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The Roots of Our Disorder

George Marsden's The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
The Roots of Our Disorder

By Drew Trotter

George Marsden, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and Bancroft-winning author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, is an historian who ventures as often into contemporary social criticism as he does review past events. Taking a particular interest in the university as an academic and a Christian, Marsden some time ago strongly warned the academy in America in two books, one a lengthy history and analysis of the relationship of religion and the American university called The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994), and one a smaller, more directed book, called The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997), which argued passionately that a place be given to faith in the halls of higher education.

In his most recent book, Marsden ranges more broadly into American culture at large. Twilight examines the decade of the 1950s and finds in it the roots of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s and general waning of American power and prestige in the world today. His premise is simple: the American intelligentsia, fearing the dark side of the outcome of the Second World War, i.e. that Hitler could have risen to such power and done such atrocities, desired “to preserve the ideals of the American enlightenment while discarding its foundations” (Loc 126).

The first third of the book dedicates itself to exploring the questions American commentators of all types were asking in the aftermath of WWII about the sort of culture America would become in the coming years. In two chapters entitled “Mass Media and the National Character” and “Freedom in the Lonely Crowd”, Marsden finds in the twin problems of the trivialization of everything by mass culture and the pressures put on the enjoyment of freedom by our increasing alienation from one another, the source of a profound despair and overweening skepticism about the prospects of American culture. As Marsden puts it: “Their [American public intellectuals] responses to the perceived emptiness of much of modern life typically amounted to shoring up the levees of the consensus culture, and these levees were wildly inadequate for holding back the floodwaters of cultural upheaval that were about to crash against them” (Loc 141).

The next two chapters demonstrate how weak those levees actually were. In his chapter “Enlightenment’s End: Building Without Foundations”, he tells the story of Walter Lippmann as an example. Lippmann realized that by 1955 American society had no underpinnings, no way to determine what was wrong and what was right, and, if left to the voice of the majority, might go the way of Germany. Being liberal, he did not opt for the fully Christian position, i.e. arguing for the necessity of divine revelation, but rather proposed a “recovery of natural law” as “the only hope for reestablishing a public philosophy, and thus for preserving free institutions” (Loc 956). He proposed doing this by adopting a form of the pragmatism espoused by his teacher William James.

If Lippmann’s advice had been heeded, America might have moved forward and come to a greater rapprochement between its competing philosophies. But the book received almost exclusively adversative reviews, not least of which came in the Yale Review by poet Archibald MacLeish, who argued for seeing the movement away from shared values as a good thing and celebrated the “common impulse…at work…to penetrate the undiscovered country of the individual human consciousness, the human self.” By the 1960s, this philosophical view of trusting the autonomous self and the authority of modern science (the other of what Marsden calls “The Two Masters”) was resulting in everything from the burning of bras and American flags to the bombing of university buildings and torching of racially-torn neighborhoods.

In his last two chapters and conclusion, Marsden begins to map out his own beliefs for what American society needs to survive its own prosperity. The first of those chapters lays out the state of the Protestant establishment in American culture in the 1950s. Looking through the lens of the life and thought of one of the most famous Protestant laymen of the period, Henry Luce, Marsden shows the inherent weakness of Protestantism at a time when religious revival was at an all-time American high. Luce’s was a pluralism not of distinct faiths in conversation and cooperation with each other, but, as Nelson Rockefeller was later to style it, of “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”.

Marsden details the slide of religion from a public philosophy to a purely privatized one and the complex way in which that showed up in American life. Looking on the surface, one would think that Christianity was very involved in the cultural formation of the day, but this would be a superficial view. In fact, civil religion, the religion of the American dream, had by 1960 become firmly ensconced in American life. Even so great a cultural influence as Reinhold Niebuhr could not keep the forces of secularism at bay.

In his last full chapter Marsden records the rise of the religious right, singling out Francis Schaeffer and his role in its development. With a strong emphasis on the entrance of evangelicals and fundamentalists into the culture wars, Marsden outlines the tensions in the movement from its beginnings as an anti-political social movement against the exclusion of prayer in the schools and the permission of abortions on demand until its fully political heyday in the Reagan era. Of particular note is the focus in the movement on “recovering a Christian America”, an idea that is in tension not only with the freedom of religion that everyone, liberal and conservative alike, desires but also with the facts, since many of the founding fathers were clearly not Bible-toting Christians. Marsden succinctly summarizes the main problem with the religious right: “Advocates of the religious right were rightly concerned to guard their own freedoms of religious expression and action. Yet they seldom had a theory of how to do the same unto others as they have done unto themselves…”

And so Twilight comes to a concluding chapter in which Marsden advocates what he calls “a more inclusive pluralism”. Beginning with the premise that secular culture in America with its elevation of the two masters of autonomous individualism and modern science has undercut belief in traditional communities of faith, Marsden returns to the theme that a definition of pluralism as openness, not dogmatism, is the operative principle for the American intelligentsia. This attitude, founded on a notion of truth that is “progressive and cumulative” (Loc 2201) leads to an exclusion of ideas built on the foundation of a belief in revealed religion. Though Thomas Kuhn was later to explode this notion of truth, an affirmation of scientific progress and its concomitant belief in the eventual demise of religion altogether has led to a consensus that religion should simply be excluded from public conversation. Marsden points to the rising use of the Jeffersonian phrase “wall of separation” in Supreme Court decisions relating to the abolition of prayer in public schools as it “became short-hand in the moderate-liberal mainstream for thinking about relationships between religion and the public sphere” (Loc 2262).

But Christian communities—and indeed communities of many faiths—are not going away. If anything, the “problem” of religion in the public sphere is becoming larger and more complex all the time. Marsden proposes a look at the experiment in Christian pluralism the Netherlands practiced at the turn of the 20th century under Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and finds in that experience a model that he thinks may be a pattern for America in the 21st century. In a brief 8 pages, he simply relates the basic tenets of common grace, principled pluralism and sphere sovereignty, driving home the all-important linchpin of reformed thinking: no political philosophy is neutral, even one heavily dependent upon modern science and autonomous individualism, and both the gatekeepers of American society and of the church need to recognize that, if we are to find the kind of moral moorings our country needs.

Interestingly, as Marsden brings his discussion to an end, he suggests several institutions that might help bring about good thinking regarding American society, if all points of view were allowed an equal hearing. The various writing and speaking spheres of the public intellectual and the academy are prominent on the list. Why not Christian Study Centers? Because that is a choice for us, not him, to make.


All references above are to the Kindle edition of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

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