It was my great joy some years ago to find, in an antique store, volume two of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.”
As I ponder this writing from so many years ago in light of modern-day circumstances and events in America, I am amazed at how prescient he was in many things and how needed some of his words are today.
In chapter 5, “Public Associations in Civil Life,” de Tocqueville said this: “The first time I heard in the United States that 100,000 men had bound themselves publicly to abstain from spiritous liquors, it appeared to me more like a joke than a serious engagement, and I did not at once perceive why these temperate citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides. I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed about the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance.
“Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former and perhaps more so.”
Moral associations. People publicly banding together to take stands for righteousness. De Tocqueville regarded these as even more important to America and Americans than political and industrial associations.
He was right. And America was right in feeling that way. In Deuteronomy 27, God had Moses command the people to do an unusual thing when they enter the promised land. Half of the nation was to climb Mount Ebal, and the other half was to climb Mount Gerezim. In verses 15 through 26 the Levites were to shout to the entire nation a list of things that they were to regard as being cursed, sinful, unclean and unacceptable. After each statement, the entire nation was commanded to reply “Amen” in a loud voice. Doing this was an example of moral association; it was an indication of the power of godliness lived out in the public eye.
The First Amendment to the Constitution “guarantees” the free exercise of religion. The reason I place the word guarantees in quotation marks is because, in truth, the First Amendment merely elucidates a right that we have no matter what the Constitution itself says. We do not derive our rights from the Constitution; our rights are inalienable and given to us by God. If a constitutional amendment was placed before the states tomorrow, and the First Amendment itself was completely repealed, it would not change our right to the free exercise of religion one iota.
And now let me explain the difference between two words that are currently and erroneously being used interchangeably. I am hearing many power brokers now speak of our right to “worship.” But the right to worship is far different from the right to the free exercise of religion.
Worship, in the eyes of the ruling class, is something that can be confined to the four walls and under the roof of a church building. But religion is something that is lived out every day of our lives, especially in the public eye. Jesus said that we are salt and light and a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. He told us to preach the gospel to every creature. He told us to make disciples of all men. He told us to teach men everything he has commanded us.
Private worship is not what caught de Tocqueville’s attention. Public religion, people banding together in the public eye for the sake of righteousness and morality, is what caught his attention.
Christianity is not Christianity when it hides in the shadows of safety. Children of God must by example first and word second stand shoulder to shoulder in the public square against all sin and for all righteousness. We must even go so far as to specifically name sin, as did the 100,000 in de Tocqueville’s day who pointedly called out drunkenness.
The devil would like nothing more than for the morality of a society to die a slow and quiet death inside the walls of our church buildings as we worship our way to the grave.
Don’t give him the satisfaction.
Bo Wagner is pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church of Mooresboro, N.C., a widely traveled evangelist, and the author of several books. Dr. Wagner can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.