Thanksgiving with Tocqueville

Food, football, and another uncomfortable conversation with the family boor are what many Americans have in store for them this (and every) Thanksgiving.

For the few and the proud who can look forward to a civil discussion of today’s news in addition to a delicious meal, this year’s political menu includes the ongoing craziness on college campuses, the collapse of twelve of the twenty-three Obamacare state co-ops, and the twists and turns of the presidential race, not to mention the deadly seriousness of another horrific terrorist attack.

In light of these recent events and a year’s worth of broader advances in progressivism at home and despotism abroad, some may find that being thankful at Thanksgiving is an even more difficult task than getting along with one’s relatives.

Anticipating the rather contentious conversations many families divided by politics and culture will have, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner attempt to encourage disheartened evangelicals in “How Christians Can Flourish in a Same-Sex-Marriage World,” the cover story of a recent issue of Christianity Today. Former George W. Bush speechwriters Gerson and Wehner argue that it is essential for Christians to concede that they are no longer the nation’s moral majority. The Christian’s minority status needn’t prevent him from engaging others as long as he does so on terms the new moral majority, as it were, can accept.

Gerson and Wehner believe that working with others, whether Christian or non-Christian, to overcome social injustices will be a consolation—as will taking the long view. For, as they write, “Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth.” If Gerson and Wehner are correct, there is plenty of opportunity for Christians to flourish even as a minority.

As its title indicates, the immediate context of their essay is the Obergefell decision mandating the legality of same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Responding to evangelical concern over the ruling, Gerson and Wehner seek to diminish its significance in two ways. First, they describe it as simply the next step in the sexual revolution’s fifty-year assault on Biblical sexual ethics. Second, citing one New Testament scholar and C.S. Lewis, they argue that sexual ethics are themselves a relatively unimportant part of Biblical morality.

By generalizing from the specific (marriage) context of the decision in this way, Gerson and Wehner, however, miss its critical importance. Marriage is not on the periphery of Biblical morality, but rather the original and most important human relationship and the chosen metaphor for the relationship between God and His people. Obergefell is not one more link in a long chain, as Gerson and Wehner suggest, nor, as they have it, merely “the advance of a progressive conception of individual rights.”

The celebrants of the first Thanksgiving may have had their own spirited political conversation, at least if Alexis de Tocqueville is correct in his analysis “Of the Point of Departure and Its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans,” near the beginning of Democracy in America. In the “political world” of early New England, he claims, “everything [was] agitated, contested, uncertain.” However, early American “national character” was equally defined by the “spirit of religion,” a necessary and salutary complement to this “spirit of liberty.” While the “spirit of liberty” promoted political independence, the “spirit of religion” promoted moral dependence, where “everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen, decided in advance.”

This peculiarly American “point of departure” was ideally suited to produce a dynamic, free society: “Far from harming each other, these two tendencies, apparently so opposed, move in harmony and seem to offer mutual support.” Within the ideational sphere, “restrained by the tightest bonds of certain religious beliefs, they were free from all political prejudices.” Yet this did not hold back Americans in the material realm, where Americans were also free to seek “material riches and moral enjoyments with an almost equal fervor, heaven in the other world, and well-being and liberty in this one.”

Comparing Tocqueville on Puritan New England to Gerson and Wehner certainly underlines the political reality that American mores have changed dramatically over time. Today many more Americans seek material riches than moral enjoyments, well-being in this world rather than heaven in the next. The new social norm in which care for wellbeing and comfort in this world threatens to drown out serious familial, communal, and political discussions about morality, eternity, and the human soul may have the short-term benefit of keeping the peace at the Thanksgiving table, but it has the longer-term consequence of leaving our person and community starving for something more.

We no more than Gerson and Wehner expect our ruling class to quickly re-embrace what the Puritans and the American Founders both knew: that created beings have a Creator, whose moral precepts set the boundaries of human behavior, individually and collectively. Nevertheless, there is great danger when powerful elites regard “the spirit of religion” and “the spirit of liberty” as antagonists, as they had at critical periods in the history of Tocqueville’s France, and recent aggressive legal actions against conscientious objectors to same-sex marriage suggest they may increasingly do today. The danger to those whose views are unfashionable is obvious, but the danger to the community at large is greater still.

It will be good for no one if the response to such aggression is a muted defense of  “traditional” morality, a metaphysical surrender complicit in the relativism it purports to combat. Rather, if Tocqueville is correct, Christians and their allies must continue to assert and to show that liberty needs religion to realize a truly human freedom—which makes that somewhat awkward Thanksgiving dinner worth fighting for.