Just released this week, I wanted to give a quick comment on George Marsden’s new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.
The nutshell version is: Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Or, if that’s too “last century” for your taste, drop it immediately into your Amazon cart.
Marsden is one of the leading historians of American religion–and, for purposes of disclosure, my graduate advisor. He has previously published award-winning books on Fundamentalism, religion and the university, and most recently, Jonathan Edwards.
In this new book he jumps back to the twentieth century to examine, as the subtitle has it, “The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”
In Marsden’s account, “liberal” in the 1950s was used as a centrist term, for the rational, open-minded approach to the world favored by the cultural mainstream. This liberal outlook, Marsden contends, continued to embrace the empirical, rationalist values of the American Enlightenment, which dated back to the eighteenth century. Such an approach favored a unified cultural outlook that had little room for diversity. Religiously, it embraced a liberal Protestantism, which remained institutionally close to the levers of cultural influence.
Although culturally confident in the 1950s, this dominant approach was actually on its last legs. It was maintaining its optimism and intellectual categories, while the under-girding belief system was dissipating. It was thus set for a rapid decline with the cultural and intellectual upheavals of the later 1960s. That era would produce approaches that would undermine easy confidence in rationality, the authority of science, individualism, and cultural consensus–all factors of the cultural confidence of the ’50s. As consensus culture shattered, it produced many subgroups, but with no coherent ideal to keep them together. The end result was to set intellectual trends that remain to this day.
Another result was secularism. The shattered coherence sidelined liberal Protestantism, replacing it not with another set of beliefs but with no religious belief. The end result was a dominant form of secularism. As Marsden had, in the Soul of the American University, chronicled this secularization in higher education (from established Protestantism to established non-belief), so now he traces it on a broader cultural level.
In his conclusion, Marsden echoes a strategy that has become a trademark: he steps back from his subject to consider how the historical account can help us (collectively) think about contemporary issues. He argues for the need for a principled pluralism. He criticizes how both evangelicals and secularists seem unable to come to terms with pluralism, to make a place for genuine difference in the pursuit of the common good. Instead, he offers a helpful contrast to the work of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands at the turn of the twentieth century. Kuyper, although deeply Reformed in his thought, made an intentional place for cultural and religious differences. That the Kuyperian option never really appealed to American thinkers is also a legacy of American interpretations of enlightenment.
Throughout, the writing is done gracefully, and complex issues are treated clearly. This is an engaging and accessible book for anyone willing to think through important issues.
Finally, I can’t resist one historiographic note. There’s been much recent discussion of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, which highlights the problem of authority among neo-evangelicals who claimed authority from Biblical sources but still needed interpreters or organizational leaders. On the other hand, Marsden suggests that there was simultaneously a crisis of authority among liberals and modernist Protestants. Put together, the two books could highlight a very real theme about issues of authority in democratic America. I definitely think the two could be read profitably alongside each other.
In any case, the homework for each reader of this post should be to buy and then read Marsden’s Twilight of the American Enlightenment.