George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

George Marsden, author of pivotal works such as Fundamentalism and American Culture and the definitive biography of Jonathan Edwards, returns with a cultural and theological assessment of the “liberal consensus” and its demise. Contributing to previous accounts of liberalism, as in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and Matthew Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion, Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (Basic Books, 2014) argues that the 1950s served as a transitional period in this story. The decade witnessed the end of the American Enlightenment, along with its religious foundation, and gave way to an unsustainable liberalism which rewarded consensus and punished dissent.

There are three “motifs” central to Marsden’s work. The first sets the stage with an evaluation of American culture in the 1950s. Beyond popular depictions found in shows like Mad Men, Marsden’s analysis offers insight into the negative impact of technology and mass media on the cultural and moral development of the nation. Mass culture and new technology, such as the TV, fed off each other and propitiated a banal society aspiring for meritocracy. Recognizing this downward spiral, the cultural commentators of the day advanced an elite or intellectual leadership which sought to correct the course towards a more fulfilling culture.

The second motif addresses the continuity and discontinuity between the liberal thinkers of the 1950s and the founding fathers. According to Marsden, the American Enlightenment was a mixture of religion and reason, which aided in producing a culture of freedom, individualism, and equality. Continuity between the two periods shared an enlightened approach to humanity and modern progress for a unified public culture. The discontinuity revealed a turning away from the religious elements of the American Enlightenment, which left behind a guideless pursuit to these ends.

The final motif brings together these cultural and theological themes in an exposition of their impact on religion since the 1950s. When the liberal consensus was shown to be inadequate in their dealings with religious pluralism, it produced at least two forces. First, a religious crisis jeopardized the morals of the nation, liberalizing it from the clutches of dogmatism. Second, this turn spurred a reactionary movement in the 1970s through the rise of the religious right.

To the present dilemma of religious pluralism and the fractured nature of the public sphere, Marsden offers a path of reconciliation and inclusivism based on Abraham Kuyper’s engagement with society and the doctrine of common grace. The resolution of the culture wars is not found in naturalism or secularism. However, equally dangerous is the need to return America to an imagined Christian nation. The Kuyperian approach works within our differences without a need to be domineering politically or otherwise. Sadly, there is little indication that the nation is on this road to reconciliation or that the end to the culture wars is in sight.

While I strongly object to Marsden’s negative depiction of TV Westerns such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke (6), personal favorites which I will defend till the end, it is his use of the term “Enlightenment” which I find need of addressing. First, the positive. Marsden’s understanding of the Enlightenment, at least of the American variety, is part of a corrective to Jonathan Israel’s position, which marginalizes and even denies the religious currents found within the members of the Enlightenment. Israel’s argument is presented in his popular series, Radical EnlightenmentEnlightenment Contested, and most relevant for our discussion, Democratic Enlightenment. Against this thinking, scholars such as David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment, and Jonathan Yeager, Enlightened Evangelicalism, argue for a more inclusive understanding that incorporates Christian scholars as enlightened figures.

However, Marsden’s work would have benefited from further clarification of how he understands the religious Enlightenment. The defining characteristic seemed to be the coexistence of the religious and democratic pursuits of the founding fathers. Perhaps due to the brevity of the work, his presentation of these two components, at times, appear as separate entities which may exist in a person but do not influence each other. Since Marsden contends that the religious views of the founding fathers played a major role in the American Enlightenment, it would have been helpful if he had approached the themes of freedom, authority, and religious pluralism from an organic perspective, which recognizes how faith shaped certain enlightened figures, rather than merely acknowledging a faith element within the Enlightenment.

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a well-researched analysis of midcentury cultural and religious life in America. Marsden carefully traces the changing nature of American society along with the rise and fall of liberalism. His Kuyperian resolution to religious pluralism warrants real consideration, and an honest assessment of religious and secular motives in the ongoing culture wars.



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