Thinking About Ralph Waldo Emerson on His Birthday

Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous "transparent Eyeball" Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

Today is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 208th birthday. The Concord sage is one of the great figures of American history and one of my favorite New England religious thinkers. I always think of Emerson as the man who was willing to push that little bit further. Where Arminians and Unitarians stopped, Emerson jumped off the cliff into a sea of human potential. Where Channing had argued for human virture, Emerson posited the Oversoul–the divine within and without. Up to his day American religion had been a religion of dissent and in many ways, Emerson doubled down leaving the Unitarian clergy behind and pushing the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School toward a “being without bound.”

I’ve yet to start writing  my dissertation chapter that deals with Emerson and his contact with Hindu religious sources but as of now I’m convinced that the relationship between Emerson and Hinduism was one of convenience. That is, Emerson was a collector of religious ideas and for various reasons Hindu ideas happened to be at hand. Because he was in Boston, because New England merchants had been trading with India since the 1790s, because Rammohun Roy’s work had reached Unitarians in the 1820s, and because the British empire made knowledge about India readily available in English, India was an obvious place to look for spiritual sources. For example, Emerson famously described the Bhagavad Gita as the great text of Buddhism. To him it didn’t matter which Eastern tradition the book belonged too so long as it fit with his overall spiritual vision.

Emerson is often given credit for first popularizing Asian religious ideas in America. That’s not completely true. At least in eastern New England, Hindu ideas found their way through the periodical press into the homes and libraries of many Americans. The aforementioned Rammohun Roy’s Precepts of Jesus, his Vedantan Hindu reading of Jesus’s moral message,  and his various defenses of it were widely available in the late 1820s and 1830s.  What Emerson did do was Americanize Hindu ideas. He paired a Vedic formulation of Hinduism with a liberal post-Unitarian spirituality that became the seed bed for liberal spirituality we still have with us today. He brought together Krishna. Mesmer, and Swedenborg and now we have Deepak Chopra.

To help you celebrate Emerson’s birthday today you might swing by Amazon and pick up a free Kindle version of a new edition of Self-Reliance complete with self-reflections on the book from historical and contemporary thinkers.  Or if you’d rather watch then read, there’s the 2007 documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, also available for free viewing online. Or you can just go for a walk in the woods.

HT: Maria Popova

How to write a book about “X in American Religious History”

It’s not as hard to write a book in American religious history as you might think. Feel free to use this handy template.

Introduction- X has been important throughout American religious history.

Chapter 1. What the Puritans said about X

Chapter 2. What Jonathan Edwards (and maybe George Whitefield) said about X

Chapter 3. How X was shaped by the early Republic and the Second Great Awakening

Chapter 4. The Victorian X

Chapter 5. X in the Civil War

Chapter 6. Reforming X in the Progressive Era

Chapter 7. How X took on shifting meanings in pre-WWII America

Chapter 8. How the 1960s radically changed X, but not for everyone

Chapter 9. A new multifaceted X in the 21st century

Conclusion- See, I told you X was important.

Superman and the American Christian Nation

Superman is renouncing his U.S. citizenship and Mike Huckabee is none too happy about it.

Huckabee, responding to the comic book flap Sunday on Fox News, called it “disturbing” that the larger than life superhero would give up his citizenship.

“Well it is a comic book, but, you know it’s disturbing that Superman who has always been an American icon is now saying I’m not going to be a citizen,” he said. “I think it’s a part of a bigger trend of Americans almost apologizing for being Americans.”

Huckabee said he wouldn’t purchase the comic book, and that American kids should be taught that their country is great.

“I’m disturbed by this whole globalist trend. I think we ought to be teaching young Americans that they’re young Americans, that it means something to be an American,” he said. “There’s something great about this country.”

I’m not a comic book reader or fan, nor am I a scholar of comic culture, but, if we take comic books as pedagogical at some level then it’s interesting to think of the shift Superman’s newfound internationalism symbolizes. I’ve been working with 19th century schoolbooks lately and thinking about the ways these books constructed “the American” for readers. I was especially interested in geography books because of the ways the located a white/Protestant/Enlightened/moral American nation in a world full of lesser nations and people. (For more on these schoolbooks and there representations see this paper from the 2010 AAR meeting.) In these books the American was always superior to the foreign. But now, in the 21st century, Superman is offering a new view of the globe.

“I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship,” Superman says in a comic book released last week. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. ‘Truth, justice and the American way’ — it’s not enough anymore.”

The 19th century schoolbooks I’ve examined stressed the moral superiority of America. Superman is questioning this moral superiority and that’s what bothers Mike Huckabee so much. Furthermore, 19th century books connected American moral superiority to its Christianity. Children were taught that Protestantism was the basis for American freedom; for ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’ For folks like Huckabee, who believe that America was founded as a “Christian nation” (whatever that means), Superman’s repudiation (or maybe it’s a refudiation?) signals a shift in our national pedagogy. The “globalist trend” Huckabee decries questions the morality of a specifically American form of Christianity that is grafted into American nationalism. The nationalist message of a white/Protestant/Enlightened/morally superior/civlized America gives way to a global message of tolerance, diplomacy, and international justice. The American way just isn’t enough any more. Superman is not a tool of American policy. He now stands for global truth and international justice.

Now, I only wonder if Superman was dancing in the streets Sunday night.

Justice, Bin Laden, and American Civil Religion

As I sat on my couch scanning Twitter and listening to the President describe the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I realized that this was a high moment in American civil religion. Thanks to a couple colleagues here at Emory and our writing group, I’ve had civil religion on the brain lately. As the president repeated “justice…justice…justice,” I began to wonder what Robert Bellah would say.

In 1967 Robert Bellah published his famous article “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that there was an American civil religion that stretched from the founding of the nation up to his day and time. It was a religion born in the Revolution, matured through the Civl War, and at work in the midst of Vietnam. It was a transcendent understanding of the American experience that borrowed from biblical sources but existed alongside traditional religious commitments. It was enshrined in national rituals, inauguration speeches, and historic documents. It included the God in whom we trust, the God who blesses America, and the Creator who endowed us with inalienable rights. Its saints are Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy. It’s shrines are Gettysburg and Ground Zero.

Bellah identified three trials in American history that produced our civil religion. The Revolution brought us questions of independence and the rights granted by God. Then the Civil War challenged us to think about sacrifice–most notably the sacrificial death of President Lincoln–in the face of a moral evil like slavery. In 1967, Bellah saw the third crisis as the contemporary problem of “responsible action in a revolutionary war.”

We still live in the third crisis. The Revolution birthed a civil religion of rights and a God who grants them. The Civil War added a God who demands sacrifice for our national sins. Last night added a God of justice to our civil religion. George W. Bush said that America would bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice or bring justice to them. President Obama declared last night that “Justice had been done.” But what kind of justice?

The Creator in the Declaration of Independence is egalitarian and humanistic. The death of Lincoln is sacrificial. But the justice of American civil religion is retributional. Death requires death. Destruction requires destruction. We see it in our country’s domestic drug policy that locks away young minority offenders and sucks them into a prison industrial complex. We see it in a litigious society that demands all harm be ameliorated with a check. We see it on the streets outside the White House where people celebrate the death of a mass murderer like it was a Super Bowl win. An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

Osama Bin Laden committed immeasurable evil. In the face of such evil, justice becomes confusing. Justice is easy if someone steals your bike or smashes your car. Justice is harder when someone is killed. Justice seems almost impossible when someone’s evil destroys thousands of people and their families. On a day like today, it feels like justice and evil are incommensurable.

But perhaps the civil religion of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy can produce a justice that isn’t based in retribution.

Bellah concludes:

“[American civil religion] does not make any decision for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being in Lincoln’s fine phrase, an ‘almost chosen people.’ But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.”