book cover imageThe Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
by George M. Marsden.
Basic Books, 2014.
Hardcover, 264 pp. $27.

Randall Jarrell once observed that “The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” The same could be said of intellectuals in the United States in the 1950s. Liberal intellectuals in that era criticized the American people for their bovine conformity, gross materialism (all the tail-fins and chrome on those wastefully big cars!), and lack of appetite for thoroughgoing social transformation. Conservative intellectuals criticized American leaders for their unwillingness to dismantle the New Deal social safety net or to go to war to “rollback” Communism.

Nowadays, of course, liberals and conservatives alike look back to the 1950s with considerable nostalgia. Conservatives would like to restore a time when religion and traditional morality still held a privileged place in American culture. Liberals would like to return to an era when a prominent critic such as Lionel Trilling could still believe that “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”

George M. Marsden, a historian specializing in the interaction of Christianity and American culture, sets out in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment to “problematize” (as academics say) both the liberal and conservative view of the 1950s. Reexamining the writings of many leading cultural analysts of the period, he reminds us that the era was marked by “great cultural anxiety and uncertainty.” It was not just that Americans feared nuclear war between the Cold War superpowers, or the supposed perils (including excessive leisure time and juvenile delinquency) thatmight spring from unprecedented prosperity. Critics worried that citizens of Western mass cultures, beset by the tradition-eroding forces of science and technology, might abandon democracy as Germans had in the 1930s and embrace the certainty and security of totalitarianism.

Marsden believes that the cultural analysts of the 1950s were right to be worried. The moderate-liberal thinkers of that era were “living in the last days before a cultural revolution”—the revolution of the late 1960s and ’70s that would destroy the apparent social peace and cultural unity of the earlier decade. And although Marsden credits the intellectual elites of the ’50s for their perceptiveness in realizing that American culture was in crisis, he rebukes them for lacking any adequate remedies for the coming upheaval, and indeed for having done much to bring it on.

More particularly, Marsden declares that the characteristic outlook of 1950s moderate-to-liberal intellectuals can be understood as “latter-day efforts to sustain the ends of the American enlightenment, but without that enlightenment’s intellectual means.” The “American enlightenment,” in Marsden’s reading, refers to the eighteenth-century founders’ belief that Americans of all creeds could unite in a consensus around shared ideals such as freedom, democracy, and equal rights, and further that rational, “objective” scientific understandings could be applied to understanding society and promoting the well-being of the “autonomous” individual.

The 1950s intellectuals shared the founders’ reverence for science and the individual, but not their belief in natural laws, established by a Creator, that constituted self-evident principles apprehensible through reason. The liberal culture of the 1950s therefore had no adequate criteria for determining “the good,” and so in Marsden’s view its efforts to sustain a humane, progressive public consensus were bound to fail.

The American enlightenment was also inextricably bound up with assumptions about white male leadership, a respected role for a “Protestant establishment” in the cultural mainstream, and a belief that the organizing principle for civil society should be pluralism—the idea that a healthy democracy emerges from the free contest of many different interest groups and voluntary associations. Marsden claims that when the consensus culture exploded in the late 1960s, “taking with it all but the vestiges of the old Protestant establishment,” the result was a cultural backlash that gave rise to the religious right in the 1970s and the culture wars of the following decades. Further, he contends, the culture wars persisted because the privileged position given to mainline Protestantism—and, by the 1950s, Catholicism and Judaism of an assimilationist and Americanized variety—meant that the country had never really had to wrestle with the issue of religious differences. After the Protestant establishment collapsed, “mainstream America lacked the theoretical resources for constructing a more truly pluralistic way of dealing with the relationships of varieties of religions to public life.”

This is a complicated argument, and Marsden’s book is much too short, at less than 60,000 words, to grapple with all of the problems it raises. Marsden attempts to delimit his argument by, for example, excluding any serious consideration of 1950s popular culture, economics, politics, or conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk. His excursion through the writings of characteristic moderate-liberal elite thinkers of the era—including William Barrett, Betty Friedan, Erich Fromm, Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, David Riesman, Carl Rogers, B. F. Skinner, and William Whyte—is brisk and entertaining, although such thinkers have already been more comprehensively analyzed by other scholars.

Marsden doesn’t really connect the dots between the shortcomings of the 1950s intellectuals, the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, and the culture wars of later decades. He implicitly criticizes the ’50s intellectuals for promoting a message of anti-conformity and individual liberation from the restraints of community and tradition, but doesn’t go as far as Trilling did in speculating whether the critical stance of the ’50s intellectuals inadvertently gave birth to the oppositional counterculture.

Since Marsden doesn’t analyze the 1960s except in the most glancing way, it’s hard to get a sense of why he thinks the American enlightenment faltered during that decade, or why the elite failed to maintain a consensus. He seems to approve of Walter Lippmann’s judgment that pragmatism was an insufficient basis for a shared social morality, and that some sort of return to a higher moral law was needed—but to what extent was the absence of natural law responsible for the rise of student and antiwar protest in the 1960s? Surely policymakers’ errors in prosecuting the war in Vietnam were more directly responsible than the assumptions of 1950s elite intellectuals?

Marsden perceptively observes that Martin Luther King Jr., unlike most liberal proponents of civil rights, did believe in a God-given order and moral laws that could be comprehended by all men and women. But so too did liberal Protestant leaders like William Sloane Coffin, Paul Moore, and Eugene Carson Blake, whose pro-civil rights and antiwar activism likely did more than thinkers like Niebuhr, Fromm, and Skinner to provoke the religious right backlash of the 1970s.

Marsden has written extensively on Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and his argument is on firmest ground when he discusses the religious right’s efforts to, in effect, recreate a new informal Christian establishment and return to the presumed religious consensus of the 1950s. He sympathetically considers thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and the apparent paradoxes of American evangelicalism that stem from its origins in both biblicist born-again revivalism and the American enlightenment.

Marsden credits the religious right for drawing attention to important questions about religion’s role in public life, and condemns the tendency of government and commercial culture to promote standards that are at odds with traditional religious teachings. While he is critical of liberalism’s tendency toward monolithic secularism, however, he also points out that the religious right has given little consideration to how a more Christianized America would provide equal protection for other religious and secular viewpoints.

The solution, in Marsden’s view, is a “confessional pluralism” that would draw on the vision of the late nineteenth-century Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. This proposal no doubt seemed marvelous in the Harvard Divinity School seminar room where it was conceived. But the idea that society should be arrangedalong the lines of Kuyper’s pronouncement that there should be “two kinds of science” (or any intellectual inquiry), one for the devout and one for the non-Christians, would face obvious obstacles in implementation. Neither is the American political system likely to accommodate a multiplicity of ideological and religious parties as in the Dutch parliamentary system. Yet Marsden recognizes that homogenizing mainstream pressures can be offset by a revival of longstanding American traditions of federalism and governmental restraint, mediating institutions of the Tocquevillean sort, and the “intellectual renaissance” at evangelical colleges and universities. There is also growing public appreciation for localism and authenticity, evident in everything from town planning to news reporting to cuisine.

At the present moment when the courts are considering what arguably is the Obama administration’s attempt to force religious organizations to adopt secular understandings in the provision of health care, there does seem to be a need for what Marsden terms a pluralism that“would attempt to take the differences among varieties of both religious and nonreligious perspectives seriously.” Marsden has provided a useful history and stimulating suggestions for reaching a more religiously inclusive society. 

Geoffrey Kabaservice’s most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).