Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief By George M. Marsden. (New York: Basic Books. 2014. Pp. xl, 219. $26.99. ISBN 978-0-465-03010-1.)

For two decades George M. Marsden, a leading historian of American religion, has argued that evangelical scholars like himself-along with other theists- receive insufficient respect from secular colleagues. In this book focusing on intellectual life since World War II, he attempts to explain the origins of this alleged inequity. Marsden emphasizes what is usually called the fifties, which he rightly sees as a time of "great cultural anxiety and uncertainty" (p. xii) despite unprecedented (although unevenly distributed) prosperity. His central theme is that leading cultural critics were trying to "preserve the ideals of the American enlightenment while discarding its foundations" (p. xv). As events since the early chronological sixties showed, this effort failed. To make his case, Marsden's strings together brief examinations of significant social thinkers, cultural artifacts, and popular controversies.

Perhaps because Marsden wants to reach the proverbial intelligent general reader, most of his stories will be familiar to historians. These include the postSputnik quest for a "national purpose"; pervasive use of psychological rather than economic concepts to explain the ups and down of everyday life; triumph of the "vital center" in the social sciences along with inadequate efforts by self-conscious centrists like Daniel Bell to understand immoderate activists like Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI); ubiquitous critics of conformity ranging from William H. Whyte to Bett)' Friedan; debate about the impact of "mass culture" escalated because ordinary Americans loved television; and religious developments, including ritualistic public piety based on an "undefined common theism" (p. 108); a transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism, the latest vogue of positive thinking; the ironies of Reinhold Niebuhr; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s adaptation of the social gospel. The treatment of rival psychological theorists Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner is especially interesting. Marsden also deserves credit for rediscovering the insightful critic Joseph Wood Krutch. …

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