In Democracy in America, Tocqueville discusses what he thought was a strength of American Christianity—and it is a strength, after a fashion. But the passage also illuminates a problem in the Church’s public voice in America. Tocqueville writes:
There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States. All are different regarding the worship which must be made to the Creator, but all are in agreement regarding the duties of men toward each other. Each sect thus worships God in its manner, but all sects preach the same morality in the name of God.
Setting aside the issue of whether, today, Christian churches in fact all preach the same morality (or whether they did even in the America of Tocqueville’s time), Tocqueville’s discussion points to two asymmetries between law and Gospel in the public witness of American churches.
The first asymmetry is created by the clarity with which the moral law is preached by churches—at least, that part of the moral law often identified as the “second” table of the Ten Commandments. (The so-called “second table” contains those commandments pertaining to the obligations of person to person. These are traditionally distinguished from the “first table,” those commandments dealing with the relationship between humans and God.)
Tocqueville contrasts the moral witness of the Church in the U.S. with its Gospel witness—setting the clarity and harmony with which churches preach the law or morality against the public discord caused by their differences in worship. Tocqueville is not exactly clear about what he means here by “worship.” I suspect he’s thinking of disputes about free worship versus liturgical worship, the real presence in the Supper versus a spiritual or symbolic presence, whether or not infants should be baptized, and so on. But whatever the sectarian indicia of worship are in the different American churches, at the center of Christian worship is God’s word to humanity in Jesus Christ, in which he says, “I forgive you.” The surprise of Christian worship is not that in it humanity serves God, but that in it God serves humanity.
The upshot of Tocqueville’s analysis, however, is that messages of law and judgment ring clearly from American pulpits, while messages of forgiveness and the Gospel get lost in the babel. This asymmetry in how the Church is heard to preach the law and the Gospel is a problem for the Church in America.
To note the asymmetry is not in the least to suggest that the preaching of the law should be muted. We must know that we are lost before we can understand what it is to be found. But the essential message of the Church is a both/and, not an either/or. She must preach, and be heard to preach, the Gospel as clearly as she preaches the law. There is no Church, there is no Christianity, without God’s word of forgiveness to the world in Jesus Christ.
Tocqueville’s observation raises a second point, pertaining to the role of Christianity in inculcating the civil righteousness necessary to sustain democratic society in America. In the same passage, Tocqueville argues that political liberty can be sustained only when a nation’s people are virtuous:
Religion is much more necessary in [a] republic . . . than in [a] monarchy, and in democratic republics more than all the others. How will society avoid perishing if, while the political bond is loosened, the moral bond is not tightened?
Given its predominance, Christianity was naturally assumed to ground republican virtues for the U.S. But it’s one thing for the American political regime to value Christian churches because they help supply the moral requisites for sustaining the regime; for churches themselves to conceive of their purpose in this way is quite another thing.
Here is where a second distorting effect came in. The need for virtue and morality is largely understood to require that churches preach and inculcate the moral law. But when churches place the needs of a political society—even the need of a democratic society for widespread civil righteousness—on a par with the needs of the Kingdom of Heaven, there arises a temptation to emphasize the law and to give the Gospel short shrift. Indeed, offering forgiveness could be viewed as antithetical to the moral needs of the regime.
This, again, risks distorting the public voice of the Church: Though she has good intentions in supporting America’s democratic regime, she once again highlights the law and deemphasizes the Gospel message of forgiveness. This distorting effect of prioritizing the law over the Gospel is one reason polls show that Americans today look at the Church and see only a wagging finger and a scowl, rather than a promise of forgiveness and joy.
The role of the Christian Church in American civil society is not a matter of indifference. But the Church and her eternal message are more important than any political society, including American democracy. The mission and message of the Church are too important to be distorted by the temptation to serve a worldly regime, however much the Church’s people may value that regime.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.