STOP the War on Children

July 4, 2011

Christian Faith: America’s “Particular Strength”

By Dr. Karen Gushta


Christian faith equals liberty. That’s not how some see it today, but Frenchman Alexis de
Tocqueville said the two were closely linked. “The Americans combine the notions of
religion and liberty so intimately in their minds,” he wrote, “that it is impossible to make
them conceive of one without the other.”

De Tocqueville made this observation in his classic Democracy in America published in
two volumes in 1835 and 1840 after he toured America, hoping to see just “what a great
republic is.” De Tocqueville saw from afar that America had achieved what the French
revolution had failed to do—a society of “almost complete equality of social conditions.”
So he decided to take a closer look.

In the course of his nine-month itinerary, de Tocqueville visited every major region of
America east of the Mississippi.  He traveled the eastern seaboard, saw the then “frontier”
in Michigan and Wisconsin, visited the thriving mid-western river city of Cincinnati, and
toured through the south stopping at Nashville and Memphis on his way to the deep-south
port of New Orleans at the mouth of North America’s largest river.

De Tocqueville experienced adventure that foreign to his aristocratic upbringing. While
on the frontier he stayed in the rough accommodations of a log cabin, and one of the
steamboats he was on sank. Yet, he also had the opportunity to converse with America’s
best thinkers including John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster. He met President
Andrew Jackson and interviewed future president of the Republic of Texas and governor
of the state of Texas, Sam Houston. Houston was living at the time among the Cherokee
in the Arkansas Territory and operating a trading post on the Arkansas River. De
Tocqueville also had the opportunity to meet the last living signer of the Declaration of
Independence, the wealthy Maryland landowner Charles Carroll of Carrollton, just before
he died in 1832 at age 95.

Democracy in America is a rich portrait of a nation that had not yet celebrated the fiftieth
anniversary of the writing of its constitution. A nation bursting with energy and strength,
fueled by faith—faith in itself and its own exceptionalism, and faith in the God who was
recognized by its founders to have played a divine role in its founding.

Yet de Tocqueville wondered whether America could escape the inexorable drive of the
democratic spirit—the spirit of liberté, égalité, fraternité, which fueled the French
revolution. When the French cast off the restraints of Christian religion by crushing the
church, killing its leaders, and declaring worship of the “goddess of Reason,” that
democratic spirit led to tyranny and despotism.

The revolution in France ended in 1799 and by the time de Tocqueville visited America
30 years later, his country had gone through three different systems of government: the
Consulate, the Napoleonic Empire, and the Bourbon Restoration of King Charles X.
Then, in 1830, just prior to de Tocqueville’s arrival in America in 1831, Charles X was
overthrown by a populist backed coup d’état and Louis-Philippe I, a member of the
Orleans branch of the House of Bourbon, was placed on the throne under a constitutional

Louis-Philippe started well, reportedly having said, “We will attempt to remain in a juste
milieu (the just middle), in an equal distance from the excesses of popular power and the
abuses of royal power.” By 1848 Louis-Philippe had lost “the middle” and his abuse of
royal power led to his forced abdication and exile to England and the French established
the Second Republic with a nephew of Napoleon I as president.

De Tocqueville’s trip to America was financed by the monarchy with the charge to study
America’s penal system and penitentiaries. Soon after his return, de Tocqueville dutifully
wrote a report on the American system and its “Applications to France.” But his primary
interest in visiting America, as evidenced by the massive two-volume Democracy in
America, was to study the question that was clearly eluding the French, for all their
revolutionary fervor and “liberalism.”

How does a democratic government avoid descent into a tyranny of the masses? To
escape that tyranny the French first accepted Napoleon as emperor and then Charles X as

De Tocqueville came to America to see democracy in action. He had recently been
elected to represent his home department (state) of Manche to the Chamber of Deputies
in the French parliament. But his focus was not on the unique system of representation
embodied in the American Constitution. Rather de Tocqueville looked intently at the
effects of the equality of conditions that he saw everywhere in America.

Being an astute student of history, de Tocqueville understood that giving citizens the
ability to own land, transfer wealth, and engage in commerce, introduces elements of
equality into society. “From that moment on, all processes discovered, all needs that
arise, all desires that demand satisfaction bring progress toward universal leveling,” he
wrote. Furthermore, America provided unique conditions for a level society, since
“America, once discovered, presents a thousand new routes to fortune and delivers wealth
and power to the obscure adventurer.”

In spite of the set-backs in the drive toward an “equality of conditions” in France, de
Tocqueville was optimistic it would continue. His goal in coming to America was “to
find lessons there from which we could profit.” “I confess that in America I saw more
than America,” he wrote in his introduction. “I sought there an image of democracy itself,
of its penchants, its character, its prejudices, it passions; I wanted to become acquainted
with it if only to know at least what we ought to hope or fear from it.”

So what did he find and is it still the same today? Democracy in America remains popular
with both conservatives and liberals today because of the profound and seemingly
prescient insights that de Tocqueville inscribed in it.

What were the principle causes that tended to maintain a democratic republic in the
United States, he inquired. One of those he found was religion, and specifically
Christianity. “America is … still the place in the world where the Christian religion has
most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and
natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire
is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.”

“It is religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies: one must never forget
this,” wrote de Tocqueville, who was not very religious himself. “In the United States
religion is therefore intermingled with all national habits and all the sentiments to which a
native country gives birth.” It is this fact “that gives it a particular strength.”

What could erode this strength? As a careful student of democracy, de Tocqueville saw
two things inherent in democracy itself. The first was “equality of conditions.” Such
equality “makes men conceive a sort of instinctive incredulity about the supernatural and
a very high and often much exaggerated idea of human reason.”

The second tendency de Tocqueville saw was that “Democracy favors the taste for
material enjoyments.” “This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe
that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor.”

The antidote to these inherent tendencies in democracies is religion, for it is a “general,
simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul”—a guard
against materialism and a protection against inflated human reason.

This July 4th, pray for our nation. Pray that the indispensable pillars of “religion and
morality,” as George Washington called them, will continue to stand strong. For if they
crumble, America’s “particular strength” will too.


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