The 1950s, Principled Pluralism, and the Future of America

A new book by George Marsden offers a fresh analysis of American culture and religion in the 1950s. It also presents a way forward, based on the concept of “principled pluralism.”

George Marsden is one of the great chroniclers of religion in American History. In book after book, Marsden has shown his ability to write with great understanding in a way that is accessible to a wide audience, whether in his study of 1920s fundamentalism, his consideration of religion in higher education, or his biography of Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian. In each of these, Marsden connected historical scholarship with moral reflection on how his topic could inform contemporary issues.

He demonstrates this talent again in his most recent book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. The book deserves wide consideration from the public at large, especially readers of Public Discourse. Marsden—who recently gave the 2014 Simon Lecture for the Witherspoon Institute—has skillfully crafted a book that tells a historical story that speaks to present dilemmas.

The 1950s and the American Enlightenment

The book offers an historical account of the contours of intellectual and religious life in the 1950s. Perhaps it is only nostalgia that causes people to look back to the 1950s as the idyllic era of “Leave it to Beaver,” but many Americans still cherish that view. For political commentator Ross Douthat, the period served as a touchstone to show how far American religion has declined.

By contrast, Marsden sees the decade’s external optimism as masking real intellectual and spiritual challenges. For Marsden, the 1950s were the waning days of the “American enlightenment.” Marsden uses this term as a shorthand for the outlook toward reason adopted in America in the eighteenth century and solidified at the American founding, which claimed that “rational and scientific understandings were essentially objective and therefore should be normative.” Americans tended to believe this rationality supported “human freedom, self-determination, and equality of rights.” Further, Americans asserted a compatibility of this outlook with Protestant Christianity, which had allowed an unofficial “Protestant establishment” to guide public discussion up to the 1950s.

Marsden, however, sees this commitment to the American enlightenment breaking down in the culture of the 1950s. So, for Marsden, the decade was a “twilight,” a last moment before great upheaval. In Marsden’s words, “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.” Losing such a grounding, Americans were forced to cast about for other intellectual solutions.

Into the 1950s, the public culture continued to believe that “right thinking” individuals would be informed by scientific rationality and would all come to similar beliefs—often assumed to be a moderate liberalism that made ethics a private and subjective matter. In this narrow view of pluralism, little space existed for fundamental differences or for claims about moral “oughts.”

The shakiness of this perspective was illustrated by the response to Walter Lippmann. Lippmann’s intellectual and political bona fides were beyond reproach—until he began to raise metaphysical questions. Lippmann argued for the recovery of natural law as a grounding for politics and ethics. He was roundly attacked for such claims, as they ran against the pragmatism that dominated public philosophy.

Similarly, in the religious sphere, the 1950s witnessed a seeming revival of religious belief, symbolized by the popularity of such figures as Billy Graham and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Yet Marsden suggests that the 1950s saw a strong secularity in culture, meaning that “most activities were conducted without direct religious reference, not that they were necessarily antireligious.” Thus, at the same time that America’s religious faith was held up against “godless Communism,” its actual effects were lessening. In popular practice and even in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, religion was being privatized and subjectivized. The 1950s were thus “the latter days of the Protestant Establishment,” which would quickly dissolve in the shocks of the 1960s and 1970s.

Without natural law or public religious faith guiding the culture, Marsden discerns a very real “problem of authority” in the 1950s. To counter that, Americans tended to look to two alternatives: the scientific method and the autonomous individual. “Science” still promised to deliver rational, unbiased conclusions to which all could assent and which could be helpfully delivered by “experts” such as Dr. Spock. This scientific outlook could then be delivered to serve the formation of the “autonomous self,” which accounted for the increasing authority of psychology in that decade and since. It also led to an increasingly permissive society. Americans tended to see the two authorities as compatible, although Marsden suggests their rivalry and potential conflict.

The Culture Wars

In a later chapter, Marsden takes his interpretive categories and follows them through the 1980s, interpreting the culture wars as a battle over the legacy of the American enlightenment. Marsden sees both sides of the culture wars as trying to defend some parts of that enlightenment experience. To Marsden, the cultural Left embraced a consensus of individualism and the ideals of enlightened rationality, without the trust in human rationality and science that inspired them. By contrast, the Religious Right sought a return to a cultural consensus that retained a public religiosity. Thus, the calls for “Christian America” were less about establishing a theocracy than returning to the consensus public morality and religiosity of the 1950s. In their dualistic language of us-versus-them, though, the Religious Right inflamed the culture war.

This argument allows Marsden to offer criticisms of both the secular Left and the populist Religious Right: both sides failed to allow for genuine religious pluralism. But Marsden skirts over two necessary elements.

First, the book should account for the reasons behind the culture wars. Many on the Right felt like they were playing defense, not advancing new ideas antithetical to the American experience. In a very heartfelt way, as described by Daniel Williams, many in the conservative movement felt they were trying to fend off cultural changes being foisted upon them, which they neither initiated nor supported.

Second, it seems worth considering which individuals provide the best insight into the later period. Marsden views the Right primarily through the lens of Francis Schaeffer, with Jerry Falwell looming in the background. But is this entirely fair? Might other voices show more nuance and insight? In giving voice to many of the figures of the 1950s (Niebuhr, for instance), Marsden delineated their best arguments. Marsden does acknowledge in a footnote the work done by Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard John Neuhaus, and others, but he does not engage with them. This is an opportunity missed.

Principled Pluralism

In his final chapter, Marsden directs readers to his story’s contemporary relevance, sketching out a vision of a public philosophy committed to the common good, which practices genuine, principled pluralism. This section sees the flowering of the argument about difference and pluralism that Marsden has been building throughout the book.

Marsden helpfully differentiates two types of pluralism. The pluralism of the 1950s consisted of an openness to other opinions under the umbrella of rational inquiry. By contrast, Marsden offers a “principled pluralism” as one that recognizes and respects religious differences and actively makes room for both the explicit grounding of positions in a faith tradition and the explicit discussion of religious difference. Further, Marsden hopes to expand that discussion through the recognition that all perspectives—even secular ones—carry religious presuppositions.

Marsden draws inspiration for his vision of “principled pluralism” from the late-nineteenth-century Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper possessed a deep, Augustinian faith and sought to create structures for the flourishing of the common good. Kuyper recognized that all perspectives were faith-informed, and so he strove to build a society and government that allowed for the nurturing of religious and non-religious sub-communities, and the space in public for the exchange of views that arose from both enlightenment and anti-enlightenment positions.

Kuyper also helps Marsden give voice to the principle of “sphere sovereignty”: the idea that society’s various institutions should be allowed great autonomy to operate within their proper spheres, as they were created to do. Although a somewhat different concept than the Catholic vision of subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty also seeks to disperse authority throughout society and allow each piece of society as much leeway for its proper functioning as possible. For Kuyper and Marsden, sphere sovereignty would nurture religious pluralism and the diverse functioning of groups and organizations.

How to Build a Principled Pluralism

Marsden finally offers several suggestions for building his ideal of principled pluralism. A first step is to realize that religion cannot simply be privatized. On this front, Marsden is worth quoting at length:

Religion is seldom a strictly spiritual matter; rather, it involves moral prescriptions as to how to act in everyday secular affairs. Although religious people may reasonably be expected to act with a degree of civility in the public domain, showing respect for others and their differing views, it is not reasonable or practical to expect them to act in the public realm without reference to their deeply held, religiously based moral convictions. So, even if privatization has proven valuable as a way of encouraging social harmony up to a point, it is a principle that cannot address the question of equity in the public sphere in dealing with inevitable differences based on religious conviction.

Religious commitments propel the person of faith to act according to his or her convictions in all areas of life—even commercial dealings. Thus, the freedom of religion is much more than simply the freedom to worship.

Marsden then suggests two additional steps to nurture genuine religious pluralism. First, Marsden says we must value and encourage mediating institutions. In this, Kuyper and Marsden would agree with another foreign commentator, Alexis de Tocqueville, on the importance of voluntary groupings within society. They promote human flourishing as public entities but not political ones. Since Americans have a long tradition of voluntarism, this suggestion could easily fit in an American setting. Next, Marsden wants to open up space for arguments over the common good that have a religious grounding, specifically for reflection on religion and public life. On the one hand, he calls for greater reflection among faith communities, for believers to be truly reflective in what they bring to the public square. On the other, he argues that mainstream academia in particular needs to welcome diverse religious outlooks and religious discussion.

Although Marsden eschews “culture war” language in his prescriptions, it is worth noting that many religious communities in the present still feel embattled. To this reader, it seems that the current language and temper is no longer a triumphalist one of “retaking” America for a Christian perspective, as it may have been in 1980. Rather, it is one of deep concern about whether sufficient space for the practice of religious commitments in everyday life can be maintained.

Although the language of the culture war may not be helpful, that fact does not dismiss the presence of one. In fact, the culture wars may not be as easy to disengage from as Marsden suggests. Further, both sides would have to heed his call for a détente. At the moment, that seems unlikely. While offensives against traditional beliefs and practices in political, judicial, and institutional settings continue, faith still demands action in those realms.

Even so, The Twilight of the Enlightenment is an engaging read that deserves attention. More than an historical account, it is a positive contribution to the conversation of how to pursue the common good and allow many different religious perspectives to flourish today and into the future.

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