No other country in the Western world is so openly religious as America. The country has a history of immigrants who sought the free exercise of religion as much as freedom from religious and ideological persecution elsewhere. Even those who looked primarily for more liberal and economic opportunities often left behind a cultural context of tight rules and traditional patterns, which were founded on particular religious worldviews. America’s institutions and history, her mission before the world, and her enthusiasm to engage and confront evil around the globe play out before a background of profound specific religious convictions about human life, the rights of individuals, and the rule of law. These were brought into the human consciousness largely through the teaching of the Bible as the fitting explanation of man’s origin and destiny.
The Bible’s account was and is not limited to personal situations and private faith. The multitude of religious bodies, the differences between denominations, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of, not from, religion has so far not diminished the memory of a biblical view of all aspects of life in American history and much of the present public life. There is one church for every 850 to 900 citizens in the country,1 roughly the same ratio as medical doctors to people in Switzerland. Churches reach the mind and calm the soul in the same ratio as doctors deal with physical problems. We are all well provided for.
References to concepts and realities that only the Bible talks about and has introduced to human life are found in conversations, in speeches, in the lives of citizens. Personal rights, the rule of law to serve justice, a purpose to be expressed through changing individual efforts, and a reality of new beginnings are rooted in a biblical view of man in history. Not counting the use of God’s name, etc. in profanity, the whole country expresses some type of religious faith, from “God bless America” to huge crowded parking lots around churches on Sundays. A smaller number still come together several times on other days of the week. Uncounted gatherings continue this religious interest and occupation before the public’s eye in the informal settings of private homes for Bible studies, prayer groups, and discussion.
A steady stream of people has come from all over the world in pursuit of freer possibilities than those available in their own countries, including the practice of their Christian or non-Christian or Jewish religious views. These views and experiences are freely entered into public discourse and election campaigns. Present holders of public office and hopeful candidates for future government positions often include their religious convictions in their resumé. They contribute to the market of ideas even outside the church. They are nurtured by a whole industry of Christian book and music publishers, camps and retreats, seminars, conferences, and private parochial schools. What is believed is brought to bear on public life even without an official religious orientation. This affects industry, government, and education. What people believe about the basic building blocks of life has consequences in choices, attitudes, and debates for better and for worse.
Europe has shown her marvelous cathedrals and architectural details in church buildings through the centuries since Christianity spread across the continent. Education touches on Christianity as part of public school curricula, though what is more specifically “Christian” has more often recently been replaced by “religious” histories to include Islam, Buddhism, and other tribal religions. Christian teaching has changed the way people look at life, work, and social realities.
Athens and Rome laid many foundations, but Jerusalem gave rise to a practical life of work and art, of lawful rule and the rights of individuals. The teaching of Judaism and Christianity introduced the concept of a purposeful linear history, of moral judgment, and of a hope in life that dismantled the dominant, fatalistic outlook of Greece, Rome, and Germanic paganism. Under Christian teaching the emphasis became life instead of death, law instead of power, and intelligence instead of intellectualism.
At the same time beginnings, invention, and discovery became central perspectives that replaced habit, repetition, and fate. The church gave encouragement, space, and funds to develop an economic, social, and artistic view of this priority of man. It furthered markets and skills, education and a social conscience. Around the teaching of Christianity was continued the emphasis of Jewish thought about the central value of life and resistance against death. The “in the beginning” words of Genesis and of St. John’s Gospel gave birth to a purposeful and linear view of history toward judgment and redemption.
Churches and monasteries influenced the land and its people with a unique focus on life. This was pursued through the copying and editing of old manuscripts for the preservation of knowledge. Health concerns for the public drove the search for hygiene through medicinal potions for the stomach such as Cointreau, Chartreuse, and Benedictine. We now know these only as liqueurs.
Europe also had a strong Christian base that was founded on the teaching of the Bible and applied through the choices of persons in the midst of the ups and downs of history. There was never a smooth progress or a distinguishable line of advance of Christianity over paganism. Yet the power of ideas worked a change of heart and mind first. Then hands that held the plow, the chisel, and the sword brought food to the poor and pointed out the biblical view of things in the arts and trades. The mind and the hands laid the foundation for a culture that became specifically different from others. At its core was a different view of man, life and death, the mind and rationality, law and rule, and history.
Witnesses of Christianity surround the traveler in Europe in every public space. The churches, the old roads, the enclosed towns and older hospitals, even the museums are brought forth from a Christian view of life. But so are rules of politeness, self-discipline, pride in workmanship, and a healthy bit of humility, apart from occasional and tragic temptations to impose a “perfect solution” for society. Even when personal convictions of Christianity diminish or fail as a result of liberal theology and moral uncertainties, the European will still have the silent, powerful witness of history, which serves, with its Christian content, both as a restraint and an encouraging reminder.
The new world depends for restraints and reminders much more on the personal belief and acts of the religious person, whether Christian or believing Jew. Vibrancy and freshness, personal engagement and activities create a fabric of life. But there is a danger that without outside and historic restraints such religious interest is only personal, and therefore private, subject much more to the changing directions of the winds of culture than to a sense of continuity of truth from the beginning. Church and theology, personal faith and its expressions, ministries and their purposes are much more likely to be affected, even diluted, by what a society embraces as current values and imagined futures. When the whole society looks ahead for what it wishes to achieve, it tends to forget the limitations of reality and to pursue imagination, wishful thinking, and utopia.
The Bible starts at the beginning. There the stage is set for us as actors. Our characters are established in the stage notes of the book of Genesis. Man is both glorious and the crown of creation, but he is now also the child of Adam and Eve, broken and in need of moral and physical transformation. We are not free to start with ourselves and then assume that our best ideals should be embraced or can be realized. The Bible talks about the need for good ideas about life but never presents the possibility of achieving the ideal through human action. Failure to recognize this has brought about the tragic and inhuman idealisms pursued by “new people in a new world” and also by Marxist-Leninism, Fascism, and the idea that the will of the people leads to moral government.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) came to America and looked around for a brief nine months. He shared his views and findings in his book Democracy in America (two volumes). What he observed, analyzed, and wrote about was intended for a European public very much caught up in the aftershocks of the French Revolution and the monarchist reaction in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear over popular sovereignty was enormous on the old continent. A Holy Alliance had formed about the time of the Congress of Vienna among the European monarchies of Prussia, Austria, and Russia to prevent the anticipated disorder of people participating in government. Pressure to grant greater freedoms and more autonomy to the people was building up. It was the period of debates and battles that eventually led to the independence of Belgium, Poland, Greece, and smaller regions in almost each of the European nations.
De Tocqueville is far better known in America, where he is studied and quoted far more often. He is frequently recognized as a remarkably insightful observer. He intertwined admiration for republican freedoms with warnings about the excesses of popular autonomy. He wrote at a time during which the ideas of Jacksonian democracy blossomed. Truth about and responsibility in all of life was now accessible to the common man, who can use his goodwill, reason, and an inner light or voice to give shape to land and society. Truth as concern merely for an educated elite, monarchs, nobility, or church was a thing of the past.
Europe at the time went through major struggles for stability and orientation. The French Revolution of 1789 had changed the physical but even more so the philosophical and cultural landscape of the old continent. Napoleon’s wars and imperial aspirations had ended with his defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile. The Holy Alliance resisted any republican influence that might seep out from France. Decembrists, who wanted more participation and greater freedoms in Russia, were sentenced to death or exiled to Siberia. In Western Europe the pressure against the old orders resulted in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848.
De Tocqueville is so interesting because he relates not so much any number of anecdotes from a travel log or a cultural study, but rather describes a new world, a new experiment, a world created by men and women who had left the old. The pursuit of change and something new in Europe after 1830 not only gave rise to streams of political and economic emigrants who followed earlier persecuted pilgrims in large numbers to the new world—it also expressed a malaise about the old continent, where the building blocks of life would soon fall into ruin, where old authorities were questioned and traditional structures were weakened by political, cultural, and scientific shocks.
The old continent was then, with some hope, casting one eye to America and another to Russia. Both were largely empty spaces, full of promise and also of risk for people. De Tocqueville went to write about the first, the Marquis de Custine about the second only a few years later (The Empire of the Czar, 1839). De Custine leaves us with an excellent description of his areas of interest and his analysis of a historic situation in the West. From it we get a taste of what made it so interesting and necessary to leave for a while the older Europe and to look for alternatives elsewhere. He writes:
All other nations seem to have reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these [Russia and America] are still in the act of growing. . . . The American struggles against the obstacles that nature imposes on him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life, the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained by the plowshare, those of the Russians by the sword. The Anglo-American relies on personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all authority of society on a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destiny of half a globe.2
America was then seen as the expression of the growth of equality and individuality against the background of European resistance against popular participation in government. Russia, by contrast, was looked on as the reminder of the advantage of monarchy and autocracy against the “silliness” of the common people. Yet the detailed experiences in Russia turned de Custine into an ardent advocate of limited government. Both books reveal to us the underlying currents of the two nations’ lives into the future of our own time. They share the insight of outsiders and observe what even to us today seems still very familiar.
Their descriptions are in some ways similar, but with radically opposite findings. De Tocqueville saw in America the working out of a way to irresistibly undo the power of the blood-related leadership by the aristocracy in favor of a more skill-based democracy. He was pleased with the development and effects in practice of the principle of equality, to which all men contribute by their life and work. Yet he also saw that while a republic as a form of government has nobility in its own right, it depends very much on the nobility of the participants to be sustained and to be continued.
He warned on one hand against those who would obstruct in history the move toward greater freedoms. On the other he also saw impending dangers, for such freedoms could create a new tyrant—a possibly uneducated and irresponsible public as a result of an irrational and freely chosen selfishness, which finds expression in a general disinterest in a larger world and in lasting truth of old and in a failure to take on responsibilities of free men and women toward the common good. De Tocqueville spoke of the dangers of listening to self-applause. Here was a door for the weakness and insecurity of the individual, when a majority weighs in with a different position that advances only personal futures. He also saw the danger of overconfidence, when no judge exists apart from us to be a damper on pride, arrogance, and what we now call self-esteem. De Tocqueville writes, “The nations of our time cannot prevent the condition of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”3
He thus throws a ball back into the court of each single player. Just because we play with freedom and enjoy it does not mean we are free to neglect the “congenital menace of democracy” and forget our own responsibility for truth, reason, and morality by stupidly submitting to the common or the uncommon. De Tocqueville saw, even back then, a danger in the marriage of too much power with too little wisdom.
A nation of producers, traders, and consumers runs the risk of measuring most things by their motion, possibilities of the market, and the speed of the transaction and expected future results. What sells must be good. People should be given what they like. Technique and therapy become more important than truth and wholesome teaching. Easy distractions replace earnest discernment. Personal responsibility is transformed by private reveling. Equal opportunity for all opens the door for the use of opportunities to choose between the unequals of good and evil.
For most Europeans, America remains an attractive mystery. Though much is known about the country, its history, its people, its form of government, its public image, its industrial might, and its religious roots, the reality is always more complex and less understood than they expect. America is attractive for its beauty, its freedoms, its imagined and real possibilities, and its youthfulness. To people from an older culture America is a constant reminder of their youth now long gone or never really experienced. Americans find it much easier to express the imagination, the lightness, the daring and childish hopefulness that have been lost in the rough and tumble of a longer history on other continents. Most people there have been exposed to and contained in centuries of a less privileged and more conformist or traditional life.
Visitors are almost always attracted by the kind of things they miss in other places. Of course, that is a major reason for any travel. One wants to enlarge the horizon of one’s world, add experiences, and gauge one’s reactions by facing new situations. We go to Italy to experience the sun, wine, and olives, the love of life and children, the beauty of the music, and the art of the Renaissance. We visit Scandinavia to be enthralled by the forests and lakes, the Nordic light, the empty spaces and colorful houses. As the wind sweeps from the sea over the dikes, Holland is a statement of resistance against nature’s harsh and uncaring elements. Fatigued from life in our regimented, controlled, and rational modern lives, some might even go to more exotic places and there find a thrill in the native, the primitive, and the other-cultured.