Review: The Religion of Democracy

The Religion of DemocracyThe Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015

Summary: This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit.

It seems that part of the American story is that religion and politics have been inextricably interwoven. As I was preparing to write this review, I listened to John Kasich invoke the biblical imagery of “the city on the hill” and many more personal references to faith in his announcement of his candidacy for the President of the United States. Kasich, from what I can tell, represents the reformed/evangelical stream of Christianity in America. This book represented what might be considered the other major stream in American political life, a stream that is less interested in creed, which tolerates a plurality of belief ranging from a Unitarian view of God to a god within to some form of spiritual consciousness that drives a deep personal quest for moral excellence and ethical behavior that benefits the wider society. In some sense, this stream may incorporate any other religious or secular views as long as they are not insistent upon a particular creed. It is a stream informed by the classical liberal humanism of the Enlightenment which in the twentieth century has been transformed into a social and political liberalism.

Amy Kittelstrom describes for us the development of this stream from the time of the American Revolution down through the early twentieth century by profiling seven key individuals and their contribution to what she calls “the American Reformation” and “the religion of democracy”. This latter seems appropriate because it is the kind of public and civil religious perspective that arose out of the New England context that has shaped so many of our political and cultural institutions. The seven figures and their contributions (taken from chapter titles) are:

  • John Adams: The Protestant Moral Ethic and the Spirit of Independence (personal judgment over creed)
  • Mary Moody Emerson: The Culture of Lived Virtue and the Fight against Bigotry
  • William Ellery Channing: Universal Inner Divinity and Self-Culture (Channing was a leader of the early Unitarians)
  • William James: Practical Idealist, Man of the World and the Method of Nature
  • Thomas Davidson, Liberal Freedom, Fellowship and the Socialization of Self-Culture
  • William Mackintire Salter, New Liberal, Ethical Culture, and Social Progress
  • Jane Addams, Social Democracy, Universal Needs, and the Cooperative Road to International Peace

Each chapter explores the life and thought of the particular individual, and their intellectual circle. This latter is especially important because of the intellectual community each of these individuals sought out. But these communities were not simply about ideas, but also the personal more development of each person. Over time, this is transformed to the social and moral uplift of the poorer, working classes, most evident of course in the work of Jane Addams. A common thread throughout is a religious perspective that prioritizes “personal judgment” over external creeds. Some never embraced these. Some, like Adams, formally identified with churches that did while quietly adhering to personal judgment. And some, like Channing and Addams, moved from  Reformed and evangelical roots to embrace this broader liberal perspective.

She concludes by exploring the contribution of the liberal religion of democracy over the last century, in its extension of rights to women, racial minorities, and LGBT persons and believes this will continue to be a potent force in shaping democracy’s efforts to advance human rights.

I believe this is am important study even though I would disagree at a number of points with what I think is the implicit creed of “the religion of democracy”. It exchanges a Triune God of Holy Love for the “god within” and salvation and the obedience of faith for moralism, among other things. Yet, whatever your take on “the religion of democracy” it is important to understand the intellectual hegemony it has achieved, the intellectual community it has fostered, and the public rhetoric of equality, tolerance, pluralism, and inclusion that has captured the American imagination. Kittelstrom’s book is an important contribution to that understanding.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Other People’s Stories

The Road to CharacterIt just occurred to me this morning that three of the books I am currently reading consist largely in telling other people’s stories. David Brooks’ The Road to Character focuses chapter by chapter on individuals as different as Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine. None are perfect by any means but Brooks teases out the growth of their characters as they struggled with the conflict between noble aspirations and fallen nature that besets each of us.

The Religion of Democracy by Amy Kittelstrom focuses on seven classically liberal figures in American religious history and the beliefs and dispositions that shaped their lives. She covers figures as diverse as John Adams and William Ellery Channing (a key figure in the development of the Unitarian movement), to William James and Jane Addams, showing the development of an American liberal creed that was less doctrinal than focused around personal judgment and moral effort that included the benefit of one’s fellow human beings, encouraged within intellectual communities of the like-minded.

The Religion of DemocracyThe last is Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders which narrates the stories of Christians on every continent past and present who have developed Christian movements through compassionate character, personal sacrifice, and in some cases, martyrdom. For example, she narrates the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh, one of the most profound of India’s Christians.

You can look for full reviews of these books in weeks ahead, but I’m struck by the choice of each of these writers to develop the central themes of their books around telling other people’s stories. In each of these, the writers put flesh and blood on abstract ideas like compassion, moral restraint, or liberal notions of moral improvement. Often abstractions leave us cold, but when we see the stories of people who attempt to embody these commitments and shape their lives around them, it helps makes sense of these both as we relate to our own experiences past, and the life choices before us.

Kingdom without BordersWhat also strikes me as I read these three books is that they present differently grounded moral visions, sometimes within the pages as in Brooks’s book, although it centers around classic Judeo-Christian ideas. Kittelstrom’s and Adeney’s book give a sharper contrast, between the American Transcendalist tradition, and a global evangelical Christian one. One begins to see how different moral groundings sometimes lead to similar, and sometimes divergent ends. And since all of us in some way, either explicitly or implicitly, live toward some vision of a life well-lived, these narratives all help us assess both the beliefs and moral ends toward which we are living.

Is this not why we also read great fiction (if we do)? Whether it is Jane Austen, or Anthony Doerr, or even an Elizabeth Peters mystery, are we not immersing ourselves in a world where convictions, circumstances, and moral choices, and human impulse all come together, for better or worse? Yes, we can read just to be amused, and yet the truth is that the most profound works also hold a mirror up to us quietly posing the question, “how then will you live?”