|Frank Wright, Ph.D.
President & CEO
In recent years, scholars have questioned the authenticity of a famous quotation about the moral fabric of America, which has been attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville, you may remember, was a French philosopher who was fascinated by the success and vitality of what our Founders called the American Experiment. His landmark work, Democracy in America, was based on his extensive travels in this country in 1831-32.
In his writings and speeches subsequent to his travels, de Tocqueville is reported to have made this observation about America:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers - and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce - and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution - and it vas not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
While politicians have cited this quotation extensively, it is in fact unverifiable. It does not appear in Democracy in America or in any of De Tocqueville’s other published works. He may have used this memorable description in one of his many speeches, but there is no record of his having done so.
This is, of course, scandalous to many liberal scholars. How can anyone use this quotation, they ask—why it is downright dishonest. Such an observation is almost side-splittingly funny coming from the same academics who tell us there is no such thing as truth in the first place. Clearly their real objection lies elsewhere. Were we to catch them in a fevered fit of genuine honesty, they would likely admit that what they really object to is the quotation itself. They object to any notion that America was or is good.
For me, what is strange about this whole controversy of attribution is that it really matters little whether de Tocqueville actually made this statement or not. Now please don’t misunderstand. I am not calling for “three cheers” for shoddy scholarship. We should always strive for accuracy in our content. This is part of our commitment to “excellence in all things and all things to God’s glory.” Yet the central question is not who said it. The central questions must be: Is this statement true? And, more importantly, is it true of us today?
Biblically, this statement, which connects righteousness and national blessing, is incontrovertibly true. The Scripture says, “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). But is it true of us today?
This is an important question. Clearly we are a people exceedingly blessed; yet in times of great prosperity it is easy to lose sight of the source of those blessings. The Scriptures are, of course, unambiguous about this. They boldly proclaim: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance” (Psalm 33:12). Our blessings—all of them—come from the giver of every good and perfect gift.
In the main, these blessings are a gift of God’s grace—unmerited and undeserved. But if de Tocqueville is right, they are also linked to our fidelity to the word of God. Remember he spoke of “pulpits aflame with righteousness”. Whose righteousness is in view here? Is it that of the pastors occupying those pulpits? Is it that of the churchgoers attending to the messages from those pulpits? Hardly.
Pulpits are truly aflame with righteousness only when it is the righteousness of God in Christ that is being proclaimed, not the mere wisdom of men. Pulpits are only truly aflame with righteousness when that proclamation is direct, unashamed, unconstrained, and bathed in a holy fear. Pulpits are only truly aflame with righteousness when pastors believe with all of their heart that they are proclaiming the very power of God unto salvation.
If the secret of American greatness is pulpits aflame with righteousness, what is the temperature of your church’s pulpit? What is the spiritual temperature of your media outreach? Is your proclamation everywhere based upon the righteousness of God that is now revealed to men (Romans 3:21)? Are we still a people desiring to know God and make him known to others?
The wisdom of another observer of America might provide a helpful perspective. Roger Ward Babson authored a series of books on business and religion. In his book Fundamentals of Prosperity, Babson recounts a conversation he had with the President of the Argentine Republic. He asked the President why South America with all its natural resources and wonders was so far behind North America in terms of progress and marketing. The President’s cogent reply bears repeating often:
I have come to this conclusion. South America was settled by the Spanish who came (here) in search of gold, but North America was settled by the Pilgrim Fathers who went there in search of God.
From this viewpoint the great questions of our day become: Are we still a nation in search of God, or have we forsaken our first love? Are we still a blessed nation whose God is the Lord, or is our greatness as a nation behind us? The answer to these questions will shape our destiny. As de Tocqueville might have said, the answers to these questions may well be found in the pulpits of our churches.