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December 2016

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.

Varieties of Presence

Varieties of PresenceVarieties of Presence by Alva Noë
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After re-reading and teaching his Out of Our Heads this semester I decided to explore another of Noe's books. This one was just okay.

I feel like Noe is in a contemporary form developing some of the ideas in the pragmatist/process tradition without being deeply in that tradition. He is influenced by Putnam, but other than a quote from Dewey here and there, no other major members of that tradition are referenced.

This book I think would actually benefit from the author reading deeply in James and Whitehead. In particular in one essay he says he is a criticizing empiricism. He seems ignorant of radical empiricism, with which I believe he would agree.

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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.

American Reformation


The second person of focus in Amy Kittelsrom's The Religion of Democracy is Mary Moody Emerson, an aunt of Ralph Waldo who journaled extensively and helped to influence her nephew's thought.  Kittelstrom uses Emerson's journals and letters to cover a significant change in American Congregationalism which she calls the American Reformation, as the old Calvinism gave way to liberal Christianity.

Mary's father, the Rev. William Emerson, was one of the leaders in this movement and the minister who mustered the forces in Concord when the shot was fired that was heard round the world.  According to Kittelstrom, he preached with gender-inclusive language in the 18th century.

She read and rejected the neo-Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, insisting on the importance of free will, prefiguring William James.  Kittelstrom writes, "Free will formed an essential part of the dignity of the soul, indicating a human capacity for moral action that, along with the endowment of liberty and the other inborn mental powers, pointed first to the reality of the soul's immortality and then, just as vitally, to the means of its advancement toward God's likeness."  

The liberal side in the split with the neo-Calvinists emphasized the virtues.  For example,

A spirit of humility is the appropriate fruit of reflection on one's inborn mental powers, not pride, and not any exalted sense of what humans can do on their own.  Keeping in mind the truly exalted--God's moral perfection, and the glory of his design--the faithful Christian must strive to extend toward other creatures of God not only forbearance of faults but also active interest in their interests, and active recognition of their own hidden inner sparks of the divine.

This chapter also covers the English dissenters that the New Englanders were reading.  Kittelstrom writes, "what was dissent in England gradually became the establishment in New England."  For example, the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote who wrote (also anticipating James) that religion "doth not deserve that Sacred Name, if it does us no Good."  These dissenters also laid the ground for the future inclusive pluralism.  For example,

Religion itself seeks the universal moral good, so justice demands inclusion.  In practice, then, friendly engagement across lines of doctrinal difference rather than cool tolerance of those lines fulfills a religious truth deeper than such differences, because religion 'consisteth in a profound Humility, and an universal Charity.' . . . Tolerance is not only a reasonable policy, then; it is an active practice of Christian fellowship in the common pursuit of moral virtue based on a combination of insight into one's own sinfulness and acknowledgment of everyone else's inherent divinity.

This cultivation of virtue led to the importance of education for liberal Christians who went about founding schools (Horace Mann arises from the movement, for instance).  Those with education were to be valued while education was to be opened up for everyone so that everyone had a chance to contribute to culture and decision-making.

An interesting aside was Mary Moody Emerson's reaction to reading David Hume.  Kittelstrom writes, "Hume could not pull the rug out from under M. M. Emerson's faith because her understanding included not understanding everything--included awe, the vivid internal sense of both ongoing revelation and sin."

Most enjoyable in this chapter is the reminder that political liberalism emerged out of Christian faith and virtues.  Again,

Among these new Boston liberals of the early republic, the social values of impartiality, candor, humility, and right reasoning resulted in practices of taking diverse viewpoints, including those of non-Christians, seriously. 

My Dancing Day

My Dancing Day

Luke 2:1-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 December 2016



    Last week we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Sebastian for the first time. He most enjoyed the parts where the kids are dancing awkwardly during the pageant rehearsal.

    I resonated with the opening scene. Charlie and Linus are decked out in their winter garb, standing amidst the snow and holiday decorations when Charlie says,


I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees

and all that, but I'm still not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.


    Then Linus, truly one of the most genuinely good people ever to appear on television, responds:


Charlie Brown, you are the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy is right. Of all of the Charlie Browns in the world, you are the Charlie Brownest.


    The script then reads, "Charlie walks through the snow, thoughtfully. Goes to his

mailbox, pokes head inside. Looks disappointed because it is empty." Charlie then says, sadly:


Rats! Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?



    I know I'm not the only person who has felt a little like Charlie Brown this year. Many friends and family and church members have expressed that this year they aren't quite in the holiday spirit. Every year there are some people for whom this is true, which is one reason the Charlie Brown special is such a classic.

    You know how the rest of the story goes. Lucy gets Charlie involved as the director of the Christmas pageant where all the kids prefer dancing to rehearsing. Charlie then goes to pick out a Christmas tree and comes back with a puny, frail thing. All the kids laugh at and mock him. Then good Linus says he knows what Christmas is all about and he tells the Christmas story, reciting most of Luke 2. I cry every time. Then the kids go and find Charlie and decorate the puny Christmas tree, and everything ends with joy and friendship.


    Here's the thing. Advent is over. The time of waiting and preparation when we look for signs of light in the darkness. It's Christmas. It's time to celebrate. You can go back to worrying and grieving next week, there's plenty of time for that. But right now, tonight, and tomorrow, is a festival, a party, a time for dancing.

    Maybe you're cynical about the happy ending? Maybe you don't dance? Maybe you're a scrooge? Bah humbug. Maybe you think this story is only a fairy tale?

    What's wrong with fairy tales, I ask?

    You need to celebrate. All of us need to celebrate. We need some fantasy and festivity. So, please, do that. Get in your pjs, put your favorite Christmas carols on, and dance awkwardly in the living room. Laugh at yourself for looking foolish. Laugh at each other. Trust me, it will do you good.

    Have a Merry Christmas.

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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