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America Does Not Live by Elite Consensus Alone
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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Basic Books
Release Date
February 11, 2014
Buy The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief from Amazon

If the number of awards scooped up by George Marsden's 2003 biography of Jonathan Edwards is taken as the index of achievement, Marsden stands as the dean of living interpreters of American religion. With The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, he offers another compelling study, one that relates more to his own life and times than to a life from the past.

In six artfully crafted chapters, Marsden sketches the tectonic shifts set in motion in the years immediately following World War II. He looks at common assumptions held by the leading cultural analysts of the age, intellectuals writing for middlebrow Americans. The protagonists were mostly white, male, well educated (especially at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia), centered in New York City, and descended from old-stock Protestant culture. Alongside these were a fair number of Jews, many of them émigrés from Nazi Europe. Leading figures included journalist Walter Lippmann, poet Archibald MacLeish, historian Arthur Schlesinger, magazine tycoon Henry Luce, culture critic Hannah Arendt, and especially sociologists Vance Packard, Erich Fromm, and David Reisman. Taken together, their views constituted what might be called the liberal mainline consensus.

The two books bear important similarities. Both are beautifully written and reveal imposing erudition. But they also bear important differences. While Jonathan Edwards is long, richly detailed, and largely descriptive, American Enlightenment is short, elegantly interpretative, and strongly argued. Another difference concerns the reaction from readers and critics. The Edwards biography won virtually unanimous praise. This latest offering likely will provoke both sustained praise and spirited debate (sometimes both at once).

A Coherent National Culture

The presenting question for Marsden is: What did the architects of the post-World War II consensus take for granted? What assumptions seemed so transparently true that they needed no defense? The answer is that they projected classic Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom, individual autonomy, equality of rights, scientific method, centrality of reason, and objective truths discovered by reason.

By the 1950s, this mainline consensus was firmly in place, but with one crucial difference: Its leading lights had jettisoned the concept of absolute moral laws, which Enlightenment thinkers had presupposed. Moral laws had come to seem indefensible in the face of Darwinian notions of natural and cultural evolution. And from beginning to end, respectable Protestants, especially in the older denominations, supported the ideals of the mainline consensus, except for the loss of moral absolutes. Yet taken together, the assumption of a coherent national culture schooled by mainline intellectuals, both secular and Protestant, seemed to be firmly in place.

The 1950s mainline consensus focused on two premises: the authority of science and the priority of the individual. The authority of science took different forms, sometimes in pure science, sometimes in technology, and sometimes in the advice of the "the expert." The priority of the individual also took different forms, but manifested itself especially in the "triumph of the therapeutic," with its stress on self-fulfillment and personal growth. The two premises came together in many figures, but nowhere more conspicuously than in the Exeter- and Yale-trained Dr. Benjamin Spock. His Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, became one of the biggest-selling books of all time, running through nine editions and nearly 50 million copies.

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America Does Not Live by Elite Consensus Alone