The French Mis-Connection: Why President George W. Bush and the Religious Right Have No Business Quoting Alexis De Tocqueville

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, May 2005 | Go to article overview

The French Mis-Connection: Why President George W. Bush and the Religious Right Have No Business Quoting Alexis De Tocqueville


Boston, Rob, Church & State


When French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young American republic in 1831, he was amazed at the degree of religious freedom and interfaith harmony he found.

"On my arrival in the United States," he observed in his classic work Democracy in America, "the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention."

Aware of the centuries of inter-religious struggle that had divided his homeland and other European nations, Tocqueville noted, "In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions."

Not in America. Determined to learn the new nation's secret for inter-faith peace, Tocqueville deliberately questioned clergy and church members from all the different denominations. As a Roman Catholic, he often came into conversation with Catholic priests, so he sought their opinions as well.

Pastors and people in the pews were all in agreement.

"To each of these men I expressed my astonishment and explained my doubts," wrote Tocqueville. "I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point."

For several paragraphs, Tocqueville discusses his amazement that, while Americans are a religious people, religion as an institution played little direct role in political life.

"American clergy in general ... do not support any particular political system," observed Tocqueville. "They keep aloof from parties and from public affairs. In the United States religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state."

Trenchant observations like this would seem to put Tocqueville at odds with today's Religious Right activists, who argue that separation of church and state is a "myth" invented in modern times and that America was founded to be an officially "Christian nation."

Thus it comes as something of a surprise to see political and religious leaders who promote policies that would drastically lower the church-state wall claiming Tocqueville as one of their own.

President George W. Bush has been more determined to merge religion and government than any modern president. Bush, a champion of "faith-based" initiatives, proudly acknowledges the Religious Right as his base. Yet Bush apparently believes Tocqueville is on his side.

During two speeches in early March, Bush invoked Tocqueville, using the Frenchman both times to prop up his faith-based initiative.

Addressing leaders of religious charities in Washington March 1, Bush, in remarks that The New York Times called "off the cuff and slightly confusing," asserted that "de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s, really figures out America in a unique way" because he saw that "Americans form association in order to channel the individualistic inputs of our society to enable people to serve a cause greater than themselves."

Six days later, Bush struck again, mentioning Tocqueville during a speech in Pittsburgh while unveiling a program aimed at helping troubled juveniles.

Tocqueville, Bush said, noted that Americans were able "to associate in a voluntary way to kind of transcend individualism."

As The Times reported, Bush appeared to be "using Tocqueville ... to underscore the philosophy behind his religion-based initiative, the expanding $2 billion program that makes it easier for religious groups to get government money for social programs."

Not surprisingly, some Tocqueville admirers accused Bush of selectively quoting the Frenchman.

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