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

A history of religion’s role in the American liberal tradition through the eyes of seven transformative thinkers.

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 more nuanced and complex than today’s debates would suggest and closer to the heart of American intellectual life than is commonly understood. American democracy was intended by its creators to be more than just a political system, and 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 receptive to a range of beliefs and values. The story begins in the mid-eighteenth century, when the first Boston liberals brought 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. The nineteenth century saw the development of a robust liberal intellectual culture in America, built on open-minded pursuit of truth and acceptance of human diversity. By the twentieth century, what had begun in Boston as a narrow, patrician democracy transformed into a 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 whom they knew, what they read and wrote, where they went, 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.



“The Religion of Democracy is an extremely well-researched and interesting description of the sustaining arguments and tenets of the American Reformation, as well as an informative portrayal of the complex lives of some of its central figures.”-Christian Century 

“Historian Kittelstrom brilliantly presents the historic relationship between Christianity and social progress in American history” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Kittelstrom’s history stands out for its deeply textured treatment of each of these profoundly important thinkers, permitting appreciation of the influences that brought them to an enlightened view of faith and its sociopolitical implications. This timely, important work by an excellent scholar is part of the Penguin History of American Life series.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Kittelstrom explores the private and intellectual lives of each individual and provides new insights into the cultural history of liberalism… Readers will appreciate the skillful weaving of primary sources into a compelling chronicle of an idea told through individual experiences.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Historian Kittelstrom examines the lives and the writings of seven prominent American liberals and suggests that today’s pluralistic political liberalism is a direct descendant of the religious liberalism that emerged in, and transformed, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries… The result is a lively and erudite reminder of pluralism’s deep roots in American soil, and religion’s role in putting them there.”—Booklist

The Religion of Democracy is a stunning history of the opening of the American mind. Through a shrewd study of seven subtle thinkers, Kittelstrom explores the place of belief, faith, and virtue in the intellectual traditions that lie behind American liberalism. A fascinating, important, and resonant book.”—Jill Lepore, author of Book of Ages and The Secret History of Wonder Woman

“Amy Kittelstrom here pours new life into intellectual history for scholars and concerned citizens, whether they are religious or not. She traces the commitments of present-day civic liberalism—free inquiry, cultural pluralism, public education, and compassion for the disadvantaged—not to the rise of secularism but to the Christian theological liberalism of New England at the time of the American Revolution. She finds these origins in what she terms, appropriately, an American Reformation.”—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

“Turning the pages of this remarkable book, I found myself moved not only by its intellectual range and the lucidity of Kittelstrom’s prose but also by its central theme, the emergence in nineteenth-century America of an ethical commitment to democracy’s highest moral and practical possibilities—in effect, a ‘religion of democracy.’ An illuminating story, for our times as well as for what it tells us about the past.”—David D. Hall, Harvard University; author of A Reforming People

Author Q&A


One July in the 1890s, when William James had become as famous for his defense of religious faith as for his groundbreaking psychology, he trekked with a group of young philosophers and social activists to a camp in the Adirondacks. The moon was high that night and James, always prone to insomnia, found himself in “a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description,” as he wrote home to his wife. Thoughts of his family, hiking companions, and work “all fermented within me,” he told her, “till it became a regular Walpurgisnacht. I spent a good deal of it in the woods, where the streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life.” James beheld a profound truth full of “utter americanism, and every sort of patriotic suggestiveness.”

The dawn after this epiphany in the woods, the group embarked on an ambitious hike leading first up the Adirondacks’ highest peak, Mount Marcy, and then up and down several smaller mountains for a day that would total more than ten hours of straight exertion. James had hired a guide, whom he chivalrously directed to carry some of the possessions of his female hiking companions, who were half his age and far more robust than he. James arrived at the lodge that night with the first symptoms of the heart ailment that later killed him. But he remained devoted to those hiking companions, particularly the progressive reformer Pauline Goldmark, to whom James sent his essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which attempted to pry apart culture and nature from inner divinity so that the particularity of human individuals could stand out as vividly as their varieties of religious experience.

The more diverse viewpoints on reality are respected and taken into consideration, James argued, and the more all individuals are seen as fellow strivers after the divine, then the more social progress is possible because the more reality is comprehended. In a crude but path-breaking way, James attempted to teach his fellow Anglo-Protestant members of the American educated elite to view laborers, women, African Americans, 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.” James developed this pluralism over his career without ever feeling he had mastered it. He called it “the religion of democracy.” It was the principal thing of which the “Americanism” James had felt in the woods consisted.

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