America's Religious Roots

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French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) wrote his famous Democracy in America in 1835, after he visited the United States in 1831-32 to study the nation’s prison system. His formal study of the new nation turned out to be the greatest sociological work of the 19th century. He marveled at the contrast between the stability of the American republic and the unstable and violent republics of South America. He attributed the difference to the mores of the people.

He used the word mores “to cover the whole moral and intellectual state of a people … [and] to cover the sum of the moral and intellectual dispositions of man in society” (America’s British Culture, Russell Kirk, 1994, p. 70).

“It is their mores, then, that make the Americans of the United States, alone among Americans, capable of maintaining the rule of democracy; and it is mores again that make the various Anglo-American democracies more or less orderly and prosperous …” (ibid.).

Toqueville was aware of the instability in his own country, France, where he served in government through a tumultuous period. To him the Anglo-American democracies stood out as models of political order. “The importance of mores is a universal truth to which study and experience continually bring us back. I find it occupies the central position in my thoughts; all my ideas come back to it” (ibid.).

Russell Kirk comments: “In every culture of the past, everywhere in the world, the principal source of a culture’s mores—its traditional customs, its way of regarding the human condition, its principles of morality—has been religious belief” (ibid.).

“Toqueville perceived that this widespread religious belief—or, in some, this outward profession of belief—gave the American democracy its strength and its temperateness. ‘There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States. They are all different in the worship they offer to the creator, but all agree concerning the duties of man to one another. Each sect worships God in its own fashion, but all preach the same morality in the name of God’ ” (ibid., p. 72).

Kirk observes that, regardless of their theological differences, America’s citizens “all were reared in a British climate of opinion, with the Ten Commandments at the back of their minds, when not in the forefront” (ibid., p. 72).

God’s laws were familiar reading to the founders of the American republic. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy directly addressed the issue of how a new nation could choose to be blessed or cursed, to succeed or fail.

“… If you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, … the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2 Deuteronomy 28:1-2 [1] And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the LORD your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth: [2] And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God.
American King James Version×

It is significant that, at the time of America’s and Britain’s ascendancy to greatness and world dominance, their laws were based on the Ten Commandments. As King Solomon learned thou- sands of years ago, “righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34 Proverbs 14:34Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.
American King James Version×

John Adams, America’s second president, wrote in his diary on Feb. 22, 1756: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God … What a Utopia, what a Paradise would this region be” (William Federer, America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, 1996, p. 5).

Almost a decade later Adams wrote in his notes for A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, February 1765: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth” (ibid.).

John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, who became the sixth president of the United States, wrote a letter to his son in September 1811, while serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia. He had been pleased to hear that his son was reading the Bible daily.

“I have myself, for many years, made it a practice to read through the Bible once every year … My custom is to read four to five chapters every morning immediately after rising from my bed … It is essential, my son, in order that you may go through life with comfort to yourself, and usefulness to your fellow-creatures, that you should form and adopt certain rules or principles, for the government of your own conduct and temper …

“It is in the Bible, you must learn them, and from the Bible how to practice them. Those duties are to God, to your fellow-creatures, and to yourself. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thy self.’ On these two commandments, Jesus Christ expressly says, ‘hang all the law and the prophets’; that is to say, the whole purpose of Divine Revelation is to inculcate them efficaciously upon the minds of men …” (Federer, p. 16). GN

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