Why Urban Pastors Need to Read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
This past fall, as part of Knox’s Christian and Classical Studies degree, I taught through Alexis de Tocqueville’s monumental classic, two volume, Democracy in America. Written in the 1830’s, after Tocqueville had spent nine months traveling and interviewing people up and down the eastern seaboard, no book surpasses its insight into the uniqueness of America, the genius of our democracy, and the forces that threaten to tear it apart.
As we read together in class his predictions for the future of American democracy, my students got the creeps. His predictions were spot on, having been written 180 years ago. How was he so accurate? For example, how did he know that materialism would increase individualism? How did he know that individualism would lead to the breakdown of families and the disintegration of towns and cities? And how did he know that these would engender the astronomical growth in the nanny state, centralized government, and what he calls the “benign dictator?” Somehow he did and his insights seem so current—as if they were written yesterday.
Yet valuable as Tocqueville insights may be for America, I have been thinking a lot about his relevance for pastors and church planters and why we include this 700 page book in our curriculum. The more I have thought about it, the more I have come to the conclusion that Democracy in America is a must read for future pastors and church planters, particularly those called into an urban setting like South Florida.
IMPLICATIONS FOR URBAN MINISTRY
One of the things that makes Knox unique is that along with training pastors to connect people to God (through worship and evangelism) and to connect people to others (through community building) we also teach them to connect to the culture. At Knox, we take seriously Jeremiah’s call to “seek the peace (shalom) of the city.” But what does this mean, really?
This is where Tocqueville is so helpful. Tocqueville admires democracy but he is no mindless booster. In fact, he sees many inherent contradictions in it. But what he likes about it is that it seems the best system devised by humans, that when tempered by religion, can produce virtue among the most people. What he is really saying, but does not use the word, is that it has the best chance of producing shalom on a large scale, the kind of shalom Jeremiah talks about. In fact, Tocqueville presents the future pastor and church planter with a marvelous, tempered, well-thought- out vision for shalom in the city. For this reason alone he is worth reading.
For Tocqueville, the key to the success of democracy (or what we are calling shalom) is found in the three most important pillars of a free society—mothers in the home, the institution of religion, and local and state government. At the heart of each of these, if they are to be successful, is what he calls mores or “habits of the heart.” Over and over again, he makes the case that without these mores, these habits of virtue, there will be no justice, no true freedom and no human flourishing.
He claimed, rightly I think, that rampant individualism and pervasive materialism would eat away at what he called the “schools of democracy” (or what we might call the “schools of shalom”)—morality in the homes, associational life like religion, the jury system, and face-to-face living in small townships. Once these “schools” were gone, virtue would disappear and thus imperil democracy. Isn’t that what we have now in this country? Half the country despises the other half. There is no peace (shalom) in the city.
SEEKING PEACE? GET INVOLVED
So as pastors and Christians who take seriously our call to seek the shalom of the city, what would Tocqueville have us do? Just wring our hands, move further out into the country and ignore the culture around us?
For Tocqueville, I think the answer would be simple: support and build up the “schools of democracy” and in so doing seek the peace of the city. How? By teaching our people to be involved in local, face-to-face government, to serve on juries when we are asked, to start and join associations of all kinds (utilizing our vocational calling) that make life better and more just for everyone in the city, encourage mothers to teach morality in the home (that means turning off the TV/video games), engage our neighbors with real hospitality (even if they vote differently than we do), and rebuild our cities to be humane, beautiful places that inspire shalom. There may be more ways to seek the shalom of the city, but Tocqueville’s recommendations would be a good place to start. †
*Our distinctive Online Master of Arts (Christian and Classical Studies) program immerses you in a careful reading and biblical analysis of classic Western literature, from Plato and Aristotle to Dante and Dostoevsky. Study the Great Books in a Christian cultural context, and experience a classical preparation for the highest calling of all: the gospel ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. To learn more about our MACCS program, click here.
*This article was in the winter 2013 issue of Knox Now. See the full magazine here: