Contesting the Moral High Ground: Popular Moralists in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain by Paul T. Phillips (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Paul T. Phillips. Contesting the Moral High Ground: Popular Moralists in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain. McGill-Queen's University Press 2013. xvi, 227. $32.95

As is clear from the opening chapter of this erudite book, a major area of recent research in twentieth-century British history centres on the secularization thesis. This is the view that the development of unbelief was a natural corollary of ''modernization'' from the eighteenth century onward, a process associated with urbanization, industrialization, and Enlightenment rationalism. Increasingly, historians have questioned the determinism and the chronology of this approach. Nevertheless, lively debate continues on the extent and consequences of secularization in the twentieth century, particularly its complex relationship to Christianity. Most historians agree that organized Christianity declined markedly during the First World War and, after a brief recovery in the 1920s, resumed its downward path during the 1930s. The public space it occupied diminished too. But to what extent does this mean that Christian belief itself lost ground? In his seminal work The Decline of Christian Britain (2001), Callum Brown argued that it gave way very little, before the 1960s, at least; Christianity maintained its place in national culture, even while the churches became increasingly marginalized. However, after the 1960s, it suffered catastrophic decline as religion became a matter of individual taste and, moreover, as the educated classes lost much of their former influence in shaping religious movements.

In Contesting the Moral High Ground, Paul Phillips sets out to challenge both these claims: first, that ''the long 1960s'' witnessed the demise of Christianity, and second, that there was a shift toward individuals formulating their own beliefs and opinions secular as well as religious. He does so from the perspective of the authority exercised by four leading ''public moralists'' across the middle and later decades of the twentieth century: Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Barbara Ward, and Malcolm Muggeridge. He shows how all four exploited the mass media of radio, television, and print newspapers and journals to reach a large audience. Phillips breaks new ground in applying the term ''public moralist'' to them, and in observing how, in a mid- to late-twentieth-century context, it could bring celebrity status in its train. Hitherto, the term has been associated primarily with Stefan Collini's work on leading figures within the Victorian intellectual elite and their immediate successors, who set out to deepen and extend the moral sympathies of their compatriots. This concern with moral improvement is best exemplified in the writings of J.S. Mill, who was motivated by a deep-seated antipathy toward Christianity. Two of Phillips's figures Huxley and Russell affirmed Mill's association between moral progress and unbelief. But both they and Ward [End Page 294] and Muggeridge, who were Christian apologists, were one step removed from the intellectual elite of their own time; while all had received a university education and while Huxley and Russell had held academic jobs, they were essentially popularizers of ideas rather than original thinkers themselves.

This extension of the term ''public moralist'' greatly enriches the debate on secularization and de-Christianization in Britain. In a book that draws on a wide range of unpublished as well as published sources, Phillips demonstrates how belief and unbelief were shaped not just by persuasive arguments themselves but by the media in which they were expressed, and by the voices that expressed them. This is especially evident in his pioneering work on Malcolm Muggeridge, who exposed the manipulative nature of television and yet also used it effectively to deepen awareness of the spiritual power of the Catholic Church. The clearest example here is Muggeridge's acclaimed documentary of Mother Theresa. Phillips perceptively notes how Muggeridge, through television and other media, marked out the narrative of his path toward Catholic conversion, against the current of society toward secularism. In turn, Phillips also highlights the public rejection that Muggeridge encountered on cultural grounds, not helped by complex shifts in his politics.

Phillips warms most to Ward and Russell, Ward for her ''perseverance'' in championing Catholicism and social justice, and Russell for his ''courage'' in promoting freedom as the basis of social progress, not least against the ''tyranny'' of science. He...