The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
Basic Books, 219 pages (hardback, 2014)
George Marsden is the preeminent religious historian of his generation. From a biography of Jonathan Edwards to various works concerning Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism writ large there is no question that if you want to understand the religious culture of America you cannot ignore Marsden’s work and this book is no different.
This particular work covers the post-WWII generation of American Protestantism; where it was, how it came to be, where it went, and what it is today. Marsden’s general thesis is that the collapse of the moderate/liberal, and it is important to understand that the author is not using “liberal” in either a theological or pejorative sense, but in a way that points toward the common religious consensus of middle America from the 1950’s to today, which as Marsden carefully and devastatingly explains has collapsed under the weight of its own lack of the Sensus divinitatis.
Using a basic chronological structure in each chapter he goes through the intellectual influence of men who at first glance may seem unrelated and really have not much to teach us about the Christian church. For instance Marsden spends much time interacting with Walter Lippmann, a jewish journalist, before entering into a discussion of B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers’ psychoanalysis, both atheistic Psychologists. He carefully shows how each of these men, along with others like Dr. Spock (Benjamin, not the Vulcan) became the foundation of Religious instruction in the 1950’s in ways that pre-WWII Protestantism would have reacted strongly against, but post-WWII consensus building made them part and parcel of the mainline theological milieu. In other words the ministers of suburban Presbyterianism in 1960 would be more likely to draw from Bishop Fulton Sheen than Bishop J.C. Ryle.
If you grew up in mainline Protestantism of any stripe this work will illuminate a lot of things in the back of your mind that you knew to be true, yet did not know how to either explain or comprehend. Especially for those of us who found our theology far more influenced and grounded in the shifting sands of an ever malleable cultural acceptability than in the tradition of the Church*. The central reason the Seven Sisters have lost their influence is because their theologies were founded upon houses of straw built with a kind of pragmatism which could not withstand the thrashing winds of the 1960’s. They gave up their confessional birthright for a mess of country clubs, chamber of commerce floral groups, and a place at the political table which have proven to be perfect foils for the loss of a generation of Christian children to the wilds of Babylon and Egypt. Likewise the rise of the Religous Right saw a will to return to a “consensus” of Jude0-Christian ethics they saw in the 1950’s which ironically neither ever actually existed nor could be the basis of cultural recovery.
Marsden will close this book with an appeal to an inclusive pluralism which neither falls into the trap of secular humanism which seeks to rid the public square of all religious symbols or a Christian Right return to the mythical conservative Christianity which neither existed or is itself of a benefit to moving forward beneficially. He speaks very favorably of Abraham Kuyper in this section and points the reader back to his project in Holland as a type that should be emulated, with proper corrections, in these days. In my opinion this was the weakest part of the book. It was almost as if Marsden missed the point that he so wonderfully made in the previous chapters, that the post-war consensus built upon an ephemeral agreement cannot shoulder the weight either of culture or the larger program of the Church. A large part of the failure of the American experiment has been its refusal to recognize the reality that the people of God cannot serve two masters. We cannot accept secular psychology and non-Christian conceptions of world and life and think the Church can survive or flourish with such a holding of hands. I would rather we think long and hard about the Biblical consensus that we cannot live in Christ’s Kingdom with the ethics of Egypt if we hope to see the blessings of God upon our nation and our Church.
*Tradition in its famous use by Jaroslav Peliken.