22 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 5: Cross-Atlantic Perspectives on the American Experiment

Pastor Steven Wedgeworth (who also led in morning and evening worship) presented parts of his paper "Views from 19th Century Europe: How the Separation of Church and State was Seen from Abroad." I write "parts" because his research was impressive but much editorial synthesis remains before it will be paper- (and not book-) length.

Wedgeworth began with Alexis de Tocqueville's observations concerning the heretofore unknown idea of separation of church and state. Analysis of de Tocqueville occupied the majority of the presentation. de Tocqueville's work Democracy in America is well-known and short abridgements are often included in sourcebooks for American history classes. Wedgeworth, however, has read and digested the whole book and picked up some of de Tocqueville's less-familiar themes. Two stood out. First, while Americans in the 1830s generally eschewed any discussion of political philosophy, de Tocqueville quickly identified the elements of their political theory: equality, liberty, and utility. The first two elements are traceable to the Enlightenment in general and the latter to the rise of the market economy. You can read some of my recent thoughts on the third element here.

Second, de Tocqueville observed that in America authority resides in the individual--and only the individual. Neither the civil state, the church, nor even the family exercised substantial authority over the sovereign individual. Democratization not only of the franchise but of all of life. This proto-libertarian suspicion of authority also had, de Tocqueville suggested, significant implications for the American Church(es) (or, as we would say, denominations). Because ultimate authority resided only in the individual, to thrive if not survive churches must be careful not to go beyond assent to narrow dogmas in their requirements for membership. In other words, de Tocqueville saw the early manifestation of the marketization of American Christianity. (My thoughts about that phenomenon here.)

But, I asked Wedgeworth, what of the Mormons? They required much in the way of beliefs and life that exceeded the expectations of the mushy middle of early nineteenth century Americans. According to Wedgeworth, de Tocqueville missed the followers of Joseph Smith, as he also overlooked the so-called Second Great Awakening. Rather large omissions, I think.

For what it's worth, in my opinion, then as now there is a share of the religion "market" that is eager for authority. Being a stand-alone center of authority can be hard so there are many who--in the exercise of their free choice--are satisfied to delegate that authority to an institution, especially one that generates so much utility.

Wedgeworth went on to address the views of two subsequent Europeans who came to America and reflected on later nineteenth century developments. Those who are interested will have to wait for the publication of the Convivium's proceedings.

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