Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the early days of the republic, was one of the most perceptive and prophetic observers of American culture. He’s often misinterpreted, though, which Daniel Schwindt tries to address in a fascinating essay about what the French nobleman was really saying about religion in America. (Thanks to Daniel Broaddus for putting me on to this.)
After the jump, an excerpt about how American’s rationalism leads to an unhealthy individualism and to a distorted version of Christianity.
From Daniel Schwindt, Refuting Tocqueville by Way of Tocqueville – Ethika Politika:
Consider, for example, Tocqueville’s observations regarding the rationalist mentality, which enthrones the reason of each individual as the supreme judge of truth, whether of the spiritual or the material order. Few would argue that such a mode of thought provides fertile ground for religious devotion, and he observes that this very mentality has nowhere achieved such influence as in America:
I discover that, in the majority of mental processes, each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason. America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied…they follow his maxims because it is this very social state which naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.
The “social state” to which he refers is of course the widespread culture of individualism, which he believed to have embedded in Americans a significant tendency towards personal and spiritual detachment. We might even say he identifies in the American spirit an atrophy of the “communal faculty” in man. He properly identifies this individualism for what it is: the vice of egoism baptized and renamed, masquerading now as a noble “new idea.” He explains:
Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which persuades each citizen to cut himself off from his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of his family and friends in such a way that he thus creates a small group of his own and willingly abandons society at large to its own devices. Egoism springs from a blind instinct; individualism from wrong-headed thinking rather than from depraved feelings. It originates as much from defects of intelligence as from the mistakes of the heart.
Egoism blights the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtue. In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge with egoism.
Bearing in mind the fact that folkways, customs, and shared beliefs are generally considered to be the most vital supports of religion and morality within any society, this “fracturing” tendency of American individualism, combined with an unconscious but fervent rationalism, was destined to have disastrous consequences for all traditions and beliefs, including the Christian faith. This also Tocqueville acknowledges, combining the two and predicting for himself the inevitable result:
Amid the continuous shifts which prevail in the heart of a democratic society, the bond which unites generations to each other becomes slack or breaks down; each person easily loses the trail of ideas coming from his forbears or hardly bothers himself about them…As for the effect which one man’s intelligence can have upon another’s, it is of necessity much curtailed in a country where its citizens, having become almost like each other, scrutinize each other carefully and, perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth. So, it is not merely trust in any particular individual which is destroyed, but also the predilection to take the word of any man at all. Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world…As they realize that, without help, they successfully resolve all the small problems they meet in their practical lives, they easily reach the conclusion that there is an explanation for everything in the world and that nothing is beyond the limits of intelligence. So it is that they willingly deny what they cannot understand; that gives them little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.
As individualism must merge sooner or later with egoism, and as rationalism must merge with skepticism, so eventually a rationalistic-individualism will hurl society into a practical, albeit still unconscious, atheism.