If the number of awards scooped up by George Marsden's 2003 biography of Jonathan Edwards is taken as the index of achievement, Marsden stands as the dean of living interpreters of American religion. With The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, he offers another compelling study, one that relates more to his own life and times than to a life from the past.

In six artfully crafted chapters, Marsden sketches the tectonic shifts set in motion in the years immediately following World War II. He looks at common assumptions held by the leading cultural analysts of the age, intellectuals writing for middlebrow Americans. The protagonists were mostly white, male, well educated (especially at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia), centered in New York City, and descended from old-stock Protestant culture. Alongside these were a fair number of Jews, many of them émigrés from Nazi Europe. Leading figures included journalist Walter Lippmann, poet Archibald MacLeish, historian Arthur Schlesinger, magazine tycoon Henry Luce, culture critic Hannah Arendt, and especially sociologists Vance Packard, Erich Fromm, and David Reisman. Taken together, their views constituted what might be called the liberal mainline consensus.

The two books bear important similarities. Both are beautifully written and reveal imposing erudition. But they also bear important differences. While Jonathan Edwards is long, richly detailed, and largely descriptive, American Enlightenment is short, elegantly interpretative, and strongly argued. Another difference concerns the reaction from readers and critics. The Edwards biography won virtually unanimous praise. This latest offering likely will provoke both sustained praise and spirited debate (sometimes both at once).

A Coherent National Culture

The presenting question for Marsden is: What did the architects of the post-World War II consensus take for granted? What assumptions seemed so transparently true that they needed no defense? The answer is that they projected classic Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom, individual autonomy, equality of rights, scientific method, centrality of reason, and objective truths discovered by reason.

By the 1950s, this mainline consensus was firmly in place, but with one crucial difference: Its leading lights had jettisoned the concept of absolute moral laws, which Enlightenment thinkers had presupposed. Moral laws had come to seem indefensible in the face of Darwinian notions of natural and cultural evolution. And from beginning to end, respectable Protestants, especially in the older denominations, supported the ideals of the mainline consensus, except for the loss of moral absolutes. Yet taken together, the assumption of a coherent national culture schooled by mainline intellectuals, both secular and Protestant, seemed to be firmly in place.

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The 1950s mainline consensus focused on two premises: the authority of science and the priority of the individual. The authority of science took different forms, sometimes in pure science, sometimes in technology, and sometimes in the advice of the "the expert." The priority of the individual also took different forms, but manifested itself especially in the "triumph of the therapeutic," with its stress on self-fulfillment and personal growth. The two premises came together in many figures, but nowhere more conspicuously than in the Exeter- and Yale-trained Dr. Benjamin Spock. His Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, became one of the biggest-selling books of all time, running through nine editions and nearly 50 million copies.

By mid-century, the mainline consensus strongly influenced the conduct of the nation's life too. Here Henry L. Luce set the tone. The child of China missionaries, Yale trained, founder of Life, Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, Luce served as one of the most influential voices in America. A lifelong Presbyterian, he remained firmly theistic, yet saw no major difference between Christianity and America. Luce felt that the nation's laws were rooted in moral laws, which in turn were rooted in a religious faith that "'man is created in the image of God.'"

Questioning the Consensus

By the end of the decade the mainline consensus had effectively established itself as the only game in town, at least to those most responsible for giving it voice. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to consensus. Mainline intellectuals themselves lived to experience the dour results of the culture shift they pioneered. They underscored the shallowness of American culture. Life, for example, might feature "'nine color pages of Renoirs … followed by a full-page picture of a horse on roller skates.'" The emptiness of mindless consumerism, the relentless quest for material comfort, the ubiquity of gadgets, and the power of suburban conformity posed severe threats to freedom.

Not a few consensus architects raised questions. Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom (1941, 1959, 1960) depicted the masses' retreat into the security of unquestioned authority. David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) traced society's evolution from tradition direction to inner direction to outer direction. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) targeted society's denial of women's autonomy. Still, the mainline's solution was pretty much more of the same: "'openness, pluralism, and empiricism.'"

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To be sure, some critiques carried more clout than others. Marsden salutes Martin Luther King's articulation of the moral law built into the fabric of the universe, the prophetic words of the conservative Jewish theologian/sociologist Will Herberg, and the principled dissent of the distinguished Lutheran historian Martin Marty. He pays particular attention to the assessments delivered by the Jewish Walter Lippmann and by the (more or less) mainline Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In late life Lippmann urged Americans to restore objective values—not supernatural ones in any traditional sense, but values that reason had proved timelessly true. Niebuhr trenchantly argued that science could not control nature, and certainly not humans, who bore the stubborn residues of prideful sin.

That being said, such critiques, though forceful in their own terms, left the power of the mainline consensus largely intact. Huge chunks of the population remained excluded from the table: minorities and women, more or less by oversight, and orthodox believers of all traditions by design. Orthodox believers, especially, found themselves safely tucked away in the sphere of the private. It was perfectly fine, it seemed, for them to think whatever they wanted as long as they did not get noisy and try to influence public policy.

Into this vacuum rushed two social forces, a tsunami of identity politics—minorities, women, later gays—and a backlash of the Religious Right. Identity partisans did not pretend to embrace any kind of moral or cultural consensus. The Religious Right did, but by invoking the historically dubious claim that America had been conceived according to a Christian blueprint. The main force behind the Religious Right's counter-productive approach was the fundamentalist intellectual Francis Schaeffer, who drew a non-negotiable line in the sand between the Christian worldview and secular humanism.

The Way Forward

American Enlightenment carries a punch. Speaking specifically of Niebuhr but by implication all of the mainline, Marsden concludes: "What is striking … is the disparity between the profundity of the diagnosis and the superficiality of the prescription." Liberal pragmatism, lacking a foundation of moral capital, had no way to adjudicate among rival claims of first principles. The tribalism of identity politics and the absolutisms of the Religious Right offered little help.

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So what's the way forward? The practical answer, Marsden argues, is that everyone must enjoy a seat at the table—not just mere toleration, but full participation in American public life. Marsden's conclusion unapolgetically presents the 19th-century Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper as a source of clues for how to proceed.

American Enlightenment's virtues are many. Marsden writes for an audience of ordinary, thoughtful readers. The prose is a treat: consistently clear, sprightly, and filled with memorable stories. Marsden understands that history harbors unexpected quirks, petty minds, and noble souls—not to mention cigarette ads, New Yorker cartoons, and, well, Playboy. Which is to say: He writes real history. The legendary Marsden wit sparkles throughout, as do the one-liners (Luce "provided a Norman Rockwell touch," "Adlai Stevenson and Billy Graham could bat in the same lineup," "[B. F.] Skinner, although a critic of traditional faiths, was a true believer himself"). And rather than pretending to possess a God's-eye view, as so many historians do, Marsden humbly acknowledges the limitations of own perspective.

My reservation with American Enlightenment is that its dismissal of the post-war liberal consensus is too strong. Marsden concludes that the "mostly secular moderate-liberal cultural leaders had nothing to offer beyond piecemeal solutions to the cultural challenges that they identified, and even less to offer to counter the unanticipated challenges of fragmentation." This judgment, however, underestimates the seriousness of liberals' critique of the moral foundations of Enlightenment and historic Protestant faith—a point strongly emphasized, for example, by the Berkeley historian David Hollinger (in his account of Protestant liberalism, After Cloven Tongues of Fire).

Nonetheless, Marsden's overall argument proves compelling. The challenge is to bring all voices to the table—secular and religious mainline figures, historically excluded populations, and traditionalists of all sorts—not simply as a matter of equity, but as a desperately needed source of wisdom. And the conversation itself should be esteemed. Participation does no good when it descends into cacophony. Our civilization faces threats from radicalized Islam, environmental degradation, and innumerable forms of greed and cruelty born of intractable sin. Amidst so many perils, we need all the sagacity we can find. If memory serves, the apostle Paul had some thoughts along those lines too, something about seeing through a glass darkly.

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Grant Wacker is professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Oxford University Press) and a forthcoming book about Billy Graham, to be published by Harvard University Press.

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Basic Books
Release Date
February 11, 2014
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