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Tocqueville: Patriotism and Christianity (pg. 219-376)
My apologies for not getting this post to you all sooner. Illness is a terrible obstacle to blogging.
Some of you have asked, “What is the rate that we are reading?”. It is approximately 20 pages a day (unless I get sick, then it’s about 0 per day).
Many in my weekly reading group have made the comment, “I’m sad. This is what America used to be like.” America, at that time and even now, is not without her sins (we will touch on Slavery and the Indians next week). I did not have this “ghostly” feeling of a country that is no more until we read the sections on religion. The picture that Tocqueville creates not only shames our most passionate liberty-loving Americans, it also shames our Christians. America used to be a Christian Nation. After reading Tocqueville and seeing the cowardice and corruption displayed by Christians and their leaders today, I’m uncertain how Christian we actually are in America. But we certainly have a plenty of “Obedient Americans”.
The Church is the First Political Institution
Reading Tocqueville’s observations, it’s difficult to consider our country possessing an immunity to tyranny. The Americans we find in this section (219-376) possess a powerful religious zeal for their country. Tocqueville is interested in investigating the cause that prevents America from dissolving into an anarchist chaos or an oppressive tyranny (see our previous post on Tocqueville). Above all the benefits America has, it is the Christian religion and its influence of customs that is the most important. In America, the most important political institution is the Church:
Thus, while the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents their imagining everything and forbids them from daring to do everything. Religion, which never interferes directly in the government of Americans, should therefore be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for, if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it enables them to take unusual advantage of it. . . I am sure that [Americans] believe [religion is] necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions. This is not an opinion peculiar to one class of citizens or to one party, but to a whole nation; it is found in every rank of society.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 342 [emphasis mine].
Ask yourself, do you believe Christianity is essential to the stability of our republic? It does not mean, as we will see later, that pastors should be presidents and that the church should pass laws. Rather, the church is to indirectly influence the republic by teaching the moral law God expects men, and by extension, governments to submit to. For Tocqueville, this is not the idea that you merely preach a sermon on the sins of homosexuality or a fire and brimstone message followed by an altar call. It is that the divine revelation empowers the church to provide the intellectual and moral habits or “customs” that will preserve the nation. The kind of tyranny Tocqueville imagines is the tyranny we have seen exercised in this pandemic; a tyranny enacted for the “good of society” rather than the freedom of the individual.
Up until now, no one in the United States has dared promote the maxim that everything is legitimized in the interest of society, that impious maxim which seems to have been invented in an age of liberty simply to justify every future tyrant.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 342.
Tocqueville would not be able to make this statement about America today. “Wear your mask”, “You can’t have more than 10 people in your house”, “You need to modify your religious practices”, “If you’re a good Christian, get the vaccine.” “Wear your mask or else you could get someone killed”. “We don’t want to be considered unscientific at this church. We are following the CDC guidelines.” All of these are real statements that Christians have made throughout the pandemic. I have yet to see a single Christian leader or denomination admit they were duped into exchanging their faith for “the science.” For a good example of how badly they were duped, see Meghan Basham of the Daily Wire’s incredible piece: How the Federal Government Used Evangelical Leaders to Spread COVID propaganda to Churches.
While it’s impossible to know for sure, based on Tocqueville’s earlier statements and later statements about aristocracy, I doubt he would have “followed the science” nor do I think that Christians of his day would have drastically modified their religious practices or willfully given up their rights in the face of Covid. They were too moral, too smart, and too patriotic.
Our founders and our saints are a great cloud of witnesses; they are looking on as we stumble away from their example. For those of you who complied, you don’t have to keep complying. It is your Christian duty to stand for the natural rights God has given us: the right to freedom of speech, the right to peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, and many others. When Christians believe that they are to submit to the Government’s laws rather than God’s natural law, tyrants thrive.
How could society avoid destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a nation in control of itself, if it is not subject to God?
God’s Law or Man’s Law?
If you have a habit of thinking, you likely have an idea that sticks in your mind like an itch. You’re aware that you have stumbled on something that might be profound, but you lack words and categories to describe the “itch” without looking like a fool. This is why we read great men. They provide those categories and words that scratch the “itch”. When we dig deep into the writings of a great man it is then that we can begin building an intellectual edifice upon their shoulders. But we ought not take this to mean we are a kind of equal to their intelligence; we are not. There is a big difference between laying a foundation and standing on one.
The itch I had was that of the intersection between the church, politics, and natural law. If natural law is binding on all men, then the laws a state or nation authors must be judged by the standard of nature’s law. In short, a crooked line must be judged by a straight line.
The church wants to see themselves as non-political, but a problem arises when one recognizes that Natural Law is not nature’s law, but God’s Law, and it is the law by which a society rises or falls morally. Its purpose is not to bring salvation, but to hold men accountable and direct them to the source that can provide salvation, (i.e., God). If this is the case, then there is a conflict of interest between the state and the church. It is further complicated by the fact that both the state and the church are dependent on the submission and moral quality of the men that sustain them. Meaning, the behavior of men, either for good or for evil, will affect the health of the state and the church.
Tocqueville recognized that the American people possessed intellectual, moral, and spiritual habits that had been forged over the course of 18 centuries. We have lost these, and his comments on the Christian man in the woods should cause all of us to consider how we could live our lives better. Not caring about what people see on the outside, but about how we are actively working on our inner lives for the benefit of ourselves, our neighbors, and our country.
The evening traveler approaches from afar off to see the gleam of a hearth fire through the chinks in the walls at night…Who would not suppose that this poor cottage sheltered some coarse and uneducated people? However, one should not assume a connection between the pioneer and his place of refuge. All about him is primitive and wild, whereas he is the result, so to speak, of eighteen centuries of work and experience. He wears clothes and speaks the language of towns; he is aware of the past, is curious about the future, and is ready to argue about the present. He is a very civilized man prepared to take up a temporary home in the woods, plunging into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, axe, and newspapers.
We have now reached 20 centuries of development, and our Christianity proudly displays an indifference about the state of the world, our communities, and ourselves. “We should care about the state of affairs in our country.” To this the apathetic Christian responds, “Nah, the old is passing away. We don’t need to worry about that, Jesus will come back soon.” To the topic of ourselves he says, “I’m not under the law anymore, I’m saved by grace. I’m not a judgmental Christian, I’m a grace Christian.” This attitude breeds a nationless Christian who is indifferent to God and to his neighbor, but will do anything to keep his career, even compromise his conscience. As Tocqueville says, “Two great dangers threaten the existence of religions: schisms and indifference.”
Patriotic Christians: The Antidote to Tyranny
What is the antidote to this tyranny that Tocqueville foresees, and that we are living through right now? It is a Christianity that sees in the Cross not just salvation for them, but salvation for their country. What if the church needs, not a bit more conservativism or a bit more social justice, but a deeper understanding of the hope they can give nations?
As we consider the times we are in, Tocqueville offers very prescient observations that cast a shadow on our own state of affairs. The moral integrity and habits of Christianity are dying, and with them our rights and liberty itself. The most disturbing thing about this is Christians are either ignorant of this or do not care. Christians are more concerned with getting the life they want rather than pursuing the life they ought. And their pastors seem to encourage them explicitly with “feel good sermons” or implicitly with their silence.
Tocqueville contradicts our modern understanding of the American Dream. American Christians today are self-driven and self-interested; most won’t stand up to their employers, much less a tyrannical government. This stark contrast to early American Christians becomes clear when we consider Tocqueville’s words on the zeal of those Christians and their desire to establish churches to preserve freedom.
I have seen Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches. Their fear is that religion might disappear in the depths of the forest and that people growing up there might be less fitted for freedom than the society they had left. I have met wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.
Today, pastors are terrified of being perceived as political. However, it is precisely when they delude themselves into thinking their theology has no political implications that they become a puppet for the government. It must be understood that when the church sees itself as apolitical, it sows the seeds of a corrupt nation and the destruction of their cathedrals.
Allow me to put forward a conundrum for you pastors and Christian leaders out there. If God has a natural law, who must ensure that it is taught and followed? If natural rights come from God, who is supposed to be the most ardent protector of those rights? One might be tempted to answer “the government”, but are not governments subject to God? God does have a “royal priesthood” and their duty is to teach not just what is necessary for salvation, but to “will the good of the city” without compromising the laws of God. Natural rights are not privileges. They are the rights afforded us by God and our spiritual needs are nourished by the exercise of these natural rights. Additionally, the connection of these rights to the imago-dei becomes evident when Christians actively and in godliness exercise these rights peacefully in opposition to tyrannical regimes.
There has never been a better time for you, especially if you are a Christian, to pick up a copy of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and begin reading it with the nerds in your church. I leave you to mediate on this quote from Tocqueville.
“Tyranny may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot.”