The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, by George Marsden (Basic Books, 218 pp., $26.99)

George Marsden, the distinguished historian of religion in America, has written a short, curious, and at times insightful book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. Awarded the Bancroft Prize in 1993 for his biography of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden rightly argues in his new book that American political culture has been shaped by an alliance between Protestant Christianity and Enlightenment rationality. “My argument,” he explains, “is that the mainstream thinkers of the 1950s can be better understood if we see them in far more continuity with the cultural assumptions of the founders than would be true of most mainstream thinkers today.” He aims to explain the collapse of the pluralistic liberalism of the 1950s, in which religion and reason—like the era’s Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—were seen to be in relative harmony. But his closing chapters propose a new sort of pluralism based on the writing of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper.

The book opens with an extended recapitulation of 1950s academic and popular discussions about the impact of mass society on individual freedom. Marsden covers familiar territory, recounting the arguments of Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, and Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers, among other titles. With some caveats, he sides with those who argued that consumerism and television were “destroying freedom” and individuality in America.

Marsden assumes that this view of middle-class American life was new and reflected real conditions. But neither was the case. The middle-class critique that he endorses first took shape around the First World War, in the so-called “revolt against the village,” which saw life on Main Street as stupefying and soul-crushing. The writers Marsden relies on either recycled those arguments or, because they were writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, saw America as susceptible to the same horrors that had overtaken Nazi Germany. Marsden seems unaware of the role that a cultural Marxism-cum-left-wing-Toryism played in foisting such arguments on ordinary Americans. The relatively placid life of the 1950s was the bounty of people who had lived through economic depression and war and yearned for conventional comforts. Whatever its shortcomings, this vision was hardly a danger to the American republic. But ideologues made it seem so, and Marsden accurately renders the consequences when their thesis became widely accepted.

“Everyone, it seemed, agreed that one should not be a conformist,” Marsden writes. For many, the “authority of the autonomous individual” became the only standard by which policies could be judged. This emphasis on autonomy stripped of context paved the way, first for anti-Enlightenment existentialism, and then for the full-blown irrationalism that defined the late 1960s and set America adrift from its history.

Marsden seems uninterested, however, in reviving knowledge of that American history—religious and secular—or of constitutionalism. Rather, he wants to tamp down the flames of intolerance kindled by the culture wars of the past 40 years. His goal, he explains, is a “more fully inclusive pluralism” in which, as in Kuyper’s Netherlands, religious differences are accepted with grace.

But reading Marsden on Kuyper, you wouldn’t know that the intolerance of Dutch-based Muslims drove the Somalia-born writer and intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali to seek refuge in America for fear that she would be killed for apostasy. Similarly, Marsden seems unaware of the rise of what might be described as an American neo-paganism, centered on ecology, on the one hand, or narcissism, on the other.

Even more problematic, Marsden bypasses the threat that the ideology of newly contrived rights (as opposed to natural rights) presents to any project of religious pluralism. If, for instance, there is a right to gay marriage, then opposition is literally illegal, and pluralism isn’t possible. Strangely, Marsden suggests that, on campuses at least, the tensions between newly minted group rights and religious freedom could be mitigated by having “university administrators and academic departments” serve as “referees, ensuring that all responsible voices .  .  . get a hearing.” He seems not to realize that political correctness has battered religious and political pluralism on campuses over the past 30 years. Perhaps if Marsden had paid more attention to the influence of cultural Marxism in the 1950s, he would have more compelling proposals to offer for today.

Photo by The Library of Congress/Flickr


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