Book Review: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, by George Marsden


George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. Basic Books, 2014. 264 pp. $26.99.

In The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, George Marsden offers us a window into a lost world and, to some extent, the story of how that world was lost.

These days, we have heavily-scripted quasi-reality shows on every major network most nights of the week: from WWE Raw to The Bachelor to whatever number Big Brother is up to this season. Pretty much everyone knows these shows are rigged, and pretty much no one cares. It’s tough to imagine a world where rumors that the contestants of The $64,000 Question were prepped for their answers sparked a congressional investigation and set scandalized elites bewailing “how deeply corruption had struck into the heart of the culture” (5).

It’s not any easier to imagine a world where these same intellectuals foresaw doom in the “predictable moralistic plots” of The Rifleman and the mindlessness of sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver. What would these men say of The Walking Dead, or any particular iteration ofCSI?

Marsden’s book is about American thought and culture in the 1950s, especially how an influential group of public intellectuals looked, from that time and place, toward the future of American civilization.  These intellectuals were spread throughout the academy, the print media, the government, and even the church—men like Walter Lippman, Henry Luce, Arthur Schlesinger, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

As Marsden frames it, the burning question these men faced was this: “If what passed for culture in America was increasingly to be dominated by TV, then what hope was there to cultivate the higher ideals necessary for the survival of Western civilization?” (6). If the masses lose interest in those “higher ideals,” if all they want is to be entertained and to buy whatever they’re told is in fashion, how will they resist the rise of Soviet-like totalitarian authority?

That intellectual elites should criticize the ad-driven, consumption-oriented vacuity of American popular culture is not foreign to our 21st century context. But today, members of this class often speak with the frustration and condescension of an outsider. In other words, they’re describing problems of other people. By contrast, Marsden’s subjects were the consummate insiders. They were at the power centers of American society and they knew it. These men were driven not by frustration but by anxiety—anxiety born of identification, ownership, responsibility. They believed the future course of American culture was theirs to guide, and they saw that what they loved was drifting away.


One of Marsden’s main arguments is that these public intellectuals were far more effective in recognizing the problems building in American society than they were at confronting them. In chapters 3-4—the heart of the book—Marsden explains the debilitating weakness in their response: they were trying to preserve a set of ideals whose philosophical foundation they had largely dismissed.

They wanted to rally a public consensus around what Marsden calls the ideals of the “American Enlightenment.” These were the ideals of the nation’s eighteenth century founders, ideals like human freedom, the sanctity of self-determination, the right to equal protection under the law, and the supreme trustworthiness of reason for building the good society.

But much had changed since the founders first articulated these American verities. The American founders, if not orthodox Christians, “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” (xxi). Once discovered, these universal laws had to be obeyed.

However, the public intellectuals of the 1950s lived on the backside of Charles Darwin. They believed laws were not handed down from a higher, universal authority but constructed by societies over time and through the survival of the fittest ideal. They were pragmatists, not dogmatists. They affirmed principles of human freedom with at least as much moralistic rigor as the American founders, but they believed they had outgrown the constraints of natural law. They believed the scientific method—a process of gradual experimentation and accumulated knowledge—would be authority enough to gather open-minded people around shared ideals. Convince people to trust themselves and to trust the findings of scientific experts, and the core principles of American identity would remain self-evident.

Or so they believed . . . until the 1960s showed that whatever consensus they had enjoyed was inherited, not earned. The fragmentation of the 1960s exposed a bigger problem than shallow consumer-oriented culture where the masses don’t value democratic ideals. The bigger problem was the rejection of shared ideals and the lack of sufficient authority to win back allegiance.


Another of Marsden’s main concerns is to explain why religious voices have been largely irrelevant to conversations about American identity since the 1950s, and to suggest a better way forward.

The public discourse of the 1950s included a strong dose of religious language. This language gave the impression that Christianity remained a vibrant influence from the top of America’s social strata and all the way down. But invocations of faith, though spread wide, were only inches deep. They amounted to what one observer called “America’s humanistic nationalism,” a national religion that, as Marsden put it, was “shared even by many of the unchurched” and “was strikingly vague” (111). A far cry from anything recognizably Christian, this faith was galvanized more by the threat of godless communism than zeal for the God of the Bible.

The problem was that Mainline Protestant leaders were in no position to insist on a more robust, orthodox faith. They retained a respected place among the cultural elite, but their status came at a cost that crippled their ability to halt the slide into fragmentation and disarray. Like their more secular colleagues, they distrusted dogmatism and preferred “ideals that had proved themselves empirically in the crucible of the modern era and could be widely shared” (124). Christian truth must be always developing along with our growing understanding of the world. So we deemphasize what’s been handed down—dogmas that might be divisive—in favor of what we build up as we respond to changing information.

This Protestant modernism, as it has been called, was perfectly in step with the pragmatic, scientific, and progressive outlook of the 1950s elite, so in step that it’s tough to see much of a difference. In effect, their strategy had conceded any chance that religion—theirs or anyone else’s—might have something distinct to offer in American public life.

In chapter six Marsden turns from the Protestant Mainline to the rise of the religious right, which he describes as a polarizing overreaction to the secularization of the 1960s-70s. This chapter has an adversarial tone to it and, to my mind, it’s the weakest in the book. Marsden engages the views of Francis Schaeffer as the zeitgeist of the movement. But otherwise his sweeping assertions come with very little interaction with sources from that period or since.

That said, his basic point is that the consensus ideal of 1950s moderates was taken up in force by Christian conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s. They believed “secular humanism” had displaced Christian truth in the nerve center of American government and culture. And they wanted a return to the Christian moral tradition that had ruled the nation from the founding through the mid-century, as if this former consensus had been robust and orthodox rather than tepid and basically secular.

For Marsden, if the Protestant Mainline responded to the pluralism in American society by relinquishing any place for distinctive religious voices, the Christian conservatives made themselves irrelevant by rejecting the value of pluralism itself. Yes, they reasserted the social usefulness of distinctive Christian principles. But Marsden argues they reached too far, reducing all public discourse to the simplistic categories of Christian or non-Christian.


In his conclusion, Marsden attempts to carve out a public place for religious voices between the secularization of the Mainline and the crusading spirit of the religious right. He makes a strong, concise case for why religious voices deserve the same hearing as their purely naturalistic counterparts. And, drawing from Abraham Kuyper and the principle of common grace, he offers compelling reasons for Christians to look for and affirm wisdom in non-Christian perspectives. Under his ideal of inclusive pluralism, “each sort of view, naturalistic or religious, should have equal opportunity to be heard and evaluated on its own merits by others in the public domain” (176).

In a society as diverse as ours I understand why we ought to listen to each other, why it is unjust to exclude some voices simply because of where they come from. Marsden’s case is convincing on that front and offers some helpful talking points as we face new challenges to religious liberty.

What I don’t understand is how he would have us move from listening to acting on some shared purpose. His call to evaluate each other’s views implies some sort of standard by which we measure their “merits” (176). Christian revelation (what God says), Enlightenment liberalism (what is reasonable), pragmatism (what works)—Marsden has shown how and why these standards haven’t been enough. But his conclusion doesn’t offer an alternative standard, and leaves us with the problem raised at the heart of the book: in a diverse society, by what authority can we ground a consensus around shared ideals? By what standard should we go about evaluating the “merits” of each other’s views?

Still, the Twilight of the American Enlightenment is well worth reading, and not just because it’s so enjoyable and engaging. As responsible history, it offers us a window into another way of seeing things we take for granted, inviting us to face some crucial questions. Are we thoughtlessly captive to someone’s advertising agenda? Are we carried along uncritically by the current of technological change? Are we too quick to defer to the testimony of so-called “experts”? Would we rather be entertained than think carefully about the society into which God has placed us? What would Walter Lippman or Reinhold Niebuhr say about us?

Matt McCullough

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee.