Thursday, August 15, 2013

Aiming low

     "Not only do the Americans follow their religion from interest, but they often place in this world the interest that makes them follow it.  In the Middle Ages the clergy spoke of nothing but a future state; they hardly cared to prove that a sincere Christian may be a happy man here below.  But the American preachers are constantly referring to the earth, and it is only with great difficulty that they can divert their attention from it.  To touch their congregations, they always show them how favorable religious opinions are to freedom and public tranquility, and it is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this."

     Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II (1840).II.ix ("That the Americans apply the principle of self-interest rightly understood to religious matters"), trans. Henry Reeve, with revisions by Francis Bowen and Phillips Bradley ((New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), vol. 2, pp. 126-127).
     For Tocqueville, there are three possible aims:  1) happiness in this life, 2) happiness in the next (both self-interested), and 3) the disinterested "love of God".  Tocqueville "respect[s certain 'zealous Christians'] too much to believe them" (125) when they say that they are virtuous in "the hope of a recompense" in either 2) the life to come or 1) this one (respects them too much to believe that they do nothing "for the love of God" alone), but thinks "the principle of interest rightly understood" reconcilable with religious belief.
     Here, however, he claims that "American preachers" tend to aim no higher than at 1) happiness in this life.

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