Democracy in America, written by the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville in 1835, is full of stunningly perceptive and prescient insights into American culture, many of which are valid today nearly three hundred years later. Paula Bolyard discusses what he says about Christianity in the Republic, suggesting that his description of the church as profoundly influential, while distinctly separate from politics, is a good model for today. You should read her essay, but I’ll just post her quotations from De Toqueville.
America is…the place in the world where the Christian religion has most persevered 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.
So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”
I heard them [clergy] anathematize ambition and bad faith, whatever might be the political opinions with which these took care to cover themselves…I saw them separate themselves carefully from all parties, and avoid contact with them with all the ardor of personal interest.
American [clergy]…saw that they had to renounce religious influence if they wanted to acquire political power, and they preferred to lose the support of power rather than to share in its vicissitudes.