Winter 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 292-303.

Endel Kallas:
      Spirituality "On This Side of the Atlantic" according to Alexis de Tocqueville

A century and a half ago a French visitor to America observed religious trends which split American Christianity from European and still continue to influence it today.

Reverend Kallas received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and currently serves as pastor, with his spouse, Nancy, at Grace Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara.

WITHIN days of his arrival in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French Roman Catholic of aristocratic birth and barely twenty-six years old, quickly recognized critical differences between the spirituality of continental European culture and that in formation "on this side of the Atlantic." The first glance at his port of entry, New York City, already revealed a visible divergence from his French homeland. "A visitor sees," Tocqueville noted, "neither [cathedral] domes, nor [church] bell towers, nor great edifices, with the result that one has the constant impression of being in a suburb."(1) However much Tocqueville missed the evidence of church structures, he did. not fail to observe the devotion and spirituality of American Catholics. In a personal letter to his mother back in France, Tocqueville remarked that his first Mass in America made a great impression. "The church," he noted, "which is a large one, was entirely full, and the meditation was more profound than in the church of France .... The necessity of having some religious doctrine is so deeply felt on this side of the Atlantic . . . ."(2) Beginning in May, 1831, Tocqueville explored America and the new developments for political and religious life in the young democracy. His reflections first appeared in print in the year 1835 and remain to this day some of the finest and most insightful on spirituality in a democratic political context. In the following pages I will examine Tocqueville's monumental work Democracy in America and note the critical shifts in religious life that Tocqueville observed under way in early nineteenth century America, and which still bear great relevance in our own day.

Tocqueville set foot on American soil with little or no preconception about religion in America other than an instinctive sensitivity to the importance of the Christian faith within the new democracy. "Taken together," Tocqueville noted upon his arrival, "Americans seem a religious people. It is evident that no one thinks of ridiculing the practice, and that the good and even the truth of religion are admitted in theory. But, to what point does their life conform to their doctrine? What is the true power of the religious principle on their souls? . . . That is what remains to be discovered."(3) Only after his direct encounter with religious life in the new democratic world did Tocqueville begin to draw conclusions about spirituality "on this side of the Atlantic."


In the course of his travels, Tocqueville soon realized that America did indeed mark a critical turn within the history of Western Christian civilization. His historical perspective, however, was not so much a means to bolster traditional expressions of spirituality as much as a vantage point from which to see and appraise the new American scene. In Democracy in America, where the subject of "distant objects" comes up for discussion, Tocqueville turns the attention of his readership back in time to the "ages of faith," to gain a point of reference for evaluating the age of democracy:

In the ages of faith, the final aim of life is placed beyond life. Human beings thus naturally almost involuntarily accustom themselves to fix their gaze for many years on some immovable object towards which they are constantly tending .... They do not turn from day to day to chase novel object of desire; they have settled designs which they are never weary of pursuing.(4)

With reference to the "ages of faith," Tocqueville indirectly drew attention to a basic shift within democratic America, namely, that the American public had become less and less inclined to "distant objects" and was oriented more toward chasing present, temporal novelty. In the eyes of Tocqueville, Americans of the early nineteenth century had already lost sight of "distant objects" and thus distanced themselves from the "ages of faith."

Alongside this break from the "ages of faith," Tocqueville similarly noticed within nineteenth-century American culture a widespread movement away from the "aristocratic age." Family ties and personal upbringing provided Tocqueville with an immediate experience of the "aristocratic age." His ancestral lineage was thoroughly aristocratic and ranked among the petite noblesse of France; during the French Revolution, Tocquevilles suffered imprisonment and execution on account of their links to the French ancien régime. "To his very marrow," the biographer George Wilson Pierson writes, Tocqueville was aristocratic and the child of an "aristocratic age."(5) Even so, the biographer adds, he was a "crusader by instinct." This instinct effectively moved Tocqueville to make the trip across the Atlantic in the hope of gaining a new perspective from which to appraise the crisis that had befallen the "aristocratic age" in his homeland. In America, Tocqueville perceived that Western European civilization was destined to move beyond the "aristocratic age" and that a new "democratic age" was already in the process of development. Tocqueville wondered whether or not Christianity and the spiritual life would be able to "retain their sway in the democratic ages upon which we are entering."

Tocqueville felt less than fully secure about the transition to democracy, inasmuch as Christianity had been perceived as a "bequest" from the age of aristocracy (155). The metaphor of a "bequest" deserves special attention. In effect, Tocqueville concluded that the "aristocratic age" was much less an originator than merely a conveyor of religious truth and spiritual values. With the movement from the aristocratic world to the new American scene, Tocqueville feared that the "bequest" might well be rejected along with the more dominant concern among Americans to set themselves at odds with European tradition and history.

Traditions never die easily, but in America Tocqueville experienced a unique phenomenon where a whole society no longer looked to historical tradition-religious or otherwise-for the development of personal life. This deliberate shift of perspective away from the past and tradition was, for Tocqueville, a critical factor against any simple integration of traditional Christian perspectives and spiritual values into the new American scene. He observed: "In the midst of the continual movement that agitates a democratic community, the ties that unite one generation to another are relaxed or broken; individuals there lose all trace of the ideas of their forebearers or take no care about them" (4). However much the Western Christian tradition helped define for centuries the nature of spirituality in continental European society, Tocqueville recognized in America a fundamental turn away from reliance upon tradition. The ultimate consequence of this shift in religious outlook was already well apparent: the Western spiritualist tradition from Augustine onwards played no significant role whatsoever in the expressions of spirituality that were developing on American soil.

Along with the break from religious tradition, Tocqueville discerned in democratic America a parallel turn away from the supernatural. The disappearance of the transcendent in contemporary American culture has been widely explored within current studies of religion, but a century and a half ago Tocqueville sensed that the American public had already begun to find the transcendent dimension or the supernatural less and less vital to daily human concern. "The practice of Americans leads their minds to other habits, i.e., to fixing the standard of judgement in themselves alone . . . they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained and that nothing in it transcends the limits of understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot understand, which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural (DA, 4). Whatever Americans sought to know or explain, concluded Tocqueville, was referred exclusively to the intra-mundane arena without the least regard to probe beyond. The supernatural was not so much denied or refuted, but simply given little credence within the context of daily human activity. Once More Tocqueville identified a major shift that had taken place within early nineteenth-century America, and it clearly was a change in perspective that posed no small problem for any potential integration of Christianity into the new "democratic age."

By the same token, Tocqueville became equally aware that divine revelation was no longer held in high esteem within the new world of democracy. Christianity may well rest on the classical theological premise that human beings stand in need of revelation over and beyond experience or innate knowledge, but the social currents that Tocqueville observed within nineteenth-century democratic America were oriented otherwise. "It may be foreseen," Tocqueville remarked, "that a democratic people will not easily give credence to divine missions; that they will laugh at modern prophets; and that they will seek to discover the chief arbiter of their belief within, and not beyond, the limits of their kind" (10-11). The minds of the American public, Tocqueville felt, were certainly not held captive by divine revelations from on high, but instead the new "democratic age" heralded a whole new problem: spirituality without reference to divine revelation or prophetic oracles.


Apart from loss, Tocqueville did observe in America the emergence of positive new expressions of spirituality. Indeed, the losses were effectively counterbalanced by the efforts of the American public to understand spirituality from a vantage point very different from anything that had been known within previous ages.

Where Tocqueville observed a most tangible shift in religious attitude was in the way Americans -- laity and clergy -- attempted to correlate spirituality, not with the future life, but more so with the present. Indeed, the "democratic age" manifested to Tocqueville significant new interest in the present moment whereby spirituality became focused more on temporal welfare and material prosperity. According to Tocqueville, "the prevailing passion of the American people" was with physical gratification in the present that foreshortened any vision of the future or eternal life. Moreover, it was American clergy who assumed a pivotal role in the development of a relationship between this new "prevailing passion" and spirituality. Clerics, Tocqueville remarked, rarely opposed from the pulpit the more worldly character of American religious life, but, to the contrary, made every effort to accommodate spirituality to the new social currents:

The American ministers of the Gospels do not attempt to draw or to fix all thoughts of individuals upon the life to come; they are willing to surrender a portion of their hearts to the cares of the present, seemingly to consider the goods of this world important, though secondary, objects. If the clergy take no part themselves in productive labor, they are at least interested in its progress and they applaud its results; and while they never cease to point to the other world as the great object of the hopes and fears of the believer, they do not forbid individuals honestly to count prosperity in this (28-29).
Clergy clearly occupied a median position with respect to traditional expressions of the spiritual life and that in formation in the new "democratic age." While the American public vigorously pursued physical gratifications and amassed the "good things of this world," argued Tocqueville, American clerics restrained or toned down a traditional emphasis on the future life in favor of adapting spirituality to present temporal welfare.

At the very heart of the emerging new forms of spirituality in America was the new role that was played by what Tocqueville called "private judgement." Beginning volume two of Democracy in America, Tocqueville noted the fact that the principle of "private judgement" was basic to the "philosophical method" of the American people. "Individuals," Tocqueville observed, "shut themselves up tight within themselves and insist on judging the world from there. This practice of Americans leads their minds to other habits, to fixing the standard of their judgement in themselves alone . . . Americans, then, have found no need of drawing philosophical methods out of books; they have found it in themselves" (4-5). Tocqueville also speculated on the historical roots for this virtual "method" of life, and his reflections led him back to the sixteenth century and Martin Luther who allegedly employed the very same procedure. According to Tocqueville, the reformer applied the identical "method" in his effort to subject the "ancient faith to the scrutiny of private judgement." Luther might well have wondered about the propriety of the evaluation, but Tocqueville perceived a definite historical link between the Protestant Reformation and the emergence in America of "private judgement" as the sole authority for the definition of the spiritual life.

By observing how Americans relied on their "private judgement!" in spiritual matters, Tocqueville also wondered whether or not the nation would be able to maintain any semblance of spiritual unity. "Without common belief," Tocqueville asserted, "no society can prosper; say, rather, no society can exist; for without ideas held in common, there is no common action, and without common action there may still be individuals but there is no social body. In order that society should exist and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper, it is necessary that the mind of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas" (9). "Private judgement" may well have allowed the American public to explore new forms of the spiritual life, but, Tocqueville feared, the development presented a question of critical significance for the future of the nation: Can any civic unity be preserved within America in the face of this emerging new authority of "private judgement" over spirituality and the religious life?

While deeply sensitive to the quandary, Tocqueville did uncover within the country a counterproductive principle that made for social and religious cohesion: the majority. According to Tocqueville, the "aristocratic age" had virtually no concern for majority opinion, in that beliefs and expressions of the spiritual life were simply imposed on the public sector without regard for personal conviction or private preference. However, in the "democratic age," this situation changed entirely, and America provided Tocqueville with empirical evidence for the shift:

In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions of their own .... it will be perceived that religion holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as commonly received opinion . . . by whatever political laws individuals are governed in the ages of equality, it may be foreseen that faith in the public opinion will become for them a species of religion, and the majority its ministering prophet (12).
The majority was for Tocqueville far more than merely a political principle for the election of individuals to public office, but the factor for the determination of the way the American public formed "common belief and, ultimately, defined an American spiritual life. The general public thus gained unprecedented rule over the definition of religious truth and devotion once the majority was vested with the title of "ministering prophet" for the sake of unity within the nation.


In the hope that a majority of the American public might continue to lay claim to the Christian faith, Tocqueville himself assumed the role of "ministering prophet" and outlined three basic modes of change for future Christianity in the nation. With respect to religious creed, external observances, and orientation for the spiritual life, argued Tocqueville, American Christianity would necessarily have to go through a process of adjustment for the sake of its own future.

In his analysis of an American religious creed, Tocqueville recognized a need to reinterpret the classical formulation of the Trinity so as to retain a "sway" over the American public. If the faith was indeed to make an adjustment to "democratic tendencies," Tocqueville maintained, then the emphasis would have to be less on the multiplicity of divine persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- and more on the affirmation of a "simple Deity" (24ff). Tocqueville made it clear to the readership of Democracy in America that his proposal was set forth from a "purely human point of view" without regard to formal theological analysis (24). In defense of his stance, he took note of a definite historical precedent when the Roman Empire "shattered into a thousand fragments." According to Tocqueville, Christianity then appeared on the scene with the belief in "one God" that effectively stemmed greater fragmentation among peoples and nations. With the advent of the new "democratic age" in America, he added, the country would similarly overcome internal discord and attain more social unity once a majority of the American public believed in a "simple Deity," ostensibly a Christian form of the Deity. Tocqueville never formally explored the dogmatic significance of his proposal, but he saw within the classical Trinitarian formulation an affirmation of divine unity that, by consequence, would enhance civic unanimity and spirituality among a majority of American citizens.

Secondly, Tocqueville advised his Christian counterparts in America that external observances would have to be kept to the very minimum, so as not to alienate a majority of the public and, in turn, foster further social division within the nation:

I am persuaded that in the [democratic] ages upon which we are entering it would be peculiarly dangerous to multiply external observances beyond measure .... Religions are obliged to hold fast to the articles of faith; but they should take care not to bind themselves in the same manner to external things when everything is in transition and where the mind, accustomed to the moving pageant of human affairs, reluctantly allows itself to be fixed at any point (26).
This critical need to play down church rites and ceremonies was, without doubt, a significant shift away from the ecclesiastical tradition which Tocqueville had known in his French homeland. The great French cathedrals, the elegant Catholic liturgy and the grand legacy of medieval art -- these were for Tocqueville no longer well suited to the new "democratic age" and a majority of the American people. If external observances continued to grow without limitation, Tocqueville feared, the Christian faith might well turn out to be for little more than a zealous few "in the midst of a skeptical multitude" (26).

Finally, Tocqueville discerned that the very orientation of the spiritual life would have to go through a process of adjustment so as to remain relevant in the new American scene. According to Tocqueville, Americans in majority numbers were concerned primarily with the preservation of their own temporal "well-being." A traditional Augustinian spirituality that was oriented to God and the eternal clearly would find little favor among an American public for whom, Tocqueville observed, "the taste for well-being is the prominent and indelible feature of democratic times" (27). The critical question was whether or not this dominant interest in temporal "well-being" could indeed be coordinated with a Christian spirituality. Tocqueville foresaw that, if spirituality was totally opposed to "well-being," it would eventually be "destroyed" by the public passion.

The opposite position, however, provided no greater prospect for the future. According to Tocqueville, if the spiritual life became little more than the "contemplation of the good things of this world," then the American public would "at length" turn away from spirituality as though religious practice did nothing more than affirm what was already accepted by a majority of Americans.

The only alternative with any semblance of promise for the future was, concluded Tocqueville, an understanding of spirituality as simply a regulator or restrainer of excessive taste for "well-being." Indeed, Tocqueville held out hope only insofar as spirituality in democratic America became a practical, ethical means to set bounds on excessive worldly attachments and, at least, to see that the taste for "well-being" was savored in an honest fashion. While the spiritual life in previous ages engaged the faithful in a lifelong quest for the eternal and God, the new "democratic age" signaled a critical shift with emphasis on little more than the need to "regulate, purify and restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for well-being" (27) among a majority of the American public.


Tocqueville's travels throughout America opened his eyes to a spiritual crisis that was already well apparent within the nation in the early nineteenth century. He spoke most candidly of the troublesome situation in one chapter of Democracy in America where the theme of "fanatical spiritualism" comes up for discussion. On one occasion, Tocqueville relates, his travels brought him into contact with the "itinerant preachers" of the Far West. He saw them "hawk about the Word of God from place to place" and draw large followings wherever they went (142). Of primary interest was not the peculiar character of their nomadic ministry, but the fact that the preachers and their followers seemingly displayed a "momentary outburst" from the more prevalent style of life among Americans. The preachers stirred the people by directing their thoughts outside themselves to a real "beyond the bonds of matter." But, added Tocqueville sadly, this "momentary outburst" soon degenerated into "wild fanaticism," the likes of which he noted for his readership "hardly exists in Europe." Upon reflection, Tocqueville concluded: "Religious insanity is very common in the United States" (143). By his use of the word insanity, he referred, not to the mental condition of the preachers or their followers, but to the critical situation for spirituality within the new "democratic age." The only way it seemed that Americans broke free momentarily from their predominant interest in private judgment or temporal welfare was by resorting to a form of "wild fanaticism." Tocqueville hardly found "fanaticism" a viable means to remedy the religious crisis before the nation, but he still held out hope that, in the future, the American public might regain "common sense" and supercede fanatical "outbursts" with more balanced expressions of the spiritual life.

On the whole, Tocqueville never designed his Democracy in America to be a formal study of spirituality "on this side of the Atlantic." His reflections on religious life in the new "democratic age" are, in fact, more random and scattered than systematic and tightly organized. For this reason, perhaps, Democracy in America has rarely been analyzed as a significant document for the understanding of spirituality within an American context.

The foregoing study, however, attempts to give greater credence to Tocqueville and his Democracy in America on two accounts. First, Tocqueville still deserves serious consideration, for he made no effort whatsoever either to criticize or to idealize the critical shifts in religious life that were already underway a century and a half ago. To the contrary, he wished nothing more than to chronicle, plainly and intelligently, the new developments in spirituality for his European readership. Indeed, it might be argued that his astute and impartial observations could only have been made by an individual who had no axes to grind, and for whom the American scene was profoundly significant for the development from modern European culture. Second, Tocqueville can hardly be ignored in our day, for his reflections on the new spirituality of America were not based on isolated social phenomena. On the contrary, his observations helped pinpoint whole new trends and trajectories, the consequence of which we have only begun to comprehend in our twentieth century. If Tocqueville can tell us anything, it is that the collapse of tradition, the loss of reference to the supernatural, the demise of the authority of revelation, the breakdown of common belief, the appeal to a "majority" and fixation on temporal, material gratification are not really so new to our troubled twentieth century. In view of our contemporary scene, Tocqueville would probably smile, advise us to consult Democracy in America, and quote a classic passage from Ecclesiastes: "Is there a thing of which it is said: 'See, this is new'? It has been already, in ages before us."

This year also marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary since the first edition of Democracy in America came off the presses of the Parisian publisher Charles Gosselin in the year 1835. Three years later the American public enjoyed the first opportunity to leaf through an English translation and take note of the masterful observations on life in the new American democracy. Once on "this side of the Atlantic," Tocqueville perceived that there was far more than merely an ocean separating the American public from the religious and spiritualist tradition of his French homeland. The basic shifts and new trends which Tocqueville observed, and problems he foresaw, have certainly not lost significance over the last century and a half. If anything, his perceptions remain a critical point of reference if we still hope to search out more positive directions for spirituality in our democratic age.

  1. Cited in George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York:
  2. Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 67.
  3. Ibid., p. 69.
  4. Ibid., p. 69.
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. II (New York: Vintage Books, (1945), p. 158. Further citations from Democracy in America will be indicate in the text with the page numbers in parentheses, thus: (158).
  6. Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont, p. 14.