The word “liberal” has acquired several valences in American politics, derogative and complimentary. While it used to evoke the social achievement of the New Deal and the power of government to improve lives, it has also become a dirty word in many circles. Pols and pundits wield “liberal” as a weapon to accuse the left — somewhat incongruously — of supporting anarchy and totalitarianism. And also godlessness.
“Somehow the word ‘godless’ got hitched to the word ‘liberal,'” Amy Kittelstrom writes in the introduction to her new book, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition, which strives to unpack the knotty history of the word’s relationship to American cultural, intellectual, and political life. Kittelstrom applies nuance, insight, and deft prose to tell the stories of seven men and women — philosophers, writers, and reverends among them — to chart the trajectory of American liberalism.
Taken together, the lives of these seven Americans trace a continuity between what Kittelstrom calls “the classical liberalism, the political commitment of a society to replace coercion with consent” and “modern liberalism, the moral commitment of a society to the collective needs of all its members, regardless of their differences,” the task of which is never finished.
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Two subtle ironies surround the history of this religion of democracy. The first is that the liberal Christians who set its wheels in motion acquired a reputation for softening their religion into mere morality, as though to focus on ethics were to focus on something other than real religion. From the liberal point of view, virtue is the fruit by which true faith is known. This charge is a by‑product of the myth of orthodox Protestant Christianity, made especially potent by what happened during the middle period of the American Reformation. When Romantic ideas about universal inner divinity arose amid an exploding literary canon that was globally inclusive for the first time, Christianity’s claims to exclusive truth started to look like hubris to some liberals. How could an open-minded moral agent be so sure a Hindu did not know God? Transcendentalists and others then left the Christian fold without really rejecting Christ. To the surprise of many faithful devotees of the American Reformation, liberal Christians started battling their own intellectual and cultural progeny, post-Christian religious liberals who discovered the divine not only in the Christian Bible but far beyond it. This post-Christian turn marked the end of the American Reformation and the beginning of the religion of democracy in which no tradition could boast unique revelation but all individuals bore unique inner divinity.
The second irony around this history is that the chief sin of which these post-Christian religious liberals were accused was of discarding ethics altogether by indulging in a moral relativism that verged on nihilism. The charge is delivered with moral indignation if not outrage, as though giving credence to other points of view were not itself a moral commitment with venerable Christian roots. Tolerance looked like apathy to critics and piety to liberals.
Just as there is more than a grain of truth in the myth of orthodox Protestant Christianity in America, there is more than a grain of truth in these criticisms of liberal morality, despite their logical incompatibility, but nuance matters. At least it did to liberals. When Calvinists said that humans were utterly and innately sinful, liberals rejoined that humans were instead subject to sinfulness, prone to sin, the very thing religion is supposed to mitigate. This then highlights another film across this history: the one trend in the history of American religion to resist the myth of orthodox Protestant Christianity is the history of liberal religion, which includes post-Christian, metaphysical, spiritual-but-not-religious, and other nonevangelical forms of religion in the genuine and robust history of religion in the United States—and then goes on to treat liberal religion as though it did away with sin, and as though liberal religion had nothing to do with politics. This interpretation is understandable. Liberals had pushed back hard against the grim Calvinist insistence on the utter determinism of human sinfulness. Then the liberals of the nineteenth century were succeeded by some extremely optimistic and often politically irrelevant religious liberals in the therapeutic atmosphere of the twentieth century. “You are a child of the Universe,” said one famous credo, reassuring an affluent public that “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” No problem of evil there. In the nineteenth century, however, religious liberals both Christian and post-Christian emphasized the positive in order to pull behavior out of its heavy habitual path toward the negative for reasons never unconnected to the public sphere. And they did this by focusing Christian practice—and then post-Christian religious practice— on mental development, the training of the human mind.
The ideal of mental development is not as elitist as it may it sound. Indeed it is not elitist at all, although its liberal version originated among elite Bostonians. Their development of a culture of lived virtue based on the principle of moral agency provided a major feeder for the modern notion of a universal human equality compatible with human diversity, the pluralism essential to modern liberalism. That knot of refined diners among whom the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced temperance did not know they were paving the way for an egalitarian doctrine of universal human value, but as soon as they declared that the most important thing about a man was the way he used his mind, they opened the theoretical door for men and women of all classes and colors to pursue their most complete mental development as the most important aspect of their religious path, and therefore the most important contribution they could make to the good of society. By any demographic measure, whether race, class, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or public sexual orientation, the early intellectual fellowships of the Boston liberals were strikingly homogeneous. But from the perspective of the liberals themselves—blind as they were, at the time, to the impact of socioeconomics on status and access—their fellowships were beautifully diverse because liberals varied so much in opinion, taste, and experience, and they bounced these differences off one another so productively.
The goal of mental independence, in which the moral agent resists the way of the herd and speaks freely with candor and humility, encouraged every individual to find and develop her or his own inner voice of the divine to join the human chorus for the sake of the common good. Liberals valued individuality, not individualism, and the reason they came out against slavery and for women’s rights was because slavery and patriarchy prohibited self- culture. Later liberals found that unregulated capitalism did too. Meanwhile, their reading lists quickly grew to include continental Europeans and more—taking in Muslim, Persian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian texts—while their correspondents and travel ranged beyond Western Europe around the globe. As their canon expanded over the nineteenth century, the small elite of Boston liberals steadily extended their circles outward from the Northeast across the American West to include women, Jews, immigrants, workers, Native Americans, and former slaves and their descendants in a vast network of liberal intellectual culture lived through educational institutions, sermons and addresses, books and periodicals, friendships, fellowships, associations, and reform movements.
It took about a hundred years, but by practicing an ethic of inclusivity and integrity, liberals developed some of the most diverse communities of discourse by any measure ever found in human history up to that point. They also helped make possible both the more diverse fellowships that followed them—the United Nations, for example— and the more specialized, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The diversity of the liberal fellowships did not correspond in representative percentages to the demographic diversity of American society by the turn of the twentieth century, nor indeed to the diversity of human society.
Long after they had theoretically breached the barriers of prejudice and discrimination, most liberal fellowships remained disproportionately Anglo-Protestant and middle class. Such fellowships reflected the long leadership of the liberal movement and the accumulation of liberal privilege, while also including delegates from America’s many internal constituencies. The liberal fellowships produced a religion of democracy that fed into both American civil religion and international human rights.
From The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittelstrom, published on April 21, 2015 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Amy Kittelstrom, 2015.
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