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Religion: The foretaste of politics

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville was born July 29, 1805. A French social scientist, he traveled the United States in 1831, and wrote a two-part work, “Democracy in America” (1835; 1840), which has been described as: “the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written.”

In it, de Tocqueville wrote: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. …”

De Tocqueville continued: “They brought with them … a form of Christianity, which I cannot better describe, than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. … From the earliest settlement of the emigrants, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved.”

De Tocqueville wrote: “Religion in America … must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. … This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation.”

De Tocqueville observed: “The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable. They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God. … Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.”

De Tocqueville added: “In the United States the sovereign authority is religious. … There is no country in the whole world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence than in America. … America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has the widest sway is both the most enlightened and the freest.”

De Tocqueville continued: “In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. … Christianity, therefore reigns without obstacle, by universal consent. …”

De Tocqueville continued: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.”

In Book Two of “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville wrote: “Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the public mind in America. … In the United States … Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established, that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”

In August of 1831, while traveling through Chester County, New York, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a court case: “While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester, declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all confidence of the court in what he was about to say. …”

De Tocqueville continued: “The newspapers related the fact without any further comment. The New York Spectator of August 23d, 1831, relates the fact in the following terms: ‘The court of common pleas of Chester county (New York), a few days since rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God. The presiding judge remarked, that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction of all testimony in a court of justice: and that he knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.’”

A contemporary of Alexis de Tocqueville was the French historian Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1865), who wrote in his work, “Marie ou l’Esclavage aux E’tas-Unis” (1835): “The principal established religious sects in North America are the Methodists, Anabaptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers or Friends, Universalists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Moravians, Evangelical Lutherans, etc. … Religion in America is not only a moral institution but also a political institution. … In the United States, the law is never atheistic. … All of the American constitutions proclaim freedom of conscience and the liberty and equality of all the confessions. …”

Gustave de Beaumont continued: The Constitution of Massachusetts proclaims the freedom of the various faiths in the sense that it does not wish to persecute any of them; but it recognizes within the state only Christians and protects only the Protestants. Maryland’s Constitution also declares that all of the faiths are free, and that no one is forced to contribute to the maintenance of a particular church. However, it gives the legislature the right to establish a general tax, according to the circumstances, for the support of the Christian religion. The Constitution of Vermont recognizes only the Christian faiths, and says specifically that every congregation of Christians should celebrate the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, and observe the religious worship which seems to it most pleasing to the will of God, manifested by revelation. Sometimes the American constitutions offer religious bodies some indirect assistance: thus, Maryland law declares that, to be admitted to public office, it is necessary to be a Christian. …”

Gustave de Beaumont continued in “Marie ou l’Esclavage aux E’tas-Unis” (1835): “The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that one believe in the existence of God and in a future life of punishment or rewards. … The law … confirms the power of religion. … The religious sects … are far from showing themselves indifferent to political interests and to the government of the country. They all take a lively interest in the maintenance of American institutions through the voice of their ministers in the sacred pulpit and even in the political assemblies. …”

Gustave de Beaumont concluded: “In America, Christian religion is always at the service of freedom. It is a principle of the United States legislature that, to be good citizen, it is necessary to be religious; and it is a no less well-established rule that, to fulfill one’s duty toward God, it is necessary to be a good citizen. … In general, anyone who adheres to one of the religious sects, whose number is immense in the United States, enjoys all of his social and political rights in peace. But the man who would claim to have neither a church nor religious beliefs would not only be excluded from all civil employment and from all political offices … but … would be an object of moral persecution of all kinds. No one would care to have any social relations with him. … No one in the United States believes that a man without religion could be an honest man.”

In the 1840’s. Alexis de Tocqueville traveled twice to Algeria. In “Democracy in America,” Vol. II, (1840, Book 1, Chapter V), Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Mohammed brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in an age of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such age, as in all others.”

Commenting on political and military aspects of Islam, St. Alfonsus Liguori (1696-1787) wrote in “The History of Heresies & their Refutation” (published 1847): “The Mahometan paradise, however, is only fit for beasts; for filthy sensual pleasure is all the believer has to expect there. … Mahometans … are permitted to have four wives by their law. … It is prohibited to dispute on the Alcoran (Qur’an) and the Scriptures; and the devil appears to have dictated this precept himself, for, by keeping those poor people in ignorance, he keeps them in darkness. …”

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Liguori continued: “Mahomet died in 631, in the sixty-third year of his age, and nine years after he was recognized as Sovereign of Arabia. He saw almost the whole Peninsula subject to his sway, and for four hundred leagues to the North and South of Medina no other Sovereign was known. He was succeeded by Aboubeker, one of his earliest disciples, and a great conqueror likewise. A long line of Caliphs united in their own persons the Spiritual and Royal power of the Arabian Empire. They destroyed the Empire of Persia; and Egypt, and Syria, and the rich provinces and kingdoms of the East yielded to their arms.”

Thomas Paine referred to the political aspect of “Mahomet” in his 3rd edition of “Common Sense,” Philadelphia, Feb. 14, 1776: “Kings … could we … trace them to their first rise, we should find … the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners … obtained him the title of chief among plunderers. … History stuffed with fables … to trump up some superstitious tale conveniently timed, Mahomet-like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.”

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Muslim “political tendencies” in a letter to Arthur de Gobineau, Oct. 22, 1843 (Tocqueville Reader, p. 229): “I studied the Koran a great deal. I came away from that study with the conviction there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed. So far as I can see, it is the principle cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are in my opinion to be feared. … I therefore regard it as a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself.”

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