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Thomas Kidd on The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

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George Marsden | Review by: Thomas S. Kidd

 


George Marsden. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 264 pp. $26.99.

George Marsden, emeritus professor of history at Notre Dame, is the greatest historian of American religion of the past generation. One reason for this acclaim is his ability to make complex intellectual history so lucid and clear. (I am biased: Marsden was my doctoral adviser.) Nowhere is that ability better illustrated than in his new The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. In this book Marsden brilliantly explains the rise of the generically Judeo-Christian “liberal consensus” of the 1950s and the reasons why it collapsed.

Conservatives, religious and otherwise, are often nostalgic for the 1950s, and for many good reasons, such as the era’s cultural commitment to the sturdy two-parent family. But Marsden also shows that the liberal Enlightened consensus of the era, which combined individualism with confidence in science and “rationality,” was incapable of maintaining cultural consensus on morality. Thus, that liberal union—represented by Northeastern public intellectuals and mainline church leaders—was swept away by the cultural upheavals and identity politics of the 1960s and ’70s.

Science might bring progress, but how could it assign ethical values? Moreover, faith in the individual meant elevating individual judgment as the final moral authority. Traditional sources such as Scripture ultimately would have to bow to individual conscience. Some prophetic voices from within the liberal establishment understood that science, rationality, and individualism would erode the moral verities assumed by the liberal consensus. Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian at Union Seminary (across the street from Columbia University in New York City), realized that science and individualism did not account for humanity’s ethical shortsightedness, or what some called “sin.”

Niebuhr saw human fallenness as a maxim that made sense of the murderous regimes of the 20th century, especially the Soviet Union, whose Communist leaders trumpeted their ability to bring about utopia through scientific planning. Even Niebuhr, however, dismissed the notion that basic Christian doctrines were validated by authoritative biblical testimony. To him, such doctrines simply made sense; it didn’t matter if they were factual and historical. This subjective grounding made Niebuhrian thought no more than optional, and easy to dismiss. “For all his brilliance,” Marsden concludes, Niebuhr was “like a candle that burns brightest just before it goes out.”

Marsden shows how ironic it was that the early Religious Right and Moral Majority pined for a return to the 1950s establishment when that establishment was never really that friendly to specific truth claims based on religion. In 1950s public life, a general civil religiosity prevailed, with little room for an exclusive message of salvation through the virgin-born, bodily resurrected Jesus Christ (the details of Billy Graham’s revival sermons notwithstanding). But the Moral Majority and their fellow travelers clamored to recover that establishment era, a time when people publicly honored and respected religion, and courts still allowed generic official prayers and Bible readings in the schools.

Marsden regards the Religious Right’s agenda as an unsatisfying, if understandable, reaction to the sense that courts and secular elites in the 1960s and ’70s were demanding a wholesale privatization of religion. He suggests Americans have never really developed a satisfactory approach to religious pluralism in public life, and that neither the secular left nor the Religious Right have crafted one in the era of the culture wars. Befitting his Reformed commitments, Marsden proposes we need a better guide for handling religious pluralism, one found in the person of Abraham Kuyper, the early 20th century Dutch politician and theologian.

Marsden contends we should all acknowledge that our deepest differences cannot be resolved through appeals to freedom, rationality, and science on the one hand, or our need to return to the ostensibly Christian origins of America on the other. Instead, following Kuyper, Marsden suggests Christians, secularists, and people of other fundamental commitments should simply admit their clashing assumptions, honor them as best they can, and eschew any notion of politically dominating the other side. By God’s “common grace” we will hopefully find areas of shared agreement, and good politics will seek to discover and maximize those areas for the public good.

It is a bracing vision, and one that seemed to work in a different time and place: early 20th century Holland, where Kuyper served as prime minister from 1901 to 1905. Can it work here? If it can, it would require at least two concessions: first, religious conservatives would have to give up policy appeals based on claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Yes, America was founded in the context of heavy Christian influence, and you cannot understand the accomplishments of the founding generation without reference to that heritage. But, contrary to some “Christian America” writers, not all the Founders were traditional Christians, and even the Founders had to make common cause across a spectrum of religious diversity. They did so, as I show in my book God of Liberty, with reference to broadly acceptable values, including equality by creation (“all men are created equal”) and religious freedom.

For a Kuyperian settlement to work, secular liberals would also have to respect real religious liberty, and stop asking people (including those of non-Christian faiths) to “act in the public realm without reference to their deeply held, religiously based moral convictions,” as Marsden puts it. If Christian conservatives were certain the government would give them room, both in public and in church, to express and practice their faith without official hostility or demands for silence, then perhaps they’d more readily give up the rhetoric of Christian political triumphalism, too.

Whether secularists or Christian America folks are likely to make these kinds of concessions is open to debate. The Christian America thesis has shown rugged political tenacity, and the Obama administration has given Christian conservatives little hope of moving past the culture wars. Many Christians have become justifiably alarmed as federal officials have, for example, dismissed religious liberty concerns while pushing their bold new program for broad health care access, including a mandate for access to contraceptives and abortifacients.

Still, Marsden’s Kuyperian alternative of real, respectful pluralism offers a stimulating point of discussion for those who prefer a path beyond intractable culture war. In the sensible style we’ve come to expect from Marsden, he offers a balanced model for how Christians could maintain a distinctive witness in American public life without constantly engaging in zero-sum political battles with antagonists outside of the church.

Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University. He is completing a biography of George Whitefield, due out in fall 2014 with Yale University Press.