Dubious Source Material: Tocqueville

It would be a rare thing if one could have survived long in fundamentalist circles without hearing the following quote from Alexis de Tocqueville read or alluded to in a sermon:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerc – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it vas not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Of course there’s an ever so slight problem with this, namely that Alexis de Tocqueville never actually wrote it. I’ll give you a minute to let the fact sink in that a quote that most of us have heard approximately 9,876 times from the pulpit is simply a fabrication.

I’d go so far as to say that as a good rule of thumb, the more frequently quoted a thing is in fundamentalist circles the more apocryphal it is likely to be. Snopes is a fundy preacher’s nightmare.

51 thoughts on “Dubious Source Material: Tocqueville”

  1. Have you ever done a piece on another favorite fundy quote-that-probably-never-was? I refer to the alleged statement by first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus mentioning Jesus Christ as having lived and died in Palestine, and that he was the Messiah. Almost all historians now agree that this was a later textual addition by Christians, yet the quote is still regularly used in fundy apologetics for the historicity of Jesus.

  2. Well, crap. I didn’t know that.

    Funny, as I was just on Snopes this morning due to my monthly urban legend email from an old friend – today’s missive concerned itself with cockroach eggs in straws.

  3. It’s true; I have been told that Snopes is “ruining America” by several fundies who don’t like that their favorite illustrations are hokum.

    Also unacceptable is proving that the source of a favorite quote/illustration/parable is unworthy.

    1. One good thing Snopes did. After sending it in reply to some Fundie relatives a few times, years back, after they discovered the internet and started forwarding me crap email from their Juno accounts they took me off their junk list.

  4. I specifically remember that exact quote in my A Beka history textbooks for many years. Glad to know so much time was put into the those books that educated our minds Good old Christian schools and PCC.

  5. http://www.tocqueville.org/pitney.htm
    from “The Weekly Standard” this article is part of a larger de Tocqueville work tha C-Span is doing.
    If it is C-Span then the fundys know it is a liberal conspiracy of the devil to didcredit American Christianity. (he said knowing the cult of fundy-ism will say and do whatever it takes to keep their cult alive.)

  6. “Of course, after decades of repetition, it has in fact become an old adage. It just isn’t Tocqueville’s.”

    Very true, and it reinforces the idea that if you repeat something often enough it becomes the truth.

  7. “I specifically remember that exact quote in my A Beka history textbooks for many years. Glad to know so much time was put into the those books that educated our minds Good old Christian schools and PCC.”

    You’re right! That’s where I also remember seeing it. Hmm…it certainly makes me question what else in those history books was, uh, less than factual?

  8. Rob, facts are exactly what I wasn’t talking about. When Snopes sticks to facts, things are all well and fine, but when they begin to opine (usually not noting that they are straying into the realm of opinion and not fact) it’s invariably to the progressive side. It’s nothing tons of conservative sites don’t do, of course, but two wrongs and tu quoque and all that.

    NB: I’m not really a conservative or a liberal; I’m a cynic! 🙂

  9. Alm517 and Ben: Me too!! Except I didn’t go to PCC or any IFB schools before transferring to one of those worldly (and much higher quality–gasp!) public schools. I also remember my teachers whose reading abilities were limited pronouncing his name, as well as “Catholic-ism.” Very sad.

  10. A preacher at BJU gave a sermon illustration in which he said the a plane wing creates lift through centrifugal force. Didn’t need snopes to realize how dumb that was : )

  11. Since when did facts become criteria for sermon illustration material??? Bless God if the preacher said it then its the truth! History be hanged!..it was all written by Catholic priests, agnostics and Bill Clinton anyway.

  12. “Just checked out Snopes. Love how they point out a picture of a topless woman in Disney’s The Rescuers. I guess that one’s out!!!”

    Well, it was only on the video tape versions. They’ve since removed it from any subsequent releases. So, you’re safe if you buy a recent DVD copy of it.

  13. I’m told that Monday’s Chapel Speaker at ye ol’ BJU got the facts wrong too. But it was nothing important like American History. Nah. It was just about the prophecy fulfilled in Christ’s death. He claimed that they broke Christ’s legs on the cross.

    Don’t need Snopes for that one either.

    But uh . . . Snopes is one of those sites that’s blocked at ol’ 1700 Wade Hampton.

  14. Fundies, deliberately mis-quoting, decontextualizing or outright fabricating material? Surely you jest.

    I suppose this kind of thing is great if they’re only doing it to things that aren’t canonical.

    They’d never do something like this to the Bible, would they?

  15. The offending material has been edited out. It was in the section about the swoon theory at the 19:27 mark; you can kinda tell where the edits were made.

  16. I’m not sure if I should be glad that they edited out the false information or disappointed in their attempts to cover up their mistake.

    @Camille, do you happen to know why Snopes is blacklisted at BJU? Granted, I’m not shocked, but all the same, I’m curious what the official reason is, assuming, of course, that there is one.

  17. Re. Amanda–To be fair, I think it speaks pretty well of them that they cut that from the record. It shows, at least, that they feel some responsibility for what’s being preached from their pulpit, and cutting what may have been a very unfortunate slip of the tongue doesn’t seem too shady to me.

  18. Ditto, Jordan. It is my understanding that it was just a slip of the tongue. I’ve heard plenty of them in my day and been guilty of a number of them myself.

  19. And I don’t think it was a mere slip. He said Jesus couldn’t have walked out of the tomb because His legs were broken. It’s not just getting it wrong; it’s reasoning from that wrong statement to an even wronger conclusion.

  20. My, how the vultures are circling…ready to swoop down at the first sign of weakness.

    He is 70-something-years-old and obviously had a “senior moment.” Is there no compassion?

    He apologized hours later in a mass email intended for everyone in chapel. Is that enough sunshine?

  21. “Then the responsible thing to do, gentlemen, is to admit the flaw publicly and correct it publicly. Not sweep it under the rug.”

    That’s exactly what I was thinking when I wrote about being conflicted about the edit. On the one hand it’s good that they have some vague (VERY vague, if the chapel speakers at BJU are anything like the chapel speakers at my alma mater) idea about guarding the pulpit. However, simply pretending it didn’t happen isn’t the answer either. Don’t revise history and pretend it never happened. Don’t ignore the ninth commandment. Whether or not the statement should be left in the recording is debatable, but don’t simply drop it without publically stating what was wrong with it and why it is wrong. Publically admit that the speaker and take the necessary steps to correct the error. Of course, guarding the pulpit and preventing those speakers from speaking in the first place wouldn’t be a bad idea either, but that’s a whole other issue…

  22. My, how the vultures are circling…ready to swoop down at the first sign of weakness.

    He is 70-something-years-old and obviously had a “senior moment.” Is there no compassion?

    He apologized hours later in a mass email intended for everyone in chapel. Is that enough sunshine?

    I just love it when I’m called a vulture. Feelin’ the love, dear.

    This is the first I’ve heard about the email. So if the lack of actually making their announcement anything but internal and my insistence that we hold the teachers of God’s Word accountable makes me a vulture, I’ll happily take the label.

    He’s been having such “senior moments” for decades. See the original post. That, my darling Amy, is the point.

    Talk about circling. . . . gee whiz.

  23. This isn’t Watergate–the guy messed up and they corrected the version that will receive wide play on the web. It’s not sweeping anything under a rug, it’s damage control.

    “Publically admit that the speaker and take the necessary steps to correct the error.”

    Again, it would seem this has been done, the former in the case of the original audience, the latter for the publicized version. I’m not fan of fundamentalism, but I can acknowledge when BJU handles a crisis, even such a minuscule one.

  24. He admitted his flaw publicly and corrected the problem. That’s a good thing and I appreciate the actions taken. Camille doesn’t think it was a slip. If it wasn’t, then it seems that she is saying that Dr. Wood believes that Christ’s legs were broken. That isn’t true. He made a mistake while he was preaching…he wasn’t the first, he won’t be the last and he isn’t the only. One well known preacher had to backtrack on his position on the eternal Sonship of Christ. It happens. It comes with having this treasure in earthen vessels.

  25. Let’s keep everything in perspective. Nobody is denying that it was a mistake, nor is anyone claiming it’s on the level of a scandal.

    It’s not this event alone that represents a problem. The problem is that it betrays the pervasive mindset that is inculcated in students on a daily basis–that preaching should be viewed as coming directly from God and not from men, that it should simply be absorbed and not critiqued, and that the only proper response to it is conviction. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) this is what Camille is talking about when she says “sunshine.” They need to take off the veneer of supposed impunity if they want to be taken seriously when they apologize for mess-ups like this one.

  26. @ Ben- Since reading this article, I’ve been wondering the very same thing. We used A Beka text books for everything at that school until 9th grade when we used BJ for science so who knows how many more falsified facts I’ve had to know over the years.

  27. I know this is an older post, but had to comment on the fact that it seems like speech writers are to blame for popularizing (& evolving?) this quote.

    stuff fundies (AND unsaved politicians? 😉 like: Dubious Source Material: Tocqueville

  28. At my former fundy church we were told not to worry about West Coast Baptist College not being accredited because (paraphrased) Even Harvard is not accredited!

    This is not even remotely true! Harvard has been accredited for many decades.

    So glad to be able to fact check these fundy pastors!

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