The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition (The Penguin History of American Life)

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9780143108139: The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition (The Penguin History of American Life)

A history of religion’s role in the American liberal tradition through the eyes of seven transformative thinkers

Today we associate liberal thought and politics with secularism. When we argue over whether the nation’s founders meant to keep religion out of politics, the godless side is said to be liberal. But the role of religion in American politics has always been far less simplistic than today’s debates would suggest. In The Religion of Democracy, historian Amy Kittelstrom shows how religion and democracy have worked together as universal ideals in American culture—and as guides to moral action and to the social practice of treating one another as equals who deserve to be free.
 
The first people in the world to call themselves “liberals” were New England Christians in the early republic. Inspired by their religious belief in a God-given freedom of conscience, these Americans enthusiastically embraced the democratic values of equality and liberty, giving shape to the liberal tradition that would remain central to our politics and our way of life. The Religion of Democracy re-creates the liberal conversation from the eighteenth century to the twentieth by tracing the lived connections among seven transformative thinkers through what they read and wrote, where they went, whom they knew, and how they expressed their opinions—from John Adams to William James to Jane Addams; from Boston to Chicago to Berkeley. Sweeping and ambitious, The Religion of Democracy is a lively narrative of quintessentially American ideas as they were forged, debated, and remade across our history.

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About the Author:

Amy Kittelstrom is a scholar of modern thought and culture who lives and works in the North Bay Area of California. She currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of American History and is an associate professor at Sonoma State University. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Center for Religion and American Life at Yale, the Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History at Harvard, and the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton. Her next book will put the twentieth-century writer James Baldwin in deep historical context.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FOUNDING EDITOR

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

BOARD MEMBERS

Alan Brinkley, John Demos, Glenda Gilmore, Jill Lepore

David Levering Lewis, Patricia Nelson Limerick, James McPherson

Louis Menand, James H. Merrell, Garry Wills, Gordon Wood

James T. Campbell

Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005

François Furstenberg

In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation

Karl Jacoby

Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History

Julie Greene

The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal

G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot

The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s

Michael Willrich

Pox: An American History

James R. Barrett

The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City

Stephen Kantrowitz

More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889

Frederick E. Hoxie

This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made

Ernest Freeberg

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

Patrick Allitt

A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

Amy Kittelstrom

The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION: AN AMERICAN REFORMATION

Somehow the word “godless” got hitched to the word “liberal.” The story of this coupling has something to do with the Cold War against Soviet communism, but behind this unholy union lies a much more interesting history of how some American elites led a very different fight against—well, elitism. Seven liberals, whose lives interconnected across two centuries through shared readings, relationships, and concerns, were so far from godlessness that the pursuit of truth and virtue dominated their lives. The history they lived shows that after the Protestant Reformation in Europe came an American Reformation that built a moral tradition into democracy.

John Adams, the irascible, prideful second president of the United States, did not consider all people fit to vote, yet he thought every man had the right to make up his own mind over what to believe about politics, religion, or anything else—not only the right, but the duty to think for himself, because the only being who really knows everything is God.

The maiden aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson made no fame for herself in a lifetime that began just before the American Revolution and ended in the middle of the Civil War. Mary Moody Emerson spoke her mind, though, fearlessly and freely. In this fierce liberty she was not only being a good American, she was being a good Christian.

Rev. William Ellery Channing never suffered for want of anything. He lived in an era when the wealthy regarded laborers almost as a separate species, but he called himself a working man to show his solidarity with the new laboring classes of his early industrial age. He believed that all individuals, including slaves, deserved the freedom to think and act by their own best lights, and he believed this because of his Christian faith in what lay inside each soul and what potential all of God’s creatures could reach.

William James, the most important philosopher in American history, also wanted for nothing, but he never became a Christian. He did not appear to be much of a democrat, either, with his distaste for uneducated speech and his regard for European standards of excellence. Yet he professed to believe in a “religion of democracy” that took the sacred equality of all individuals as a postulate from which real human progress might flow.

The Scottish immigrant Thomas Davidson fell from Christian grace early in life while learning all he could about modern science, ancient and modern philosophy, human languages, religion, and culture. Yet he was more evangelistic than secular. The good news he wanted to spread was how free individuals interacting in all their diversity could make progress together, even Jews, even women, even workers in an age rife with prejudice of all kinds.

William Mackintire Salter, son of a minister, also fell from Christian grace as a young man despite his most earnest religious commitment. Actually, his earnestness gave him the integrity to face his growing belief that Jesus Christ was not the one and only uniquely divine being ever to be born. Salter became a post-Christian religious leader who called on the state to treat workers as equals with bosses during the industrial crisis of the late nineteenth century. Against the laissez-faire majority, Salter asked for social justice as sacred justice.

The social thinker and activist Jane Addams did more than cry for social justice—she lived for it. Rather than giving the poor what she thought they needed, she lived among them as she believed Jesus would have done. Through community, she built relationships that taught her what all humans share, a longing for pleasure and beauty as well as security and shelter and a sense of purpose in life. She connected workers and bosses, social scientists and politicians, educators and ministers, and philanthropists and activists from around the world. She wanted for governments to tend human needs and for common human needs to drive global change.

The long cultural and intellectual lineage represented by these seven thinkers stretches back to classical liberalism, the political commitment of a society to replace coercion with consent. Their genealogy extends forward all the way to modern liberalism, the moral commitment of a society to the collective needs of all its members, regardless of their differences. Between the ideal of modern liberalism that has never been realized and the theory of classical liberalism that has never been dismantled—and amid contrary historical currents, like discrimination and exploitation, that undermine both—these liberals and the rest of their intellectual family tree helped Americans and others think about why human beings ought to treat one another as equals who deserve to be free. This book is a history of that idea.

This history mostly took place in arguments, over dinner tables, beside campfires, aboard steamers, in the pages of journals, and inside people’s heads. Of all the inner lives depicted in this book, that of William James may be the most illustrative because he more than anyone tried to gather up the threads of ideas and values spun by his ancestors and to weave them into the new cloth of the modern era. The effort drove him to complete collapse at age twenty-four. He lost his strength, his energy, even his power of concentration as he squirmed beneath the oppressive weight of a life he now found loathsome. Dark clouds were all James could see as he struggled to reconcile what he thought was true with what he thought was right. Meanwhile, he could not make himself act at all and often wanted to die. This went on for seven years.

“Spinal paralysis,” James called his mental affliction. The phrase holds a lot of historical meaning. If the spine is physical, then the problem is material and the solution may be discovered rationally—through the use of reason, evidence, experimentation, and all the other empirical instruments of the Enlightenment, the intellectual transformation that originated in Europe and migrated, unevenly, around the globe. Beyond a doubt, James was a product of the Enlightenment who practiced the scientific method and heeded natural facts. This was true of everyone on his intellectual family tree. Yet most people think of the Enlightenment as a secularizing movement, spreading a loss of faith in religion along with its new faith in human progress. And there is nothing James and his kin cared for more than religion.1

The spine is not only physical. Call someone spineless, say they have no backbone, and you are saying something about their character, something grave. Cowards are not manly. The weak-willed are not trustworthy. James worried so much about his spinal paralysis because he cared so much about his free will, and this value came not from the Enlightenment, but from the Reformation. Actually, free will is much older than the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. An ancient Christian answer to the problem of evil—the problem of why bad things happen to good people when an all-good God is supposed to be all-powerful, a problem that bothered James although he never believed in that kind of God—free will is particularly important in the history of American democracy because of the role it played in the Reformation and the role the Reformation played in New England. Indeed, free will has everything to do with the democratic principles of liberty and equality.

Although the first William James in America arrived after the Revolution, the roots of Jamesian thought lie not with this paternal grandfather but with New England Christians who did not even anticipate that such a war would ever come, yet whose deepest convictions helped make it possible. Heirs to the Puritan tradition, these Christians believed that their ancestors had crossed the Atlantic in devotion to liberty of conscience, or the divine right of private judgment, the idea that God creates every human being a moral agent endowed with free will, which it is each individual’s right and duty to exercise conscientiously in order to cultivate virtue and its ally, truth. New England Christians argued with one another over precisely what the truth may be—and they always had—but as the eighteenth century wore on, most of them came to agree that the British were violating the colonists’ essential liberty, which they understood in both religious and political terms. Their devotion to Reformation Christian liberty made New England patriots extremists in the colonies when it came to the cause of independence, but by the time the war arrived they had started to disagree with one another over a fundamental matter of their faith, the very nature of truth. One side, the side the founding father John Adams practiced, believed that the truth could be known in full to no human being, and that humility and open-mindedness as well as sincerity and candor were therefore fundamental characteristics of piety. These Christians became the first people in the world to call themselves liberals, by which they indicated their commitment to open-minded moral agency. The other side of the New England Christian debate believed that ultimate truth was contained in Calvinist articles of faith and ought to be spread evangelically. This side, although its commitment to Calvinism loosened over time, has been contending ever since that the United States is a Christian nation, meaning a nation founded upon an evangelical Protestant faith dubbed orthodox. The argument between these splintering halves of New England Christianity produced a novel turn in thought and culture, an American Reformation.2

Up to now the American Reformation has been hard to see for two main reasons. The first is the very myth of orthodox American Christianity produced by the evangelical side of the debate, a useful fiction in a country with a sizable Protestant majority but a guarantee of religious freedom instead of an established religion. This myth, adopted by scholars and popular commentators alike, equates religion with Christianity, Christianity with supernatural belief, and Christian belief with a particular faith in the special saving grace of Jesus through his blameless death and glorious resurrection. This evangelical kernel of Christianity had certainly been part of the Puritan tradition—and of other American Protestant sects as well as Catholicism—but the revival movement of the eighteenth century separated this kernel from other beliefs and practices that had grown up with those traditions, delineating the evangelical doctrine starkly so that it alone became the essence of faith. The myth of orthodox American Christianity gave rise to a distinction between head and heart, or the intellect and the soul, making any departure from so-called orthodoxy appear as a falling away from religion, a decline from faith, a crisis, a move of revolt or rejection or outright warfare on religion that inexorably brings on secularization, which measures value by the merely natural or material rather than the ultimate or divine and is widely associated with modernity. Christians who deplore secularization and humanists who applaud it have both found this myth useful, but lifting the veil of orthodoxy from the actual complexity of American religious thought reveals that the liberals who departed from this alleged orthodoxy did so in fidelity to their Christian faith rather than in spite of it.3

The second reason the American Reformation has been hard to see is because of a myth some later liberals created. Actually, it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault. This son of a son of a son of a New England minister acted like he was making a complete break with his ancestral faith when he left the pulpit, but actually he left it on grounds of conscience, to develop his moral agency, to pursue virtue and truth as only he could see it. In other words, Emerson was an exemplary fruit of the American Reformation and did not fall far from the tree planted by his forefathers. But admirers of Emerson early in the academic study of American literature were snookered by his story about corpse-cold Boston Unitarianism and erected him king of what they called the “American Renaissance,” a cultural and literary movement purportedly free of superstition, dogma, and other stale accretions of America’s religious past. These scholars knew that Emerson’s father had belonged to a small intellectual fellowship in Boston that produced a monthly journal out of weekly conversation over “a modest supper of widgeons and teal,” as one such scholar put it in 1936, “with a little good claret.” Yet they had no idea that Rev. William Emerson and his friends practiced moderation for the sake of reason not only because they had absorbed Enlightenment ideas from Great Britain, but also because free inquiry paired so well with free will.4

Looking at the historical contribution of New England as an American Reformation instead of an American Renaissance shows that a democratic approach to religion forged the real liberal tradition in America. The American Reformation began as an extended conversation among professing Christians whose basic premises were spare: the perfection of God and the moral agency of human beings. About everything else they argued. In the face of disagreements, liberals tried to maintain open minds and to believe in the possibility and desirability of progress—moral progress, human progress, and social progress dependent on each individual’s growth in conversation with other individuals, rather than in opposition to them, in a society that rises together if it is to rise at all. Liberals strove to keep their minds open to other people’s perspectives because they knew they were fallible, like all humans, which meant that their own opinions might be wrong, and because they believed that all humans also bo...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. A history of religion s role in the American liberal tradition through the eyes of seven transformative thinkers Today we associate liberal thought and politics with secularism. When we argue over whether the nation s founders meant to keep religion out of politics, the godless side is said to be liberal. But the role of religion in American politics has always been far less simplistic than today s debates would suggest. In The Religion of Democracy, historian Amy Kittelstrom shows how religion and democracy have worked together as universal ideals in American culture and as guides to moral action and to the social practice of treating one another as equals who deserve to be free. The first people in the world to call themselves liberals were New England Christians in the early republic. Inspired by their religious belief in a God-given freedom of conscience, these Americans enthusiastically embraced the democratic values of equality and liberty, giving shape to the liberal tradition that would remain central to our politics and our way of life. The Religion of Democracy re-creates the liberal conversation from the eighteenth century to the twentieth by tracing the lived connections among seven transformative thinkers through what they read and wrote, where they went, whom they knew, and howthey expressed their opinions from John Adams to William James to Jane Addams; from Boston to Chicago to Berkeley. Sweeping and ambitious, The Religion of Democracy is a lively narrative of quintessentially American ideas as they were forged, debated, and remade across our history. Bookseller Inventory # AAT9780143108139

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