Sunday, May 11, 2014

Habits of the Heart: A Look at 1830s America

Alexis de Tocqueville left France for America in 1831.  His quest?  To determine why democracy had succeeded in the United States so he might apply those secrets back in his homeland.  What he found was quite enlightening.

In 1835, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, which identified America's success as being grounded in Christianity.  He understood that many were not Christians in early American culture, but the Christians who were genuine made a huge impact of the rest of society.  The difference between then and now is how those Christians lived compared to modern-day Christians.

Chris Brauns in his book Bound Together summarizes Tocqueville's discovery:

"'Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state's all-pervasive presence in his native France.'  Tocqueville believed it was Christian values and virtues, what he called 'habits of the heart,' rather than the involvement of government that made for responsible citizens.  This, he suggested, was the bedrock of the American experiment.  
      Tocqueville was not naive about the spirituality of America.  He understood that not every citizen was a professing Christian. He was aware of the fact that even among those who professed faith in Christ there was still great hypocrisy.  Even so, he noted, 'Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess a certain public respect for Christian morality and equity, so that it is not easy for them to violate the laws when those laws stand in the way of their own designs.  And even if they could overcome their own scruples, they would still be held in check by the scruples of their supporters.'
      Tocqueville was especially impressed by the effectiveness of American homes in passing along Christian 'habits of the heart,' and the strength of American homes began with a high regard for marriage: 'Of all the countries in the world, America is surely the one in which the marriage bond is most respected, and in which people subscribe to the loftiest and most just ideal of conjugal happiness.'
      Tocqueville believed that mothers, in particular, deserved high praise for teaching Christian values to their children...Tocqueville wrote, 'If someone were to ask me what I think is primarily responsible for the singular prosperity and growing power of [Americans], I would answer that it is the superiority of their women.'
      Christian 'habits of the heart,' instilled by godly parents living together in committed marriages, had given rise to a citizenry with a strong sense of civic responsibility and solidarity with one another." (p. 166).

The Christians from two centuries ago were salt and light in their nation.  They didn't withdraw completely from the world or throw up their hands in bitter, what-can-I-do-anyway defeat.  They didn't strive to be politically correct at all costs so as not to offend someone, to turn a blind eye or gently re-label sin a "choice."

The effects of early American Christianity were similar to a circle of dominoes, one causing another and then another to fall, although in this time period, they fell in a positive way.

Consider the butterfly effect mentioned in the above quotation.  Early American government was small and not intrusive because Christian morality was high (so high that even non-Christians stayed in line).  Christian morality was high because marriages were of utmost importance, making the home stable.  Because marriages were of utmost importance, parents were able not just to teach Christian values in the home but to live out those Christian values in front of their children.  Christian values, then, became ingrained in the children, thereby making Christian morality high in the overall country and minimizing the need for intrusive government.  See the loop?

America at its greatest begins with mothers and fathers.  It begins in the home.  It begins with Christians teaching and living out Biblical morality in front of their children.  It begins with Christians refusing to lock themselves inside their churches and homes and, instead, getting out into the world to let their light shine before men.

I'm not pointing a finger.  I'm speaking to myself, too.  There's nothing I'd rather do than stay on my farm, spend time with my family, or worship at church with my spiritual family.  Those are safe places that encourage me in my Christian walk.  But it's not just about me.  It is about a nation, a world full of lost people making wrong, sinful choices...and many of them have no idea they're doing anything wrong.

With Mother's Day just yesterday, I can't help but take Tocqueville's analysis of America and say, if we want our country back, the buck stops with the Christian mother and father.  We Christian parents must (1) save our families at all costs.  Divorces because of 'irreconcilable differences' or 'we just fell out of love' must stop with us.  And (2) we parents must teach and live out Christian values to and before our children.  If our children don't see us prioritizing time in the Word of God, time in worship of God, and time ministering to others in Jesus' name...why would they want to do the same?

Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we are literally one generation away from godliness or godlessness.  It's a sobering thought but one that emphasizes the importance of you and me in the fate of our home and  nation.

1 comment:

  1. We like Israel of the old testament, seem to need to learn the hard way that if you follow God with your heart and actions you prosper and if you do not you fail. A nation will prosper even if just a large group in that nation believes this.