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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.

The Religion of Democracy

Way behind in my blogging about this book, which I have now finished.  I'll try to write more over the break. 

The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral TraditionThe Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittelstrom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A history of how the development of liberal religion was intertwined with the advancement of democracy in America from the 18th-20th centuries. Kittelstrom tells this story by focusing on seven key figures, though many others appear in the book. Basically this is how New England Congregationalism gave birth to democratic ideals that in the 20th century went global. I've rarely read a book that quoted so many sermons that wasn't a book about preaching. Her narrative ends with the New Deal when she argues that liberalism became most a secular ideology. Her epilogue quickly surveys the developments in the years since.

I think this is one of those essential books for our times, pointing to the importance of moral virtue and religious insight in advancing the ideals of liberty and equality. These are stories that the Trump opposition must tell if we are to rescue our Republic.

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Adams, Liberal Christianity, Moral Virtue, and Democracy

John Adams
I'm rushing through Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy but am woefully behind in my blogging I want to do about it.  So, let's begin trying to catch up.

The first full chapter was on John Adams as a paradigm example of the development of liberal Christianity out of Puritan Calvinism in the 18th century and how that liberal Christianity was connected to the development of democracy.

Back in college I researched and wrote some on this topic and now want to find those papers.  I remember reading about Adams' pastor Lemuel Briant and Briant's role in introducing Adams to John Locke.  Though I had read this, I've never encountered the thought again anywhere, so was glad to see a discussion of Briant in this book.  I had also written a college paper exploring how a phrase of Locke's had entered the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.  That led me to the Cambridge Platonists, who also are discussed in this chapter.  Dissidents on both sides of the pond were reading and interacting with each other as liberal Christianity and democracy were developing hand-in-hand.

Part of what spoke to me as I read this chapter was the importance of the moral virtues.  My reading solidified thoughts I've been having that in the unvirtuous Age of Trump we must focus upon the cultivation of the virtues.

She writes that Adams grew up in a home with a "lifestyle of simplicity, modesty, and charity, and the regular enforcement of Christian order at home."  Adams did not continue the strict Calvinism of his father but she boils down his moral ethic as "one that valued the common good over self-interest, extolled the pursuit of knowledge as a way to worship God and his creation, and insisted on both the divine right of private judgment and the related, God-given 'dignity of human nature.'"  Yes, we are in sore need of those virtues.

Another valuable thought--"Human limitations are woefully apparent--and this is why liberty matters.  It is the necessary precondition for the fight against sin."

18th century liberal Christianity developed three rules for right reasoning:

The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth.  Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin.  Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.

The second rule taught the critical thinking necessary to discern between doctrines.  Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere.  They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims.

The third rule of right reasoning directed the Christian to consider the effects of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity.

Elaborating the final point (which according to the narrative in the book ultimately becomes Jamesian Pragmatism in the late 19th century) she writes, "in the American Reformation, the right of private judgment pointed to a duty of public expression too, evaluating the results of holding this or that belief by measure of the virtue or nonvirtue such a belief produced."

As I get time this weekend, I'll try to catch up with further blogging.

American Religious Liberalism

I'm enjoying the book I began last week, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittelstrom.  The preface states:

This is a book about how an originally Christian, eighteenth-century idea changed into a universal modern idea.  Some New England Christians believed that every human being is a moral agent endowed with the sacred faculties of reason and conscience, a faith that their Christian and post-Christian intellectual descendants transformed into a "religion of democracy" in which the human right to dignity--to freedom and equality--became a practical faith for driving moral action.  This transformation helped produce the modern concept of universal human rights.

She believes that New England Congregationalists engaged in an "American Reformation" which helped to give birth to American independence and more.  Those New Englanders shared agreement on the "perfection of God and the moral agency of human beings" but divided into two groups--neo-Calvinists and liberals--though both maintained their allegiance to elements of the original Pilgrims and Puritans.  Here, she describes the divide:

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 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.

Interestingly, she points out that most liberals were Republicans well into the early 20th century and that the term only took on its secular political meaning during the era of the New Deal.

What I most enjoyed was her exploration of how this original meaning of liberalism was tied to moral and intellectual virtues such as humility, open-mindedness, and service.  One reason that intrigues me is that with the advent of the Trump era, I believe those opposed to him (whatever their political party or philosophy) should focus on the virtues as our central organizing principle, since his views are antithetical to the moral and intellectual virtues.  I'm hoping this book may help to guide my thinking on those issues.


SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and engaging read about Roman history. And not your normal history, full of biography of great men, but a wide-ranging exploration of the people of Rome from the founding of the city through the expansion of citizenship to the population of the entire Empire in 212 C. E.

Some familiarity with the big stories helps, as Beard doesn't tell them as much as she questions their authenticity and explores the meaning behind why the stories were told the way they were.

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Last Puritans: An Excerpt

From the conclusion:

As this book has shown, American Congregationalists have used their past in many different ways over the last two centuries: The Pilgrim story has been a source of unity, a reason for debate, and an occasion for moral instruction and corporate pride.  It has inspired serious thought and study, and it has created a yearning for common rituals and greater organizational sophistication.  History has served as entertainment and reason for travel, the subject of imaginative plays and tableaux and pageants.  To be sure, Congregationalists regularly misinterpreted and often trivialized their Pilgrim ancestors or at times used them to belittle their Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian cousins.  More important in the long run, however, is what history helped Congregationalists to avoid.  At key points, as we have seen, it allowed them to stand aside from the competition to be the most "biblical" of all Protestants; it directed their passions toward tolerance and larger Christian unity rather than maintaining the purity of their theological system.  These choices brought their own set of problems, of course, and in the end contributed to the denomination's ongoing debate about its core identity.  But all told, the Congregationalists' story suggests that twentieth-century Protestant liberalism is much more than a one-dimensional tale of religious indifference or feckless decision making--though those elements are certainly present, as, of course, they are for everyone.  It is also, in the end, about paths not taken.  It is about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties. 

The Last Puritans

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the PastThe Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past by Margaret Bendroth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a history of Congregationalism but a history of how the Congregationalists have used their history, particularly the Pilgrim story. She focuses on grassroots history, more likely to quote anniversary sermons and the letters of lay people than denominational reports. Plus she has a wonderful dry wit. I would recommend this both to people who enjoy church history and to the general reader of history for an appreciation of how history has been used in American life.

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