The Religion of Democracy

Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition

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Amy Kittelstrom
The Penguin History of American Life
  • New York, NY: 
    Penguin Press
    , April
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“This is a book,” Amy Kittelstrom writes in her preface, “about how an originally Christian, eighteenth century idea changed into a universal modern idea” (xv). The Religion of Democracy begins by examining the 18th century American belief that reason and conscience are God-given and that human beings must be permitted their free exercise. It then traces how these concepts underwrote the “religion of democracy,” the constellation of social practices, commitments, and values that the liberal intellectual tradition came to regard as universally valid in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those who contributed to the religion of democracy’s development belong to what Kittelstrom calls the “American moral tradition,” of which she picks seven representative figures to examine in detail. In the process, she tells the story of how an Enlightenment emphasis on individual moral agency in Puritan New England evolved into the pluralist and secularist democratic commitments that drove Progressive Era reform efforts. At first blush, it might not seem that the pious and opinionated John Adams, with whom the study begins, has much in common with its concluding subject, Hull House founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams. Both, however, shared the same underlying commitment to freedom of inquiry and the inherent dignity of the individual that pushed them to engage across lines of sharp ideological difference. They thus occupy different points in the same liberal tradition of American life and thought. 

Kittelstrom’s first three subjects faced contentious debates between enlightenment and evangelical streams of religious thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each responded by staking out a via media in ways that presaged the thought of later subjects of Kittelstrom’s analysis. John Adams occupied the space between the “otherworldliness of an Edwards and the worldliness of a Franklin” by fusing the Reformation emphasis on divine sovereignty and human sinfulness with a humanist regard for the individual as moral agent (21). Mary Moody Emerson, who assiduously practiced the virtue of mutual criticism, cultivated conversations across the ideological and denominational spectrum. Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing championed the notion of universal inner divinity and emphasized the practical application of spiritual insights through “self-culture” (142). Kittelstrom’s analysis hinges on the middle chapter’s subject: William James, with whom Kittelstrom’s research began before she expanded it to include James’s influences and conversation partners (xix). In defining beliefs as “rules for action” (207), James and his Pragmatist school of thought supplied tools for crafting consensus across lines of difference. These would prove indispensable to developing the “religion of democracy” that the final three figures—who all knew James personally—pioneered.

Scottish émigré and polymath Thomas Davidson coined the phrase, “religion of democracy,” and sought to build it on the core values of liberty and equality (218). He devoted his efforts to cultivating democratic virtues in community with others, hosting symposia in the Adirondacks and classes for working class immigrants at Breadwinners’ College in New York City. William Salter applied the “religion of democracy” to social problems. Noting how tenements prohibited the development of individual moral autonomy (280), he sought to cultivate the robust social conscience on which democratic health depended. Last but not least is Jane Addams, who leveraged her elite background to fund the social projects at Hull House while building respectful and enduring relationships with the urban poor who came through her doors. In her hands, love of neighbor was more than a core Christian precept; it was good democratic practice. 

While group biographies often result in a disjointed analysis, that is not the case here. Kittelstrom deftly weaves her subjects’ diverse narratives into a coherent story. The figures profiled in each chapter anchor Kittelstrom’s analysis, but they don’t restrict it. She explores her subjects’ social networks and shows them to be products as well as shapers of their times. Overall, she mounts a convincing case that the themes that preoccupied her subjects, such as the primacy of the individual, the right of private judgment, and the value of vigorous debate, helped shape the American liberal tradition. Kittelstrom also adds to scholarly understandings of American secularism, recognizing that contrary to notions of secularism as religion’s opposite, the American secular tradition is a logical extension of a set of values nurtured and developed in religious contexts. That the animating principles of American liberalism have migrated from Christian to post-Christian modes of discourse demonstrates how they adapt to the possibilities and challenges of new contexts. 

Kittelstrom’s choice to focus on exemplary figures, however, risks suggesting that the viability of the American moral tradition rests on the broad shoulders of a visionary and talented few. Kittelstrom does mitigate this risk at various points. For instance, she offers instructive glimpses of how the “religion of democracy” operated among the laity in Davidson’s Breadwinners’ College and the cultural events of Addams’s Hull House. Yet broadly speaking, it remains to the reader to speculate how this “American moral tradition” diffuses throughout the broader culture. 

This book was first published in 2015, when Kittelstrom could plausibly claim that in the 21st century “even the most publicly condemned racists knew better than to admit that they adhered to a passé ideology” (356). To read Kittelstrom in 2018 is to be reminded that the nativism, bigotry, and narrow dogmatism that our liberal forebears thought they vanquished are more deeply woven into the fabric of American life than the liberal moral tradition has fathomed, let alone reckoned with. Yet it also reminds us of how far we’ve come, that the ability to adapt and learn and grow is part of our heritage, and that dialogue and debate can bend the arc of our civic life toward the common good.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeremy Sabella is Visiting Lecturer in Religion at Dartmouth College.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Kittelstrom is a scholar of modern thought and culture who lives and works in the North Bay Area of California. She currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of American History and is Associate Professor at Sonoma State University. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Center for Religion and American Life at Yale, the Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History at Harvard, and the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton. Her next book will put the twentieth-century writer James Baldwin in deep historical context.


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