No one more starkly differentiated the American idea of liberty from that of secular France than Alexis de Tocqueville. In its true light, he wrote, American civilization
is the product … of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.
The continental idea of liberty is secular. In America, by contrast, the fires of independence were lit from the pulpits of Puritan and evangelical churches. The continental idea pits liberty against law. Americans sing, “Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law.” In America, liberty is not about doing what you feel like doing, but about doing what you know you ought to do. It is self-government, self-mastery, self-control. It is a sense of duty, personal responsibility, and honor.
This particular idea of liberty— although an idea of very long lineage— helps to explain why in America religion and liberty formed “a marvelous combination.” In America, at least, Tocqueville observes:
Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.
Ben Franklin proposed as the national motto “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” The Virginians defined liberty of conscience as a natural right. They based “the first secular nation” on Judeo-Christian premises about God and conscience—that is, acknowledging not the right of Americans alone, nor of Christians and Jews alone, but of all human beings, including “Mahometans, Hindoos,” and atheists.