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What to do about Religion in Emerson’s Political Vision?

12 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 7 Jun 2010

Mark Cladis

Brown University - Department of Religious Studies

Date Written: March 29, 2010


When our interpretations of Emerson's political thought include rather than dodge or defuse his religion, our accounts of his work are enhanced. Among other things, we stand to learn much about his contributions to the democracy theory of his day and of our own, and new and bright light is cast on Dewey's claim that 'Emerson is not only a philosopher, but that he is the Philosopher of Democracy.' I will highlight Emerson's early and late religiosity, mainly focusing on the Divinity School Address (1838) and Worship (1860). In these essays, we see an evolving, normative conception of religion in relation to democracy, or what I will call Emerson's spiritual democracy. I will identify two central and interrelated components of this Emersonian spiritual democracy, namely, self-reliance and work. These virtues belong to his conception of a democratic character and culture that is, to the identity of a democratic nation and its citizens. In particular, I will highlight what he called the democratic practice, 'work' - Emerson's an attempt to address the anomie and hardship that was brought on by rapid economic change.

Suggested Citation

Cladis, Mark, What to do about Religion in Emerson’s Political Vision? (March 29, 2010). Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN:

Mark Cladis (Contact Author)

Brown University - Department of Religious Studies ( email )

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Providence, RI 02912
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