, then, when you aren’t reading the original.
Furthermore, be on guard whenever you read about religion from an author who is himself not a proponent of the beliefs being reported. How could such an account be fair when the premise on so important a matter isn’t shared? Would you trust Richard Dawkins to write a report on American religious practices in 2010? Or Christopher Hitchens?

Well, Tocqueville actually was fair, in both volumes of his work. He may not have been more interested in religion in America than he was any other subject to which he turned his attention, but he was quite thorough in his recordings of how it operated forty years after the Founding.

As you think about the text above, ask yourself where Tocqueville is going. Here again is the last paragraph of the fifth chapter:

All the American clergy know and respect the intellectual supremacy exercised by the majority; they never sustain any but necessary conflicts with it. They take no share in the altercations of parties, but they readily adopt the general opinions of their country and their age; and they allow themselves to be borne away without opposition in the current of feeling and opinion by which everything around them is carried along. They endeavor to amend their contemporaries, but they do not quit fellowship with them. Public opinion is therefore never hostile to them; it rather supports and protects them; and their belief owes its authority at the same time to the strength which is its own, and to that which they borrow from the opinions of the majority. Thus it is that, by respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself, and by making use of several of them for her own purposes, religion sustains an advantageous struggle with that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous antagonist.

———

So what in the world is he saying? Is he calling the clergy spineless? Or is he complimenting their flexibility in the face of majoritarian rule?
And what does he mean by the assertion—quite definite—that “the spirit of individual independence” is the most dangerous antagonist of religion?

Note as well that after raising your suspicions about the clergy generally, Tocqueville goes on (in a chapter as short and to the point as the preceding was long and twisting) to applaud the progress of Roman Catholicism on the new continent. He nearly declares the victory of Catholicism in America, and this just a few short years before fearsome anti-Catholic prejudice would sweep the land.

Perhaps, though, he was just being farsighted, for if anyone examines the present American religious landscape, which sect has held together more closely, and even greater prospered, than the Roman Catholic? Beset by problems after Vatican II, of course, and humbled by the child-abuse scandal, still the Roman Church has grown and grown, fueled by immigration but also renewed by two pontiffs who have seemed to understand what Tocqueville knew: People want guidance for their souls once they are convinced they have them.

And they want dogma. Particularly in a hyper-democratic age when all is being thrown down—even definitions of institutions as central to the society as marriage.

This is just a brief introduction to Democracy in America, but here’s a guarantee. You’ll be able to return again and again and be charmed by the language and always be startled by what’s almost a prophetic voice. Given his uncanny instinct, read very carefully what Tocqueville has to say about faith generally in an age of equality.

Hugh Hewitt, JD, is a professor of Law at Chapman University and host of the nationally syndicated Hugh Hewitt Show. He is a prolific contributor to various new media outlets and has authored dozens of books on faith and politics, and the intersection of the two.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

 


John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 


Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief