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Religion in America

This 4th of July, I bring you another quote from Alexis de Tocqueville. Happy Independence Day!

There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States. All differ in the worship one must render to the Creator, but all agree on the duties of men toward one another. Each sect therefore adores God in its manner, but all sects preach the same morality in the name of God. If it serves man very much as an individual that his religion be true, this is not so for society. Society has nothing to fear nor to hope from the other life; and what is most important to it is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion but that they profess a religion. Besides, all the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same.

It is permissible to think that a certain number of Americans follow their habits more than their convictions in the worship they render to God. In the United States, moreover, the sovereign is religious, and consequently hypocrisy ought to be common; America is, however, still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.

I have said that American priests pronounce themselves in a general manner to be in favor of civil freedom without excepting even those who do not accept religious freedom; however, one does not see them lend their support to any political system in particular. They take care to keep themselves outside affairs and do not mix in the schemes of the parties. Therefore one cannot say that in the United States religion exerts an influence on the laws or on the details of political opinions, but it directs mores, and it is in regulating the family that it works to regulate the state.

I do not doubt for an instant that the great severity of mores that one remarks in the United States has its primary source in beliefs. Religion there is often powerless to restrain man in the midst of the innumerable temptations that fortune presents to him. It cannot moderate the ardor in him for enriching himself, which everything comes to excite, but it reigns as a sovereign over the soul of woman, and it is woman who makes mores. Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected and where they have conceived the highest and most just idea of conjugal happiness.

In Europe, almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth, not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder, their restiveness of heart, their instability of desires. Agitated by the tumultuous passions that have often troubled his own dwelling, the European submits only with difficulty to the legislative powers of the state. When, on leaving the agitations of the political world, the American returns to the bosom of his family, he immediately meets the image of order and peace. There, all his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys innocent and tranquil; and as he arrives at happiness through regularity of life, he becomes habituated to regulating his opinions as well as his tastes without difficulty. 

While the European seeks to escape his domestic sorrows by troubling society, the American draws from his home the love of order, which he afterwards brings into affairs of state.

Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). 278-79