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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief

George M. Marsden
Published by Basic Books in 2014

Reviewed by Arlin C. Migliazzo, History, Whitworth University

For more than four decades Professor George M. Marsden has modeled for many of us in the academy the winsome synergy possible between disciplinary rigor and Christian faith assumptions. From his studies of fundamentalism through his critiques of American higher education, to his Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden has confronted many conventional interpretations and promoted constructive debate and discussion in so doing.1 It is our good fortune that although now formally retired, his incisive writing continues to influence the ways in which we understand the relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life and culture. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment provides further evidence not only of Marsden’s command of a topic dear to his heart, but also his ability to tease from the sources, a possible resolution to one of the greatest dilemmas of our own time.

Parts of the story Marsden tells are rather well known: the disintegration of feasible a priori truth claims since the mid-nineteenth century, the many, sometimes conflicting manifestations of the consensus culture of the 1950s, and the deeper significance of a generic civil religion after the Second World War among others. The stellar contribution of this volume, and what remains both engaging and troubling, is his nuanced analysis of how and why these and related developments presage not only the rapid collapse in the 1960s and 1970s of liberal enlightenment ideals that had served the country since its founding, but also prompt his call for an authentically pluralistic American future – a religious pluralism that, contrary to popular belief, Marsden asserts has never really existed in the United States.

A lucid introduction lays out his strategy for the book and the prologue sets the stage for what will follow by demonstrating that even with the unprecedented achievements of postwar America (and in many ways because of them), by the late 1950s many moderate-liberal American intellectuals faced the future with a conspicuous degree of trepidation. The sources of their concern comprise the first of the three major themes of the volume as Marsden explores the ways in which recognized cultural analysts such as Dwight MacDonald, Edward Shils, Erich Fromm, David Riesman, William Whyte, and Vance Packard surveyed the American cultural landscape and found it flawed. The second theme, and his central interpretive argument, regards the author’s assertion “that the underlying assumptions of the dominant outlooks of the 1950s can be better understood if we think of them as latter-day efforts to sustain the ends of the American enlightenment, but without that enlightenment’s intellectual means” (xx). The final theme centers on Marsden’s thoughtful reflection on the implications the breakdown of the liberal consensus of the 1950s might have “for understanding the role of a variety of religions in American culture both in the 1950s and since” (xxv).

Marsden maintains that at midcentury, the established American intelligentsia formed a united front in defense of a liberalism whose roots stretched back to the nineteenth century. These moderate-liberals, almost exclusively white males and including prominent religious figures, “granted as self-evident many of the founders’ assumptions regarding human freedom, self-determination, and equality of rights” (xxi-xxii). Like their counterparts from the Revolutionary era, 1950s intellectuals extolled the virtues of human reason and objective scientific investigation: “Most of them believed that applying natural scientific methods and empirically based rationality to understanding society was one of the best ways to promote human flourishing” (xxii). Their celebration of the autonomous individual also comported well with their early modern forebears.

The major difference between the two groups proceeded from the erosion of religious belief as the foundation for the above virtues. Marsden reminds us that unlike the French enlightenment and its subsequent revolution, “the American Revolution involved a cordial working relationship between the dominant religious groups and most enlightened ways of thinking” (xxiii). American Protestants “saw a high regard for natural science, reason, common sense, self-evident rights, and ideals of liberty as fully compatible with their Protestant heritage” (xxiii). Even though the marriage of American Protestantism to more secular enlightenment principles faced myriad challenges between the 1850s and the 1950s, as Marsden observes, “something like the old alliance was still perceptible in the 1950s” (xxiv). But since nearly all moderate-liberal American intellectuals of the 1950s had jettisoned religious and natural law precepts as the grounds for such principles as full equality before the law and individual autonomy, “the typical consensus outlooks of the time can be understood as attempts to preserve the ideals of the American enlightenment while discarding its foundations” (xv). Ultimately those ideals could not survive intact and the midcentury liberal consensus crumbled in the wake of the political and social challenges of the 1960s and 1970s.

Tracing the contours as well as the weaknesses of the moderate-liberal intellectual culture of the 1950s could be considered contribution enough for this relatively short study, but Marsden takes the story further. He argues that because the working alliance between American Protestantism and enlightenment principles lasted so long, the nation never really developed a capacity to incorporate fully disparate religious voices into vital democratic praxis because right up to the mid-twentieth century the country functioned as a de facto Protestant establishment. This relatively universal Protestant consensus resulted in an innocuous, generic civil religion in the 1950s, while Roman Catholic Americans and other minority religious groups still faced significant roadblocks to full acceptance and equal participation. In order to uphold the utility of both religious and secular viewpoints in an increasingly secular and diverse culture, the sequestering of religious sentiments to the private lives of individuals passed for genuine religious pluralism. That counterfeit pluralism became more ensconced through legislation and court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s, and the moderate-liberal consensus culture of the 1950s rapidly gave way with only a rare few public figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. able to provide a coherent religious framework for the expansion of American democratic freedoms. At nearly the same time, however, in response to their perceived marginalization, religious conservatives from many faiths, but led by the Protestant old guard, rose to the political forefront. As the religious right flexed its growing power in the 1980s, attempts to achieve a more inclusive version of the moderate-liberal coalition of the 1950s with new regard for race, class, gender, and religion failed miserably, devolving into the culture wars characteristic of American life since that time.

Having thus connected the demise of the moderate-liberal consensus of the 1950s to the demoralizing, take-no-prisoners socio-political climate of our own time, Marsden has no intention of leaving the reader without a potential solution to the dilemmas we have created. For that solution, he reaches back into his own heritage as an Augustinian Calvinist. Finding the old moderate-liberal dream of a privatized religion counterintuitive and untenable and the reality of an ever more activist and religiously diverse American electorate undeniable, Marsden posits that the authentic religious and ideological pluralism championed in the Netherlands by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) may serve as a way out of our current cultural gridlock. Marsden contends that a genuine Kuyperian pluralism “would attempt to take the differences among varieties of both religious and nonreligious perspectives seriously” (166-67) thereby facilitating the propriety of authentic and truly valued voices for all Americans in the public square – voices which though expressed in socio-cultural terms may be grounded explicitly and unapologetically in much deeper religious presuppositions.

Written for an interested lay audience, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment deserves to be considered a valuable resource for professional historians and sociologists as well. While some, particularly specialists in intellectual history or twentieth-century philosophy, may desire a somewhat weightier scholarly analysis of the era as the author freely admits (xvii), Marsden’s interpretations are both logical and evidentially based. He cites some of the most notable commentators of the period ranging from Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr to B. F. Skinner, Hannah Arendt, and Benjamin Spock as well as trenchant analysts on the period such as Edward A. Purcell, Jr., and Robert Booth Fowler. Reference endnotes direct the reader to the key sources and provide suggestions for further reading while concise explanatory notes contextualize some of the more important terms and issues identified throughout the study. The text is devoid of arcane terminology except in the rarest instances (26) and stylistic lapses are practically nonexistent (15).

Strict church-state separatists, religious or secular, might balk at Marsden’s bold proposal for a truly authentic pluralism. Political scientists might point out that the parliamentary democratic system in which Kuyper’s thought and practice matured allowed for the proportional representation of multiple persuasions that the American majoritarian democratic model has found impossible to sustain. But there can be no doubt that The Twilight of the American Enlightenment will generate many hours of lively discussion not only about how we have arrived at this key juncture in our collective history as Americans, but also about the viability of his prescription for moving us toward the principled religious pluralism he so warmly embraces.

Cite this article
Arlin C. Migliazzo, “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:2 , 175-177


  1. Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Arlin C. Migliazzo

Whitworth University
Arlin C. Migliazzo is a retired Professor of History at Whitworth University.