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That being said, such critiques, though forceful in their own terms, left the power of the mainline consensus largely intact. Huge chunks of the population remained excluded from the table: minorities and women, more or less by oversight, and orthodox believers of all traditions by design. Orthodox believers, especially, found themselves safely tucked away in the sphere of the private. It was perfectly fine, it seemed, for them to think whatever they wanted as long as they did not get noisy and try to influence public policy.

Into this vacuum rushed two social forces, a tsunami of identity politics—minorities, women, later gays—and a backlash of the Religious Right. Identity partisans did not pretend to embrace any kind of moral or cultural consensus. The Religious Right did, but by invoking the historically dubious claim that America had been conceived according to a Christian blueprint. The main force behind the Religious Right's counter-productive approach was the fundamentalist intellectual Francis Schaeffer, who drew a non-negotiable line in the sand between the Christian worldview and secular humanism.

The Way Forward

American Enlightenment carries a punch. Speaking specifically of Niebuhr but by implication all of the mainline, Marsden concludes: "What is striking … is the disparity between the profundity of the diagnosis and the superficiality of the prescription." Liberal pragmatism, lacking a foundation of moral capital, had no way to adjudicate among rival claims of first principles. The tribalism of identity politics and the absolutisms of the Religious Right offered little help.

So what's the way forward? The practical answer, Marsden argues, is that everyone must enjoy a seat at the table—not just mere toleration, but full participation in American public life. Marsden's conclusion unapolgetically presents the 19th-century Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper as a source of clues for how to proceed.

American Enlightenment's virtues are many. Marsden writes for an audience of ordinary, thoughtful readers. The prose is a treat: consistently clear, sprightly, and filled with memorable stories. Marsden understands that history harbors unexpected quirks, petty minds, and noble souls—not to mention cigarette ads, New Yorker cartoons, and, well, Playboy. Which is to say: He writes real history. The legendary Marsden wit sparkles throughout, as do the one-liners (Luce "provided a Norman Rockwell touch," "Adlai Stevenson and Billy Graham could bat in the same lineup," "[B. F.] Skinner, although a critic of traditional faiths, was a true believer himself"). And rather than pretending to possess a God's-eye view, as so many historians do, Marsden humbly acknowledges the limitations of own perspective.

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America Does Not Live by Elite Consensus Alone