Alexis de Tocqueville on Religion in 18th-Century America

If you want to measure the state of American spirituality, you need a point of comparison.  Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville supplied this standard when he published Democracy in America in the 1830’s – years of America’s youth.

To Alexis de Tocqueville religion was a powerful force in American life, “an established an irresistible fact which no one undertakes to either attack or defend.”  That this discovery delighted the young French official was everywhere apparent.  He reminded his fellow Europeans that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”

This prevalence of Christianity in America is all the more noteworthy when you consider that Tocqueville was sent to America to study something quite different.

Tocqueville had not come to the United States to study its religion.  Indeed, the French government had sent him to America in the spring of 1831 to examine its prisons.  Yet before he left nine months later he had subjected American political and social institutions to the first comprehensive study in the nation’s history.  Upon his return to France he wrote his two-volume classic Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840.

Imagine a Frenchman being sent to America in our time to study our prisons.  What might he have to say about the practice of the Christian religion in America?

Source:  “Christianity and Democracy: Tocqueville’s Views of Religion in America” by Norman A. Graebner, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 263-273.
Published by: University of Chicago Press: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1201932

Related posts:

Barack Obama’s Quote About Whether America Is a Christian Nation

Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.  –  Barack Obama, June 28, 2006 (prepared remarks)

Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.  –  Barack Obama, June 28, 2006 (as delivered)

Before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, he made a statement about America and its historical reputation as being a “Christian nation.”  I give the quote in the two forms you see above because, apparently, there’s been some controversy about the quote.  This controversy is described in “Obama and the ‘Christian Nation’ Quote” at FactCheck.org.  To me, the difference in the two versions is inconsequential.  Both of them are quite troubling.  I’ll use the “prepared remarks” version because that seems to be the one that Obama’s defenders think is the one more easily defended.

First of all, as a statement of fact – which it pretends to be – it is incoherent because it is self-contradictory.  I think I understand what he’s trying to say, but he says it very poorly.

Second, because the statement is self-contradictory, it cannot make the point Obama wants to make – which, giving him the benefit of every doubt, is that America is a nation defined as free enough to accept all faiths and even those of no faith.  This is because the statement uses various faiths and even no faith as an identity.  A nation is an aggregation of individuals, and its identity comes from the identities of the individuals who comprise it.  A nation can no more be all these kinds of nations than an individual can be all these kinds of individuals.

To show you what I mean, let’s work through this with a specific man in mind.  Applying Mr. Obama’s logic to a man named Sam Smithers who has historically been known to be a Christian, the statement would look like this:

Whatever Sam Smithers once was, he is no longer just a Christian; he is also a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a nonbeliever.

If you were to make such a statement people would think you had either lost your mind or you were intentionally engaging in double talk.  And this is just what I think about Mr. Obama when I read his statement.

Someone might object and say, “But, Mike, a nation is made up of many individuals and those individuals can be of many different religious persuasions or no religious persuasions at all.”  Quite right.  But you would then have to understand which of those views were most representative of the nation before you could define the nation.  You might end up saying, “We are primarily a Christian nation, ” or “We are a religiously diverse nation,” or “We are a secular nation,” or something else.  But what you would certainly not say is what Mr. Obama said – that we are all those things simultaneously.  Being an unbeliever is mutually exclusive with being a religious person; being a Muslim is incompatible with being a Christian; and so on – otherwise words have no meaning.

Mr. Obama’s quote, therefore, is rhetorical mush.  As best I can tell, he wants to make the point that it is no longer reasonable nor desirable to refer to America as a Christian nation…but he says it with words that equivocate.  In political fashion, he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth – saying that America is still a Christian nation while saying that America is no longer a Christian nation.

I wish he’d just come out and say what he believes: that America is no longer a Christian nation.  If he did, I’d agree with him.  Our difference would be that he thinks this is a good thing and so he’s happy about it while I think it’s a bad thing and therefore am sad about it.

Related post:  Alexis de Tocqueville on Religion in 18th-Century America

“Joy of the Lord” by Rend Collective

Until I saw this video, I had never heard of “Rend Collective.”  Wikipedia says they are “a Northern Irish Christian experimental, folk rock, worship band originating from Bangor, Northern Ireland.”  I liked the song, its words (at least the ones I could understand), and the energy.  It reminds me of Twila Paris’ 1992 song of the same name.  (Her song is less exuberant, but no less joyful.)

Here’s a video (length 2:45) where two of the artists describe how their joyful performance of this song came about through the pain of a miscarriage.

Current Christian Views of the American Public Education System

Here are a couple of resources which identify differing Christian views of the public school system in America today.

The first is a podcast (length 46:50) from Moody Radio’s Up for Debate program of January 23, 2016.  Here’s the link to the podcast, and here’s the program’s description from Moody Radio’s site:

Should Christians stop homeschooling and start supporting public schools? Carlos Campo, a Christian college president and leader in the Hispanic evangelical community, thinks they should. This Saturday on Up For Debate, Campo will join host Julie Roys and Bruce Shortt, a Ph.D. and homeschool advocate, to discuss this controversial issue.

The second resource is a trailer (length 2:43) for a documentary titled IndoctriNation.  I have not seen the entire documentary – only the trailer (just below) and a free version of the first 30 minutes of the film.  You can find out more about this documentary at indoctrinationmovie.com.  (It was made in 2011 and lasts 1:42:00)

Other resources like these can be found at ExodusMandate.org.