Review of George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (Basic Books, 2014), 219 pp.
New books by George Marsden, a senior statesman of the church-history guild and now retired from the University of Notre Dame, are always welcome events. His latest, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, is an engaging book, and yes, it is much shorter than his massive 2003 biography of Jonathan Edwards, which I read a number of years back during a vacation week in the mountains. Both in terms of length and intended audience (the general reader) this book makes fewer demands on the reader than some of Marsden’s more technical works, and this is a good thing in that the issues he engages are important and the volume deserves broad circulation.
Marsden examines the increasingly prickly issues of religious tolerance and diversity in America, and he argues that both the mainstream liberalism of the 1950s and the more recent Religious Right have gotten it wrong, with serious negative consequences for the nation. The focus here, however, is primarily on that earlier liberal consensus.
What were the characteristics of this mainstream liberal consensus? First, it sought to be a consensus, and the existence of broad consensus as a foundation for a stable society was deemed important. Second, it emphasized individual autonomy, and thus traditional religious communities as well as the older transcendent foundations of civil society in Scripture or natural law were undercut. In place of such traditional authorities, pragmatism in various forms was adopted. Finally, it placed great stock in science, which was viewed as an objective endeavor.
But there were internal tensions and problems. The commitment to individual autonomy and the pragmatism that accompanied it were unable to arrive at stable first principles. As Marsden puts it, the “problem with pragmatism is that, although it can work admirably when it can draw on shared moral capital, it does not provide much basis for establishing first principles or deciding among contending moral claims” (p. 130). In addition, the commitment to science seemed to threaten the commitment to individual autonomy (e.g., the determinism implied by B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist psychology), and the intellectual resources at hand were unable to resolve this tension. Existentialism was working the individual autonomy side of the fence but fell into irrationalism, while analytic philosophy worked the scientific side but had little to offer regarding larger issues.
The 1950s were also a time of great interest in religion, and even religious revival. But even as religion was in the news it was being privatized, and the public face of this was more often than not “an undefined common theism” shorn of the angular particularities of dogma. Instead, moralism prevailed, and this lowest-common-denominator “consensus” in fact left out many groups such as evangelicals and Pentecostals. Thus the underlying belief system of many Americans was “secular and humanistic,” but this approach “left unanswered the question of why enlightened progressive Christianity should be privileged over any other teaching” (p. 124).
Thus Marsden argues that the “American enlightenment ideal of a consensus based on rationally derived, shared humanistic principles congenial to a broadly theistic Protestant heritage was falling apart” (p. 127). After this approach imploded in the 1960s and 1970s, the Religious Right emerged in the late 1970s attempting to fill the gap.
But the Religious Right was itself the heir of conflicting influences. On the one hand, there was the legacy of militant, biblicistic fundamentalism, with its tendency toward “simple dichotomies” of Christian vs. non-Christian (which were inevitably perceived by others as divisive and sectarian). On the other hand, there was the heritage of nineteenth-century evangelicalism with its concern for broader Protestant consensus. In fact, the Religious Right’s practice was often better than its divisive rhetoric in that most of them really did believe in religious liberty. Nevertheless, the Religious Right did not provide a larger framework in which minority viewpoints would be represented and protected.
Thus neither consensus mainstream liberalism nor the aspiring-to-consensus Religious Right could provide a basis for true religious pluralism in which minority views were given their due. Here Marsden makes a particular point of noting how the wall-of-separation church-state jurisprudence was not working because it assumed the privatization of religion. He writes,
The great problem with the “wall of separation” metaphor was, as the courts came to recognize, that it proved to be impossible to draw any consistent line between the secular public sphere and the religion of the private sphere. A sizable minority of Americans was seriously religious, and their religious beliefs had inevitable influences on their activities in the public domain, where in politics, business, or education. It is one thing to try to draw a line between “church and state,” two sorts of institutions. But no consistent line of separation can even be imagined between the far larger entities of “religion and society.” Religion is seldom a strictly spiritual matter; rather, it involves moral prescriptions as to how to act in everyday secular affairs. Although religious people may reasonable be expected to act with a degree of civility in the public domain, it is not reasonable or practical to expect them to act in the public realm without reference to their deeply held, religiously based moral convictions. So, even if privatization has proven valuable as a way of encouraging social harmony up to a point, it is a principle that cannot address the question of equity in the public sphere in dealing with inevitable differences based on religious conviction (p. 158).
Although the book was obviously written before the recent spate of litigation involving Hobby Lobby and other corporations and institutions regarding the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare, it provides useful commentary on the cultural and historical background of such cases.
Thankfully, the book is not all diagnosis with no prescription, and Marsden presents the ideas of Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper as a corrective to American patterns that have run their course. Because of his recognition that science and reason are not neutral, but rather are conditioned by a host of faith commitments about the nature of reality and human life, Kuyper was able to take these differences seriously without seeking to collapse them into an artificial consensus. In addition, with his emphasis on “common grace”—the recognition that God has given all kinds of people intellectual capacity—Kuyper allows “for shared rationality in holding things together” (p. 168). Finally, Kuyper’s doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” allows room for the mediating structures that provide buffers between the individual and government and thus strengthen democracy. Thus far Marsden’s argument.
As we would expect from Marsden, the book is quite readable and engaging, and it seems to be well edited (I found one spelling mistake on p. 120). Especially enjoyable are the more extended treatments of important thinkers such as Erich Fromm, David Riesman, Walter Lippmann, B. F. Skinner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Francis Schaeffer. The explication of Niebuhr in particular can be taken as an apposite response to Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and its celebration of the 1950s as a sort of golden age of American Christianity. Marsden demonstrates that Niebuhr’s version of Christianity was seriously attenuated (in good Enlightenment fashion Niebuhr had little place for the miraculous) and that it was all too common for people to separate his anthropological insights from his theology (the “atheists for Niebuhr” phenomenon). Finally, Marsden demonstrates that the problems of religious diversity and liberty in America remain unresolved.
I do have some minor reservations. Marsden’s definition of “civil religion” as “popular piety that treats the nation itself as an object of worship” lacks nuance, and I would have liked to see more interaction with the twentieth-century Roman Catholic social theorist John Courtney Murray, whose extensive writings on the issue of pluralism parallel many of Marsden’s concerns. This in turn points to what is probably the greatest weakness of the book—Marsden’s insistent focus on Protestantism misses some important aspects of the broader story, especially the way that in the wake of Vatican II Roman Catholics became significant players in the struggle for religious liberty. Finally, Marsden’s suggestion that contemporary academia can serve as a model for fruitful pluralism (p. 176) may seem odd to those who have the misfortune of having to sit through faculty meetings on a regular basis. But none of these niggles should keep one from reading this important book.