Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Democracy in America
Social and Political Liberty:
The fear of neighbor always precedes the fear of government. When the morality of a people breaks down, they no longer trust their neighbor. Heightened crime rates, dishonesty, and exploitation naturally causes distrust of both stranger and neighbor. However, when we no longer trust even our neighbor, we look to the government to protect us from the neighbor we no longer trust.
Take for instance the last six decades. As late as the 1940’s, hitchhiking was considered a safe practice; as late as the 1950’s, the front or the back door to our homes remained unlocked at night; as late as the 1960’s, we were free to walk downtown Chicago, New York City or Los Angeles without fearing for our lives; as late as the 1970’s, parents could leave their children in their cars (with the windows rolled down) while they went shopping; as late as the 1980’s, seals for medication bottles were unnecessary; and as late as the 1990’s, school shootings were unheard of. In this decade, our children’s "playground" is much smaller than what ours used to be. We had the whole neighborhood; they have the front or the backyard, usually under the condition that one of the parents is on the lookout.
Slowly but surely, over these last six decades, we have lost our social freedoms without even knowing it. But there is one thing that more and more Americans do know: our civil liberties are becoming increasingly frail; courtesy of our growing and aggressive Federal Government. The immorality we fear in others was only a prelude to the oppression we now fear in our government. Let me repeat it: The immorality we fear in others was only a prelude to the oppression we now fear in our government!
Democracy and liberty is a strict discipline. It unravels when morality is relaxed. Individual morality, enduring marriages and intact families are the foundations on which democracy and liberty rest. But there is another principle which underscores everything, and that is religion. Indeed, liberty, morality and religion hang together. No one made this point better than Tocqueville.
Tocqueville: Democracy in America
Over one hundred and seventy five years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a book called Democracy in America. He visited America in 1831-32 to study America’s penitential system, institutions and its form of government. His observations of American Democracy and its future trends were right on the money! Although he personally visited and studied America in the nineteenth-century, he, nevertheless, wrote about what would resemble twenty-first century America. His foresight were that uncanny!
Tocqueville was no prophet, spiritually speaking. However, he was well versed in history; specializing in the French Revolution. Being a native of France, he knew firsthand how freedom could be lost. And as a Catholic, he understood that religious liberty could be denied by the State in short order. Such was the case when the French Revolution broke out in 1789.
In Democracy in America there are insightful observations of Tocqueville's worth noting. How relevant they are today! To be sure, every American should know them. Our freedom just may depend on it.
The American and French Revolution: The Difference
Tocqueville warned that those who would want to keep their democracy should also jealously guard their religion. If the latter goes, so goes the former. When God ceases to be the highest authority in the minds of the people, the natural surrogate is the State. And that is the choice we face today: reliance on an all-powerful God or a reliance on an all-powerful State.
Approximately fifty years after the French Revolution, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America. In France, people were increasingly of the belief that religion and liberty were incompatible. Responsible for this propaganda were the anti-Christian, secularist parties who championed the cause of freedom during the revolution. The irony is that they ended up suppressing the Catholic Church and executing hundreds of citizens…all in the name of freedom. It followed that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the French government and their public schools became venues for the myth that religion was the enemy of freedom. This should sound familiar to twenty-first century Americans.
The American Revolution, on the other hand, produced a different result. In the years that followed the war, Americans believed that religion was an indispensable principle in preserving the prosperity of a nation. For instance, in George Washington’s farewell address in 1796, he said, “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.” These words represented the vast majority of Americans at the time. That belief was still palpable when Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in Long Island, New York, May 14, 1831.
When he returned from America to his native land, France, he had two different models to compare: The American model in which religion was the guarantor of liberty and the French model in which religion was but an obstacle to liberty. Dissatisfied with the French model, he clearly supported the American model throughout his book, Democracy in America. One can even say that the reason he had such impressive foresight with regard to the future of American democracy, was that he was convinced that what happened to his beloved country was but the inevitable consequence of America if she too abandoned her religion.
Lost Religion: High Anxiety
Now, the following quote is philosophical in nature. But if it is read with attention, you will see that what Tocqueville writes is of immense value to us Americans:
“When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the mind, and half paralyzes all the rest of its powers. Such a condition cannot but enfeeble the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. Nor does it only happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be taken from them; they frequently themselves surrender it.
When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion anymore than in politics, men are easily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them. As everything is at sea in the sphere of the intellect, they determine at least that the mechanism of society should be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master”
The Master and Mechanism: The State
A people without faith, however, must necessarily see the daily occurrences of life as being random. If human life is but a product of chance, then it follows that whatever happens in any given day is also a product of chance. The unpredictability of evil and harm that might come to us, therefore, such as those we have to guard against over these last six decades, creates a frightening prospect; especially for those who do not daily rely on an all-powerful God. This is why Tocqueville writes, “The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them.”
Like a row boat in the middle of a stormy sea, the person whose faith is weak, naturally wants to take refuge in something more powerful than himself- namely, the State. About this mindset Tocqueville adds: “They determine at least that the mechanism of society should be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master.”
The “mechanisms” he refers to are State regulations, programs and entitlements; from this, the Nanny State creates the illusion of giving security to the people.
“Their ancient belief” the people can no longer resume is their faith; that is, the reliance on Divine Providence and the belief that perfect justice will be had in eternity. A subset of that faith is the recognition that human rights and responsibilities are God-given; and that every authority under God- especially the State –is duty bound to recognize individual liberty. But when the faith among the people is destroyed, the independence of the individual from the State is less felt; indeed, it weakens and eventually gives way to servitude.
The “master” Tocqueville refers to is none other than a tyrant or an oppressive government. The French Revolution fashioned such a government in the late eighteenth century. And in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, America has become more and more acquainted with its new master: an intrusive government. This new master did not force himself upon us; we chose him (or them). Finally, the most telling thing about the loss of freedom is what he writes next: “Nor does it only happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be taken from them; they frequently themselves surrender it.”
Soft Despotism and the Nanny:
America's "new master", according to Tocqueville, will not be the abrupt and brutal regimes merging out of the French and Russian Revolution. No. It will operate under the guise of humanitarianism; that is, it will intervene in the private sector and meddle into people's private affairs on the basis that it seeks to help the needy. It will move slowly through local, State and Federal channels of government; using preventive measures to achieve its agenda. Like the erosion of our social freedoms over the last six decades, it will chip away at our civil and religious liberties one stroke at a time until we look up and find a new master staring down at us.
Of course, I say this using several years of hindsight. Tocqueville, on the other hand, relied only foresight. Good religious, historical and civic education can go a long way in anticipating future trends.
This last quote from Tocqueville is a prophetic one. It illustrates the political and social challenges facing America in recent months:
"If despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them...
[Under such despotism] the will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."
It is not inevitable that "soft despotism" be the fate of America. If America's dependence is to pass from the State back to God, making Him the unrivaled Shepherd once again, it must begin with three institutions: the Church, the family and education.
Posted by Joe at 9:03 PM