Interviews Thinking in Public

An American Reformation? A Conversation with Professor Amy Kittelstrom about the Religion of Democracy


MOHLER: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Amy Kittelstrom is associate professor of history at Sonoma State University.  Her specialization is nineteenth-century American thinkers and their socio-political context.  She has served in the past as fellow of the Center for Religion and American Life at Yale, the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, and the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton.  Her newest book: The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition.  I’m glad to welcome Professor Amy Kittelstrom today to Thinking in Public.

Professor Kittelstrom, every book has a story, and this particular book has to have an interesting story behind it.  How did you come to do this research and to produce this particular volume?

KITTELSTROM: Well, it’s a long story because it took a long time to get all the way to this book.  And it started with a question that I thought was relatively modest, because I was reading William James, the philosopher, whose book The Varieties of Religious Experience, a lot of people continue to read, both within religious contexts without them.  And so I was reading William James and wondering just what kind of religion he was talking about.  He was so clearly engaged with the question of how a person could hold religious beliefs sincerely and also sincerely respect other people who held different beliefs.  So this is a question of pluralism and it was something that I hadn’t seen earlier in American history but I certainly saw later, not just in American history but beyond.  So I started by asking where did his ideas about religion come from—given that he himself was not a professing Christian, and at the same time, he obviously sincerely respected the various Christian traditions.  And so, I just started by going through his writings, his library, his correspondence. I read all of his marginalia and all of those kinds of things, and reconstructed the community in which he operated—the other people who had similar kinds of questions and so on.  And then I thought as I was transforming it into a book just to add a chapter from before his life.  So he was born in 1842 and that antebellum generation of transcendentalist Christians and post-Christians seemed really clearly to be involved in creating this way of thinking about religion that had something to do with democracy and had something to do with pluralism.  And in the course of reading those works from before the Civil War, the bottom dropped out and I found a kind of Christian version of pragmatism.  So pragmatism: the name of James’ philosophy.  I found a Christian pragmatism way back in the eighteenth century.  So I had to go all the way back there.

MOHLER: Very interesting.  Well just in terms of tracing the history of ideas, your book is very, very interesting.  But it also makes an argument, and the argument shows up right on the cover of your book entitled, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition.  You are really talking about a new religion, in a very real sense, that was brought about in the era of your concern with these seven individuals you discuss and consider in the book.  And you are defining what they really represented as a project as a religion of democracy.

KITTELSTROM: Yes.  That term I took from William James, and he shared it with some other people in the late nineteenth-century.  People in the 1700s and early 1800s weren’t using that.  And one of the things that was so dramatic for me in the discovery of all this was that this way of thinking about faith, God, the religious duties, and so on preceded the birth of American democracy and was specifically a Christian way of thinking, and then informed the creation of the Republic through John Adams and others, and then continued on.  I agree that it’s a new approached religion, it’s a very specifically Protestant way of thinking about faith, and at the same time I think it’s something that became compatible with holding a specific kind of creedal commitment, that it could actually accompany something more specific than this pluralistic approach that I describe.

MOHLER: Well as an evangelical reader of your book, I found it truly fascinating.  For one thing, I’ve always been tremendously interested in William James, and I would identify James as probably the most important original thinker in American history, actually.

KITTELSTROM: I agree with you.

MOHLER: You do.  I think just about anyone from either a position of appreciation of James or even a respectful critique of James has to understand that everything that comes after him has to make some reference to him—even right down to the issue of truth.  And yet you’re looking at the fact that James did not emerge ex nihilo, we might say, out of nothing.  He was coming out of an intellectual context that you track very interestingly, going back to the Revolutionary Era.  But why start with John Adams?  Why not start with Thomas Jefferson, or with Hale, or one of the more perhaps less traditionally Christian figures than John Adams?  Why start with John Adams?

KITTELSTROM: Well, in fact, exactly because his Christianity is vital, I think, to understanding him and to understanding the separation between church and state that is bound in to the nation.  So first, I’m really glad that you like James as I do and that you consider him that way.  I just meant to tug on that string, but it turned out to be so central to the course of American history that I got a lot more with it than just James.

So why not Thomas Jefferson?  I try to deal with that a little bit in the introduction because Jefferson had some, you know, we use this term “Deism,” which isn’t quite appropriate in some ways, because there was no Deist church.  Nobody said, “I’m a Deist.”  But with Jefferson, he wasn’t confessional.  He wasn’t faithful to a particular religious tradition, and he took it upon himself to cut up the Bible and paste it back together with the bits he liked, right? So he’s so far from orthodoxy in some ways.  While he’s completely worth studying—and by all means I’d love to find out what somebody else could make of him in light of the tradition I recover—he wasn’t part of the conversation.  So for me, I use these seven figures really as interlocutors, as people who help readers connect to other people who were speaking, and working, and writing in the past.

MOHLER: Well I have one more theory to suggest to you, and just reading your book, and that is that he didn’t live in Boston, at least in terms of the early part of your book.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, yeah, no that’s exactly right.  And that’s actually kind of where I was trying to go with this thing about the conversation, because the conversation absolutely starts in Boston and right around Boston.  And it develops and it spreads in print and westward migration, and all these things are involved.  But Jefferson was a Virginian, and his mental lights were very European.  Where what I’m talking about, the home grown tradition, John Adams was a farm boy, who ended up teaching at a village school out in Worcester, Mass., and there he spent his time reading sermons, copying them in his diary, going to different churches, thinking about what the minister said, and coming up with his own way of thinking about religion.  And that to me is so vital that his independent mindedness that becomes an independent mind that is crucial for the American Revolution and democracy starts with his inner conviction, “These are the beliefs that I have.  And I’m not going to impose them on others, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have them either.”  And so that is the kind of pluralistic motion of owning your convictions and recognizing, as Adams did, that you don’t actually know the mind of God.  So Adams had this humility in his youth that doesn’t come across when he’s a statesman, where he’s praying to the Master of the universe and acknowledging that he doesn’t understand all the stars and the nebulae—he’ll leave them to God.  But in the meantime, he’s going to work on his human relations and his morality, his conduct within the spheres that he can see and understand.

MOHLER: You know that seems to be an issue rather common in this Revolutionary Era, and perhaps something that would link a more deistic Jefferson.  And by the way, I am, as you are, very familiar with contemporary debates like Matthew Stewart’s work suggesting that they aren’t Deists in the sense of belonging to a Deist church.  I would simply say theologically, they fit the definition of a Deist


MOHLER: Their belief system is very consistent with anything rightly defined as Deist.

But when you look at John Adams, and for that matter you’re looking at Washington, less philosophical in this sense than Adams, it is interesting how they’re concerned with the moral universe, and they’re considered with moral agency at the very heart of their concerns.  Their concerns seem to be far less cosmological than moral.

KITTELSTROM: That’s right, that’s right.  And so moral agency is a key term of my book that I got from those theologians of the 1700s who talked about it a lot.  And it’s not just a mere kind of virtue where we try to obey the Ten Commandments and things like that; it’s more ambitious than that because it is about using the free will that they believed God has given all His creatures—using that free will as God would want you to use it.  So the agency is about that exercise of choice, and the moral part is about doing it in this way that would be as God wanted it.  And that involves a conception of God that is He’s impartial, He does not discriminate among His creatures.  And so to me it’s a real lynchpin of the pluralism that I find later.

MOHLER: You know, as a theologian reading your book, that term “moral agency” is right very central to that theological vocabulary.  What’s really interesting, and I don’t know if you’d considered this or not, but someone like John Witherspoon—you make a reference to him in the book—represents a theological tradition that would use the phrase “moral agency” as a way of not talking about free will.  In other words, shifting the discussion about the will to the issue of agency, saying that the human beings made in the image of God operate with true agency—that is make real choices for which they are really responsible in a very real moral universe.  And so when you’re thinking about, for instance, the more Calvinistic strain that’s in the background to your book, someone like Witherspoon would affirm moral agency, but wouldn’t want to express it in terms of the absolute freedom of the will.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, and I think that’s great.  And Witherspoon, he’s just a little part of my story, but you’ve already given a sense of how involved he and other Scottish thinkers might have been involved.  It’s a much bigger thing.  But I think you put that exactly right, and then the contrast there with a Jonathan Edwards, who gives you just enough free will to hang yourself on.  You just get enough free will to need to rely exclusively on God.  And so with Witherspoon, with the people I call liberals from this earlier period, moral agency is a real responsibility.  And it links, then, it has this political implication because you have a right to exercise your agency and a duty to do so—you know, a duty to grow toward likeness to God.  And so then that becomes the foundation for arguments against slavery, right?

MOHLER: Oh absolutely.  My own theological convictions and tradition would be very close to those of Jonathan Edwards.  But Edwards really wasn’t operating in the same period in the same way, in that, when you’re looking at John Adams, or for that matter, even a John Witherspoon, you are looking at people who are trying to figure out how moral order can be maintained in some kind of democratic experiment.  If you remove the traditional hierarchies, including anything like a state church or some kind of theocratic structure in terms of control of the community, the question is, “How do you have a moral people?”  And so I would draw a line, actually, from Jonathan Edwards to John Adams in that concern.

KITTELSTROM: Oh yeah.  And every time I open my mouth about Jonathan Edwards I’m reminded of what a complex figure he was and such a sophisticated intellect.  And my representation is crude.  I can’t faithfully represent the work of Jonathan Edwards.  But I will slip in that I first read Jonathan Edwards in William James’ library, and James also really grappled with the sophistication of Edwards’ theology.  So just to acknowledge that.

But what you say about the maintenance of moral order and democracy is another really complex, meddlesome, set of questions; and it’s something I try to engage with in part because I think some historians have treated the landscape of the early nineteenth-century, getting into the Antebellum Period, in an overly simplistic way.  So that the Federalists who become Whigs, who are this kind of Christian that I’m talking about, vaguely, they used the words “conservative,” they say they’re about social control, and so on.  And I have evidence to back that up, because William Ellery Channing said he would no sooner want to see most people voting than his ten-year-old.  So that’s elitist and condescending, and all of those kinds of things.  So that’s part of it.  But there’s another part of it that I think is important, which is about the answer to that problem of: “How do you have moral order in a democracy, being from this side—the Federalist Whig liberal protestant side—to empower each individual more through education so that they are capable of exercising their moral agency rather than being subject to the will of, for example in aero-industrial capitalism their bosses,” right? And so the established church goes out, the public schools come in and questions of the practical effects, the mechanics of it—that’s important but kind of to the side. The idea behind it is, each student—even girls, even laborers, even the children of immigrants—all of them should have access to that same really radiant, divine potential of unlocking their inner reason and conscience and letting those be what guides their behavior rather than passion and weakness.

MOHLER: But moral behavior was right at the center of it, whether it’s Horace Mann or John Dooey.  And you make reference to both, and especially I knew you had to get to Dooey because of your conception of the religion of democracy and his common faith.  That’s basically what he explicitly called for as a replacement of Christianity as the guiding ethos of the country.  But those proponents of the common school that became the public school, they were looking for an answer to the question, and that’s “How are you going to create a moral people out of the teaming masses of the Americans?”

KITTELSTROM: That’s right

MOHLER:  So you could draw a direct line from your seven individuals to the public schools as a moral experiment.

KITTELSTROM: That’s right.  And as a question, right? So how do you do it?  The philosophy behind it is one thing, but then the politics of implementation are quite different.  And so you’re absolutely right that I thought about Dooey and where he differs—I mean, he’s sort of a variety, maybe, a variety of this religion democracy and expression of it.  But he differs from his good friend and colleague Jane Adams, who gets a lot more attention in my book because, exactly like you said, Dooey says, “Let’s have this common faith and replace things” that he judged as superstitious or whatever. And she’s saying, “No have your faith, have whatever it is, but let’s see if we can agree on common needs.”

MOHLER: In terms of the seven individuals, we’ve talked about John Adams, but there are six others.  How did you come to these six?  And I want to tell you just in terms of reading your book, I met two people that I really had never met before in your book.  How did you come to the other six after Johns Adams?

KITTELSTROM: I started with William James and then, like I said, I worked though his sources and I was really interested in tracing the lived intellectual connections. So rather than on my own imposing some kind of structure on the past, I wanted to work through the past to find the way it looked on the ground. So through James, Thomas Davidson, who must be one of the people new to you, was one of the people he corresponded with the most and liked the most and spent the most time with .

MOHLER: And was his brother-in-law?

KITTELSTROM: Well, the next one, William Mackintire Salter, was his brother-in-law.  And so those two emerged as people being really important to William James, who the historical record hasn’t kept alive.  And so first of all, they deserve a voice in our past not just because they were important to James, but because of what they were doing in their moment.  But then they’re overlapping with James, and it’s the overlaps that I’m so interested in.  Jane Adams similar because she knew those people and she corresponded with James who admired her work very much, so she has a natural tie in.

And then when I was going backwards, I went backwards into the Antebellum Era and found William Ellery Channing, the minster who’s often called “The Father of Unitarianism.
Of course, he called himself a Christian first and foremost, and his writings continued to be read and cited later, so I ultimately did find references to Channing in William’s James’ record and his correspondence with his wife, and so on. So that was organic.  And then Mary Moody Emerson, the aunt of the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson, came in in a similarly organic way because of her ties to Channing, not just her nephew but lots of transcendentalists and her moment and especially because she illustrates so well how you can be a liberal on the one hand—meaning open-ended, progress oriented, and trying to respect other people’s different beliefs—and be such a sincere ardent practicing Christian—you know that she prays in her diary to God and she prays to conform to his will.  So there’s no question about her piety, and that helped me work against the story that there’s a falling away of piety that’s inevitable if there’s a loss of particular kinds of articles of faith.  Instead it was actually the article of faith to be open-minded.  And so it was working through the sources and finding where the biggest density of references were that helped me find these people who then give me windows onto their periods.

MOHLER: One of the things we must always keep in mind is that ideas do not merely exist in the atmosphere, they exist in people—people who have thought of these ideas, who have written about these ideas, conversed about these ideas.  And as we come to consider the ideas, we have to consider the people behind these ideas. And that’s exactly why I found this book so interesting.

Indeed the two people I really didn’t know before reading your book at all were Thomas Davidson and Mary Mood Emerson. But raising Emerson in particular leads me to go back and ask you a couple of definitional issues here, because at several points in your book you use the phrase “Reformation Christianity.”  And when you use that phrase, what do you mean by those two words put together?

KITTELSTROM: Thank you for asking that.  I thought about it a lot.  So first of all, I could have just said Protestantism; I could call Reformation Christians Protestants and it would work fine.  And I’m not trying to say people shouldn’t say the word Protestant or something like that.  But by saying Reformation Christian as a kind of person I am really trying to put the arrow back to the Protestant Reformation that happened in Europe in the 16th century and identify the Protestants in light of that reformation—whose principles continue to be worked out over time, and of course today continue to be contested and worked out—and really to underline the fact that it’s an argument and the conversation and discussion and a matter of contest.  Because there’s a story that’s very common in American culture and American history, which is that there is such a thing as an orthodox Protestant face in American history and there really wasn’t.  There was no one orthodoxy that Americans ever agreed on in the colonial era or beyond.  Instead you have Reformation Christians with strong convictions and a great intimacy with the Bible arguing with each other all the time over sometimes very small points, other times much bigger points.  And their sense of responsibility for articulating their own faith I think is really characteristic of the Reformation in a way that I think deserves highlighting.  So I use in my introduction I think that famous line from Martin Luther: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”  This is his Christian conscience forcing him to do something that required great courage. And even though the story of the Protestant Reformation is bigger than Martin Luther, and I can’t retell or rework the European Reformation in this book, the American story is, in light of that, connected to it.  It isn’t only a product of it but is actually part of the process of the ongoing working out of the varieties of American Christianity in the world today.

MOHLER: Yeah, you know as an evangelical responding to that let me just try this. I would have to define Reformation Christianity in terms with the creedal and confessional content of that Reformation Christianity. But when you use the phrase, I did understand what you were doing. The psychologist Erik Erikson, you made know, point to Luther, and is a secular interpretation, and to that moment at the Diet of Worms “Here I stand,” where he spoke of conscience, “I cannot violate conscience.”  And Erickson said there is the beginning of modern individualism, and certainly in that sense.  And let me just put in bluntly, none of these figures treated in your book have come out of a Catholic worldview or tradition.  They’ve all come out of historic Protestantism, Congregationalism, or the like.  So I understand the sense in which you’re saying that, but I also understand your argument to be that there is a religion of democracy that has a genuine piety and a massive concern for moral integrity, and for the exercise of moral agency as an individual and for the inculcation of that and others as a society. But what would one have to disbelieve, in terms of orthodox Christianity, in order no longer to be Protestant or perhaps to even achieve—I think the word you resist—secular in this, because you do refer to many of these figures and to the conversation partners they had as “post-Christian”.  So in other words, you’re saying one can be a Reformation Christian but be post-Christian because as I’m reading it, in the same chapter when you say Reformation Christian you mean someone out of that trajectory of thought who may now no longer hold to any orthodox Christianity as creedally and confessionally defined, but none the less is still holding to a sense of moral agency that came right out of that tradition.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, yeah. Well I think your understanding is excellent and your question is too.  And I’ll have to kind of speculate my way into it.  So first of all, you are right that I am separating specific creedal claims—the catechism or confession of any kind of Christianity—I’m separating that from this idea of the liberty of conscience because even though they obviously they coexisted and were both part of not just Martin Luther’s ideas but lots of theologians of the early Reformation period, and beyond.  I’m not actually trying to argue with those points, and even though I’m turning the light down on them, that doesn’t mean I’m trying to push them off the stage.  It’s just that separating them from this idea of liberty of conscience is necessary for understanding this wider history and trajectory.  So by no means do I mean to deny those points or even really to engage with them.  This line you gave me from Erikson is wonderful, and I hadn’t known it.  But that’s exactly the tweak that I’m trying to make.  So modern individualism is taken in a way that’s compatible with liberal capitalism, and competing against your neighbor instead of helping them in community, and so on. And for me, what moral agency does is it increases the idea of individuality not individualism.  And so each individual is a unique snowflake created by God.  So this idea you have to unfold your own nature and together you all make up this great mosaic of infinitely, varied creatures.  So then what happens with this transition, it’s not from Reformation Christian to post-Christian, it’s some people who are in the Reformation Christian tradition go post-Christian, other stay Christian.  Others start talking to Jews who become part of this tradition without ever having gone through a Christian faith like this.

What would one have to disbelieve in order to embrace the religion democracy? Okay, so I think it depends on the person.  This gets back to William James and the idea of mental temperaments.  Some people are like this, some people are like that.  So for the people who went post-Christian, they had to give up the idea of the singular divinity of Christ.  This is why they’re no longer Christian, because for them Christ is not, then, the only voice of the Divine for the modern world, but that if the Divine is found in all of God’s creatures then you, can read Hindu texts, Persian texts, and non-Christian texts and actually have your spiritual life grow through them.  For somebody with a specifically Christian orientation, the Bible remains the Word of God alone, right? And Christ, a particular figure in that tradition.  And so then some people will have argument.  So, to some people Unitarians are not Christian automatically because they don’t have a conception of the Trinity.  For the early Unitarians, they were absolutely Christians and their reworking of that aspect of theology was in line with their interpretation of the Bible.  So, once it goes actually past 1830’s, it gets so dispersed into different religious communities.  And I try to suggest—I think it’s true, but I would really need to study it more myself—that it comes back into Trinitarian Christianity insofar as a Presbyterian or whatever congregation thinks of their work as worldly as well as other worldly, insofar as they’re looking at the practical effects of their beliefs.  To that extent, they have some of this American Reformation tradition in their practice also.

MOHLER: Sure.  You know the use of the word “liberal” itself is also interesting.  It’s in the title of your book, Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition, and so I’m going to acknowledge that I’m shifting the term somewhat here in terms of its usage when I speak about modern Liberal Protestantism. And yet, I would want to draw connection between the kind of concerns that these seven liberal figures of your book had in their own times, and I would suggest that you can draw at least some very clear lines of connection to Liberal Protestantism today.  Especially when, for instance, on page 164 of the book, you talk about how the liberalism that was represented during the era of your concern, how it was marked by an abandonment of the inerrancy of Scripture.  And beyond not only the inerrancy of Scripture, but the singularity of Scripture towards other religious authorities, the exclusivity of Christianity being denied.  They really became untethered from that, but they still wanted to maintain a very clear concern of moral agency, moral responsibility for the individual and for the community.  I think in many ways, that’s the quandary of Liberal Protestantism today.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah.  I think that’s fair.  And I’ve spoken at a couple of different Liberal Protestant churches as part of the publicity around the book, and so it helps me learn more about that landscape.  So why I think maybe the word “Presbyterian” came into my mind was because I spoke at a Presbyterian church in Oakland, California—welcoming, open, affirming, dedicated to the radical provision of God’s inclusive love.  So they already had those kinds of words and that kind of branding to their theology before I wrote my book.  I didn’t cause that to happen, but it really looks to me like, “Wow, I really think this is an outgrowth of that same history.”  I think it gets so complicated over the twentieth-century for several reasons.  One of which—this is speculative in that I haven’t done the research—but I really do think that the rise of a culture of conception and with it in the twentieth-century of the therapeutic ethos and this kind of inward developmental work, I think it really complicates what happened for Liberal Protestants.  The Cold War complicates it.  And I know you had on your program a while back David Hollinger, a historian who’s done a lot of work on what he calls the “Ecumenical Protestants,” but I think we’re talking about the same people when you say modern Liberal Protestants, who then took really specific positions on social issues, major social issues: civil rights for African-Americans, ultimately for gay-Americans and so on.  That happened in light of this kind of commitment, this sort of social engagement.  And then, again I think it’s up to each congregation, each practitioner, each theologian, minister to work out, then, what is their relationship to the Bible, how are they using the Bible, how do they think of being a Christian.  I have a friend who’s a Presbyterian minister, for whom composting is part of her Christian commitment.  And so, it’s fluid and dynamic and always dependent on so many factors that I think surround any community and any individual.

MOHLER: And interestingly enough, I would put as the bridge between your book and this more contemporary Liberal Protestantism, and more importantly, the therapeutic revolution you mention, I would put as the crucial figure here none other than William James, because he really is indispensable to understanding how this modern therapeutic worldview comes to be.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, I think that’s true.  I think that’s true.  And some of the stuff that didn’t get into the book are some of the things I like best about William James, who suffered from what they called neurasthenia at the time.  I don’t know what we would call it today, but he felt bad a lot.  And so he tried lots of different things to make himself feel better, like, for example, hooking himself up to a galvanic battery and giving himself, like, you know, little shocks of electricity.  He gave himself injections from the lymph nodes of a bull to increase his energy.  All these kinds of things that look outlandish in one way and at the same time so modern, so connected, to this really distinctively, I think, American consumerist quest for the highest possible state of being.  And it’s so interesting for me to contrast that with John Adams, who got up in the morning, drank a glass of milk, and rode his horse all day because he had to get some place.  People in the past looked tougher than people who have gone through this kind of therapeutic turn.

MOHLER: You know speaking of James and of your book, one of the delights of reading a book such as your newest work is that you have personal anecdotes and information that I can just tell you enjoyed mining out of these lives and your research that you found a way to put in the book.  And that’s the delight of a book like this.  And so, I’ll just tell you, I will take for years the communication from William James, was it to his niece, of how he wrote his books, you know, of taking quotations from other books and putting them together, he said it’s basically easier to right a book.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, yeah that’s right.  I think it was to his daughter.

MOHLER: To his daughter, okay yeah.  It’s just an amazing statement coming from someone who was one of the most formative minds and most famous authors, the giver of the Gifford Lectures in Scotland, and he explains that he wrote his books by taking quotations out of other books and putting them all together.

KITTELSTROM: That’s right, that’s right.  And this is why James continues to charm.  That on the one hand he was imminent and he knew it, and he knew it from before he had ever published a word.  He knew that there were great things in store.  And after he married, he became much more productive.  And so as soon as he married, he and his wife started keeping what would be called “the family archives,” because he knew that his papers were going to be important.  And I’m so glad he saved them, because I’ve read them now.  And on the one hand, being so exalted and important, and at the same time, accessible, down to earth, and able to break down the process of writing books in that charming way.  And so for me, because I started with William James and I had so much other work to do in order to write the book, I had to leave James to the side for a long time while I was writing.  And when I finally got to my James chapter, it was such a relief for me to be returned to somebody that I feel quite intimate with, in some ways.

And what you mentioned earlier about, on the one hand, you called him the most important, original thinker in American history, which I think is accurate, and at the same time he would not have been able to articulate, or even think about, the things that the things that he contributed without coming from this cultural background that’s so specific, and in some ways even provincial, because it’s just this one corner of the country where people thought a lot about religion and also came up with ideas about democracy, and especially about this relationship between the individual and society.  And so I think that’s part of why he continues to have such traction as time goes by, because he was able to get a finer read on those questions than anyone around him.  And so when his Varieties of Religious Experience was published, some of the letters he got from readers were so grateful because they said he had actually written what they have been thinking about for so long, but he’d actually done it.  And so on the one hand, of course he’s an original thinker, and then the other he was completely dependent on those around him.

MOHLER: Well I thought was so charming about that anecdote is because it’s revealing but it’s not entirely true. I mean, having read James’ works, he did not merely take quotations, mother books, and put them all together.  But he was explaining that to a daughter I think you said was about ten-years-old.  And in a very charming way, even in the language that he used, just tried to explain to her what he was doing.

But I think the most important thing about William James in many ways is his foundational influence in terms of American pragmatism and the redefinition of truth, in which, as he believed, truth happens to an idea, it’s not inherent objectively or ontologically in a proposition or in a reality.  Rather, you had the therapeutic revolution that came because before that, he had already shifted the locus of truth—to use the philosophical term, epistemological authority—was already in the self.  And one of the things that became clear to me in the way you wrote your book with James coming in chapter four is that he wasn’t the first to think that in terms of this American intellectual conversation.  And for that reason, I go back to the book and I think of Mary Moody Emerson and I realize that even before Ralph Waldo Emerson, such another important figure in American intellectual life, he had an aunt that was already thinking many of these thoughts and already talking about them to a young, preadolescent Ralph Waldo Emerson.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah, that’s right.  And the line that’s coming to me now that’s in the book from Mary Moody Emerson is when she’s reading David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who really destabilized a lot of the ideas about truth for the eighteenth-century, and such a powerful mind and influenced so many people and so on David Hume.  She reads David Hume and she writes a note to her nephew, the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she says, “What did he know or prove to vanquish my universals?”  So her conviction of God cannot be shaken by any philosopher from overseas.  It’s something she knows; it’s part of her.  And it links to in pragmatism this notion of experience.  So like you said, the truth happens to an idea.  It’s the playing out of these things; it’s their effect.  It’s their manifestation in life that actually, not just illustrates their meaning, but is their meaning.  And so no idea in the abstract really has any truth value until it’s been able to be implemented and practiced.

MOHLER: And that’s had massive influence throughout American history.  By the way, when you mentioned that statement from Mary Moody Emerson, you can draw a direct line to 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson, his famous The American Scholar Address for Phi Beta Kappa, in which he calls for American philosophers to stand on their own two feet over-against European influences and European authorities.  And evidently, he had already heard that from his aunt.

KITTELSTROM: That’s exactly right.  And there’s a biographer of Mary Moody Emerson who has done some good work on tracing the influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson of Mary Moody Emerson.  I mean, he borrowed her diaries and pulled passages out of them and put them into his work.  And she knew that, and she did not approve of the direction he took her kinds of ideas.  And one thing that does is illustrate for us how hard it was to be a woman.  An intellectual woman in the early Republic didn’t have a place to develop her work, so it took a man to bring it from the private sphere into the public sphere.  So that’s one thing about it.  But it’s also that Emerson was playing out implications of some of these liberal ideas, and was able to be not only a voice for the church as he was in the early part of his life, but this public intellectual.

MOHLER: Well and of course he not only scandalized his aunt, he scandalized Boston in terms of his Divinity Address and also, in some ways, The American Scholar Address, and others.  I want to ask a question about how you begin the book, because any book like this that begins with the kind of assertions you make in your introduction, you’re answering somebody.  You’re seeking to correct an impression.  I’m not necessarily looking for names, but what is the argument you’re seeking to counter with the very forceful argument of your book?

KITTELSTROM: Well I referred to it a little bit earlier when I was talking about this idea that there was some orthodox Protestant faith from which people fell away and that has survived it in all sorts of ways too.  When I started my project and was looking at James, and I was starting to read all of the existing scholarship on the late nineteenth-century and so on, it looked like there was either religion, which was specifically Protestant Christian religion, or some other very specific creedal orientation, or there was non-religion.  And that’s it for American history.  But instead I was finding all this stuff that was clearly religious according to people who were writing it and didn’t fit into that story about American history.  And then on-and-on I just kept on coming up against this, and especially this idea of decline.  And then it links to so many other things that are really important, like the idea that this is a Christian nation, it always was, because those specific creedal commitments, through this kind of narrative, get a kind of legitimacy and authority against which all other things are measured.  And I just find the past much more diverse than that.  I find the arguments more central in some ways than the agreements, because the agreements don’t seem to last for very long.  Allegiances shift and everything like that.  That said, I did rewrite the introduction about fourteen times.

MOHLER: I understand that as well.  Well I would have read your book simply because of the title, because I would have been captivated by the idea, even the question, “Who were the seven individuals that this author would have chosen for this book?”  But let me just offer respectively kind of a counter narrative for a moment of what you’re talking about there, because, and you may be surprised in this, but as an evangelical, I actually agree with you in a way that may surprise you, and I think may surprise people listening to the conversation.  I think it is always wrong to try, and I have the exact equal and opposite concern you may have in this, I think it’s always wrong to try to identify people and assuming that they were affirming orthodox Christianity when they were not.  And so, for instance, when I see someone try to argue about all the American founders, that they were Christians in terms of a creedal or confessional identity, I just think too much of the creeds and confessions to allow that to go by without pointing out that there’s simply no way you can make a Thomas Jefferson, and in some ways even a John Adams, I would point out, in terms of at least some of his correspondence, you can look at that and say “that just doesn’t match confessional Protestantism.”  But they were operating out a worldview, and especially I think you actually make this point by using the term “Reformation Christian” over-and-over again, they were operating out of a worldview that only made sense in terms of moral meaning out of what they had inherited from the Christian tradition.  And I think you’re pretty clear about that actually from the Protestant tradition, or from the tradition of the Protestant Reformation.  So I think it’s always wrong when people say, “Look, all the Founders were Christians.”  That’s clearly not intellectually honest.  And I don’t even think it’s helpful theologically.  But at the same time, in terms of very fundamental issues, including the moral agency you’re talking about, they’re operating out of a basic set of Christian assumptions, or assumptions that only could have come from Protestant Christianity, even if they abandoned that faith in terms of its creedal commitments.  Does that sound fair to say?

KITTELSTROM: Mostly.  I like the way you put it, and I’m glad we’re in agreement.  It also means that you’re an honest reader, right?  If you’re reading Thomas Jefferson and saying, “You know, it just doesn’t work,” I think that’s honest and that’s accurate.  The one thing I just wonder about is, “Could it only come from a Protestant tradition in fact?”  So we don’t know because it’s a counter-factual, because we’re never going to be able to go back and replay American history without the Protestant Reformation behind it, right?  And so to me, what’s dramatic about this American Reformation that I claim happened and had such an important effect is the intense piety of New England, and yeah, specifically a Protestant piety of New England that transformed and produced this way of thinking that was fully inclusive and universal over time.  The fact is, it did happen in that way, but I wonder, because we have people who enter the story.

For a long time, by the way, I thought that my book was going to be mainly a third to a half about the reception of the religions of India in the United States.  And in fact when I started by reading William James and I noticed all of these resemblances between his very specific and pretty technical ideas about pragmatism and the meaning of truth, and so on, that you’ve already mentioned, I noticed his resemblance between his ideas and a certain strain of Buddhism.  And so I thought that I was going to excavate and find the secret origins of American pragmatism in the religions of India.  That’s not the story, though.  I couldn’t find it, because it didn’t happen like that.  But instead, there was a lot of correspondence and communication between Indians in India and these American liberals. And so the figure who just barely enters my narrative, Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the Brahmo Samaj Church of India, a monotheistic church, he was a Brahman, super educated and so on and actually encountered a Baptist minister in India, and in talking with him came up with his own way of thinking about Hinduism and later communicated with Unitarians who liked him quite a bit.  And then he traveled and he died unfortunately young.  But I wonder, and I would really like to know, what ideas in other national culture, can you say something cultural religious traditions or something like that, whatever practices are indigenous to different regions, are there changes like this that happen over time?  Because when you get all the way into the twentieth century, you find that enlightenments have happened.  It’s not just a European export, but it’s something that has occurred in lots of different places in uneven ways.  Communication happens.

MOHLER: But particularly here in the period you’re discussing, in the area that you’re discussing in the early part of the book—that is New England, and specifically Boston and its environs. I guess what I want to say is that that conversation only took place out of an inherited Christian tradition, even if it was no longer creedally and confessionally affirmed.  And again, I just really appreciate your book for your contribution to the history of ideas and for in every chapter, frankly, prompting some arguments that I think could lead to some new understandings. I just have to ask, this is a massive research project, and I know by the time a book like this has come out, you have already turned to some other things. So what’s next on your research agenda?

KITTELSTROM: Oh, well this one may surprise you, but my next book I want to write about the history of soccer.

MOHLER: You’re right, it surprises me.  I did not draw a line from seven liberals to soccer, but I’m sure there’s a tie.  And you probably are that tie as author.

KITTELSTROM: Yeah right, no that’s true.  There’s a passion here.  But it’s also that the formation of the international body governing soccer happened at the same time that Jane Adams was coming up with these ideas about peace that I talk about at the end, where when people from whatever different background and so on, they can keep their differences but agree on their common needs.  And that’s the thing that governments should provide.  This is her argument about we put this in the international sphere and ultimately to the United Nations.  Well in soccer it was the same kind of idea that people, whatever their differences and colors and all those things, could be united in this sport.  And so I’d like to look at how that worked on the ground, and especially among immigrant groups in the United States who had people playing.  And so I’ve just started researching and finding all these really interesting relationships between colonized peoples and imperial domination and then liberation through playing sports.

MOHLER: Now see, I didn’t think I was going to be interested, but I already am

KITTELSTROM: Oh yay, I’m so glad.

MOHLER:  So I will look forward to that book coming out. Professor Kittelstrom, thank you for this conversation for Thinking in Public.

KITTELSTROM: Thank you Dr. Mohler, I really enjoyed.

MOHLER: I really enjoyed my conversation with Amy Kittelstrom about her book, The Religion of Democracy.  One of my main interests in this book is the history of ideas.  And the contribution that she makes, indeed the argument that she makes about how these particular individuals representing not a continuous movement or conversation, but an ongoing conversation, shape not only the way others in their times thought, but the way we think today. Because one of the main points that Professor Kittelstrom is making in her book is that there often is the assumption that there is a direct dichotomy between orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity on the one hand, and an absolute, ardent secularism on the other.  As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting things about her book is how she demonstrates without actually arguing in these terms for something of a middle ground, intellectually speaking—a middle ground between orthodox, Biblical Christianity and between outright denial of Christianity, or the outright rejection of the supernatural.  One of the things we find very much a part of our current cultural landscape is the discussion of the increased numbers of Atheist and Agnostics in this country.  And yet, those numbers really haven’t increased all that much.  What is increasing is an interesting middle ground, now reflected in the response to surveys of “none,” as in “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation.  One of the insights from Professor Kittelstrom’s book is the fact that even though many of these people considered in her book had moved far beyond orthodox Christianity, they have not moved beyond a concern for moral agency.  As a matter of fact, moral agency is at the very center of their concern.  That’s why in my conversation with her I drew the connection between the era of her concern and those individuals in her book and contemporary, liberal Protestantism, which also has a very deep and abiding moral concern, but one that is also—at least to a considerable extant—post-Christian by its theological definition, certainly outside any binding authority of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God, or even the creeds and confessions of historic Protestantism.

There’s another part of her book that is just absolutely interesting, and that is her continuing use of the phrase “Reformation Christian”. I discussed this with her.  I found it perplexing, but also very interesting, because I think she’s really onto something when she takes these particular individuals and roots their mental mood in many ways to something that could only have come out of the Protestant Reformation.  Now that might be an overstatement in terms of the final moments of our conversation, because perhaps it’s not exactly right to say the intellectual world and the particular intellectual systems of the individuals that she considers in her book could only have come out of Protestant Christianity, but the reality is, they did come out of Protestant Christianity, and their worldviews can only be traced to that Protestant Christianity.

The central role of William James was another very important part of our conversation and a part of why I found this book by Amy Kittelstrom so interesting.  And that’s not so much because of appreciation for William James, but rather out of appreciation for his influence.  And one of the things that Christian readers need to keep in mind is that those are two separate issues.  We don’t necessarily have to appreciate someone’s thought in order to appreciate the importance of that thought.  And we can’t discuss contemporary America without discussing William James, without the pragmatism of which he was such a foundational thinker, without his understanding that as he said “truth happens to an idea.”  That is a major revolution in thought, and it’s one that comes out when we read the headlines of the day, or we’re involved in conversation with people.  When we use the word “truth” and we understand it’s coming from a completely different understanding of how truth is discerned or defined or understood.  But we also have to look to William James for that great shift to the interior, to interiority.  That shift that set the stage for that therapeutic revolution that explains our times, but can also be seen in someone like even Mary Moody Emerson in her own way, in which that interior life begins to take on an all new importance.

Finally, in terms of theological analysis, it’s very clear that all seven of the figures considered by Amy Kittelstrom in this book are outside the pail of what we would define as orthodox, Biblical, creedal, and confessional Christianity—certainly confessional Protestantism.  They were not all equidistant from orthodox Christianity; some of them were clearly post-Christian.  Some of them were even post-something like post-Christian.  They’d already moved into something like ethical culture as she discusses in her book.  But when you’re talking about figures like John Adams and Mary Moody Emerson, you’re talking about individuals who clearly understood they’re own worldview and intellectual commitments to be rooted in Christianity, and even in a form of Christian piety.  To put the matter bluntly, it’s a long way from Wittenberg in 1517 to America in 2015.  But one of the great contributions of this book, that is Amy Kittelstrom’s new book, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition, is that she helps us to understand how you get from that to the other; how you get from 1517 to 2015.  In the United States, we can’t get there without going through the period that she discusses, and without considering the individuals she so creatively describes.  As is so often the case, we may see these issues differently than the author, but because of this author, we see them more clearly.

Once again I’m indebted to Professor Amy Kittelstrom for joining me today for Thinking in Public.  For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to  For information on Boyce College, just go to  Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.