American Exceptionalism Examined

Elijah Mvundura July/August 2018

If Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), the celebrated French author of Democracy in America, awakened in present-day America, he would likely be deeply shocked by the polarization, radicalism, and most of all the hostility between liberalism and religion. For what he found so exceptional during his visit to America in the 1830s was that, contrary to the virulent theologico-political conflicts in France, “the spirit of religion and spirit of freedom” were “intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land,” while church and state were institutionally separate.

America had not only resolved the besetting problem of the relationship between church and state, but also, as he wrote in the preface to the twelfth edition (1848), that of popular sovereignty. “It is put in practice in the most direct, unlimited, and absolute way. For sixty years that people who have made it the common fount of all their laws . . . has been not only the most prosperous but also the most stable of the peoples in the world.” France must learn from America, he argued. “Let us look there for instruction . . . let us adopt the principles.”

And in Democracy in America Tocqueville furnished the instructions and principles. Although written to “instruct” France, itbecame a universal manual for democracy, particularly after totalitarianism in the 1930s. Today, with “the erosion of liberal democracy now suddenly reaching crisis proportions,” it has new relevance.

Let’s start with the novelty that struck Tocqueville most: “equality of conditions,” the fundamental fact from which, he said, all other facts about American politics and culture seem to be derived, and was the central point at which all his observations constantly terminated. A term he used interchangeably with democracy, “equality of conditions” didn’t mean, for Tocqueville, material equality of all Americans, but rather the lack of social ranks, of hierarchical distinctions between aristocrats and peasants, upon which European society was based for centuries.

To grasp Tocqueville’s wonder at American equality, we must appreciate the grip that the idea of hierarchy, or the great chain of being, had on Western society. Originating in Greek philosophy and adopted by the dominant church hierarchy, it shaped the “theology and cosmology of medieval Christendom.” But “it was in the eighteenth century that the conception of the universe as a chain of being, and the principles which underlay this conception . . . attained their widest diffusion and acceptance.”

Indeed, eighteenth-century France epitomized the practical application of these principles. The Ancien Régime legitimated the clerical and social hierarchy as an integral part of a divine universe. So, equality, leveling hierarchy, was not only going against God but destroying the universe itself. In Shakespeare’s words: “Take but degree [hierarchy] away, untune that string, and, hark, what discord follows!” This fear of chaos, validated in the eyes of monarchists and the church by the disorders of the French Revolution and nineteenth-century revolutions, animated arguments against democracy.

Tocqueville responded by presenting American democracy as a model. Most significant, in my view, was his argument that democracy itself is a Christian idea, the flowering of the gospel message that “all men are equal before God.” For it refuted the bogus theological justification of hierarchy and the church’s reactionary support of the Ancien Régime. Indeed, reflecting on how since the twelfth century most major events had conspired to advance equality, “century by century over every obstacle and even now going forward,” Tocqueville concluded, that “in itself gives this progress the sacred character of the will of the Sovereign Master. [Accordingly] to halt democracy appears as a fight against God himself, and nations have no alternative but to acquiesce to the social state imposed by Providence.”

But France and the church had not. They “present an alarming spectacle,” wrote Tocqueville, a curious blindness to the irresistible democratic currents shaping their society. “Hence democracy has been left to its wild instincts.” The result is that “we have our democracy without those elements which might have mitigated its vices and brought out its natural good points.” To be sure, the specter of “democratic despotism” first appeared with the French Revolution and shadowed France all the way to the twentieth century. Only after the Second World War, and with American aid, did France become a thriving liberal democracy.

In other words, France didn’t heed Tocqueville’s “lessons” or warnings. Driven by passion for equality, to complete the republican ideals of the revolution, French thinkers never gave primacy to freedom, even as postwar prosperity liberalized French society. Beholden to Marxism and absorbing Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, they concocted illiberal philosophical cults that cast “suspicion” on liberal democracy. Only in the 1980s, with the decline of Communism and the recovery of Tocqueville and other French liberal thinkers, did France develop liberal political thought.

That democratic passions stymied liberty in France for more than 150 years after the revolution should alert us to the great danger the populist passions now besieging Western democracies pose to freedom. This danger, which Tocqueville saw in France of his day, convinced him that the survival of liberty “lies only in the harmony of the liberal sentiment and religious sentiment, both working simultaneously to animate and to restrain souls [passions].”

Again, to appreciate Tocqueville’s conviction, we must set it against the medieval hierarchical universe, which was, as the eminent medievalist R. W. Southern neatly put it, “an attempt to describe the whole cosmos and men’s place in it, and to regulate the details of human life in the light of this description.” By destroying this cosmos, which regulated “the details of human life,” modernity/democracy urgently raised the question of how “human life” or society was now to be regulated.

If Tocqueville’s answer was that both liberalism and religion were necessary, the Radical Enlightenment’s answer was that only philosophy or reason was necessary. Not only so, it sought to destroy Christianity, which it blamed for all the pathologies of the Ancien Régime. Reactionaries sought on the other hand, to restore the Ancien hierarchy. This “strange confusion” in which “men of religion fight against freedom, and lovers of liberty attack religions, noble and generous spirits praise slavery, while low, servile minds preach independence” vexed Tocqueville. But he wasn’t pessimistic.

Invoking Providence, he wrote: “Am I to believe that the Creator made man in order to let him struggle endlessly through intellectual squalor now surrounding us? I cannot believe that; God intends a calmer and more stable future for the peoples of Europe.” In America He had providentially provided a remedy. “I saw in America more than America, it was the shape of democracy itself.” And he traced its “shape” to America’s dual founding: Puritan Protestantism and the Moderate Enlightenment.

He particularly noted Puritanism’s democratic and republican character, its self-disciplining individualism and indirect restraining influence on politics and society. He also noted that Christianity had “preserved a great empire over the spirit of the Americans,” because the American Enlightenment was moderate, and not radical like the French. The distinction between the Moderate and the Radical Enlightenment is of first importance. For the Enlightenment has been homogenized, as Henry F. May rightly noted, yet the Anglo-American and French Enlightenments “differed sharply on important matters.” The former, which rested on Newton and Locke and was grounded on God, “preached order and religious compromise.”The latter, grounded on reason, was atheistic and virulently anti-Christian. Its ambition was “constructing [without God] a new heaven and earth out of the destruction of the old.”

The crux is that the radical anti-Christianity of the French Enlightenment was intimately coupled to the political intransigence of the Catholic Church, its reactionary support of the Ancien Régime, a point that Tocqueville noted. “Unbelievers in Europe attack Christians more as political than as religious enemies,” and he decried that “European Christianity has allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of this world” Again, writing to the racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau, he insisted that Christianity must be distinguished “from the historical accretions and distortions it had suffered.” For facile identification of Christianity with European powers obfuscates its “inner freedom.” For him, all the abuses blamed on Christianity were because of “secondary circumstances” involving the transmission through inevitably flawed “historic vehicles.”

Tellingly, the Apocalypse foresaw “the historical accretions and distortions.” For it revealingly ends with a stern warning against those who add or subtract from the revealed Word (Revelation 22:18, 19). And it’s because of the additions and subtractions or the “historical accretions and distortions” that Protestants identified the Papacy as the antichrist. Theology of the antichrist aside, the “addition” of “Constantine’s sword” was historically consequential. The political development of Europe is only understandable, as Pierre Manent stressed, as a history of answers (or struggles to answer) the theologico-political problem posed by the church.

Thus, in my view, the crux of American exceptionalism is in solving the centuries-old theologico-political problem—a solution in which the Apocalypse played a key role. “Most of English America was peopled by men,” as Tocqueville observed, “who, having shaken off the pope’s authority, acknowledged no other religious supremacy.” Precisely, “one of the prime targets of Protestant polemicists was the doctrine of papal absolutism . . . [and] papal pretensions to coercive power and jurisdiction in secular affairs.” Thus, separation of church and state, religious liberty and liberal and republican conceptions of freedom, as Clement Fatovic showed, were elucidated in contradiction to Catholic practices and principles, seen as the embodiment of tyranny itself.

The Great Awakening popularized these ideas, in its preaching of equality of all, asceticism, sanctity of individual conscience, personal responsibility and suspicion of religious absolutism. According to Ruth Bloch, American revolutionary ideology also drew from these Protestant ideas, but the tendency is to overlook the Protestant influence. And that’s not surprising. From the very inception of modernity, thinkers hid their debt to Christianity. Descartes is a case in point, a tendency Locke noticed. “Many are beholden to revelation,” he wrote, “who do not acknowledge it.”

And unwillingness to acknowledge reliance on Revelation, or the Judeo-Christian substance of Western civilization is a superficial sign of a deeper negation: rebellion against God, the “metaphysical revolt” (in Albert Camus’ words), or “egophanic revolt” (as Eric Voegelin put it). It began with self-deification, the Cartesian ego, and culminated in Nietzsche’s “murder of God.” And the vacuum created by the “murder of God” was filled by secular religions—nationalism, scientism, Darwinism, Marxism—heralding the man-gods: the Stalins and Hitlers. While the “vacuum of values” created by the destruction of the Judeo-Christian substance engendered the anomie and identity crisis that bedevils liberalism.

America wasn’t part of this “metaphysical revolt” until the 1960s, when, either indifferent to or ignorant of America’s dual founding, radical liberalism shattered the “joint reign” between liberalism and religion. Under the spell of French postmodernism, inspired by Foucault, Derrida, and others, who drew from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud, radical liberalism denied transcendence to authorize a radical individualism free from all morals and absolutes. Attacking religion, it sought to “reign” alone, or cultural totalitarianism. But, as we are seeing, winning the “culture wars” is not enough—humanity itself must be deconstructed. Biological markers of gender must be obliterated and identities diffused into Dionysian formlessness.

The Dionysian element, most salient in Nietzsche, harks back to archaic Greece and must be brought to the fore to grasp the real meaning of postmodernism. It’s “Dionysus against the Crucified,” as Nietzsche himself put it.” Or the devil against Christ, in biblical apocalyptic terms. And it’s in biblical apocalyptic terms that Evangelicals and American Christians must view the “post-Christian barbarism.” The crux is to grasp with Paul, that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV).29

Therefore, to wage “our struggle” through political means or cultural strategies, in pursuit of a Christian hegemony, is to evince a profound spiritual blindness. Indeed, the schema of the Antichrist is applying political remedies to spiritual maladies. “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6, NIV). The gospel, as Dostoevsky acutely noted, is “a double-edged weapon, which may lead a person not to humility and ultimate self-control but, on the contrary, to the most satanic pride—that is, to fetters and not to freedom.”30

That’s why Tocqueville contended that the gospel must not be “mingled with the bitter passions of this world.”31 For mingled, it becomes a monstrosity, symbolically represented in the Apocalypse by Babylon (confusion) and hybrid mythical beasts (worldly empires). At birth America was an exception to this monstrosity. But if it mixes church and state and hollows out civil and religious liberties, it will become the lamblike beast, which speaks like a dragon (Revelation 13:11).

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Perennial Classics, 1969), p. 295.
  2. Ibid., p. xiv.
  3. Larry Diamond, “The Liberal Democratic Order in Crisis,” order- in-crisis/
  4. Tocqueville, p. 10.
  5. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936), p. 64.
  6. Ibid., p. 183.
  7. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act I, scene 3, cited in E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, 1942), p. 10.
  8. Tocqueville, p. 12.
  9. Ibid., p. 13.
  10. Alexis de Tocqueville, cited in Aristide Tessitore, “Alexis de Tocqueville on the Natural State of Religion in the Age of Democracy,” The Journal of Politics 64, no. 4 (November 2002): 1137.
  11. R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 23.
  12. Tocqueville, Democracy, p. 17.
  13. Ibid., p. 18.
  14. Ibid., p. 291.
  15. Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. xiv.
  16. Ibid., p. xii.
  17. Tocqueville, Democracy, pp. 300, 301.
  18. Aristide Tessitore, “Tocqueville and Gobineau on the Nature of Modern Politics,” The Review of Politics 67, no. 4 (Autumn 2005), p. 633.
  19. Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 4.
  20. Tocqueville, Democracy, p. 288.
  21. Clement Fatovic, “The Anti-Catholic Roots of Liberal and Republican Conceptions of Freedom in English Political Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 66, no. 1 (January 2005), pp. 40, 41.
  22. Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. xiii.
  23. John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. I. T. Ramsey (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 66.
  24. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), pp. 23-104.
  25. Eric Voegelin, Order and History: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge, La.:  Louisiana State University, 1974), vol.4, p. 260.
  26. See Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  27. See François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  28. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R. J Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 104.
  29. Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  30. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), p. 29.
  31. Tocqueville, Democracy, p. 297.

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.