Review: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

D. G. Hart

George M. Marsden once laughed when I suggested, almost twenty years ago, that he should write a memoir. He did not think his life lived up to the stuff of memoirs. With The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, Marsden comes the closest yet in his many books to reflecting on his own past. Granted, it is a window with a small opening: the mid-twentieth-century decades of his youth. But the book’s introduction has the ring of nostalgia for an America that no longer exists:

I remember well how, in the spring of 1949, when I was ten years old, the fields near my home where we used to roam were suddenly marked off with patterns of stakes. A building project was launched with some fanfare.… By the next spring, our town had a full-fledged suburb, where I would soon be delivering newspapers. In such places, more and more young families could participate in the American dream of owning their own homes endowed with up-to-date modern conveniences.

In those new suburbs, fathers went to work, mothers reared children, children rode bikes, and families watched television and went to church on Sundays. “There was little reason not to believe that,” Marsden recalls, “if peace could be maintained, progress would continue.”

That sense of optimism and how it failed is the subject of Marsden’s book. In it he analyzes the assumptions of mainstream American culture in the 1950s, where religion figured in those assumptions, and what the collapse of the postwar consensus meant for Christianity in America.

The 1950s outlook that Marsden explores was two cups Enlightenment and two tablespoons liberal Protestantism. The roots of this combination went back to the founding of America and the belief that reason was an adequate basis for fair government and individual rights, along with the recognition that a free society depended on virtuous citizens who needed religion to provide a sense of moral duty. Americans in the 1950s could read many public intellectuals who worried about the fragility of this consensus. Some, like the literary critic Dwight MacDonald, fretted about the effects of mass culture (television, radio, and other such middlebrow expressions) on American character. Some, like the op-ed writer and political advisor Walter Lippmann, feared that the American consensus lacked an adequate philosophical basis. Others, like the sociologist William Whyte, cautioned that the application of science to the nation’s organizations might destroy American individualism and personal autonomy. Even so, Americans were still united in defending individual freedom, free speech, civil rights, equality before the law, due process, economic opportunities, and civic-mindedness.

Marsden’s observation is not that these commitments are still strong among Americans, but only that they applied differently. What he does point out, which may explain the differences between the 1950s and today, is that the consensus after World War II rarely included minorities. American commitments to freedom also assumed sexual restraint and the value of families as part of the social order. The sexual experimentation that surfaced in the 1960s seriously undermined that part of the 1950s consensus. Another segment of the American population that mainstream society in the 1950s neglected consisted of religious conservatives: fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Roman Catholics. These believers did not necessarily experience discrimination, but were clearly on the sidelines of mainstream opinion. The Protestantism of the mainline denominations did enjoy a place at the table, whether it was the moralistic optimism of Time magazine’s Henry Luce, who promoted an American exceptionalism rooted in belief in God, or the chary pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr, who reminded Americans of the selfishness that afflicts all societies because of original sin. Even so, the mainline churches achieved their centrist status by avoiding statements and actions that might look dogmatic or intolerant.

The 1960s saw the collapse of this consensus and provoked a militant Christianity to clean up the debris. With society having only a pragmatic justification for political liberty and reliance on science, the Christian Right tried to fill the vacuum that the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and anti-war protests exposed. Marsden detects in much of the Christian Right’s agenda nostalgia for the pro-family and patriotic 1950s. With Francis Schaeffer, evangelicals found a leader who sought to supply America with a Christian foundation. But Marsden faults Schaeffer for offering a Christian outlook that was fundamentally divisive and partisan. It alienated and threatened non-Christians and failed to provide an inclusive pluralism.

Inclusive pluralism is in fact the point of Marsden’s book. It is the subject of his last chapter and even the last two words of the story. Unlike the 1950s synthesis of the Enlightenment and liberal Protestantism, or the Christian Right’s blend of fundamentalism and partisan Republican politics, Marsden reflects on the pluralism that Abraham Kuyper proposed during his political career between 1880 and 1915 in the Netherlands. What distinguished Kuyper’s project from other efforts to accommodate modern society’s diversity was a commitment to principled pluralism—one that did not treat science as objective or neutral, but considered it an equal competitor with other outlooks, including faith. According to Marsden, Kuyper’s “richly pluralistic society” reduces government to a “sort of referee, patrolling the boundaries among the spheres of society, protecting the sovereignty due within each sphere, adjudicating conflicts, and ensuring equal rights and equal protections for confessional groups.” Marsden’s sketch of Dutch diversity is as enticing as it is brief. Unfortunately, he does not explain how this outlook provides a foundation for all of society when so many groups disagree about basic truths. Nor does he consider the sort of social homogeneity required for mobilizing a nation to fight a Cold War or to overcome racial discrimination. If the Netherlands had emerged from World War II as the West’s superpower, and if it had needed to address racial segregation in one of its provinces, would pluralism have been as attractive as Marsden depicts it?

More puzzling is the book’s silence about J. Gresham Machen and the OPC. After all, Marsden grew up as a member of the OPC and in a household where Machen’s name was highly regarded. Yet Machen’s ideas about pluralism, civil liberty, and the spirituality of the church make nary a dent in Marsden’s reflections on American society. Machen’s ideas about civil liberty showed remarkable toleration for diverse groups; a lifelong Democrat, Machen defended the rights of Communists, Roman Catholics, and fundamentalists at a time when the ties between the Enlightenment and liberal Protestantism were solidifying. At the same time, Machen’s idea of a church set apart from the civil arena to pursue spiritual ends with spiritual means, provided a way for confessional groups to retain theological fidelity without compromising religious convictions for political gain. Machen’s version of principled pluralism makes good sense of the American Presbyterian experience and does not require the United States to reinvent itself as the small, intriguing, and demographically homogeneous country that the Netherlands used to be. Had Marsden proposed Machen instead of Kuyper, his critique of the thinness of the 1950s consensus might not have been substantially different. But that might have connected his mature reflections on the 1950s to his experience as a boy growing up in the OPC.

The reviewer, an OP elder, teaches history at Hillsdale College. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is published by Basic Books, 2014 (hardback, 258 pages, list price $26.99).