Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

George M Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: the 1950s and the crisis of belief. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 219 pages. ISBN 978-0-465-030101.

George Marsden is one of the leading historians of our day. He has written many prize-winning books including Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. In addition, he has influenced many Christian scholars today. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a different type of book for him. In this book, he examines the 1950s and the attempt of secular liberals to create a consensus for American culture and life. He shows through his analysis of this period how this experiment failed. He connects the birth of the Religious Right with the failure of the liberal establishment. He faults liberals for shutting out the voice of religious conservatives. He faults the religious right for creating a mythical Christian nation. His overall goal is to argue for a principled pluralism that allows for the voices of liberals, moderates, and conservatives to be heard in the public arena.

This seems to be a goal worth shooting for. I do not think his analysis of the failed liberal experiment necessarily leads to the argument for pluralism in our day. It is hard to apply the findings of one period of history to another. One might also wonder if we do not have pluralism already and different voices are already evident in this arena. There does seem to be a need for civility in the public arena as argued by Richard Mouw and Os Guinness. It would seem that Christians can play an important role here.

Marsden's analysis of the 1950s is expertly done. He shows he is throughly familiar with the key individuals and events of the time. He does show that the liberal elite had no transcendent(?) belief that could unify the nation. The strange thing here is that many conservatives look back longingly at the fifties as a time of family values. Despite this being a time of legal segregation; this view is based on a myth. We should be thankful for Marsden's help in having a more truthful view of the 1950s.

The Twilight of the Enlightenment includes five chapters. In chapter one Marsden analyzes mass media's affect on American culture. This is the time of television. Many liberals spoke out to its negative characteristics. Marsden notes, "The anxieties over television, mass media, and a culture dominated by mindless anti-intellectualism were all premised on the deeper concern that the world might be witnessing the emergence of a whole new creature, 'mass man' or modern man' (21). There were many intellectuals who spoke against this master culture. Some of there were Eric Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom; David Riseman, in The Lonely Crowd; and the popular novel and film, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. These authors were arguing for freedom against mass conformism. Marsden notes, "Yet, it was not clear what criteria one should use to determine what the positive alternatives were to the shackles either of traditionalism or of modern conformity" (42). In addition, he argues that "the social commentators who identified conformity as a preeminent modern problem could assume that autonomy was the solution because they were taking for granted that there were better values that authentic, self-fulfilled people could draw upon" (43). Marsden argues that this search for some higher goal to based these values were a failure. The building they were building "were without foundations."

One of the leading liberal intellectuals who saw this failure was Walter Lippmann. In his last book, he wrote of this failure. His book was trated with scorn and ridicule. Marsden notes, "His heresy was to say that his liberal colleagues were trying to build a public consensus based on inherited principles, even after they dynamited the foundations on which those principles had first been established. The result was that liberal culture, of which he was a part, had no adequate shared criteria for determining 'the good' (44). " Lippman went on to argue that we must try to renew something like a natural law.

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a well-written book. It persuasively argues that the liberal attempt to create a consensus after letting go of the Christian foundation ultimately failed. What we have as a result is the modern culture wars. It does seem that we need to come to some-kind of a consensus or our nation will rip at the seams.


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