To end the culture war that divides America, we need to recognize that each side has the same roots: the radical democratic individualism of America’s Protestant heritage.
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
by George M. Marsden
Basic Books, 264 pp.
For decades our nation has been divided, often bitterly, by the so-called culture wars. During Barack Obama’s presidency these unremitting tensions have manifested themselves in clashes over gay marriage, contraception coverage, and state-level abortion restrictions. Culture war loyalties and worldviews have also helped define who is on which side in the battles over debt and deficits, the size and role of government, and issues of economic fairness that have all but paralyzed the federal government and brought it twice to the edge of default.
Why is it so hard for Americans to talk to one another across the ideological divide, let alone understand the anxieties of those on the other side? In his new book, the historian George Marsden offers a perspicacious answer. Professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, Marsden is a distinguished historian of American religion, best known for his biography of the eighteenth-century evangelical firebrand Jonathan Edwards, he of the harrowing treatise “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Marsden has spent years studying the fundamentalist strain in the American outlook, and in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment he succinctly describes our current polarized predicament: “Secular liberals believe their freedoms are threatened by a conservative Christian takeover. Conservative Christians believe that secularists are excluding their Christian views and using big government to expand their own dominion.” Each side exaggerates its own vulnerability and the malevolence of its opponents; each claims sole possession of the truth on fundamental questions of individual responsibility and public purpose.
The gnarled roots of this stalemate—American society’s inability to accommodate genuine pluralism—reach to the very conception of the nation, which joined the Enlightenment values of the Founders to the pieties of an overwhelmingly Protestant society. Contrary to popular belief, writes Marsden, the United States “does not have well-developed traditions or conceptions of pluralism that can embrace a wide range of both religious and nonreligious viewpoints.” True, the nation from the start had no established church, yet it had a powerful de facto Protestant culture, one that pushed dissenting groups to the margins in every debate about American identity and values. The nation’s much-celebrated commitment to religious diversity—as Catholics, Jews, and minority Protestant sects learned—was observed most often in the breach. Assimilation did not just mean losing one’s accent, it meant losing one’s distinctive worldview, especially if it clashed with reigning Protestant notions of liberty and individualism.
As intellectual and cultural history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment will be catnip to those who remember the homogenizing pressures and chauvinisms of postwar suburban America. Marsden lays out how the prevailing social conformity and religious piety set the stage for the notorious rebellions of the 1960s. Describing a social ethos shaped by the emergence of mass consumption and the mass media, he summons the bland, Ozzie and Harriet uniformity of popular culture. Such uniformity, he asserts, was at least in part a reaction to deeper anxieties, and indeed the era’s erudite handwringing featured such heavyweights as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, David Riesman, Daniel Bell, and Time publisher Henry Luce. Luce’s magazine both reflected the values and sought to shape the development of every important American institution. Luce was especially concerned (with good reason) about the challenge posed to traditional Christian values by a skeptical and materialistic modernity, and viewed a certain kind of intellectually flexible liberal Protestantism as essential to shoring up the nation’s strength and ensuring its future, especially in the struggle with the Soviet Union.
The United States was, of course, the first nation to write the separation of church and state into law; the idea, popular in some right-wing circles today, that this is fundamentally a “Christian” nation finds little warrant in our founding documents—or in the convictions of the Founders themselves, most of whom were deists wary of religious enthusiasm and distrustful of ecclesiastical authority. As Marsden points out, however, the framers “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.” The American enlightenment ideal “of a consensus based on rationally derived, shared humanistic principles,” he writes, “[was] congenial to a broadly theistic Protestant heritage.” This consensus enabled a broad agreement on moral and political boundaries to emerge and to persist for nearly two centuries.
By the 1950s, however, that consensus had been undermined, at least in elite circles, by Darwinism, the prestige of science, and the influence of Freudianism and psychology more generally. The carnage of World War II, the horror of the Holocaust, and the specter of nuclear annihilation all contributed to a deepening moral uncertainty, and appeals to self-evident God-given moral laws increasingly fell on deaf ears. Many of America’s leading postwar thinkers, meanwhile, worried that modern “mass” man, caught up in the imperatives of the modern economy and seduced by the blandishments of affluence, lacked the discipline for self-government. Marsden shows how old-fashioned American individualism, fed by postwar prosperity, undermined traditional morality in the 1950s: World War II and the automobile, for instance, had as much to do with loosening inherited notions of sexual morality as did any of the flamboyant excesses of the following two decades.
Though community values were ritually celebrated, everywhere Americans turned, they now saw individual freedom, self-determination, self-reliance, and self-expression invoked as American absolutes. That exaltation of the autonomous self—whether in the bedroom or the shopping mall—had deep roots in the nation’s Emersonian and radical Protestant traditions, and now, in the new environment created by America’s postwar global dominance, it grew to full bloom. “What is fascinating and revealing,” Marsden writes, “is how easily talk about the unassailable idea of ‘freedom’ in a political sense blended into an ideal of personal attitudes of independence from social authorities and restraints.”
True, the 1950s witnessed crowded churches and teeming parishes, yet in most other spheres of mainstream American life, religion was little seen or heard. Outside of a perfunctory morning prayer, religion as a cultural force was absent from the public schools. Countless social as well as legal barriers guarded against the potentially discordant consequences of competing religious beliefs, turning faith into a largely individual and private matter. Economic rather than religious imperatives played an ever-larger role in how Americans spent their time and conducted family matters, including deciding where to live. “Although American piety had always had some impact on American political culture,” Marsden writes, “it had had almost no impact on its economic culture, where the demands of efficient technique overwhelmed all else.” As a result, “the dominant public discourse of the era was conducted mostly without religious reference.”
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