The Kingdom of God and the American Dream; the Religious and Secular Ideals of American History [Book Review/Comments]

Eddy, Sherwood. The Kingdom of God and the American Dream; the Religious and Secular Ideals of American History. New York: Harper & Bros., 1941.

This book, published in 1941, offers great information about the relationship between democracy and religion from the beginnings of the American colonies up until the beginnings of what was to become World War II. He states that the American Dream, “from the founding of the first colonies and from the time of the Declaration of Independence, had religious sanctions. And the religious ideal had implications for a secular social order politically free, economically just, materially secure, and abundant.” So what are those implications and ideals today? He traces it through to his present day and offers an interpretation of Hitler and Fascism leading to his ideas that war is what needs to disappear in order to get back to a Christian state and for democracy ideals to flourish again. It would be interesting to see how he would trace this path from then until now.

Some of the issues that he spoke about have ebbed and flowed and are again issues in society today. Talking about an attack from Japan towards China he mentions the individualism in America and the problems it causes: “At its worst this individual selfishness in America also has been not a foundation of rock but of sand upon which any dream or ideal might fall when the floods came.” Early puritans called this “sin”. Today it is individualism and for many it is why many today call themselves spiritual rather than religious. The organization of the Puritans and the community it created from it are not the same for many Americans today. But what is the number? How much does it actually correlate? Is religion still important? How does it relate to democracy, politics, and education? What are the effects on war? Towards the end of the book, the author discusses the census breakdowns of the 30s of the religious sects found in America, but I am interested in taking that further to try and see the changes and how those changes effected certain times in our country.

Talking about colonial America, he talks about how religion, self-government and education were intertwined as an early foundation for the colonies. If these were early foundations and where our Declaration of Independence came from you would think these would still be important today, and yet, in many parts of the country they are not. Or, at the very least, it is a different type of religion and education has been a battle for a few decades now as we slip in world standings.

Jumping from colonial America to 18th century Enlightenment brings us to Newton and Descartes who were trying to use science to prove religion. This was before the dichotomy which exists today. Hatred/distrust of science came from misunderstanding and fear that God would disappear from men’s lives. For some churches it was also about fear of losing power, but that wasn’t the intention of science. Now they are on ends of the spectrum. Since science creates a need for more education and education is seen as a detriment to religion there could be a correlation here as well.

When describing the reasons for the American Revolution and its effects on religion Eddy writes, “The American Revolution like all wars tended to weaken the forces of religion but through it, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great inaugurals of Washington and Jefferson, the American Dream of democracy, liberty, and justice came to full birth.” So maybe this is the problem? Maybe wars are the correlation? The problem could then be that war changes the way we think about religion and then politics, education, and religion are affected instead of the other way around.

Eddy mentions the French Revolution in a few contexts – maybe worth looking into as a possible point of comparison in my dissertation in relationship to religion, politics, education, and war. Are we the only country with these types of “problems” or issues with losing religion to secularism and the negative effects some see on democracy? And why is it perceived as negative? Are American morals really falling as religion becomes more and more covert in our lives? This book ranks up there with Moral Freedom and Habits of the Heart in provoking questions for further research, which is great!

“Virtue Ethics: Natural and Christian” and “Democratic Citizenship and Public Ethics” [Two Commentaries]

Lawler, M. G., and T. A. Salzman. “Virtue Ethics: Natural and Christian.” Theological Studies 74, no. 2 (2013): 442-73. doi:10.1177/004056391307400209.

This article really did not tell me anything new. It gave some good examples, but it only reiterated material I’ve learned in courses throughout my Masters and the PhD program as well as from other readings for this exam. The source page could prove helpful as the authors draw on sources I’ve not read before.

The article does a good job of reviewing Aristotelian and Plutonian ethics and how they relate to Christianity through Aquinas’s work. They use the story of the Good Samaritan to explain virtue ethics and how maybe the Christian and the Jew, based on their own ethics were unable to stop for the stranger rather than them being bad followers of Christ. The authors admit that getting others to think this way would require a paradigm shift, similar to what Kuhn discusses in his book. From there it also gives a brief history of Martin Luther and other religious ethics’ arguments. Overall, for my purposes not the most helpful article since there is not much in the way of new information, but it does offer some recap.

Ventriss, Curtis. “Democratic Citizenship and Public Ethics.” Public Integrity 14, no. 3 (2012): 283-97. doi:10.2753/PIN1099-9922140305.

In this article, the author discusses how public duty is important to democracy as well as to ethics. One must feel a sense of ethic and public duty in order to further the democratic agenda. The author makes some good points, and some of the things he is worrying about seem to be happening today. The article was written in 2011, stating: “… to the ‘de-democratization of democracy”. That is, the diminution of citizenship, if left unabated, can facilitate the atomization of citizenship wherein citizens subordinate their public responsibilities into either rampant materialism or, more troubling, civic privatism.” In other words, citizens without citizenship turn to materialism and/or worse – they turn inwards and worry only about their private lives. The author sees a public ethic as going missing. I see (2 years after this was published) that the public ethic is all but gone. I say this because multiple reasons: the growing number of people moving to extremist religious views, the character attacking that is rampant in public campaigning, and the less than stellar voter turnouts happening around the country.

While, overall, I agree with many of Ventriss’ points, I am concerned that his evidence is lacking. I agree because it sounds reasonable to me, not because I believe the evidence is overwhelming in favor of his argument. He uses his own works too many times as sources for me to give proper credence to this article. If, after reading some of the other authors on his source page I still feel as I do, then I may revise this statement, but currently I am skeptical of his solutions because I do not feel as though they are backed up.

“What Is the Point of a Public Morality?” [Article Review/Comments]

Edyvane, Derek. “What Is the Point of a Public Morality?” Political Studies 60, no. 1 (2012): 147-62. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2011.00894.x.

In this article the author focuses on the need (as he sees it) for the “reassertion of moral value in public life…” We need this, according to the author to get back to the idea of a good society. The issue becomes what is the definition of good? He goes on to talk about negative politics which relies on fear and hope (political type). A few pages in the author writes, that the “point of public morality is ‘damage control’…”
whose aim is to offset human cruelty. He goes onto say that a “World without justice is a world in which conflicts are resolved by violence and life is nasty, brutish, and short.” This statement I tend to agree with on a personal note, but I know that my views are heavily influenced by where I have lived. My perspective is relative to the liberal environment I grew up in.

From here, the author goes on to describe Walzer’s ideas about politics and what happens when we move beyond hope and fear in politics. In this case we end up with what he calls aspirational activity and a politics of faith and one of skepticism. The rest of the article is used to explain why the author believes more is needed than Walzer’s approach. He offers a dualistic model of public morality which is interesting, but not wholly convincing. Overall, I believe that Walzer makes more sense for morality in society today. The individualism that people strive for affects their morality and their politics in a way that Walzer seems to understand. There are some great sources though that will useful for further research in the next phase.

“Theological Ethics, The Churches, And Global Politics.” [Article Comments]

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. “Theological Ethics, The Churches, And Global Politics.” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 377-99. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9795.2007.00312.x.

This article has a great reference section, which based on my dissertation topic will definitely be utilized. While the author delves into the works of others with great detail, the overall argument she is trying to make is lacking and unclear at times. The author does make some good analogies/comparisons from the past and uses them to illustrate the difficulty in applying religious ethics today. I would say that globalization has become a hindrance based on her conclusions regarding ethics and politics. The biggest problem seems to come from people’s multiple affiliations. While, I can see where the author is coming from I do not agree. Multiple affiliations does not necessarily make for less of an ethic. If anything it should create more of one since the individual will care about multiple groups of people and not simply themselves or their families which tends to be an issue with the US since we have become such an individualistic society today.

Cahill does make one remark that while I understand where she is going with it, I am not sure if I completely agree. I will have to think about it some more and do additional research: “… As such the church does not have a social ethics; the church is a social ethic…”[1] For some I believe this may be true, but since the social ethic is a construct of those who created a particular church the church would then have an ethic not be an ethic. Again, I can understand the author’s point, but I don’t think all sides of the argument were addressed.

Earlier I mentioned some great resources and that the author spends a lot of time explaining the works of others. These include, MacIntrye, Hauerwas, and Stout. MacIntyre and Stout are on my reading list and after her comments about the Hauerwas, I will have to research him when I am through with exams. Cahill writes that what they “have in common is that they disallow that every person or group within a political community has a stake in and responsibility for good government and civil society, and hence should be a full participants in the democratic process.”[2] I do not agree with this assessment of MacIntyre from what I have read of his, and as I am not familiar with Stout or Hauerwas I cannot comment on their ideas. Either way, this statement seems backwards to me. Wouldn’t any religious group want their people to be politically active, especially in today’s society, in order to be the forces for change in the world?

From here Cahill gives a brief history of black churches, but I am not 100 percent certain as to how it fits in with her thesis. The information could provide useful down the road in my research though. I think her point is that churches should use their influence to promote social change which would then suggest she disagrees with most of the authors she defines. It will be most useful as a stepping stone for more research.

[1] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Theological Ethics, The Churches, And Global Politics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 379, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9795.2007.00312.x.

[2] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Theological Ethics, The Churches, And Global Politics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 380, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9795.2007.00312.x.

The Ethics of Peace and War: From State Security to World Community [Review/Comments]

Atack, Iain. The Ethics of Peace and War: From State Security to World Community. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Beginning chapters on realism and communitarianism are disturbing in that their circular arguments can/could justify war for almost any reason if worded properly. Morality is not an issue because the state determines what morality is, which seems counterproductive. It is an interesting interpretation of realism taken to an extreme I have not read in any other works before. The idea that politics and power give credence to morality is why Atack states, “that nationalism, understood as the exclusive allegiance by the individual to a particular moral and political community, has become the ideology of the modern nation-state.” Morality becomes relative in this environment which does not seem like that is a good approach to morality in any society.
The opposite of realism is internationalism which promotes an idea of cooperation and security within the international community. He elaborates on the “democratic peace theorem” in this chapter. I believe this theorem is responsible for many of our wars and conflicts today. Too often this used (in my opinion) to justify creating democracies in another nations without their will/consent. The idea is that democracies are much less likely to go to war with other democracies. While this may be true, I believe it is why many Western nations push democracy on other countries that may not be ready for it now or may not want it all. This push though causes tensions which can turn into conflict – the Middle East?
“The rule of law” states that all are equal before the law – this sounds good in theory but it does not happen realistically in many places around the world. The rest of this chapter talks about the differences between internationalism (rationalist approach) and realism (positivist) approach. All of it sounds relativist to me and puts an emphasis on sovereignty and the individual, which I am beginning to think is the problem. There is a problem when we can all look through a different lens and see things differently but refuse to acknowledge that another way may be better. It is this individualistic approach that is creating a hands off attitude in some areas of ethics and morality.
What each appears to agree upon is that military force is necessary at times – how and when is the question. The realists do not think that international relations will bring about any genuine morality within the political community. Most of the notes for the remainder of this chapter bring it back to relativism and how maybe this is the area to delve into for my dissertation.
Throughout the book, I kept waiting for the author to complete his comparisons and integration of JWT into his looks at Cosmopolitanism. He never even mentioned jus post bellum, which made the book lacking for me. The third phase of JWT is just as important, and for my ethicist it is the most important phase of a war in that it can help prevent future violence. This does not mean that the book does not hold relevance for my dissertation, but that it is not a fully formed book, in my opinion.

A dozen or so more to go,
Sara

New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical [Book Review]

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

The book is a compilation of two lectures given in 1996 – she was the Hesburgh Lecturer on Ethics and Public Policy that year. The premise is that for years scholars were stating emphatically that nationalism would go by the wayside as rationalism took a step forward. It begins with a brief history of sovereignty and its intended purpose: “…sovereignty was intended to regulate not only relations between states but also, perhaps even more fundamentally, their internal conditions, characterized by lawlessness and violence. The establishment of the sovereign state as a supreme coercive authority was intended to alter these conditions.” In her opening pages she talks about the middle ground between realism and idealism – both views will get you only so far – the whole world is not a battle field, nor is it peaceful along every border.

Her aim is to bring ethics into public policy (political realm) in a way that makes them interact with one another. As I was reading Elshtain’s ideas about sovereignty and the negative aspects of nationalism it made me think to recent comments by Angela Merkel in regards to anti-multiculturalism. Both are warning that too much pride in individual ethnic groups leads to distrust, power-struggles, and war. Neither is saying that celebrating difference is bad just that for the sake of a nation (state) it can be. Elshtain says, “because power lies at the heart of the matter, any critical unpacking of sovereignty must reveal how power is understood within sovereign discourse…” This should lead to a better understanding of what is needed to understand how ethics can fit and relate to political policy which is then needed to understand and possibly change sovereignty.

Her idea of politics is one that “would also profoundly shift the focus of political loyalty and identity such that we would no longer be seen as civic beings mobilizable to certain ends and purposes but as citizens who are responsible to and for one another and for that they hold in common and for articulating and embodying their differences in ways that do not create enemies, in part because the presuppositions of an enemy is not the place from which one starts.” Her ideal would give more power to the people and what they want rather than a government forced to work within borders and boundaries – remembering that these borders were put into place because people wanted to feel safe and because people wanted power – private property is above all else about power and the ability to share (or not to share) said power.

This is hard for people to understand because humans need reference points – we need groups to belong to – but why do these groups have to be violent towards groups that are different. Elshtain and Merkel rail against diversity and multiculturalism, but the original thoughts behind multiculturalism were tolerance – the Muslim view of tolerance which is about peace and acceptance – not the Western view which is about putting up with. I believe that the Islamic world’s definition (or translation) of tolerance is aligned with both Merkel’s hopes for the future of Germany and what Elshtain appears to be working towards in this book.

Elshtain calls nationalism “the great political passion of our time.” This is surprising for many as most political scientists expected rationalism to be the new world view. She quotes Pope John XXIII and George Orwell in defending her position that nationalism does not rightly portray reality. But changing this mentality is hard because nationalism begins in children – they are indoctrinated before they even go to their first day of school. She gives an example using Lithuania and Poland on page 30-32 which is similar to reading about Angela Merkel (Germany) and Cameron (United Kingdom) speak about their new anti-multiculturalism agendas.

After she finishes reviewing what nationalism is and how it affects politics and people she dedicated another chapter to the idea of forgiveness. This is not the I forgive you for harming me though. This is a nation’s ability to forgive and focus on forgetting past atrocities in order to move forward. It is more about the ability to move forward and past through acknowledgment rather than actual forgetting. She uses Hannah Arendt to make her points also using very Heideggerian language throughout.

It was an interesting read – one that makes me look forward to the other book by her on my list for this exam. It is also good in that it takes a different approach to the problem of diversity that so many states are dealing with and how this relates to ethics and war is crucial – it does make me wonder about relativism and if this is another fad of thought to fit what is happening in the world today or will it stand and push forward. Only more reading will answer these questions.

Thanks for reading,
Sara

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life [Book Review]

Bellah, Robert Neelly. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.

Just like in Moral Freedom, these authors interview citizens across the country. The biggest difference is Bellah spends more time completing a comparison of Toqueville’s Democracy in America with the way people think about democracy, politics, and what life should be like in general and then how this fits in with morality and the ethical culture of today’s society. “American traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation (6).” It’s as if the pluralistic approach that Hinman describes or the Aristotelian ethics that MacIntyre discusses have created this individualism that pushes America forward but that also is why many people feel isolated.

Key principles that come up are honesty and loyalty though some do not believe that these exist – or that it changes for people depending on their situations and what is happening around the world. Communication is also important to people.

Another reoccurring theme is one of moving out and on one’s own as well as how to decide if one should be loyal to the society/culture that one grew up in or should people move on and start their own traditions. How to reconcile the two ideals/way of life is something people work their entire lives to figure it out. People’s thoughts and feelings about individualism come into conflict sometimes with the idea of private property sometimes. Pages 76-77 – private property creates divisions among classes because of economic disparity.

The issue not answered is whether not all these individual moral guidelines for people to follow is okay or not. Should there be a government-regulated morality? Most would probably say no but the questions then what about the rampant unethical acts happening throughout the US. How is that dealt with? Reading this left me with more questions than answers about what to do with society as it stands today.

These are some of my thoughts – overall it gave me some ideas/thoughts on relativism which will fit into my dissertation, but it is very similar to Moral Freedom by Wolfe.

Thanks for stopping by,
Sara