In response to Matt’s post about Trollope, I thought I’d point out the observations of another nineteenth-century European visitor—“a perceptive Frenchman,” Justice Scalia once called him—who also wrote about American religion. (Have Supreme Court justices ever cited Trollope? I ask you). Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the 1830s, repeatedly remarked on the fact that Americans valued religion in general and did not concern themselves with denominational differences. “In the United States,” he wrote, “when a political man attacks a sect, it is not a reason for the partisans even of that sect not to support him; but if he attacks all sects together, each flees him and he remains alone.”
Now, Tocqueville emphasized that nineteenth-century American “sects” all fit “within the great Christian unity” and preached “the same morality in the name of God.” Tocqueville thought that these facts made denominational indifference possible. He wouldn’t have agreed with Trollope that Americans saw Free Thinkers and Methodists as equivalent; Americans were not quite that “free-and-easy” with respect to religion. Times change, of course.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.