The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
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More Advance Praise for


“This remarkable book gives us an insightful narrative of how we have gotten to our present failure to manage increasingly diverse cultural realities in North America. Marsden charts the various efforts over several decades in the last century to sustain a pluralism on the basis of a cultural consensus—both ‘atheists for Niebuhr' and the New Religious Right had their own versions of this project. In exposing the underlying reasons for their failure, Marsden points the way to a challenging but exciting journey toward a truly inclusive pluralism.”

—Richard J. Mouw, Professor of Faith and Public Life, Fuller Theological Seminary

“George Marsden's learned and accessible analysis of the intellectual culture of the 1950s is must reading for anyone trying to make sense of our current debates over religion in American public life.”

—John Fea, Messiah College, author of
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction

“Piercing and succinct yet astonishingly elegant,
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
anatomizes the mind of 1950s America with the blend of precision and flair, moral conviction and compulsive readability that the era's public intellectuals prized in their literature. Marshaling his unmatched historical expertise and command of modern American religion and thought, Marsden guides his reader through the last days of certainty—the early Cold War moment when liberal thinkers earnestly shored up their society's shared faiths even as they faced signs of eroding consensus and impending cultural revolution at every turn. Marsden's book is a courageous and path-breaking account of
pivot point in twentieth-century American life.”

—Darren Dochuk, author of
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

In this compact but powerful analysis of American life and thought in the years since the Second World War, George Marsden shows why neither a triumphant
secular liberalism nor a restored religious consensus can serve as a rallying point
for national unity. Instead, he makes a case for a pluralism that treats the widest possible
range of religious and nonreligious perspectives as equally deserving of protections and recognition, and rejects the privatization of religious speech and expression. The result is a book that is as much about dawning as about twilight, one that not only provides a fresh and compelling view of postwar America, but offers a fresh vision of the road ahead, a future in which our emerging debates over the meaning and limits of religious liberty will be of central and growing importance.

—Wilfred M. McClay, G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma


and the





To my former students, with thanks for all they have done


Many Americans think of the 1950s as a time
when American culture made sense. Some of us can remember why. We had won the war, we were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, and we were surrounded by visible signs of progress. Comfortable suburbs sprang up everywhere. I remember well how, in the spring of 1949, when I was ten years old, the fields near my home where we used to roam were suddenly marked off with patterns of stakes. A building project was launched with some fanfare—the developers even gave away aluminum horseshoe tokens with a 1949 penny in the center. By the next spring, our town had a full-fledged suburb, where I would soon be delivering newspapers. In such places, more and more young families could participate in the American dream of owning their own homes endowed with up-to-date
modern conveniences. Everyone seemed to take the ideal of the
conventional family for granted. The father went off to
work, and the mother dedicated herself to raising the children
. Typically, the front yards on my paper route were littered with bicycles and tricycles. For many people in the 1950s, an expanding amount of free time could be dedicated to entertainment (a
small blue-gray TV flickered in most picture windows), leisure, and sports. Children and teenagers were among the chief beneficiaries of these changes, enjoying a whole youth culture of rock 'n' roll music, films, TV shows, comic books, sports, and activities designed especially for them. Not everyone yet shared in the American dream, of course, but the nation was working on that. The society was becoming more and more inclusive, and the people within it were increasingly sharing similar values. Granted, a lot of problems remained to be solved. Yet there was little reason not to believe that, if peace could be maintained, progress would continue.

In many ways, the mid-twentieth century was a time of tremendous optimism. Americans were constantly being reminded that theirs was the best nation on earth. They heard every day that their happiness and contentment would only increase, particularly if they acquired the latest products. Probably no one quite believed all the hype, but still, in many ways, things (and it was especially
) were better than they had ever been. As Alan Ehrenhalt, author of
The Lost City
, put it in that engaging look back at growing up in Chicago, it was “not that the 1950s were a golden age . . . but that they were a time when life as it was seemed so much better than life might have
been.” Everyone could remember or had heard of enduring the
hardships of the Depression, or could look back to or imagine coming of age in 1943, when boys were sent off to an incredibly grim world war.

Ehrenhalt recalls especially “the forgotten virtues of community in America” that still prevailed in the 1950s. Most folks' lives were shaped by the community of the neighborhood or
town in which they lived. Well-known local people typically owned and ran the stores that were part of that community. Even when families moved to the suburbs, they worked hard at creating a sense of togetherness through community organizations and churches. One of the dimensions of the urban neighborhoods was the presence of authority—sometimes arbitrary authority. That was especially true for those who lived in Catholic neighborhoods, where parish priests often ruled with an iron hand. Every child who attended a Catholic school could recall nuns whose lives seemed dedicated to being God's agent for enforcing discipline, order, and uniformity. In all these communities, Catholic and otherwise, the authoritarian father, easily angered by the laxness and indifference of the younger generation, was a figure everyone knew of either first or second hand. Yet according to Ehrenhalt, it is not just nostalgia to regard such occasionally strict authority as a fair price to pay for a sense of genuine community—a sense of community that has been lost for so many Americans of later eras that seem to be shaped by the “chaos of choice.”

It is easy to understand why many people today might wish for a return to the virtues of those seemingly simpler times. First of all, it is human nature to look back on an earlier era, especially the days of one's youth, as being more coherent than the disruptive times of later years. At least that has
been the way it has looked to Euro-Americans ever since the 1660s, when Puritan preachers were contemplating an American
-born generation and lamenting the decline from the days of the founders. For cultural conservatives today it is especially understandable to think of the 1950s as a time when traditional
morality and religion were still respected in the cultural mainstream.
New York Times
columnist Ross Douthat has written fondly of the place that religion held in society during the Eisenhower years, when what Douthat has depicted as a sort of consensus Christian orthodoxy had wide influence in American public life. Certainly, there was more public respect for religion then than there is at present. In many public schools of the 1950s, days opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, a Bible reading, and the Lord's Prayer. Traditional Judeo-Christian standards, such as monogamous, heterosexual marriage, were the dominant public norms. Even some cultural liberals who today would not approve of the ideal of stay-at-home moms—or of censorship according to the Motion Picture Production Code—can celebrate “The Greatest Generation.” That was, as Tom Brokaw famously described it, the World War II generation, the generation that came home from the war to apply “the same passions and disciplines that had served them so well in the war” to building “the most powerful peacetime economy in history” and to bringing stunning achievements in many fields.

Understandable and even admirable as such regard for the accomplishments of our forebears is, we should at the same time recall that the 1950s were an era of great cultural anxiety and uncertainty. The most immediate anxieties arose in response to the combination of the Cold War and the Bomb. The United States, which had been traditionally isolationist, had been thrown into a position of world leadership. It faced a fearful totalitarian power and the possibility of a war that might obliterate civilization itself. Having fought two world
wars within a generation, Americans feared World War III, which, even if most people tried not to think about it, seemed almost inevitable.

That much is well remembered, but far less recalled and reflected upon is another level of cultural crisis that is the point of departure for this book. For the most thoughtful observers of American life of the time, the most basic question was whether this civilization could be saved from itself. The horrors engineered by Adolf Hitler and other totalitarian dictators had demonstrated that Western civilization was in the midst of a profound crisis and that democracy was hardly a guarantee against barbarism. If the Holocaust could take place in Germany, one of the most advanced nations in the world both culturally and intellectually, what was to prevent such atrocities elsewhere? The forces of modernity itself might be destabilizing civilization. Evidence was abundant that the headlong rush from tradition to modernity was disorienting to “modern man,” to repeat a widely used phrase of the day. Many observers worried that scientifically based authorities, such as those leading the new studies of psychology and the other social sciences, were destroying traditional religious and moral restraints. At the same time, modern technology was spawning mass culture and forms of entertainment that appealed to the lowest common denominator and offered a shallow and empty reality. Cultural analysts worried that people in modern mass cultures might be all too ready to give up their freedom for the false securities of totalitarian ideologies. Modern artists routinely depicted the emptiness and fragmentation of contemporary life. Writers portrayed figures such as the empty Willie
Loman in
Death of a Salesman
or the disillusioned Holden Caulfield in
Catcher in the Rye
. Movie titles such as
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Rebel Without a Cause
captured the spirit of the age. More systematic observers reflected on themes such as “the lonely crowd,” “the sane society,” “the organization man,” or “the status seekers.”

My own fascination with these cultural analyses began more than half a century ago when I was a college student in the late 1950s. They were my introductions to intriguing questions about how to understand the American civilization in which I had grown up. I decided to return to the topic when, in 2009, I was teaching a course at Harvard Divinity School on “Faith and Learning in American Culture,” and I was struck once again by the way in which the characteristic assumptions of the 1950s regarding science and religion contributed to later problems. In particular, those assumptions helped impede the development of a fully inclusive pluralism in American academia and in American society generally. In revisiting the mainstream thought of the era, I hope to bring together perspectives shaped by my sense of both how this mainstream thought looked at the time and how it looks in the light of what has happened in the past half-century.

The chronology of decades is, of course, artificial. The dominant American cultural traits of “the 1950s” emerged shortly after World War II. Many of these traits persisted into
the early 1960s, although the election of John F. Kennedy in
1960 provides a convenient marker for at least a change in mood. I use “the 1950s” as a term that is synonymous with this broader midcentury culture, although the vast majority of my examples come from within that decade.

This book has three main themes or motifs. The first, which is most dominant in Chapters 1 and 2, is a recounting of how American culture looked through the eyes of the most perceptive and highly regarded cultural analysts of the time. What were its greatest challenges? In what did they place their hopes? What were the assumptions that these mainstream analysts could take for granted? These questions lead to the second and central motif, which is most explicit in Chapters 3 and 4 but echoes throughout the whole. That is the notion that the typical consensus outlooks of the time can be understood as attempts to preserve the ideals of the American enlightenment while discarding its foundations. The culminating motif, developed in Chapters 5 and 6 as well as the Conclusion, relates these themes to the role of religion in American public life both in the 1950s and since then up to the present.

Concerning the first motif, two things become particularly striking when we look back at what the leading public intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century had to say about the state of American civilization and, more broadly, Western civilization. The first is the perceptiveness of some of their insights into the modern predicament. They were reflecting on some breathtaking changes in the human experience, many of which had taken place in their own lifetimes. Midcentury observers, viewing so many innovations—such as car and air travel, electronic mass communications, mass production, household appliances, modern weaponry, efficient police states,
medicine, and dependence on psychology and other scientific
experts (to name just a few)—in the light of the well-remembered practices and outlooks they replaced, were
especially attuned to the larger significance of these changes for the state of civilization. By contrast, most of us take many of the features of modernity for granted; we continue to experience rapid technological change, but we have grown accustomed to the pace. We can benefit today from the reflections of those from an earlier era—an era in which modern times were new

The second striking feature is the contrast between the perceptiveness of their diagnoses and the inadequacies of their prescriptions. Looking back on even the wisest of these observers, we have the advantage of knowing what they could not have known: that the whole concept of “American civilization” (and even the more fundamental “Western civilization”) and their place within it was about to change dramatically. These moderate-liberal thinkers, who stood near the center of the cultural establishment, were living in the last days before a cultural revolution. Although they had no idea what was coming, they were correct in identifying a deep crisis regarding the quality of their civilization. They in fact anticipated some of the complaints that young people would take to the streets in the later 1960s. Yet, in retrospect, we can see that they had no solutions beyond more of the same. Their responses to the perceived emptiness of much of modern life typically amounted to shoring up the levees of the consensus culture, and these levees were wildly inadequate for holding back the floodwaters of cultural upheaval that were about to crash against them.

Trying to recapture a sense of how American civilization looked to its own leading analysts during these last days before the cultural revolution of the late twentieth century is an intriguing process in itself, as is any imaginative journey into a lost era. As a guide on this journey I point out only some “must-see” highlights, rather than offering a thorough scholarly analysis. I am not writing for specialists who concentrate on the thought of elite intellectuals. Instead, I want to help the general reader imagine how the cultural crisis and prospects of the day might have looked to the informed layperson of the 1950s, someone who was part of what was then called the “middlebrow” audience of those who kept an eye on accessible cultural analysis in books, magazines, and reviews.

In choosing to reconstruct this one aspect of the 1950s outlook, I realize that there are many important and fascinating features of the era that I am not getting into except as context. One might elaborate, for example, on some of the same themes examined here, especially themes of cultural critique, in the fiction, plays, and films of the era. Popular culture, from Lucy to Elvis, or from
Ladies Home Journal
, tells some different stories. Much has been written about the 1950s, and the decade is still often depicted in pop culture—for example, in the television series
Mad Men
, or in other shows, films, and
books that invoke standardized suburban life and the typical gender roles of the times. Or, on another note, people in the 1950s worried over seemingly rampant juvenile delinquency. The politics of the era tells a number of different stories, about the Cold War, Korea, McCarthyism, and early civil rights. The 1950s was the era of the birth of
a self-conscious and
intellectualized conservative movement, as represented by Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and Ayn Rand. For the economy, it was a time of immense business and technological growth and an unprecedented consumer-driven prosperity.

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
8.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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