Below is another great excerpt from historian David Barton’s “American Heritage Series,” a set of DVDs which provides phenomenal insight into our nation’s history.
This clip deals with Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville and a book he wrote which should be required reading in every American history class in the country.
Tocqueville traveled American from 1831-1834, then wrote his hallmark work, “Democracy in America.“
As Barton points out, Tocqueville’s book was taught in universities for the next 100 years to help young Americans understand their own nation. However, an abridged version of the work was created and now it is the most common version of Tocqueville’s book to be used–if it is taught at all.
I have both the abridged and unabridged versions, and the difference is astonishing. As comparison, one might completely empty the chest and abdomen of a dead human being and then tell a medical examiner, “Here, this corpse will tell you all you need to know about what made this man tick.” In other words, the abridged version guts Tocqueville’s work, and in my never-to-be-humble opinion makes it worse than useless.
It is worse than useless because if you read only the abridged version, which has removed virtually every reference to the Christian heritage that Tocqueville said was central to the American way of life, you would get the impression that Christianity never played the slightest part in the foundation and character of our nation. Yet if you compare that impression to the full truth on display in the unabridged version, the abridged version could quite properly be labeled a lie.
One of the greatest difficulties many Americans have today–especially those of a secularist bent–is in being able to grasp how Christianity could be responsible for the utterly unique character and government of our nation…when we are not and have never been a theocracy. In their minds, in order for something to have had the kind of influence on our way of life that Christians like myself claim, it would have had to have been forced on society, forced on government.
In a sense, one can sympathize with the plight of their confusion. That is the way it has worked in most countries: you have a state-run church where the state dictates religious policy and theological doctrine, or you have a church-run state where the church holy book is the ultimate and official lawbook, and church leaders dictate legal and governmental policy for the state. We see this played out in numerous Islamic countries, for many of them remain theocracies. Our public education system has done a pathetic job of passing on this information to the last several generations of American children, and still others have carried out a determined campaign to mislead Americans about these facts.
But in America, just as we are unique in our form of government as a bottom-up rather than top-down system (exemplified by our government of “we the people” where government derives its authority from the consent of the governed), religion influences our government and legal system through the same bottom-up system. In other words, when 80%-90% of the American people believe in Christian values, they will tend (if they are serious about those values) to elect representatives who also believe in those values. Those representatives will in turn craft laws which are reflective of those Christian values. As the vast majority of the founders were serious students of the Christian faith, this belief system heavily influenced the manner and type of government they crafted with the United States Constitution.
The reasons we declared our independence from England were at their heart moral reasons. Read the Declaration of Independence; you will find it filled with moral judgments, value judgments, points of friction where the British crown’s morality didn’t line up with Biblical morality.
Our supposedly “secular” constitution is filled with moral judgments. We set up our government in the Constitution to divide powers and to provide checks and balances because the founders recognized through their Christian faith that human beings are fallen, with a sin nature that tends toward abuses of power. We required oaths as a commitment to truth and loyalty because the founders knew of the tendency of sinful man to lie to suit ones situation better and to put ones own comforts ahead of even those one is elected to serve. We established value judgments in the Bill of Rights which spoke to freedom of conscience, property rights, the rule of law, limits on the power of fallen human beings, and so on.
From whence did the founders obtain their insight to establish a nation based on these values? From the same place Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his book: the Christian value system that permeated our society.
This is one of the best passages in Democracy in America which illustrates how the Christian beliefs of most Americans deeply influenced the country’s laws, institutions and government…in the complete absence of an official church or religion.
In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.
The imagination of the Americans, even in its greatest flights, is circumspect and undecided; its impulses are checked, and its works unfinished. These habits of restraint recur in political society, and are singularly favorable both to the tranquillity of the people and to the durability of the institutions it has established. Nature and circumstances concurred to make the inhabitants of the United States bold men, as is sufficiently attested by the enterprising spirit with which they seek for fortune. If the mind of the Americans were free from all trammels, they would very shortly become the most daring innovators and the most implacable disputants in the world. But the revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not easily permit them to violate the laws that oppose their designs; nor would they find it easy to surmount the scruples of their partisans, even if they were able to get over their own. Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim, that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society; an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages. Thus whilst the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.
Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion, for who can search the human heart? but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society.