Religion in God We Trust, E Pluribus Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1914 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Religion

In God We Trust, e pluribus Unum -- the two major strands of American religious thought?

The predominant philosophical strain of American religious and political thought, according to the French Alexis de Tocqueville can be summed up as a philosophy of pantheism, pluralism, materialism, and above all, of the tyranny of the American democratic majority. Tocqueville suggested that Americans, and most citizens of socially equal societies (or relatively socially equal societies, as compared to the Europe of Tocqueville's day) inclined towards the line thought of "including God and the universe in one great whole," or a pantheistic philosophical system that taught "all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being," a Being along the lines of the American political majority. Although the idea of projected God "who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him" might seem to "destroy the individuality of man...[democratic] habits of thought prepare them [Americans] to conceive it [such a pluralistic God] and predispose them to adopt it." The idea "naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds." (Volume 2, Book 1, Chapter 7 (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_07.htm)

In other words, the tyranny of the majority inherent to the democratic system creates the conditions of a pantheistic religion, which fuses individualism, materialism, and political cohesion of the majority, all into one. For Tocqueville, above all, majority rule and equality, rather than liberty dominated American political and religious life. (Volume 2, Book 1, Chapter 7 (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_07.htm)

Even to contemporary ears, this may sound like a strange distinction, to separate liberty and equality. Even today, in modern America, it is common to subsume equality and liberty. If people are subject to equal circumstances, so the commonsense logic goes, at least at the onset of life, society must be free of class restrictions. However, as complementary as the text of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America may be towards America at times, Tocqueville also warns of the tyranny of American public opinion in regards to religion and other philosophical matters as subsuming more intellectual complex discourse and creating the indolence of mind he feared. Toqueville also noted that equality of material social opportunities does not automatically lead to liberty or freedom of thought and discourse. "The [American] public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive;" he writes to his European audience, for the public "does not persuade others to its beliefs, but imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence. In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion." Tocqueville thus feared that faith in public opinion will become for Americans its primary "species of religion, and the majority its ministering prophet." (Volume 2, Chapter II, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_02.htm)

Religion in America, Tocqueville suggested, and faith in America was not necessarily freely chosen, but determined upon by popular consensus as an alternative to the hierarchical dogma that predominated in European forms of faith. Material goods in the here and now rather than faith in the beyond were the American measure of a person's glory and socially isolates human beings, because this is what the common people responded to. "It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless suggests to men (as will be shown hereafter) some very dangerous propensities. It tends to isolate them from one another, to concentrate every man's attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification." (Volume II, Chapter V, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_05.htm) Traditional religion places the "object of man's desires above and beyond the treasures of earth" while democracy, self-interest, and equality of material opportunities turns the focus of humanity upon materialism. (Volume II, Chapter V, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_05.htm) This tendency of democracy, fears Tocqueville, has become a part of American religious discourse to the detriment of other philosophical qualities.

Thus at first, Tocqueville might seem to suggest that Americans might be less inclined to be religious, given that "equality of conditions leads men to entertain a sort of instinctive incredulity of the supernatural and a very lofty and often exaggerated opinion of human understanding," and thus focus on capitalism rather than achieving a communal connection with one's fellow souls. (Volume 2, Chapter II, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_02.htm) but Tocqueville is really suggesting that American religion has taken a different form from European religion. Even the "American ministers of the Gospel" Tocqueville listened to over the course of his 1831 travels, "do not attempt to draw or to fix all the thoughts of man upon the life to come; they are willing to surrender a portion of his heart to the cares of the present, seeming to consider the goods of this world as important, though secondary, objects." In other words, even American ministers are more concerned with present, rather than the life hereafter. This was true of the liberal Transcendentalists, who focused on a pantheistic and all-embracing view of nature, as well as of more conservative ministers, concerned with the 'righting' individual soul of the believer immediately, rather than the state of the church and the religious collective, and the health of the larger state of faith and the state. (Volume II, Chapter V, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_05.htm) Both manifestations of American faith, Tocqueville suggests, show the flip side of pantheism. For if all is one, including the state, nature, soul, and society, then why not be concerned with one's social standing above all, as society -- and one's self -- is conflated with the totality of God?

But elsewhere in his text Tocqueville states that he believes that, equality none withstanding "men cannot do without dogmatic belief...of all the kinds of dogmatic belief, the most desirable appears to me to be dogmatic belief in matters of religion...Fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable to the daily practice of men's lives; but the practice of their lives prevents them from acquiring such ideas...This is especially true of men living in free countries. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others." (Volume II, Chapter V, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_05.htm) the social quality that leads to doubt causes human beings to seek authority in the multitudes' opinion, even if human beings living under apparent equality might like to think of themselves as free and at liberty from old doctrines. "The men who live at a period of social equality are not therefore easily led to place...intellectual authority," of higher thinkers as a priority. But nor do they seek truth more actively than their counterparts living under more aristocratic systems. Rather, the common people, "commonly seek for the sources of truth in themselves or in those who are like themselves...When the ranks of society are unequal, and men unlike one another in condition, there are some individuals wielding the power of superior intelligence, learning, and enlightenment, while the multitude are sunk in ignorance and prejudice. Men living at these aristocratic periods are therefore naturally induced to shape their opinions by the standard of a superior person, or a superior class of persons, while they are averse to recognizing the infallibility of the mass of the people...the contrary takes place in ages of equality. The nearer the people are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or a certain class of men. But his readiness to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever mistress of the world. (Volume 2, Chapter II, Book 1, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch1_02.htm)

More than religious toleration, the plurality of the American religious experience was what struck Tocqueville, a plurality that he saw as arising from the doubt of greater social equality and less stratification and hierarchical adherence to religious doctrine and dogma than in Europe. Americans attempted to come to a religious consensus that provided an effective way of dealing with present problems, rather than accept the past dogma, or attempt to create a more pure and holy life in the afterworld. Tocqueville noted that the peculiar religious atmosphere of the country of America was the first thing that struck him on his arrival in the United States, perhaps because De Tocqueville had visited America at the height of the Second… [END OF PREVIEW]

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