For decades our nation has been divided, often bitterly, by the so-called culture wars. During Barack Obama’s presidency these unremitting tensions have manifested themselves in clashes over gay marriage, contraception coverage, and state-level abortion restrictions. Culture war loyalties and worldviews have also helped define who is on which side in the battles over debt and deficits, the size and role of government, and issues of economic fairness that have all but paralyzed the federal government and brought it twice to the edge of default.

The Twilight
of the American
Enlightenment: The
1950s and the
Crisis of Liberal Belief

by George M. Marsden
Basic Books, 264 pp.

Why is it so hard for Americans to talk to one another across the ideological divide, let alone understand the anxieties of those on the other side? In his new book, the historian George Marsden offers a perspicacious answer. Professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, Marsden is a distinguished historian of American religion, best known for his biography of the eighteenth-century evangelical firebrand Jonathan Edwards, he of the harrowing treatise “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Marsden has spent years studying the fundamentalist strain in the American outlook, and in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment he succinctly describes our current polarized predicament: “Secular liberals believe their freedoms are threatened by a conservative Christian takeover. Conservative Christians believe that secularists are excluding their Christian views and using big government to expand their own dominion.” Each side exaggerates its own vulnerability and the malevolence of its opponents; each claims sole possession of the truth on fundamental questions of individual responsibility and public purpose.

The gnarled roots of this stalemate—American society’s inability to accommodate genuine pluralism—reach to the very conception of the nation, which joined the Enlightenment values of the Founders to the pieties of an overwhelmingly Protestant society. Contrary to popular belief, writes Marsden, the United States “does not have well-developed traditions or conceptions of pluralism that can embrace a wide range of both religious and nonreligious viewpoints.” True, the nation from the start had no established church, yet it had a powerful de facto Protestant culture, one that pushed dissenting groups to the margins in every debate about American identity and values. The nation’s much-celebrated commitment to religious diversity—as Catholics, Jews, and minority Protestant sects learned—was observed most often in the breach. Assimilation did not just mean losing one’s accent, it meant losing one’s distinctive worldview, especially if it clashed with reigning Protestant notions of liberty and individualism.

As intellectual and cultural history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment will be catnip to those who remember the homogenizing pressures and chauvinisms of postwar suburban America. Marsden lays out how the prevailing social conformity and religious piety set the stage for the notorious rebellions of the 1960s. Describing a social ethos shaped by the emergence of mass consumption and the mass media, he summons the bland, Ozzie and Harriet uniformity of popular culture. Such uniformity, he asserts, was at least in part a reaction to deeper anxieties, and indeed the era’s erudite handwringing featured such heavyweights as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, David Riesman, Daniel Bell, and Time publisher Henry Luce. Luce’s magazine both reflected the values and sought to shape the development of every important American institution. Luce was especially concerned (with good reason) about the challenge posed to traditional Christian values by a skeptical and materialistic modernity, and viewed a certain kind of intellectually flexible liberal Protestantism as essential to shoring up the nation’s strength and ensuring its future, especially in the struggle with the Soviet Union.

The United States was, of course, the first nation to write the separation of church and state into law; the idea, popular in some right-wing circles today, that this is fundamentally a “Christian” nation finds little warrant in our founding documents—or in the convictions of the Founders themselves, most of whom were deists wary of religious enthusiasm and distrustful of ecclesiastical authority. As Marsden points out, however, the framers “took for granted that there was a Creator who established natural laws, including moral laws, that could be known to humans as self-evident principles to be understood and elaborated through reason.” The American enlightenment ideal “of a consensus based on rationally derived, shared humanistic principles,” he writes, “[was] congenial to a broadly theistic Protestant heritage.” This consensus enabled a broad agreement on moral and political boundaries to emerge and to persist for nearly two centuries.

By the 1950s, however, that consensus had been undermined, at least in elite circles, by Darwinism, the prestige of science, and the influence of Freudianism and psychology more generally. The carnage of World War II, the horror of the Holocaust, and the specter of nuclear annihilation all contributed to a deepening moral uncertainty, and appeals to self-evident God-given moral laws increasingly fell on deaf ears. Many of America’s leading postwar thinkers, meanwhile, worried that modern “mass” man, caught up in the imperatives of the modern economy and seduced by the blandishments of affluence, lacked the discipline for self-government. Marsden shows how old-fashioned American individualism, fed by postwar prosperity, undermined traditional morality in the 1950s: World War II and the automobile, for instance, had as much to do with loosening inherited notions of sexual morality as did any of the flamboyant excesses of the following two decades.

Though community values were ritually celebrated, everywhere Americans turned, they now saw individual freedom, self-determination, self-reliance, and self-expression invoked as American absolutes. That exaltation of the autonomous self—whether in the bedroom or the shopping mall—had deep roots in the nation’s Emersonian and radical Protestant traditions, and now, in the new environment created by America’s postwar global dominance, it grew to full bloom. “What is fascinating and revealing,” Marsden writes, “is how easily talk about the unassailable idea of ‘freedom’ in a political sense blended into an ideal of personal attitudes of independence from social authorities and restraints.”

True, the 1950s witnessed crowded churches and teeming parishes, yet in most other spheres of mainstream American life, religion was little seen or heard. Outside of a perfunctory morning prayer, religion as a cultural force was absent from the public schools. Countless social as well as legal barriers guarded against the potentially discordant consequences of competing religious beliefs, turning faith into a largely individual and private matter. Economic rather than religious imperatives played an ever-larger role in how Americans spent their time and conducted family matters, including deciding where to live. “Although American piety had always had some impact on American political culture,” Marsden writes, “it had had almost no impact on its economic culture, where the demands of efficient technique overwhelmed all else.” As a result, “the dominant public discourse of the era … was conducted mostly without religious reference.”

Marsden reminds us that until the 1960s it was rare for anyone but Protestant males to head a major American cultural, business, or educational institution, a fact that helps explain the remarkably homogeneous tone of the larger culture. Change, however, was coming, especially thanks to the civil rights movement, launched in earnest in the 1950s—a movement that, along with the women’s, antiwar, and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, would effectively shatter the old Protestant consensus. Within only a few years, the approach espoused by secular liberals—pragmatism and a faith in supposedly value-neutral science—would prove as anachronistic as appeals to natural law in responding to the social and political fragmentation of the 1960s and ’70s.

The challenge Americans face today, after fifty years of social and political turmoil, is how to build what Marsden calls a truly “inclusive pluralism.” A self-described Augustinian Christian, Marsden is a member of the Calvinist Christian Church; he urges refers to consider the work of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch prime minister (1901-1905) who was also a journalist, political theorist, and Reformed theologian. Kuyper helped devise democratic political reforms in the Netherlands to accommodate “principled” or “confessional” pluralism. In that multiparty system, Marsden explains, the “primary task of government is to promote justice and to act as a sort of referee” among a multiplicity of religious and secular groups. Accordingly, not just government but also mediating institutions such as churches, families, and businesses are granted considerable authority within their own spheres.

Marsden discerns lessons for the United States in Kuyper’s efforts. Historically, he writes, much of America’s cultural dynamism and impetus for change has come from its various subcommunities—he points to the vitality of evangelical churches as one contemporary example, noting that not all evangelicals are politically conservative. And yet, as the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have recently demonstrated, evangelical churches are on the wane. In fact, among Americans under thirty, one-third profess no institutional religious affiliation at all. This is an unprecedented development, and Putnam and Campbell attribute it to how the culture wars have politicized religion, deepening the nation’s divisions.

Marsden is clear-eyed in describing the forces, especially the economic ones, which did so much to weaken community ties and authority in the 1950s and ’60s. Those pressures have hardly lessened. If anything, community is more ad hoc and transient than ever. The historian Mark Lilla addressed such developments in a 1998 essay in the New York Review of Books, “A Tale of Two Reactions.” Analyzing much of the same cultural and political history as Marsden, Lilla asked why the social revolutions of the ’60s and the subsequent Reagan revolution of the ’80s have embedded themselves so deeply in American society. Those seemingly incompatible movements, he concluded, were in fact “complementary, not contradictory,” each finding its spiritual source and justification in the radical democratic individualism of America’s Protestant heritage. Reaganism, Lilla argued, was “an extension of the same utopian vision” as the antinomianism of the ’60s—one viewing economic freedom as an inalienable right, the other individual personal and sexual expression. How, Lilla lamented, “have our notions of equality and individualism been transformed to support a morally lax yet economically successful capitalist society”? Marsden wonders, along similar lines, how Americans can continue to find in individual self-determination and self-fulfillment “a complete standard for a public philosophy that would adjudicate the hard questions that arise when individual interests conflict.”

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment helps explain why so many Americans think this way, and why doing so threatens our tradition of self-government—which, when all is said and done, remains the only real guarantee of individual freedom. Can we alter course and develop the habits of communal solidarity and self-denial needed to loosen the straitjacket of what Christopher Lasch long ago called America’s culture of narcissism? Marsden is hopeful; Americans, he believes, will come eventually to realize that self-seeking rarely brings the happiness promised in the Declaration of—what else?—Independence. If we don’t come to this recognition, we may soon discover that we have more in common with Jonathan Edwards’s sinners in the hands of an angry God than we like to think.

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Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.