Losing Our Religion

Progressives should know that faith has been a part of the liberal vision for the country since our founding.

If you developed your views of American life entirely from television and the Internet, you would get the impression that our national philosophic-spiritual life is divided into two distinct spheres. In the religious sphere, ecstatic worshippers speak in tongues, handle snakes, deny marriage licenses to gay couples in Kentucky, and believe that the Rapture is going to whisk them off to heaven without the inconvenience of actually dying. In the secular world, haughty overeducated elites sip fine wines in their high-rent apartments, bonding over the witty anticlerical bon mots of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. With religion, as with our politics, in America today you’re either with us or against us.

Of course, like all harsh dualities, this one is bogus, and Amy Kittelstrom’s book The Religion of Democracy arrives in order to quietly but firmly dismantle it. Despite the claims of Dawkins & Co., all Christians at all times haven’t spent most of their weekends gathering up the pitchforks and storming various bastions of freedom and tolerance. In fact, America’s democratic, liberal heritage is chock-full of tolerant, progressive Christians who had a major impact on the country’s formation. Kittelstrom, an associate professor of history at Sonoma State University, traces the New England strain of this form of religious liberalism with exacting detail and insight, revealing that much contemporary secular thought actually has a liberal Christian underpinning.

The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition

The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition
by Amy Kittelstrom
Penguin Press, 448 pp.

Kittelstrom has a special fondness for the staid and sober New England Christians, the Unitarians, and liberal Congregationalists like John Adams and Mary Moody Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s aunt). She makes a strong case for the importance of this liberal variety of Christianity, tracing its origins from the eighteenth-century Congregationalists. Despite being the direct descendants of Puritans, members of this denomination gradually drifted away from the Puritanical belief in predestination and the inevitable damnation of certain unlucky souls, instead emphasizing a more positive strain in Calvinism—the sense that every individual possessed a direct relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. They were more concerned with cultivating this relationship by working for social reforms than with worrying about whether they were eternally damned to hell or not.

Hoary Congregationalists sitting around writing polished sermons, drinking claret temperately, and supping on moderate meals of “widgeons and teal” might not seem to constitute thrilling reading. But as the story progresses, and the mind of the American religious liberal broadens and its curiosity quickens, the tale grows in intellectual excitement. The occasional weird anecdote also spices things up: we see William James debating whether frogs have souls with William Salter’s adopted son, Leo Tolstoy lecturing Jane Addams on her excessively large sleeves (they could’ve provided clothing for ten serfs!), and the young Horace Mann losing his Calvinist faith after a minister proclaimed that Mann’s drowned nine-year-old brother was in hell, as punishment for swimming on the Sabbath (and this was at the child’s funeral).

Kittelstrom narrates the story of this breed of religious liberalism through the lives of seven people: John Adams, Mary Moody Emerson, William Ellery Channing, William James, Thomas Davidson, William Mackintire Salter, and Jane Addams. She artfully delineates the Big Ideas they contributed to American life. First and foremost, they believed in the right of “private judgment” and opposed theocracy. Dogma shouldn’t be compulsory, they thought, and every individual should have the right to confirm the truth of revelation for him- or herself. On these grounds, they granted Reason a great deal of importance—it had work to do in confirming spiritual reality. Also, related to their disdain for overarching, judgmental, theocratic institutions, they found the Calvinist creed that condemns the vast majority of human beings to sure damnation to be rigid and intolerant. Channeling their perspective, Kittelstrom writes, “Not a black and white deal done in a predestined moment or a rapturous one, salvation was a gradual drawing near the goodness of God through successive acts of moral agency.” In their eyes, the Calvinist creed overemphasized the “total depravity” of human beings, making it seem like no one was capable of a single decent act without special election by God.

Another important idea Kittelstrom discusses, which came into style a little after this initial break with traditional Calvinism, was the notion that everyone possesses a “universal inner divinity.” Spurred by the Romantic movement, this concept forms the essence of New England Transcendentalism—Emerson and Thoreau, and later Whitman, all made this notion central to their respective philosophies. Emerson expresses it in his great essay “Nature,” in which an ecstatic experience reveals his own true essence and that of the universe as being one and the same: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” The Transcendentalists held that this kind of epiphany wasn’t available uniquely to Emerson, but to everyone—every individual was “part and parcel of God.”

This had amazingly reverberant implications for American liberalism. If everyone is part of God, then what could be the justification for slavery and racism—or for denying women’s suffrage? Also, it opened up the rest of the non-European world to America, since, if everyone possesses a “universal inner divinity,” then a Hindu or a Muslim can express divine truths just as easily and correctly as a Christian. The Emersonian and Whitmanian affection for Hindu thought laid the groundwork for the arrival of emissaries like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda, who brought Hinduism to America and spurred the later spiritual upheavals of the 1960s.

We don’t see the full flowering of this transformation in The Religion of Democracy, but we do witness its wellsprings flowing: Mary Moody Emerson voiced her appreciation of Hindu verse, and her famous nephew would go on to author his great poem “Brahma” and praise Hindu philosophy and Persian poetry elsewhere in his essays. Moody Emerson’s peer, William Ellery Channing, also shared this affection, feeling free to find inspiration in non-Christian cultures—after all, hadn’t Christians been doing the same with Plato and Aristotle for centuries? (Kittelstrom mentions much of this, but I wish she’d spent some time on Whitman, given how crucial he was in opening up America in terms of spirituality, sexual tolerance, and anti-racism. Even though, admittedly, the Good Gray Poet was descended from Quakers and not Kittelstrom’s Congregationalists, he still bore the full influence of Transcendentalism.)

Kittelstrom’s gift is that she disentwines liberalism and secularism, demonstrating that antique ex-Calvinists actually tilled much of the ground for a later birth of pluralism, and that our contemporary faith in human equality and human dignity owe much to the Romantic and Transcendentalist notion of “universal inner divinity.” While Kittelstrom celebrates this strand of liberalism, she doesn’t hesitate to show how its historical context sometimes hindered it from perceiving problems—the real position of women in society, the actual effects of racism, and so on. But the amazing thing about this movement is its ability to overcome its various blind spots, to continue to take in information, to ceaselessly reform under new stresses. Her seven central liberal thinkers are all impressive in their ability to listen, and to continually adjust their thoughts accordingly. They “never ceased from exploration,” and proved themselves continually curious (for the most part).

Although the book is basically a celebration of this liberal tradition and its democratic faith, Kittelstrom may surprise at the end when she writes that the liberal insistence on building consensus tended, in the modern era, to congeal into a certain dogmatism: “and once liberals became dogmatists, they were no longer pluralists.” Her point is that the liberals she studies in this book were not dogmatists, and that they, with their self-introspection and self-critique, had something that contemporary liberals often lack (of course, she isn’t suggesting that conservatives are somehow less dogmatic than liberals—far from it).

By pointing out the breathtaking gains of modern liberalism, like the recent victories on gay marriage, we might try to discredit Kittelstrom’s observation. But I think I know what she means. While James and Channing and Addams and the rest weren’t afraid to make strong and forthright affirmations, they also weren’t interested in shutting themselves off from their opponents: they were radically open, willing to listen and to find points of common understanding, to work with people they didn’t really agree with in many ways (Addams is exemplary in this respect). It’s a simple point, really, but one that opens up avenues of vast creative potential. If liberalism and secularism would stop seeming interchangeable, and the same were to occur with conservatism and religion, we might find ourselves encountering a very strange and wonderful moment in American politics. Of course, nothing could seem less likely at the present moment, but, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig pointed out in a recent article for the New Republic, Jimmy Carter’s demonstration of faith and grace under pressure when announcing his cancer diagnosis reminds us that liberal religiosity really does still exist. It’s just a matter of freeing its voice from the fringes of the national conversation.

After all, there’s something strangely refreshing about these ancient, liberal, New England virtues; when reading The Religion of Democracy, humility and tolerant curiosity start to seem kind of . . . cool.

Samuel Buntz

Samuel Buntz is a freelance writer living in West Hartford, Connecticut. His work has appeared in PopMatters, Fare Forward, and the Washington Monthly.