- The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief by George M. Marsden
For two decades George M. Marsden, a leading historian of American religion, has argued that evangelical scholars like himself—along with other theists—receive insufficient respect from secular colleagues. In this book focusing on intellectual life since World War II, he attempts to explain the origins of this alleged inequity. Marsden emphasizes what is usually called the fifties, which he rightly sees as a time of “great cultural anxiety and uncertainty” (p. xii) despite unprecedented (although unevenly distributed) prosperity. His central theme is that leading cultural critics were trying to “preserve the ideals of the American enlightenment while discarding its foundations” (p. xv). As events since the early chronological sixties showed, this effort failed. To make his case, Marsden’s strings together brief examinations of significant social thinkers, cultural artifacts, and popular controversies.
Perhaps because Marsden wants to reach the proverbial intelligent general reader, most of his stories will be familiar to historians. These include the post-Sputnik quest for a “national purpose”; pervasive use of psychological rather than economic concepts to explain the ups and down of everyday life; triumph of the “vital center” in the social sciences along with inadequate efforts by self-conscious centrists like Daniel Bell to understand immoderate activists like Senator Joseph McCarthy (R–WI); ubiquitous critics of conformity ranging from William H. Whyte to Betty Friedan; debate about the impact of “mass culture” escalated because ordinary Americans loved television; and religious developments, including [End Page 960] ritualistic public piety based on an “undefined common theism” (p. 108); a transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism, the latest vogue of positive thinking; the ironies of Reinhold Niebuhr; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s adaptation of the social gospel. The treatment of rival psychological theorists Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner is especially interesting. Marsden also deserves credit for rediscovering the insightful critic Joseph Wood Krutch. His worst lapses are an underestimation of religious conflict and inattention to the frequently hyped intellectual “new conservatism.” Marsden’s reminders of failed predictions—notably the health benefits of smoking and safe nuclear energy too cheap to meter—are the most fun.
The book becomes both more tendentious and more formulaic when Marsden reaches the alleged twilight of common premises. He has always sensibly seen an intersection in American history between religious faith with its emphasis on God’s grace and an Enlightenment commitment to science broadly construed. Both sides believed in the possibility of discovering some absolute truth. Since the 1960s, this shared if tenuous “absolute”—previously threatened by Deweyite pragmatists, historicists, and existentialists—has been rejected far and wide. To make this point, Marsden alludes to Thomas Kuhn, postmodernism, and so-called culture wars but devotes most space to the fall of the de facto Protestant establishment and compensatory rise of a “populist” Christian right with intellectual standards inferior to Enlightenment-tinged evangelicalism. Despite the recent resurgence of “seculars” reported in numerous polls, it remains to be seen whether or not these trends represent a watershed or just another cataract in the river of American religion. Marsden cannot make up his mind. He concedes that a “sizable minority” of Americans remains “seriously religious” (p. 158). Anyone with an interest in public life, a television, and a willingness to delete the adverb seriously would write “sizable majority.”
Yet, as has been the case for twenty years, Marsden’s main complaint is that Enlightenment-tinged evangelical scholars like himself should not be second-class citizens in the academy. The real issues are metaphysical or epistemological rather than sociological. These cannot be addressed let alone resolved in a brief review. Suffice it to say that all scholars should consider interesting ideas from anyone regardless of his or her foundational beliefs (or lack thereof).