On Political Books

March/ April/ May 2014 Backward, Christian Soldiers

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.

By Paul Baumann

Marsden reminds us that until the 1960s it was rare for anyone but Protestant males to head a major American cultural, business, or educational institution, a fact that helps explain the remarkably homogeneous tone of the larger culture. Change, however, was coming, especially thanks to the civil rights movement, launched in earnest in the 1950s—a movement that, along with the women’s, antiwar, and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, would effectively shatter the old Protestant consensus. Within only a few years, the approach espoused by secular liberals—pragmatism and a faith in supposedly value-neutral science—would prove as anachronistic as appeals to natural law in responding to the social and political fragmentation of the 1960s and ’70s.

The challenge Americans face today, after fifty years of social and political turmoil, is how to build what Marsden calls a truly “inclusive pluralism.” A self-described Augustinian Christian, Marsden is a member of the Calvinist Christian Church; he urges refers to consider the work of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch prime minister (1901-1905) who was also a journalist, political theorist, and Reformed theologian. Kuyper helped devise democratic political reforms in the Netherlands to accommodate “principled” or “confessional” pluralism. In that multiparty system, Marsden explains, the “primary task of government is to promote justice and to act as a sort of referee” among a multiplicity of religious and secular groups. Accordingly, not just government but also mediating institutions such as churches, families, and businesses are granted considerable authority within their own spheres.

Marsden discerns lessons for the United States in Kuyper’s efforts. Historically, he writes, much of America’s cultural dynamism and impetus for change has come from its various subcommunities—he points to the vitality of evangelical churches as one contemporary example, noting that not all evangelicals are politically conservative. And yet, as the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have recently demonstrated, evangelical churches are on the wane. In fact, among Americans under thirty, one-third profess no institutional religious affiliation at all. This is an unprecedented development, and Putnam and Campbell attribute it to how the culture wars have politicized religion, deepening the nation’s divisions.

Marsden is clear-eyed in describing the forces, especially the economic ones, which did so much to weaken community ties and authority in the 1950s and ’60s. Those pressures have hardly lessened. If anything, community is more ad hoc and transient than ever. The historian Mark Lilla addressed such developments in a 1998 essay in the New York Review of Books, “A Tale of Two Reactions.” Analyzing much of the same cultural and political history as Marsden, Lilla asked why the social revolutions of the ’60s and the subsequent Reagan revolution of the ’80s have embedded themselves so deeply in American society. Those seemingly incompatible movements, he concluded, were in fact “complementary, not contradictory,” each finding its spiritual source and justification in the radical democratic individualism of America’s Protestant heritage. Reaganism, Lilla argued, was “an extension of the same utopian vision” as the antinomianism of the ’60s—one viewing economic freedom as an inalienable right, the other individual personal and sexual expression. How, Lilla lamented, “have our notions of equality and individualism been transformed to support a morally lax yet economically successful capitalist society”? Marsden wonders, along similar lines, how Americans can continue to find in individual self-determination and self-fulfillment “a complete standard for a public philosophy that would adjudicate the hard questions that arise when individual interests conflict.”

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment helps explain why so many Americans think this way, and why doing so threatens our tradition of self-government—which, when all is said and done, remains the only real guarantee of individual freedom. Can we alter course and develop the habits of communal solidarity and self-denial needed to loosen the straitjacket of what Christopher Lasch long ago called America’s culture of narcissism? Marsden is hopeful; Americans, he believes, will come eventually to realize that self-seeking rarely brings the happiness promised in the Declaration of—what else?—Independence. If we don’t come to this recognition, we may soon discover that we have more in common with Jonathan Edwards’s sinners in the hands of an angry God than we like to think.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.

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