George Marsden is an evangelical Christian who is deeply troubled by the current state of American evangelicalism. But in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment the celebrated historian turns his attention to the failed quest for an American religious consensus in the 1950s, the halcyon days of liberal American Protestantism.
Marsden came of age in the 1950s, emerging from the womb of conservative evangelicalism, graduating from ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1960s, then studying church history at an aggressively secular Yale university. This cultural trajectory allows Marsden to consider American religion from both sides of the culture war. He is telling his own story.
Marsden calls himself an “Augustinian Christian” and freely admits that this identity shapes his perspective. He longs for an America where his own tradition has a place at the public policy table without excluding other voices, religious and secular.
The American liberal establishment appeared to be thriving in the late 1950s, Marsden reminds us, but within a decade the churches of the old American Protestant mainline were in utter disarray. In his extensive introduction, Marsden lays out the skeleton of his thesis:
My argument, in brief, is that the culture wars broke out and persisted in part because the dominant principles of the American heritage did not adequately provide for how to deal with substantive religious differences as they relate to the public domain. The American paradigm for relating religion to public life was an unusual blend of enlightenment and Protestant ideals. In some ways it was the model of inclusivism and religious freedom. But because it also fostered an informal Protestant establishment, or privileges for mainstream Protestants in public life, there were always those who were less privileged, who were excluded or discriminated against–such as Catholics, Jews, people of other world faiths, or those in smaller sectarian groups . . . My contribution is to point to an alternative paradigm for thinking about the varieties of religious outlooks in the public sphere and the roles they play within that sphere.
From the beginning, Marsden believes, America has been “shaped by an alliance between enlightenment rationality and Protestant religion.” Religion, though socially prominent, has played a secondary or supplemental role “even as most of the business, politics, learning, literature, and arts of the nation were conducted on essentially secular grounds.”
In other words, when you flipped through the New York Times, listened to the NBC nightly news on the radio (or, increasingly, on television), or took in a movie in 1950s America, religion, if mentioned at all, appeared as a footnote to an essentially secular narrative.
America in the 1950s was thus an unstable blend of religion and secularity. The churches were full to overflowing, but the civil religion of the day featured self-help optimism and patriotism. Marsden agrees with Will Herberg’s assessment that the “operative” American religion, circa 1950, was a celebration of “the American way of life.”
That operative shared religion included faith in the dignity of the individual, the superiority of American democracy, and the pragmatic doctrine of ‘deeds not creeds’. It thus turned religion from being the highest value into an instrument for promoting other values that in practice proved to be a person’s higher concerns. Many Americans who professed faith neither knew nor cared much about the particulars of their religious tradition.
In a cold war context, the American civil religion was lauded as an important counterweight to “Godless communism”. Christianity was considered foundational to American democracy, but was strangely irrelevant when serious political, economic or military issues were on the table.
Writing in the late 1950s, a youthful Martin Marty noted that the religious beliefs of most Americans, even when described in the language of traditional piety, were ultimately “secular and humanistic”.
Religion, in other words, had become a largely private affair. It was taken for granted that church attendance, school prayer, and explicitly Christian invocations at public events were good things. But if you wanted guidance on public policy, everyone seemed to agree, you looked to the scientists and the technocrats who were overseeing a post-war economic boom, curing diseases and speculating about space travel.
American Catholics and Jews were gradually finding a place at the table, but the price of admission was a willingness to slough off the particulars of your religious heritage in favor of a vague consensus religion.
Even though traditional Christian doctrines might guide the way, religious truth, like other truth, was developing and progressive. That meant that if Christianity was to retain a substantive public influence, Christians would have to deemphasize divisive dogmas and emphasize the essential truths and moral teachings that were compatible with progressive scientific thinking and acceptable in a pluralistic setting.
Not everyone was celebrating this civil religion, of course. Reinhold Niebuhr underscored the limits of the scientific method. If the goal was curing diseases or putting a man in space, you should look to science, Niebuhr said; but scientists are of little use when we turn to questions of justice, value and the greater good.
By “religion”, Niebuhr meant the accumulated wisdom of the world’s great faiths as opposed to particular beliefs such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden may be historically suspect, Niebuhr admitted, but it is symbolically suggestive when taken as a cautionary tale.
Niebuhr argued that the truths of revelation were better understood simply as essential verities, rather than on the basis of historical facts validated by miracles . . . The same would apply to other biblical doctrines. They had some relation to history in that they fit human experience, but they were not dependent on biblical claims of literal divine interventions in the course of nature.
Niebuhr thus was careful to grant scientific outlooks sovereignty in their own territories, even as he resisted imperialistic efforts to reduce human experience to naturalistic terms.
Marsden detects a fatal error in Niebuhr’s analysis, an failing that would soon bring the religion consensus of the 1950s crashing down.
The grand irony of that strategy was that, while Niebuhr himself used it effectively as a way to preserve a public role for the Christian heritage, its subjective qualities made the faith wholly optional and dispensable . . . One could simply bypass the theology and adopt the profound insights into human limitation that Niebuhr offered.
In the 1950s, Marsden says, hardly anyone in mainstream white culture was asking “why enlightened progressive Christianity should be privileged over any other teachings, whether secular or religious.” Mainstream Americans were holding to Enlightenment assumptions long after the foundations of that worldview had collapsed. Most of America’s founding fathers, Marsden points out, had little interest in revealed religion, but the mere existence of creation seemed to suggest a Creator.
But the Darwinian revolution of the 19th century undermined the assumptions of 18th century Deism. Now the origins of the world could be accounted for without appeal to divine intervention. That being the case, there was no particular reason why religion of any sort, to say nothing of liberal Protestantism, should enjoy such an exalted status in American culture.
The religious consensus of the 1950s, Marsden explains, was swept away by the social tidal wave of the 1960s. Feminism, the civil rights movement, and the appeal for gay rights made WASP hegemony seem inappropriate if not downright evil. When mainline Protestants were asked why only white males presided enjoyed positions of power and privilege in American religious life, they had no answer. At least at the denominational level, the churches of the old mainline issued hurried apologies, worked hard to add racial and gender diversity to their social world, and basically bowed off the social stage.
The new diversity that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s was a secular affair that never involved “encouraging a variety of religiously informed voices in public life.” Moderate-to-liberal Protestants used the phrase “separation of church and state” as shorthand for describing this arrangement, a problematic development from Marsden’s perspective.
It is one thing to try to draw a line between ‘church and state,’ two sorts of institutions. But no consistent line of separation can even be imagined between the far larger entities of ‘religion and society’. 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.
The rapid retreat of liberal Protestantism and a secular definition of diversity set the stage for the painful and unproductive culture war that has haunted American culture since the late 1970s.
American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals had long regarded the political world with grave suspicion and preachers who talked politics were thought to have abandoned “the gospel”. The conservative side of American Protestantism (the churches excluded from the old mainline) were effectively excluded from politics, popular entertainment or the academic world, but during the 1950s conservative evangelicals embraced the religious crusade against Godless communism (and the related idea of American exceptionalism) with a holy fervor. When the old mainline churches were driven from their place of cultural prominence in the 1960s, conservative evangelicals rushed in to fill the vacuum.
One of the advantages of joining in a national political movement was the promise to restore public acknowledgment that America had a Christian base . . . They were heirs to a deeply rooted American evangelical heritage that went back to the nineteenth century, when Protestant dominance was taken for granted.
The religious right wanted to return America to her “Christian foundations”. If evangelical Protestant piety was regarded as the true religion of America, the founding fathers had to be reinvented as evangelical Christians. In conservative parlance there was no room for nuance; you were either an evangelical Christian or the enemy. This explains why David Barton worked so hard to transform a deist like Thomas Jefferson into a Bible-believing fundamentalist.
Marsden sees the religious right as an odd mixture of traditional evangelicalism, escapist eschatology, and enlightenment heritage. Jesus might be coming soon to judge the world, but in the meantime evangelicals “unreservedly embrace the American civil religion and condemn anyone who questions that America has a special place in God’s plan.”
The religious right is so eager to “reclaim America for Christ”, Marsden believes, that they have given little thought to the place of non-Christian people of faith, or no faith, in the new America they hope to create.
The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights . . . Advocates of the religious right were rightly concerned to guard their own freedoms of religious expression and action. Yet they . . . rarely spoke of how to provide equal protection for religious and secular viewpoints with which they did not agree.
Not surprisingly, few liberal or secular Americans were concerned about protecting the place of religious conservatives in public life.
The rhetoric of the religious right about ‘taking back ‘ America and its institutions only made it easier for the more secular-minded people to dismiss religion as simply a threat to diversity in the public sphere. Conservative Christian attacks on the feminist and gay agendas reinforced the tendency of the champions of cultural inclusivism to favor a more thoroughly secular culture.
With liberal Christianity in full retreat and conservative Christianity re-inventing American history in its own image, it became practically impossible to consider the role of religion in American public life. Few on the left were interested in giving people of faith a place at the table. As a result, “most Americans lacked any adequate tradition for dealing with deeply held religious differences in the public sphere.”
Marsden knows that America will never again see the kind of religious consensus that characterized the 1950s, nor will consensus emerge from an ideologically neutral scientific perspective. We are going to disagree and there is no referee in the ring. Religious people should come to the public debate with all the peculiarities of their inherited traditions in place. No one should have to park their religion at the door before participating in the great American conversation, nor should anyone be asked to feign religious belief in order to make their views acceptable. The kind of “principled pluralism” he envisions “would attempt to take the differences among varieties of both religious and nonreligious perspectives seriously.”
Marsden knows the “principled pluralism” he advocates will get plenty of push-back from both sides of the ideological divide. He spent too many years studying at Yale and teaching at places like Duke and Notre Dame to have any illusions about that.
Secular liberals today may deny that they advocate any sort of consensus outlook, since they are open to embracing ethnic and racial differences. Yet, when it comes to thinking about religiously based differences, they are likely to sound like midcentury consensus thinkers, who believed that views congenial to secular naturalism were the only ones that should be taken seriously in the public domain . . . Each side needs to recognize that neither a religiously based nor a naturalistically based consensus could ever be adequately inclusive.
In short, “there is no going back to the 1950s, when a widely shared inclusivist faith was supposed to be a contributing factor in supporting a cultural consensus.” Instead, “Each sort of view, naturalistic or religious, should have equal opportunity to be heard and evaluated on its own merits by others in the public domain.”
In the 1950s, Will Herberg discussed religious diversity in terms of Protestant-Catholic-Jew, but Marsden sees these categories as inadequate. True religious diversity is about “equity for communities that represent virtually every religion in the world.”
Marsden wants people of faith to bring their religious identities with them when they enter the public sphere. When they address moral issues, they should speak from the heart of whatever religious tradition that shaped them. The goal is participation, not domination.
I am more of an Anabaptist than an Augustinian Christian, but I find myself in full accord with Marsden’s thesis. Christians, even in the evangelical South, rarely come at moral issues from the perspective of faith. We haven’t reckoned with the teaching of Jesus, considered the moral logic that holds that teaching together, or considered how Christian faith might impact our approach to politics, economics or the criminal justice system. Christians, in my view, should take their politics from Jesus or quit calling themselves Christians. At the same time, we must be open to the views of non-Christian people of faith and those who aren’t drawn to religion of any kind.