Religion in New England

This Independence Day, I’m pleased to tip a hat to our allies in France with a grateful recitation from the eminent Alexis de Tocqueville:

The founders of New England were both ardent sectarians and fanatical innovators. While held within the narrowest bounds by fixed religious beliefs, they were free form all political prejudices.

Hence two distinct but not contradictory tendencies plainly show their traces everywhere, in mores and in laws.
For the sake of a religious conviction men sacrifice their friends, their families, and their fatherland; one might suppose them entirely absorbed in pursuit of that intellectual prize for which they had just paid so high a price. Yet it is with almost equal eagerness that they seek either material wealth or moral delights, either heaven in the next world or prosperity and freedom in this.

Under their manipulation political principles, laws, and human institutions seem malleable things which can at will be adapted and combined. The barriers which hemmed in the society in which they were brought up fall before them; old views which have ruled the world for centuries vanish; almost limitless opportunities lie open in a world without horizon; the spirit of man rushes forward to explore it in every direction; but when that spirit reaches the limits of the world of politics, it stops of its own accord; in trepidation it renounces the use of its most formidable faculties; it forswears doubt and renounces innovation; it will not even lift the veil of the sanctuary; and it bows respectfully before truths which it accepts without discussion.

Thus, in the moral world everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen, and decided in advance. In the world of politics everything is in turmoil, contested, and uncertain. In the one case obedience is passive, though voluntary; in the other there is Independence, contempt of experience, and jealousy of all authority.

Far from harming each other, these two apparently opposed tendencies work in harmony and seem to lend mutual support.

Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men’s faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere and content with the position reserved for it, realizes that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men’s hearts without external support.

Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.

Happy Independence Day!

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Trans. George Lawrence). 1969. p. 47