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Global Community

While we sadly spend the early days of 2017 battling an effort by our new national leadership to put America First and close off our society, we should be reminded that global community is nothing new (nor is the reaction against it). Reading today in The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, the British historian who is also a conservative, I encountered this description of the world in the early 19th century, which description arose out of a discussion of Western European trade relations with China:

Such cultural confrontations were inevitable as trade spread across the world and increasingly rapid and reliable forms of transport annihilated distance.  Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other.  These frictions were usually solved by debate and agreement, with both sides recognizing the mutual advantage of peaceful conduct.

He does go on to point out that war did erupt and an unfortunate East-West divide was created which persists.

But I'm drawn to this idea of the global community as "the most important single aspect of modernity." Should we then conclude that Trump is an anti-modernist?  A reversion to a more primitive pre-modern worldview?

Ida B. Wells


Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities.  Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).

Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings.  She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis.  She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.  

Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored.  Writes Dorrien,

On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed.  The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended.  They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings.  They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery.  White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.

Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader."  Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.  

She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities.  She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies.  "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice."  He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard.  Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells).  "Wells  was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."

The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply).  Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era.  In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.


In elementary school I researched nuclear power during an era of optimism for its potential to help solve the energy crisis.  Then when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, I wrote a paper in school about it and the devastating aftereffects.  The story captivated me.


When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel last year, drawing attention to her book Voices from Chernobyl, I knew it was one that I wanted to read.  I began it yesterday, as part of my 2017 effort to broaden my reading of world literature (which will also increase the number of Nobel laureates I've read).

The opening pages alone are harrowing as one woman describes in intimate emotional detail the radiation poisoning and death of her husband.  Within minutes one realizes that this is an incredible, important work of literature. 

Humility, Sincerity, and Openness


In a six page conclusion to The Religion of Democracy, Kittelstrom surveys the influence of religious liberalism in the 20th century as liberalism became mostly a non-religious ideology (I'm really surprised that King isn't an eighth character for her, but maybe she thinks much has been written about the religious aspects of the Civil Rights Movement?).  She also draws a few conclusions, one was that commercialism ended up being embraced as an expression of freedom and the concerns that Jane Addams developed were eclipsed.

This paragraph nicely summarizes much of the book:

    For Addams, consumerism and the commercial interest were instead drags on freedom, the latest in a long line of determinisms that liberals challenged in defense of moral agency.  John Adams had shied away from dogmatic religion and defied a government based on hereditary privilege rather than the consent of citizens.  Mary Moody Emerson and William Ellery Channing also rejected autocratic government, extending democracy to religion by defending individual moral agency against the foregone conclusions of predestination and innate, total depravity.  Slavery was a deterministic institution, and to a debatable extent so was patriarchy.  After the Civil War, the new determinism of materialism, which William James called scientism, then threatened the free will of individuals with the explanatory power of biology that would make all social change the product of impersonal forces.  James enlisted the power of the imagination, which Channing and the Emersons had already linked to religion, to restore moral agency.  Thomas Davidson faced off against evangelical Christianity and socialism with a democratic deity of individual self-culture, which contested the determinism of class origin and ethnicity with a new social process of interdependent diversities, together producing a higher culture through their interactions.  The fixed idea William Mackintire Salter challenged was the laissez-faire state, which pretended that the custom of not protecting laborers' rights was immutable, a natural law like gravity.  Industrial capitalism also threatened liberty in the experience of Jane Addams, who saw the profit motive as a fixed idea that bore a haphazard relationship with human well-being, given that commercialism's quickest route to appeal was to play on desire, the basic human craving for pleasure.

In a sentence made sad by the recent election campaign, Kittelstrom wrote, "The discrediting of white supremacy may be the most significant parcel of liberal common ground cultivated in the twentieth century."

She does feel that many liberals became self-righteous dogmatists, which abandoned the core principles developed in the 18th century.  "Once liberals became dogmatists, they were no longer pluralists."  Of pluralism she writes:

    Pluralism is a pillar of faith in the religion of democracy.  It is not an easy faith and not suited to most people's minds.  Pluralism takes a step past multiculturalism, which affirms the vitality and preciousness of every human culture.  Pluralism forays beyond countable cultures into infinity, into the unknowable.  It is essentially a religious attitude, whether pluralists avow a faith or not, because it includes an intangible something beyond what anyone already knows, what can be named or quantified.  In this way it is supernatural.  When William James asked his audiences to believe that this is "a democratic universe," he meant one that was both unfinished--infinite--and in need of individual's unique perspective on what is true and good.

And so she concludes the book by advocating a resurgence of the liberal virtues of "humility, sincerity, and openness."

Democratized at Heart


With her sixth focal character, Amy Kittelstrom's Religion of Democracy relocates to Chicago, which by the late 19th century was the great industrial city and center of progressive reform.  She focuses in these final two chapters on William Mackintire Salter and Jane Addams.  First Salter.

Two statements of summary:

What he witnessed in Chicago drove him to demand a "new industrial ethics" and a new extension of the reach of the state into the regulation of wages, hours, and conditions as well as a new logical application of the American idea to include workers as real equals in decision making of all kinds.


"The voice of command is never heard among the spirits of the just."  Channing helped Salter point out that the business class needed justification by faith, to be converted to a democratic way of thinking and therefore acting.  This could happen only through the bubbling up of social morality from below until the government above reflected the impartial ideal of American democracy, guaranteeing a positive liberty of universal moral agency.  The liberal politics of moral suasion that had been exercised against drink and slavery now targeted the industrial elite as the body in need of reform.  The historical impact of Salter's efforts cannot be measured, but both the continuity of those efforts with the project of the American Reformation and the novelty of his case for the modern liberal state demonstrate how the liberal Christianity that fostered a culture of lived virtue grew into a religion of democracy that made liberty and equality into practical ideas.

Salter had grown up in the Congregational Church in Burlington, Iowa (which means that he had to have known the founding pastor of my congregation) but eventually left Christianity and was a leader in the Ethical Culture movement, a secular sort of church.  He played a role in the founding of the NAACP and his philosophical work was read by and influenced Gandhi.

One of the joys of Kittelstrom's book is that for each generation she points out who they were reading (an earlier post discussed the influence of the English Romantic poets).  By Salter's time the canon was quite diverse.  Unlike most American Protestants before him, he read and was influenced by Catholic thinkers, like Cardinal Newman.  And he was the first major American scholar of Nietzsche.  His reading of Nietzsche led him to abandon the optimism that had permeated American liberalism.  She summarizes:

In pace of the search for some eternal verity as an ultimate end that could be the basis of universal harmony, the study of Nietzsche led him to think that "in fact there might be end beyond end, the work of organization never being perfect, the completely ordered world remaining forever an ideal.  In that case struggle and competition would ever and anon arise afresh.

Salter believed that government should "strive to give opportunity . . . for every life to become a positive blessing, both to itself and others."  He was worried that industrialization was leading America toward a plutocracy that would destroy our democracy (a worry that doesn't seem to go away).

And like all those before him in this tradition, he emphasized the importance of education for developing the virtues.  "Until men are democratized at heart, the forms of democracy count for little."


An interesting section of this chapter discusses the role of the Chicago World's Fair not only in convening the Parliament of World Religions but a series of intellectual conferences which Kittelstrom says gave birth to modern academia.

"How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature?"


The fifth focal character in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy is Thomas Davidson, with whom I was unfamiliar.  He was a writer and educator of the turn of the last century, a friend of William James, whom she picks as typical of the liberal response to growing industrialization, as Davidson's work included a focus on the working classes. One theme which appears in this chapter and continues in later ones is that American liberals were rarely tempted by socialism even as they developed a progressive response to industrialization. 

By this time the movement was less clearly religious, having grown beyond the confines of New England Congregationalism. Davidson was a Scottish immigrant who had lived and worked in a number of countries, paradigmatic of the growing globalism of liberalism.  But the originally religious impulse that liberty rests upon the development of moral virtue, remained.

Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson's ideas:

he believed that everyone must work out their own operative truths by careful deliberation, that these truths become meaningful when they manifest in practical action, and that the only rule for common morality is love, treating others as impartially and benevolently as a truly good God would.

With Davidson she introduces what she will call the "liberal paradox." 

Liberals were to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe; and by expressing their convictions forthrightly, without regard for reputation. . . . Yet liberals were also to engage in mutual criticism, which meant listening to contrary views and exercising upon them the same analytical powers and discriminating faculties they used to develop their own views.  This often led to more disagreements than agreements, more splintering than unity, and competition between personalities rather than cooperation among them.

Another aspect of the paradox was that while they believed everyone deserved an education and thus they worked to educate all types of people, they also could discuss things in such a refined way that they excluded some of the very people they were trying to include.  She writes that sometimes liberals were talking more to each other than the wider culture.  I think of a similar paradox--the liberal church which greatly values inclusivity and multiculturalism yet is overwhelmingly white, a common occurrence.

In the late 19th century, and in response to industrialization, liberalism began to advocate for more governmental action.  She writes that "Davidson believed that the function of the state was the protection of individual rights and freedom."  Davidson wrote, "How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature, with all that that implies in the way of intelligence, sympathy, and helpfulness?"  The political virtues would also be developed through the state, which is similar to a point Michael Sandel makes near the end of his book Justice.  

On a point relevant to our recent election, Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson:

Since he believed that reaching for perfection was the goal of human life and that the state exists "for no other purpose but to put a stop to the action of the sub-human, Darwinian law of the survival of the strongest and the tyranny of the most cunning," he believed state intervention was justified.

The Universal Perspective of the Eternal


William James was one of the founders of psychology, most significantly contributing the idea that consciousness is a stream and not a series of discrete moments, as had been the common view of the early moderns.  Kittlestrom writes that James' introspection had a venerable tradition--the spiritual practice of mental self-observation which dated back to Puritan New England.  Modern psychology born of a spiritual practice.

James' two great contributions to the religion of democracy (besides being the one to use that particular term) was to translate the language of modern science in a way that was open to religious belief and to advocate for pluralism.

On the first topic there is the famous point at which James experienced a crisis over his fear that scientific determinism meant his will was not free and how, reading Renouvier, he came to the decision that he would simply believe in a free will without proof and see how the idea worked in practice.  This experience of the young man contributed so much to his later philosophical views.

Kittelstrom places the moment in its religious context.  New England liberals had a century before rejected Calvinism in favor of liberty.  James was simply repeating the process in the 19th century, this time with modern scientific determinism playing the role of the Calvinist God.

Evolution was not a threat to liberals.  "Religious liberals believed in the malleability of human character for a hundred years before Darwin came along, so rather than destabilizing their sense of cosmic order, the theory of natural selection gave them a language and a logic for progressive change, providing reason to hope that given how far human beings had advanced from their primate origins, there was no telling how much further they could yet progress."

James, Kittelstrom notes, was not so completely optimistic about Darwinian theory--"he was too good a scientific thinker himself to misconceive evolution as somehow progressive."  Rather he concluded that it was possible that nothing was guiding development other than our own choices and actions.  I've always admired his ethical impulse to adventure--the world is not destined for either good or bad but only what we collectively make of it.

This was a religious impulse for him.  Kittelstrom writes:

Yet to strain toward universal human equality was to act religiously, which is to say, to act in reference to the infinite rather than the particular, the ultimate rather than the conventional, the divine rather than the merely natural.  And the religious act involved both believing in one's own cosmic significance, because such a belief aids moral effort, and imagining the equal inner divinity of others. Then one must act on the basis of this creative imagination.

Which brings us now to James' pluralism.  In her chapter on William Ellery Channing she pointed out that for the American liberals the canon expanded to include the writings of other cultures and religions--for example, the first Buddhist writings were published in the United States.  James embraced a religious pluralism most eloquently stated in his masterpiece The Varieties of Religious Experience.  When I teach James I point out that the issue of how a pluralistic democracy works is the issue of our times.

The more diverse viewpoints on reality were respected and taken into consideration, James argued, the more the bounds of cultural hides might burst by attention to difference rather than mere tolerance.  The more all individuals are seen as fellow strivers after the divine bearing their own hidden chips of the divine, the more social progress is possible because the more reality is comprehended.  In a crude but pathbreaking way, James attempted to teach his fellow Anglo-Protestant members of the American educated elite to view laborers, the Chinese, women, African Americans, Filipinos, and immigrants from the universal perspective of the eternal rather than the limited perspective of their own cultural particular, for in this way "the world does get more humane."  This pluralism, with invisible roots in that of Channing and visible shoots in twentieth-century social thought, James developed over his career without ever feeling he had mastered it.  He called it "the religion of democracy."

She writes that for James it was this pluralism which defined American exceptionalism, an idea he had inherited from the Puritans.  But he lost his faith in that exceptionalism when the McKinley administration acted barbarically in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.  He wrote that the administration had induced the nation to "puke up its ancient soul, and the only things that give [the nation] eminence among other nations, in five minutes without a wink of squeamishness."  America had proven to be as corrupt as any other nation because of its imperialism.  In response he felt, according to Kittelstrom, that "liberal intellectuals had to produce ideas that would work like habits on public opinion."  

Wise words for our own crisis of intellect, virtue, and faith in the advent of the Trump era.

The Growth of Moral Agency


In a long and wide-ranging chapter centering on William Ellery Channing, Amy Kittelstrom discusses the changes in American religion and culture in the early-mid 19th century as the principles of liberal Christianity became institutionalized in places like the public schools (the very idea of which was a liberal Christian idea).  Key to their vision was the cultivation of moral agency, which she calls "self-culture."  This process of moral, intellectual, and religious development was key not only to ones spiritual life but to the institutions of democracy itself.  The liberals embraced a pluralism that cut across the normal divisions in society and advocated for people of all races and classes.  This pluralism will grow in importance in later chapters of the book.

The American liberals were interacting with the British Romantics.  She writes:

The English Romantics and the Boston liberals shared the same canon of British dissent, reacted against similar Calvinisms and evangelical currents, and prized the same potential for a republican form of government to foster human progress while fearing the same dangers of demagoguery and popular ignorance.  

In both movements the goal of life was "growth toward divine perfection" and both believed that "meditation in and of the natural world brought human nature in touch with the divine nature."  She writes that Channing was deeply motivated toward the cultivation of the virtues by his "abhorrence of sin."  Another reminder that the cultivation of liberal ideas rests upon the doctrines of religious faith.

Channing argued "Let it never be forgotten that the great end of Government, its highest function, is . . . to prevent or repress Crimes against individual rights and the social order."  Horace Mann wrote "That intelligence and virtue are the only support and stability of free institutions."  A liberal magazine discussing Tocqueville's book wrote that

"Democracy is the cause of Humanity" because it "has faith in human nature" and believes in humanity's "essential equality and fundamental goodness" while aiming "to emancipate the mind of the mass of men from the degrading and disheartening fetters of social distinctions and advantages."

Channing was worried about popularity leading to the tyranny of the majority, thus the moral impulse to educate the masses and encourage them in the cultivation of the virtues.  

She writes about the New Englanders who purposely resettled in the west "out of the deep conviction that 'the new States should be religious, in order that they may permit us to remain free,'" which helps to describe the impulses of the founders of my current church and some of their words that have survived.

She writes that Channing left behind "a host of spiritual children who took his legacy in a variety of directions," not least of which were the abolitionist movement and the social gospel.