Tuesday, August 31, 2004

What M. De Tocqueville Discovered About Democracy in America

Every American high schooler has heard of Alexis de Tocqueville. He was the French social commentator who traveled to this country in the 1830s in order to understand what made the United States tick.

America was unique. Until the US came into being, democracy had only been tried in places like cities or regions. The audacious American experiment extended democracy to an entire nation.

Many thought it an impossible feat. Yet by the time Alexis de Tocqueville came here, the US had survived two wars with Great Britain (then the world’s preeminent power), expanded well beyond its original thirteen states, and emphatically told Europe not to meddle in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, the US was still home to the shameful institution of slavery. Women were still unable to vote and their subjugation to males was taken for granted. Native Americans were dismissed for being subhuman savages. Yet even with those unconscionable deficiencies, the US was more democratic than any other nation and, to the mystification of the world, thriving.

No wonder de Tocqueville wanted to check things out. In the book about his observations,
Democracy in America, de Tocqueville sought to explain how this nation worked.

He gave special attention to the way Americans handled their freedom. Most political thinkers believed that if everybody in a nation was free, everyone doing what they wanted when they wanted to do it, chaos would ensue. Of course, they were right.

James Madison and the other framers of the US Constitution had known this. They had an accurate sense of just how selfish and self-serving we human beings can be. Almost to a person, irrespective of their own religious views, they would have affirmed the Biblical teaching that all human beings are born sinners with a tendency for “looking out for number one” coming as standard equipment in our make-ups. That was why they included an elaborate system of checks and balances in the Constitution, designed to ensure that nobody used freedom to run roughshod over others.

But no legal system, however well-constructed or well-enforced can prevent human beings from misusing freedom. So, how was it that America worked?, de Tocqueville wondered.

Americans, he said, had developed certain “habits of the heart,” rooted in their faith in Jesus Christ. Several decades before, the United States had undergone a “great awakening.” A nation that had been largely agnostic and disinterested in God had seen a vast majority of its citizens turn to faith in Christ. Americans had renounced selfishness, received the free gifts of God’s forgiveness and favor, and adopted the ethic of Jesus’ kingdom: love of God and love of neighbor. Without Americans’ faith, de Tocqueville concluded, America’s democratic experiment would devolve into chaos. But, he saw that American democracy valued not only freedom, but also equality and community. It was America’s faith, he said, that explained how democracy in America worked.

This is how he put it: “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in...[a] republic...than in [a] monarchy...How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”

In this political year, there are many Christians speaking out on political issues. Often, I feel, they do so less from Christian perspectives than from politically ideological ones. Yet, as de Tocqueville learned, people with faith in Christ bring attitudes, beliefs, and habits to the body politic, assets that help make democracy work. In my next few columns, I intend to talk about the positive things that Christian faith can bring to democracy’s table.


Sarah Angeline said...

I received your email and I look forward to your series of posts! =)

Rachel said...

Thanks for a brilliant history lesson Mark. I've never heard of M. de Tocqueville before, and my US history is rather weak I'm afraid. Makes for interesting reading, and I look forward to your posts which are coming at the US election issues from a different (and broader) angle.

Random fact, did you know New Zealand was the first country to allow women the right to vote?