When French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young American republic in 1831, he was amazed at the degree of religious freedom and interfaith harmony he found.
“On my arrival in the United States,” he observed in his classic work Democracy in America, “the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.”
Aware of the centuries of inter-religious struggle that had divided his homeland and other European nations, Tocqueville noted, “In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions.”
Not in America. Determined to learn the new nation’s secret for inter-faith peace, Tocqueville deliberately questioned clergy and church members from all the different denominations. As a Roman Catholic, he often came into conversation with Catholic priests, so he sought their opinions as well.
Pastors and people in the pews were all in agreement.
“To each of these men I expressed my astonishment and explained my doubts,” wrote Tocqueville. “I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.”
For several paragraphs, Tocqueville discusses his amazement that, while Americans are a religious people, religion as an institution played little direct role in political life.
“American clergy in general...do not support any particular political system,” observed Tocqueville. “They keep aloof from parties and from public affairs. In the United States religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.”
Trenchant observations like this would seem to put Tocqueville at odds with today’s Religious Right activists, who argue that separation of church and state is a “myth” invented in modern times and that America was founded to be an officially “Christian nation.”
Thus it comes as something of a surprise to see political and religious leaders who promote policies that would drastically lower the church-state wall claiming Tocqueville as one of their own.
President George W. Bush has been more determined to merge religion and government than any modern president. Bush, a champion of “faith-based” initiatives, proudly acknowledges the Religious Right as his base. Yet Bush apparently believes Tocqueville is on his side.
During two speeches in early March, Bush invoked Tocqueville, using the Frenchman both times to prop up his faith-based initiative.
Addressing leaders of religious charities in Washington March 1, Bush, in remarks that The New York Times called “off the cuff and slightly confusing,” asserted that “de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s, really figures out America in a unique way” because he saw that “Americans form association in order to channel the individualistic inputs of our society to enable people to serve a cause greater than themselves.”
Six days later, Bush struck again, mentioning Tocqueville during a speech in Pittsburgh while unveiling a program aimed at helping troubled juveniles.
Tocqueville, Bush said, noted that Americans were able “to associate in a voluntary way to kind of transcend individualism.”
As The Times reported, Bush appeared to be “using Tocqueville…to underscore the philosophy behind his religion-based initiative, the expanding $2 billion program that makes it easier for religious groups to get government money for social programs.”
Not surprisingly, some Tocqueville admirers accused Bush of selectively quoting the Frenchman.
Bernard-Henri Levy, a French writer who last year retraced Tocqueville’s American journey, told The Times that Bush was off base.
“There are many other points in Tocqueville’s observations that President Bush does not quote, and we know perfectly well why,” Levy told the newspaper. “These are the points that go against the world vision of President Bush. For example, Tocqueville insisted on the importance of religion in America, but he always added that religion should be separated from politics. This is a point that I think George Bush should be well inspired to look at.”
It’s possible Bush never read those passages at all. Democracy in America is a sprawling work. First published in two volumes with a five-year interval in between, the tome has since been consolidated into one weighty volume. Such versions can easily run to 700 pages of text. Phillips Bradley’s translation, long considered the standard edition, has repeatedly been available as a mass-market paperback in two volumes. The first runs 452 pages of eye-straining type.
Remarkably, the man who produced this masterpiece was just 25 when he embarked on his epic journey of America with a traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont. Both men had studied law and were magistrates in France. As members of the aristocracy, they also had the time and funds necessary for such a long, and at that time arduous, journey.
In a letter to a friend, Tocqueville wrote that he undertook the trip to learn “what a great republic is.” The United States, only 53 years old at the time, was an object of great interest to educated Europeans, many of whom were skeptical that a government based on social equality and republican ideals could survive.
Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled throughout the country for nine months. Arriving by ship in New York City, they journeyed through western New York, traveling along the northern frontier to what were then the far-flung states of Michigan and Wisconsin. After a sojourn in Canada, they doubled back to Boston, then traveled south to Philadelphia and Baltimore. From there the duo headed west to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, then turned south, going as far as New Orleans. On their way back to New York City for the sea voyage home, Tocqueville and Beaumont stopped in Washington, D.C.
Government officials and political leaders were more approachable back then, and Tocqueville interviewed dozens of prominent figures. Both men also kept journals, planning to collaborate on a book once they got back home.
In France, Tocqueville and Beaumont began their collaboration, writing a book about the penal system in America. But for some reason they parted ways after that and focused on very different writing projects. Beaumont chose to pen a novel titled Marie about race relations in America. Although still in print, the tome, a potboiler that Amazon.com describes as “the story of socially forbidden love between an idealistic young Frenchman and an apparently white American woman with African ancestry,” failed to have the impact of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
Volume one of Tocqueville’s work appeared in 1835, with volume two to appear five years later. In Europe, the first volume was perceived as something of a travelogue, which were popular at the time, and its lively prose made it a best-seller. The more somber and analytical volume two was less well received.
Still, the book assured Tocqueville’s reputation. In 1840 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, where he served until 1848. He was also made a member of two elite French academies. (Frequently of poor health, Tocqueville died young, succumbing to what was probably tuberculosis in 1859 at the age of 54.)
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville discoursed on nearly every facet of American life, from government structure and American literature to race relations and the status of women. His observations about religion are found in several meaty sections in volume one.
Tocqueville wrote of an America where the law allowed great latitude for action but where religion, freely adopted by the people, applied natural curbs on excesses.
Viewing the country as a culturally Christian nation, Tocqueville asserted that Americans believed religion necessary for the maintenance of good government. He went so far as to write, “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.”
But Tocqueville also noted that Americans were stubborn in their insistence that religion remain a voluntary association of believers. The fear of a state-imposed religion, he wrote, was so great that several states had laws banning members of clergy from holding public office and “public opinion excludes them in all.”
Tocqueville follows this observation with a long discourse on the dangers of church-state alliances, pointing out that the chief threat lies mainly to the church.
Writes Tocqueville, “Religion intimately united with the governments of the earth have been known to exercise sovereign power founded on terror and faith; but when a religion contracts an alliance of this nature, I do not hesitate to affirm that it commits the same error as a man who should sacrifice his future to his present welfare; and in obtaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks that authority which is rightfully its own.”
A religion united with government, Tocqueville observes, can offer a theology that pleases only some and forfeits its ability to win over others by moral suasion. He asserts, “Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.”
Prophetically, Tocqueville foresaw the decline of organized religion in Europe, thanks to close church-state ties there.
“In Europe, Christianity has been intimately united to the powers of the earth,” he wrote. “Those powers are now in decay and it is, as it were, buried under their ruins. The living body of religion has been bound down to the dead corpse of superannuated polity; cut the bonds that restrain it, and it will rise once more. I do not know what could restore the Christian church of Europe to the energy of its earlier days; that power belongs to God alone; but it may be for human policy to leave to faith the full exercise of the strength which it still retains.”
A work as massive as Democracy in America will naturally be open to interpretation, and over the years both liberals and conservatives have drawn on Tocqueville to buttress their positions.
But in the case of religion, Tocqueville’s views seem clear: Church-state alliances, he argued forcefully, were best avoided.
“The alliance which religion contracts with political powers must needs be onerous to itself, since it does not require their assistance to live, and by giving them its assistance it may be exposed to decay,” he wrote.
The danger is greatest when governments are strong, Tocqueville warns: “When governments seem so strong and so stable, men do not perceive the dangers that may accrue from a union of church and state.”
Unlike Europe with its hereditary monarchs or rubber-stamp parliaments, the United States, Tocqueville noted, changes leaders frequently. For religion to stay in the good graces of the state as leaders come and go, it would have to modify what are supposed to be immortal truths to please new rulers.
“The American clergy were the first to perceive this truth and to act in conformity with it,” wrote Tocqueville. “They saw that they must renounce their religious influence if they were to strive for political power, and they chose to give up the support of the state rather than to share its vicissitudes.”
Ironically, it is the Religious Right that today has failed to heed Tocqueville’s warning. Determined to fuse temporal and spiritual power, Religious Right leaders and their allies in government have moved the country far beyond what Tocqueville experienced. The Religious Right has abandoned the moral suasion Tocqueville celebrated among religions and increasingly relies on the raw power of government to impose its view.
One need look no further than the recent imbroglio over Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who became the center of a media and political circus, thanks to the machinations of the Religious Right and its unhealthy grip on President Bush and congressional leaders.
Perhaps because the Religious Right realizes that so much of Tocqueville stands as a rebuke to its goals, movement leaders have been circulating a phony quote that they say comes from Democracy in America.
The quote in question reads, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” For years, this passage was circulated by “Christian nation” advocates and attributed to Tocqueville’s famous tome, but in fact it does not appear in Democracy in America. In 1996, Religious Right historical revisionist David Barton conceded that the quote was undocumented and advised his supporters to stop using it.
2005 marks the 200th anniversary of Tocqueville’s birth. It’s a good time to revisit Democracy in America and read about the spirit of pure religion that once reverberated through America – a religion unsullied by political connections. Religious leaders sought to win people over by persuasion, not through the force of laws and heavy-handed government mandates.
Compared to the Religious Right’s vision of church-state union, Tocqueville’s America of real religious liberty just keeps looking better.