When the famous French statesman, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to the United States during the 19th century, he noted the role of religion in being the foremost of the political institutions of the country. In his book entitled Democracy in America, he remarked how religion was highly respected and used to promote freedom in the United States. He had hoped that the French leaders can learn from the example set by America, and took it upon himself to write about his observations during his stay in America. Tocqueville’s motivation in coming to the United States was his eagerness to know how the Americans were able to accomplish what their European counterparts failed to achieve in terms of political freedom and stability. In his book, logically discussed the impact of the United State’s predominant faith in its foundation, character and political progress as a country.
II. America’s Puritan Origin
Tocqueville started his examination of the country’s religion by associating it to the Puritan origin of the Americans, which has definitively shaped their way of life. He related that the concept of puritanism that guided the early Americans, “was not only a religion's doctrine, but it corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories”. A thoughtful consideration of the Puritan influence in the American culture explains how the people and its government were able to establish a mature national character at such a very young start. Historically, the Americans were composed of Puritan emigrants who felt worn-out of the imposing policies of their mother country, and so they decided to seek to start a new life in other places where they can freely live according to their own belief and abide by the Christian faith in freedom. In a religious context, the author further explained that the Puritan emigrants did not only left their mother country out of their want to seek greater fortunes, but more so because they must have been predestined to be in this place. He noted, however, that the natural and peaceful growth of the new American society was clearly influenced by the people’s origin. While the Americans that eventually formed the society held different personal intent, and have come from different periods and background, they are nevertheless tied by a common Christian faith molded by the principles of Puritanism.
III. Religions as an Indispensable Element of Republican Institution
While Tocqueville observed that religion takes no direct participation in the American government, he also noted that the people hold it as requisite to the preservation of any republican institution. It is with the freedom to exercise their own faith that made Tocqueville claim that religion is the first of America’s political institution, because it sets the example on how to facilitate the use of liberty. What differentiated the Americans from their European counterparts was the sheer spontaneity in combining the concept of the Christian faith and freedom. The blending of both religion and the concept of liberty in their thoughts and deeds made it almost impossible to live their lives without the other. It was also with irony that the first Puritan emigrants left their mother country because of their want for total liberty, yet the promotion of their religious belief is an indication of their burning patriotism. For one, the emigrants from England were not poor, in fact, they were among the most educated and affluent and one of their main purpose in coming to a new place is to “lay the foundations of Christianity and of freedom”. Moreover, they Americans knew that all the new States should be religious, in order for them to remain free. The Americans have looked forward to a peaceful and enduring state, where they can live serenely while encouraging the advancement of new ideas and philosophies that are applicable to the time. Consequently, they realized that in order to maintain the republic, the moral tie of the people must be strengthened, and religion plays a vital role reinforcing that goal.
VI. Appreciation of the Role of Religion to Freedom
When the first settlers to the New World set forth on their journey to an unknown place, they almost defy the custom of their origin. They sacrificed the certainty that comes from having close family and friends, an established profession and the support of the government for that matter. As Tocqueville had put it, “they disregarded the old principles which had governed the world for ages; a career without bounds, a field without horizon was open before”. Yet, having surpassed the obstacles of their journey, and exploited all faculties available to them, what is left was just to lay everything in their faith. This was how religion has played a significant role in the lives of the early Americans, its core strength is in its reign in the hearts of men who has nothing with them except their own. Consequently, in search for their liberty, the immigrants knew that their Christian faith is one of their weapons against any adversaries. History would prove how the Puritan settlers have used the religion in their endeavors, but more so, religion was needed to protect against internal conflict. In all society, there is a need to have an established dogmatic belief, and the most desirable among all dogmatic belief are those that pertain to religion. This is because, in most cases, religious nations are inherently resilient in areas where democratic advocacy are weak, thus it is important that religions is preserved because it is through it that people find themselves under equal condition with the others.
Consequently, men are inherently predisposed to the idea of having a fixed concept about religion. As Tocqueville suggested, the belief on a “fixed ideas about god and human nature are indispensable to the daily practice of men’s lives”. In America, the author witnessed the apparent role of religion in promoting equality among men, and further suggested his observation that people in a democratic country such as the Americans strictly conduct themselves within the sphere of spiritual matters. However, this does not preclude them from utilizing their power that largely depends on the nature of their social and political beliefs, as well as the role they have to play for a better society. These observations lead Tocqueville to believe that it is the idea of equality and liberty that motivated these men to adhere to “very general and very vast deals, but it is all understood in respect to religion”. That is, the Americans achieve equality in religion and it is this equality that leads them to continuously conceive the idea of only one God.
In Tocqueveille’s Democracy in America, he discussed the role of religion in directing the preservation of equality and democracy in America. He started his analysis by indicating that the religious tendencies of the Americans were highly influenced by their Puritan origin. He noted that while there was a clear separation of religion and the government, the former held the former as a necessity in maintaining their republican institution. Moreover, despite the freedom that the Americans wanted in their society, they realized the need for a common dogmatic force that will unite them as one. The Christian faith serves to be that force that balances the lives of people that live in a democratic society.
Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Volume 1. University Press, 1863.
Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Volume II. New York: J. & H. G. Langley, 1840.