The Religion of Democracy: New Read

I picked up The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittlestrom at a used bookstore, Bearly Used Books, in Big Bear last year.

I remember where I got the book because they always put their bookmarkers in the books they sell and when I opened this one, there it was! Brilliant idea, by the way, if you’re a bookstore owner.

This one has an adorable ad for the Llama Llama Tea Company on the back!

I read on the back, “the role of religion in American politics has always been far less simplistic than today’s debates would suggest” and immediately added it to my pile. When I hear people “debate,” to use the term loosely, all I hear is “left liberal” and “right conservative,” “liberal godless” and “right fundamentalist believer,” or “left science” and “right religion.” But I know from own experience with individuals in the world, there are far more nuances than that. That is the talk of someone trying to pit one side against another to further their own aims.

This looks like a good book to help see some more of those nuances.

“This is a book about how an originally Christian, eighteenth-century idea changed into a universal modern idea. Some New England Christians believed that every human being is a moral agent endowed with the sacred faculties of reason and conscience, a faith that their Christian and post-Christian intellectual descendants transformed into a “religion of democracy” in which the human right to dignity-to freedom and equality-became a practical faith for driving moral action. This transformation helped produce the modern concept of universal human rights.”

I started reading this yesterday and laughed to myself when I thought, “Oh, man! This isn’t ‘liberal!’ It’s just another book about why God is great!” Then laughed again when I kept reading and thought, “Some of my Christian friends would think this book is ridiculously liberal and wrong.” I think I’m in the right place after all.

“Readers with the fortitude to abide theological and philosophical complexity get rewarded, I hope, with dashes of poetry and drama, but stamina is required to grasp the whole of it.”

That quote is exactly right. This book is not an easy read. It doesn’t seem to have a clear direction and big markers that say, “This is the right way!” That’s exactly what the people and movement she is highlighting here were stepping away from in the first place.

No one can know it all, no one can say what is “right” for everyone. We all are born with an inalienable right to our own conscience, to the control of our own bodies and possessions. This seems so basic to me. Of course, we do! But then I hear the media, politicians, and celebrities make statements that give me pause.

“’Democracy,’ Baldwin said in a conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1970, ‘should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.’”

Exactly my thoughts, Mr. Baldwin. “Raise himself” is the key phrase here. We all have the ability to raise ourselves and I feel like we have lost that belief in ourselves and those around us. Strange…I was just having a conversation about something similar yesterday. Something about growing weary of simply “supporting” others and wishing I could find some way of putting a magic mirror up to people and showing them the power they already have.

Yes, The Religion of Democracy is not going to be an easy read for me. In fact, I already thought about trading it out for something simpler, but then got sucked back in for another hour this morning. I’ll stick with it as long as I can and see where the adventure takes me.


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