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By mid-century, the mainline consensus strongly influenced the conduct of the nation's life too. Here Henry L. Luce set the tone. The child of China missionaries, Yale trained, founder of Life, Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, Luce served as one of the most influential voices in America. A lifelong Presbyterian, he remained firmly theistic, yet saw no major difference between Christianity and America. Luce felt that the nation's laws were rooted in moral laws, which in turn were rooted in a religious faith that "'man is created in the image of God.'"

Questioning the Consensus

By the end of the decade the mainline consensus had effectively established itself as the only game in town, at least to those most responsible for giving it voice. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to consensus. Mainline intellectuals themselves lived to experience the dour results of the culture shift they pioneered. They underscored the shallowness of American culture. Life, for example, might feature "'nine color pages of Renoirs … followed by a full-page picture of a horse on roller skates.'" The emptiness of mindless consumerism, the relentless quest for material comfort, the ubiquity of gadgets, and the power of suburban conformity posed severe threats to freedom.

Not a few consensus architects raised questions. Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom (1941, 1959, 1960) depicted the masses' retreat into the security of unquestioned authority. David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) traced society's evolution from tradition direction to inner direction to outer direction. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) targeted society's denial of women's autonomy. Still, the mainline's solution was pretty much more of the same: "'openness, pluralism, and empiricism.'"

To be sure, some critiques carried more clout than others. Marsden salutes Martin Luther King's articulation of the moral law built into the fabric of the universe, the prophetic words of the conservative Jewish theologian/sociologist Will Herberg, and the principled dissent of the distinguished Lutheran historian Martin Marty. He pays particular attention to the assessments delivered by the Jewish Walter Lippmann and by the (more or less) mainline Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In late life Lippmann urged Americans to restore objective values—not supernatural ones in any traditional sense, but values that reason had proved timelessly true. Niebuhr trenchantly argued that science could not control nature, and certainly not humans, who bore the stubborn residues of prideful sin.

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America Does Not Live by Elite Consensus Alone