Tocqueville on materialism

In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.

The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.

Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be[] satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.

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Wiggins, “American Saint”

Here is a very interesting and comprehensive biography on an important but largely unknown figure in early American religious history, Francis Asbury.  The book is American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (OUP 2012) by John Wigger (Missouri).  The publisher’s description follows.

English-born Francis Asbury was one of the most important religious leaders in American history. Asbury single-handedly guided the creation of the American Methodist church, which became the largest Protestant denomination in nineteenth-century America, and laid the foundation of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements that flourish today. In American Saint, John Wigger has written the definitive biography of Asbury and, by extension, a revealing interpretation of the early years of the Methodist movement in America. Asbury emerges here as not merely an influential religious leader, but a fascinating character, who lived an extraordinary life. His cultural sensitivity was matched only by his ability to organize. His life of prayer and voluntary poverty were legendary, as was his generosity to the poor. He had a remarkable ability to connect with ordinary people, and he met with thousands of them as he crisscrossed the nation, riding more than one hundred and thirty thousand miles between his arrival in America in 1771 and his death in 1816. Indeed Wigger notes that Asbury was more recognized face-to-face than any other American of his day, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Hall, “Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic”

Look out this fall for an interesting new book about the ubiquitous early American statesman Roger Sherman: Mark David Hall’s (George Fox University) Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (OUP 2012).  A law and religion subject because of Professor Hall’s emphasis on the importance of Calvinist thought for Sherman.  The publisher’s description follows.

Roger Sherman was the only founder to sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), Articles of Association (1774), Declaration of Independence (1776), Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and Constitution (1787). He served on the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and he was among the most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention. As a Representative and Senator in the new republic, he played important roles in determining the proper scope of the national government’s power and in drafting the Bill of Rights. Even as he was helping to build a new nation, Sherman was a member of the Connecticut General Assembly and a Superior Court judge. In 1783, he and a colleague revised all of the state’s laws.

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic explores Sherman’s political theory and shows how it informed his many contributions to America’s founding. A central thesis of the work is that Sherman, like many founders, was heavily influenced by Calvinist political thought. This tradition had a significant impact on the founding generation’s opposition to Great Britain, and it led them to develop political institutions designed to prevent corruption, promote virtue, and protect rights. Contrary to oft-repeated assertions by jurists and scholars that the founders advocated a strictly secular polity, Mark David Hall argues persuasively that most founders believed Christianity should play an important role in the new American republic.

Porterfield, “Conceived in Doubt”

This year, the University of Chicago Press will publish Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (forthcoming May 2012) by Amanda Porterfield (Florida State University).  The publisher’s description of the book follows.

Americans have long acknowledged a deep connection between evangelical religion and democracy in the early days of the republic. This is a widely accepted narrative that is maintained as a matter of fact and tradition—and in spite of evangelicalism’s more authoritarian and reactionary aspects.

In Conceived in Doubt, Amanda Porterfield challenges this standard interpretation of evangelicalism’s relation to democracy and describes the intertwined relationship between religion and partisan politics that emerged in the formative era of the early republic. In the 1790s, religious doubt became common in the young republic as the culture shifted from mere skepticism toward darker expressions of suspicion and fear. But by the end of that decade, Porterfield shows, economic instability, disruption of traditional forms of community, rampant ambition, and greed for land worked to undermine heady optimism about American political and religious independence. Evangelicals managed and manipulated doubt, reaching out to disenfranchised citizens as well as to those seeking political influence, blaming religious skeptics for immorality and social distress, and demanding affirmation of biblical authority as the foundation of the new American national identity. Read more