Alexis de Tocqueville sang the praises of Christianity’s influence in the United States. Yet, he was not an orthodox Christian. As Thomas Kidd has pointed out, in this regard Tocqueville was similar to Jefferson and some of the other founding fathers. A new book by Gregg L. Frazer promises to give more documented clarity on the important matter of Christianity’s role in the beginnings of the United States.
According to Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America), there was little doubt that the United States began in a very Christian context, and that a Christian beginning contributed to America’s success. Tocqueville wrote:
There is no better illustration of the usefulness and naturalness of religion, since the country where its influence is greatest today is also he country that is freest and most enlightened.
In the United States, Tocqueville said that Christianity reigned without impediment and with universal consent.
It should be stressed that Tocqueville’s point was not that the form of the United States government was Christian. Further, Tocqueville said it was not his goal to advocate a particular form of government.Indeed, “Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.” (See Samuel Gregg, “Socialism and Solidarity: Values and Economy,” The City (Spring 2011): 63). Rather than the form of government per se, Tocqueville believed it was Christian values, what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart,” which made for responsible citizens and was the bedrock of the American experiment.
Tocqueville was not naïve about the spirituality of America. He knew that every citizen was not a Christian and allowed that there was plenty of hypocrisy present in those who said that they were Christian. Still in all, he said,
Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess a certain public respect for Christian morality and equity, so that it is not easy for them to violate the laws when those laws stand in the way of their own designs. And even if they could overcome their own scruples, they would still be held in check by the scruples of their supporters.
It is interesting, for all that he said about the importance of Christianity in the beginning of the United States, Tocqueville himself was not an orthodox Christian. Thomas Kidd (whose book I highly recommend) writes,
Despite his sanguine view of American religion, Tocqueville was personally skeptical about Christianity. Early in his life he became a deist, and for most of his life he did not receive communion as a Catholic. Nevertheless, he always maintained a general belief in God, Providence, and an afterlife. In this combination of personal doubt but public support for religion, Tocqueville manifested a view of religion not unlike that of several prominent founding fathers, including Jefferson. Jefferson and Tocqueville personally abandoned traditional orthodoxy, while maintaining that it was essential for the masses to keep believing in Christianity – – or at least in good and evil – – and in eternal rewards in the afterlife.” Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010), 248.
Recently, Justin Taylor interviewed Gregg L. Frazer about his new book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders. Justin’s interview points out the importance of understanding the beliefs of Washington, Jefferson, and others and offers:
Apart from the extremists on the Left and the Right, I imagine there is a sizable swath of the American public that simply asks, “Who cares?” Obviously you think this question matters or you wouldn’t have written a 300-page book on it. So in your view, what difference does it make how one answers the question of the founding fathers’ faith?
The question of the religious beliefs of America’s founders is important for a number of reasons in a number of categories.
For Christians, it matters because of the dangers of the “Christian America” view:
a) designating a mixture of Christian and non-Christian influences as “Christian” or “biblical” attaches the authority of the inerrant, infallible Word of God to a non-biblical hybrid of influences;
b) identifying “religious” people as Christians makes the Gospel one of moral behavior and pronouncements rather than the saving work of Christ and personal commitment to Him;
c) Scripture teaches that God hates generic, moralizing religion—promoting “religion” as Christianity exalts what God hates;
d) many confuse their cultural heritage with biblical Christianity and lose the ability to distinguish what is truly biblical from what is merely American tradition;
e) the Bible is reduced to a mere tool in service of a political agenda—proper use/interpretation of Scripture is not important, what is important is counting how many times it is quoted (no matter how incorrectly); and
f) confidence is placed in processes and institutions rather than in the sovereign God—belief that the political system was originally Christian focuses and directs efforts of Christians toward correcting the political system and misdirects the resources of the church.
Read the whole interview here.
While I have not yet read it, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, looks very promising . . .