Democratized at Heart

A Wider, International Morality


"Democracy like any other of the living faiths of men is so essentially mystical that it continually demands new formulation," said Jane Addams, the final focal character in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy.  She writes that Addams is "the most exemplary product of the American Reformation to shape the twentieth century."  Reading this chapter I realize I have underestimated Addams' importance as a political and ethical thinker and that I should add her works to the list of reading I need to accomplish.

Addams advocated a "social morality" that "emerges through real, daily, lived contact with 'diversified human experience.'"  Addams believed that modern cities, which mixed people together of diverse national, racial, and religious backgrounds taught citizens how to live together and offered lessons for the rest of the world.  

She offered "a conception of Democracy not merely as a sentiment which desires the well-being of all men, nor yet as a creed which believes in the essential dignity and equality of all men, but as that which affords a rule of living as well as a test of faith."

All of us forget how very early we are in the experiment of founding self-government and that we are making the experiment in the most materialistic period of all history, having as our court of last appeal against that materialism only the wonderful and inexplicable instinct for justice which resides in the hearts of men.

She was deeply concerned by the corporate commercialism of her day and the threat it posed to the development of democracy.  This wasn't just an issue of systems, but the way the commercialization of pleasures would lead citizens away from the cultivation of the democratic virtues.  Kittelstrom writes:

Addams saw that the only modern force catering to the primitive human needs of pleasure, stimulation, and communal joy was the commercial force driven by the motive of profit and therefore unbound by any sense of duty or conscience beyond the dollar.

One imagines what she would have thought of a reality TV star winning the presidency.

She believed that government, "the collective will of the people," must counter the iniquitous influence of commercialism by cultivating, especially among the young, the wholesome and adventurous drive for justice and progress.  

The ethic which should be promoted was that which had developed out of American religion in the 18th century:

a practical idealism that holds as its supreme ethic the living out of natural human equality, a progressive goal involving the use of reason as a common denominator of human thought that is secular, as in inclusive of all perspectives, including those informed by supernatural beliefs.

Addams was raised by her widowed father in Illinois.  He was a founding member of the Republican Party.  "He harbored a fugitive slave en route to Canada, sponsored a combat unit of the Union army, funded a subscription library, and worked to reform prisons, asylums, and schools while steadily serving their village church."  And he taught Addams to think for herself.

Kittelstrom writes that Addams was no ideological purist.  She was an admirer of Tolstoy, but when she met him, he criticized her for her lack of ethical purity in that she was dressed too well.  Addams immediately knew that impulse was false.  She needed to dress well to interact with the well-to-do and powerful in order to fundraise and lobby them for change.  Tolstoy also told her that she should spend time every day baking bread in the Hull House kitchen.  She rejected that advise as well, for her time was better spent in "the demand of actual and pressing human wants."    According to Kittelstrom, "The search for personal righteousness, she had discovered in her agonized twenties, was ineffectual and even selfish in a suffering world that needed saving even by the impure."

Her moderation and pragmatism are good witnesses for our own time.  One aspect of last year's Democratic primary which greatly annoyed me was the insistence of some on ideological purity, which has little hope of accomplishing anything in a pluralistic democracy.

Addams not only worked to alleviate poverty, but for the rights of women, immigrants, Native Americans, and African-Americans.  Kittelstrom writes, "Addams thought the concept of Americanism made sense only insofar as it referred to a commitment to universal human moral agency, which made racial prejudice 'the gravest situation in our American life.'  Discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity or any other involuntary circumstance corrupted the instincts essential to democracy."  Yes, this is the essential language of virtue which we must continue to use in defending the progressive civil rights agenda.

Addams greatest innovation to the tradition of the religion of democracy was to globalize it.  What had begun in the 18th century defense of liberty against ne0-Calvinism in the church and British tyranny became in the 20th century advocacy on behalf of international peace.  Addams worked to develop international organizations that would end war and meet the needs the people around the world.  She was not concerned with the abstractions of international law but the practical solving of global problems.  He work helped to lay the groundwork for the League of Nations and later the United Nations.  Addams believed in a "wider, international morality."

Here is the previous post in this series.


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