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The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals…

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

by Amy Kittelstrom

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Usually I like to briefly summarize a book before giving my opinion, but I find that very difficult with this one. As near as I can tell, the point is that "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." And from my studies I certainly agree it's an oversimplification to think "liberal" equates with "godlessness" and "conservative" means "religious," especially when we try to apply that to history. And Kittlestrom seeks to show this by selecting seven individuals, starting with John Adams, who embody a liberal viewpoint (at least for their individual times) towards religion. Basically, what this means is that they were fairly open-minded individuals, encouraging freedom of thought and opinion, even while holding strong religious beliefs themselves. At least that's what I *think* she's trying to say.

Honestly, I had eagerly looked forward to this book, but once begun, I find it quite boring, and the writing style makes it difficult to understand without a second or third pass. The chapter on John Adams spends more time talking about a few influential Boston-area preachers than it does about Adams. It is similar with Mary Moody Emerson, although the chapter on Channing seems to focus more on its subject. It also tends to belabor a point, such as that Adams had a surprisingly open mind for someone so opinionated. And I keep telling myself I *ought* to find all of this very interesting, but... it's not. It pains me to be so critical of the author's effort, but I'm 1/3rd of the way through it and am giving up - at least for the time being - for greener pastures. (I rec'd an advance copy from Amazon Vine.) ( )
  J.Green | Nov 22, 2016 |
I found this book about the history, evolution, and religious background of American liberal thought quite interesting--interesting enough that I kept bringing up things I read in conversation--but The Religion of Democracy is also very challenging. The reading was difficult enough that there was no sitting down and breezing through a chapter, and I regularly had to go over sentences two or three times to get their meaning. While I don’t think the material necessitated hard to parse writing, the insights the book offers made the extra effort well worth it. My copy of the book practically flutters, it has so many post-flags marking passages I wanted to be able to find again easily.

Each of the seven chapters focuses on one person, stretching in time from John Adams to Jane Addams and including William Channing, William James, and an aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson among the seven, but unlike traditional biographies their lives are used to illuminate the philosophical, political, and religious controversies of their day, in which they all played some kind of active roll. I found this construction very helpful, and having “characters” to trace the arc of liberal thought made the demanding material much more engaging. A “slow and steady” read for me, but being interested in American history, political philosophy, and trends in religious belief I enjoyed the book immensely. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Apr 16, 2015 |
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