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Russell Moore on the Religious Right

Provoked by the 2016 election and widespread Evangelical support for Trump, Russell Moore (who didn't support him) worries that "The people who warned us to avoid moral relativism now tell us that we should compare our choices not to an objective standard but to the alternative, as if an election transcends moral principle."  A crisis exists for the Religious Right and in a very good read, Moore analyzes the situation and proposes his solution--a return to the gospel.

He discusses Catholic theologian Robert P. George who is articulating a vision "grounded in the gifts Catholicism brings to the movement: rigorous philosophy, a complex defense of human dignity, and a connection of the natural law to civil society and the American experiment."  So, how do religious liberals, of whom I've been blogging the last two weeks, articulate something similar with our own rigorous philosophy and rich theology?

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."

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.

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.

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.

View all my reviews

Douthat on Religious Experience

Ross Douthat has an interesting column borrowing a title from William James, though not citing him in the article.

As a strictly intellectual matter, I am very confident that God exists. In dark times, though — and this has been a dark year in many ways — I wonder if the Absolute relates to us in the way that my church teaches, if he will really wipe away every tear and make all things that we love new.


Willimon has been quite blunt in his appraisal of the election of Donald Trump in his writing.  Last week he said it was unChristian.  Now this week he calls for revolution.

Ministry Matters™ | Christmas: Herod in trouble

I can’t join those Christians who respond to the current political climate with calls for civility, unity, harmony and healing of our nation. Matthew’s story says to me that ours may be time, not for pacification, but for resistance and revolt. We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.


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.