Friday, December 08, 2006

Tocqueville Today

Last week I posted an excerpt from Tocqueville's Democracy in America about the roles of men and women in 1830's America. My goal in doing so was not to make you wish we could replicate the society of a previous era (if you are a conservative) or to make you fume about the backwardness of earlier America (if you are a liberal). It was simply to make us reflect on how to apply the biblical teachings on men and women to our day. Sometimes a look at a different time period or culture opens our eyes to assumptions and practices in our present culture which we need to scrutinize on biblical grounds. That is why I asked you to think about the portrait Tocqueville painted in biblical terms. Was America as he described it a good example of a biblical view of the roles of men and women?
It is critical that we learn to think in biblical terms about these issues, because when challenges come to our "traditional" gender roles, we have a very weak position if we can only answer, "That's the way we've always done it." For example, I sometimes hear social conservatives argue against homosexual legal unions with things like "This has never been done before in the history of Western society." True enough. But why should this carry any moral authority with homosexuals? History can only carry the moral authority of example when it is properly interpreted, and the proper interpretation of history must come from God as he has revealed it to us in the Bible. It is the Bible that is our source of faith and practice.
I would now like to present some words from a modern admirer of Tocqueville who thinks that Tocqueville's vision of gender roles has been rendered nostalgic and unworkable in our modern society. In his recent work, Manliness, Harvey C. Mansfield writes:
"How can we employ manliness usefully in our gender-neutral society? One thing we cannot do is to go back to a society in which women are kept in the home and men are free to leave it. Women restrained, men free; this is how that traditional arrangement looks to us now. One could say, with a nod to Rousseau, that women were more in charge than they appeared to be, and men less. Some conservatives, women and men, may be inclined to go back in this direction, and to see whether this reactionary change might be possible let us look briefly again at Tocqueville. Tocqueville paints a beautiful picture, too beautiful to be true, of how men and women lived separate but equal in America in his day.
"Tocqueville congratulates American women for willingly accepting the confines of the household, the 'yoke' of marriage, in view of natural differences between the two sexes. American women, he says, tolerate this condition 'courageously' because they have chosen it; they often display a 'manly reason and a wholly virile energy.' So if you were to ask Tocqueville (he imagines) to what he attributes the prosperity and force of the American people, he would answer that 'it is to the superiority of its women.' Although American women cannot escape the domestic circle, they are never forced to leave it; so they retain 'a very delicate appearance and always remain women in their manners.' Women with the best of manliness who yet remain women, and democratic, too!
"Tocqueville's solution to the problem of democratic despotism is to encourage manliness, and part of that is to attribute manliness to American women. ... It's a very complimentary statement, a nice try from a gallant and attractive man; but today, in a late stage of the democratic revolution that Tocqueville described so well, our democracy has placed the idea of separate but equal status for women firmly in the past....
"Having firmly set aside the reactionary solution of separate roles, man in public and woman in private, an arrangement 'traditional' to be sure - if you mean by that common to all human history - we abandon nostalgia and return to the gender-neutral society...."

What do you think of Mansfield's argument? How would you answer it biblically? Is it simply passe to speak of separate roles for men and women?

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