For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.
Part 3: Babylon or Zion?
In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume 1, Alexis De Tocqueville declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .
Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .
If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when:
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.Isaiah 11:9
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that for the inhabitants of the earth to get to this point, individuals must have the physical and mental ability to make covenants with the Lord, to write His laws in their hearts, and to serve Him in such a way that He will forgive them of their sins:
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.Jeremiah 31:33-34
There is no suggestion in these verses that God will force compliance to His will. This blessed condition will exist because the people living on the earth at that time will want to be faithful to God. Tocqueville asks an interesting question that I believe suggests why God would use democracy to further His will:
There are no great men without virtue, and there are no great nations—it may almost be added that there would be no society—without the notion of rights; for what is the condition of a mass of rational and intelligent beings who are only united together by the bond of force?Chapter 14, Part 1
By the time Tocqueville asks this question, he has already given the reader an answer. One of the things that makes the following observation particularly interesting is that it equates liberty with the ability and desire of the average person to own property and to influence local community decisions. The “bond of force” in this example isn’t necessarily a tyrannical dictator, but it is a centralized government that is intrusive, yet disconnected, from the people it governs.
In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live. The greatest changes are effected without their concurrence and (unless chance may have apprised them of the event) without their knowledge; nay more, the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance. This same individual, who has so completely sacrificed his own free will, has no natural propensity to obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer; but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is removed: his oscillations between servitude and license are perpetual. When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct.Chapter 5, Part 3
The scriptures I quoted above describe a “race of citizens” in God’s kingdom, not subjects who “cower” to God or who brave His law “with the spirit of a conquered foe.” I believe that democracy is a “Divine decree” because God wants citizens in His kingdom, not subjects!
These days, we often talk about freedom as if it is the highest condition we can obtain for ourselves individually and for society as a whole. What we don’t talk about as much is that the Founders of the United States never meant freedom to be an end unto itself. Tocqueville observes that:
The revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and dignified taste for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence. It contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy; but its course was marked, on the contrary, by an attachment to whatever was lawful and orderly.Chapter 5, Part 1
He goes even further and devotes an entire chapter part to the power of religion in the United States at that time. He uses the word manners to explain this phenomenon, and this is the way he defines that word:
I here used the word manners with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores, for I apply it not only to manners in their proper sense of what constitutes the character of social intercourse, but I extend it to the various notions and opinions current among men, and to the mass of those ideas which constitute their character of mind. I comprise, therefore, under this term the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people.Chapter 17, Part 2
Tocqueville goes on to explain how religion could exercise such a powerful influence in the country, even with the Constitutional mandate to separate church and state:
In the United States religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion, but it directs the manners of the community, and by regulating domestic life it regulates the State. . . .
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. . . .
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.Chapter 17, Part 2
He gives an example of this phenomenon that leaves no doubt about the intentions of early Americans:
I have known of societies formed by the Americans to send out ministers of the Gospel into the new Western States to found schools and churches there, lest religion should be suffered to die away in those remote settlements, and the rising States be less fitted to enjoy free institutions than the people from which they emanated. I met with wealthy New Englanders who abandoned the country in which they were born in order to lay the foundations of Christianity and of freedom on the banks of the Missouri, or in the prairies of Illinois. Thus religious zeal is perpetually stimulated in the United States by the duties of patriotism. These men do not act from an exclusive consideration of the promises of a future life; eternity is only one motive of their devotion to the cause; and if you converse with these missionaries of Christian civilization, you will be surprised to find how much value they set upon the goods of this world, and that you meet with a politician where you expected to find a priest. They will tell you that “all the American republics are collectively involved with each other; if the republics of the West were to fall into anarchy, or to be mastered by a despot, the republican institutions which now flourish upon the shores of the Atlantic Ocean would be in great peril. It is, therefore, our interest that the new States should be religious, in order to maintain our liberties.”Chapter 17, Part 2
Tocqueville ends Part 2 of Chapter 17 by giving his own opinion that liberty cannot govern without faith in God. He is speaking of those in France who, at the time, were true supporters of a republican form of government and, at the same time, opponents of religion:
When these men attack religious opinions, they obey the dictates of their passions to the prejudice of their interests. Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic which they set forth in glowing colors than in the monarchy which they attack; and it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? and what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?
This quotation leads me back to a sentence I quoted in my last post, my favorite sentence in all of Volume 1:
Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power.Chapter 15, Part 2
I believe that what Tocqueville says is true: Human beings, on their own, aren’t competent to exercise unlimited power. In the hands of selfish people, democracy becomes a despotic force and results in Babylon. But how would democracy be different in the hands of a people who consecrate themselves to God? Who become so pure in heart and action that He grants them the gift of His wisdom and justice? This community would be more powerful than any ever achieved by human beings, because its power would come from God Himself. It would be Zion!
Tocqueville gives us a glimpse of God’s power and its relationship to democracy:
From the time when the exercise of the intellect became the source of strength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the grace of wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all the gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand, turned to the advantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries they still served its cause by throwing into relief the natural greatness of man; its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal where the poorest and the weakest could always find weapons to their hand.Introduction
All of these “gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand” flourish in our own time—an age when democracy is so well-rooted that most of us take it for granted. Do we choose to use those gifts and that liberty to build Babylon or Zion?
The photos in this post—United States Capitol, Statue of Liberty, Capitol of Colonial Williamsburg, Washington Monument, Old North Church, and Thomas Jefferson Memorial—are credited to Novaun Novels and licensed as follows:
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