In the face of Europe’s all-too-obvious moral, political, and demographic decline, Americans should not gloat or be smug. Unless something changes in the near future, the odds are good that we will follow our European cousins on the path that leads to servitude. In the course of the last century, we, too, have contracted what I call the French disease — under Democrats and Republicans alike, the malady advances at a quickening pace.
Today marks 150 years since the death of Alexis de Tocqueville. Is the democracy that he wrote about with such sharp insight dead as well? The steady erosion of mores, manners, and religion suggests, at the very least, that its condition may be critical.
Many of the moral obstacles to majority tyranny identified in Democracy in America
have now disappeared. In the United States, the legal profession and the courts were once, as Tocqueville observed, a restraint on the populist impulse. Today, their game is demagoguery, and their aim is to anticipate, strengthen, guide, and profit from the impulse that they once restrained. In the name of democracy, legal activists and politicized judges are willing to sweep away forms and formalities; in the name of progress, they are prepared to run roughshod over the legislative branch, especially in the states and localities; and, in the name of compassion, they are prepared to sanction systematic theft. Whether genuinely responsible for a tort or not, the defendant who has deep pockets is made to pay.
Civil associations still exist, to be sure. But, within the administrative state, the only ones that really flourish are lobbying operations, staffed at the national level, with little local presence and virtually no civic engagement. Moreover, to an increasing degree, civil associations subsist as shells for the sole purpose of securing federal grants and subsidies. As such, they are instruments of the administrative state and not of civic agency. In effect, what Tocqueville once said with France in mind now pertains to the United States as well. Most Americans may still “admit, as a general principle, that the public power should not intervene in private affairs, but, as an exception, each of them desires that it aid him in the special affair that preoccupies him,” and for this reason “the sphere of the central power extends itself imperceptibly in every direction” despite the fact that many individuals wish “to restrain it” overall. Our country has aged and, as Tocqueville predicted, it has steadily become more centralized. “Time works on behalf” of this process, he wrote. “All accidents are to its profit; individual passions come to its aid without [anyone] being aware of it.” In consequence, where once we were citizens, we have become clients and ours is the age of the lobbyist.
As a people, if we are to judge solely by attendance in church, Americans are still comparatively religious. But no one today would describe religion as “the first” of our “political institutions,” as Tocqueville once did, for it is no longer generally the case that our churches provide us with a moral anchor and impress upon us a severity in morals. Most of the mainline Protestant sects now fiercely advocate a toleration and compassionate embrace of that which they once regarded as abhorrent: if sanctimony is sustained, it is solely in offering succor to sin. Those Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant ministers who are genuinely unsympathetic with the culture of self-indulgence all too frequently lack the moral authority required for persuasion. In our day, as in Tocqueville’s time, they fear their flocks, and they tailor their sermons to accommodate current fashion. The American Catholic Church is quick to hand out annulments, and the evangelical Protestants wink at serial monogamy punctuated by a recurrence of divorce.
Moreover, in the course of the last 60 years the courts have interpreted the First Amendment to the Constitution in such a fashion as to ban religion from the public sphere in a manner reminiscent of the militant laïcisme that has long formed the basis for public policy in France; and, in keeping with the logic underpinning these court decisions, some states have excised the phrase “under God” from the version of the Pledge of Allegiance recited in public schools. It is as if the First Amendment were designed to provide Americans with freedom from religion and to protect the polity from contamination at its hands. In the same period, elite opinion, especially as situated within the universities, Hollywood, and the national media, gradually became virulently hostile to and contemptuous of religious faith; and, in certain, highly influential quarters, strong religious convictions are now treated publicly as a disqualification for election or appointment to high office. Religious Americans who feel threatened by these developments may be inclined to push back, but they are thwarted at every turn. If the present trend continues, they will eventually come to occupy in America the pariah status to which they are to an ever increasing degree consigned in many countries on the continent of Europe. At this point, Christians will sink into an embarrassed silence.