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A history of religion's role in the American liberal tradition through the eyes of seven transformative thinkers from John Adams to William James
Today we associate liberal thought and politics with secularism. When we argue over whether the nation's founders meant to keep religion out of politics, the godless side is said to be liberal. But the role of religion in American politics has always been far less simple than today's debates would suggest and closer to the heart of American intellectual life than is commonly understood. American democracy became a political system, the ideas at its core - liberty and equality - fired religious debates that fueled the Revolution and it's meaning from the founding into the twentieth century. In The Religion of Democracy, historian Amy Kittelstrom shows how religion and democracy have worked together as universal ideals in American culture - and as guides to moral action and the social practice of treating one another as equals who deserve to be free.
The first people in the world to call themselves 'liberals' were New England Christians in the early republic, for whom being liberal meant being open to different beliefs. The story begins in the mid-eighteenth century, when a group of Boston ministers folded the Enlightenment into Reformation Christianity, tying equality and liberty to the human soul at the same moment these root concepts were being tied to democracy. Over the nineteenth century a robust liberal intellectual culture developed, opposing slavery, promoting education, and arguing for the rights of women, workers, and Indians on the basis of all individuals' right to the liberty necessary for self-culture. By the twentieth century, what had begun in Boston as a narrow, patrician democracy emerged as religion of democracy in which the new liberals of modern America believed that where different viewpoints overlap, common truth is revealed. The core American principles of liberty and equality were never free from religion but full of religion.
The Religion of Democracy re-creates the liberal conversation from the eighteenth century to the twentieth by tracing the lived connections among seven thinkers through what they read and wrote, where they went, whom they knew, and how they expressed their opinions - from John Adams to William James to Jane Addams; from Boston to Chicago to Berkeley. Sweeping and ambitious, The Religion of Democracy is a lively narrative of quintessentially American ideas as they were forged, debated, and remade across our history.
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