The postwar liberal intellectuals built a political cosmology that rejected religion. But it was still fiercely moral.
Walter Lippmann’s last book, Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), was a long time in the making. In this slim volume, the presidential adviser and commentator on society and politics offered a summary of his “mature thinking,” the ideas that he had “fought and struggled through over many years,” one of his close friends said. Lippmann had begun the notes for the book on his honeymoon in Naples in 1938, watching dark clouds gather over Europe: “A civilization must have a religion…. Communism and Nazism are religions of the proletarianized masses.” The war cast further doubt in his mind on the direction of Western liberalism in the wake of its liberation from traditional religious dogma and ruling dynasties. What supreme authority had taken their place?
Biographer Ronald Steel notes that Lippmann, a secular Jew, was for a time attracted to Catholicism’s promise of “communion in a moral order above the whims of transient majorities and the dictates of tyrants.” He echoed the Founding Fathers’ trepidation at the “morbid derangement” that came when “mass opinion dominates the government” and reduces statesmen to “insecure and intimidated men.” By the time he finally published the book, he had opted for a nonsectarian creed: simply the “natural law on which Western institutions were originally founded.”
His fellow liberals, however, did not find in Essays a plausible course for the future of democracy. They thought Lippmann diagnosed the wrong problems and offered no real solution. They found his tone far too theological to suit the modern secular age. McGeorge Bundy, then a dean at Harvard, accused him of having “taken refuge in the bosom of God.” The New Republic dismissed the book—by one of its own founding editors, no less—as the brooding of “a badly frightened man” with a “bias against democracy.”
To George Marsden, however, Lippmann was one of the few twentieth-century liberals who grasped the fatal paradox of the liberal worldview: the growing distance between the ambitions of modern post-Christian liberalism and the tradition’s first principles. In Marsden’s telling, the liberal intellectuals of 1950s America considered themselves defenders of human freedom—the successors of the Founders, bearing the cause of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment into the fray against latter-day totalitarianism. But in criticizing Lippmann’s call for moral law and stronger executive authority, his liberal colleagues failed to see that without these safeguards, their own faith in reason and liberty rested on shifting sands. They tried “to sustain the ends of the American enlightenment, but without that enlightenment’s intellectual”—that is, Christian, or at least theistic—“means,” Marsden writes in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.
Marsden, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, is the dean of American evangelical history. His books on the evangelical movement are cornerstones of the field. He is himself affiliated with evangelicalism and has written that he “speak[s] from a particular branch of Christendom.” He sees in Lippmann an ally who shared, if not his own religion, then at least his regret over the disappearance of the moral certainties that he believes the American intellectual elite lost when they jettisoned their forefathers’ faith. For Marsden, the 1950s were the watershed of the twentieth century, and revealed that the liberal establishment had sold its soul for a mess of secular pluralism. His main characters—the white, male, ivory-tower thinkers of the postwar era—convened roundtable discussions and wrote worried essays and books about ideology, culture, and politics. What are the hazards of happiness in modern society? What does man require in order to be free—and can he bear the responsibility that comes with freedom? But if David Riesman, Erich Fromm, Clinton Rossiter, Richard Hofstadter, Christopher Lasch, and their colleagues understood themselves as “guardians of civilization,” if they cast a gimlet eye on Marxism, “scientism,” the “dangers of prosperity,” and other false gods, Marsden deems their efforts a failure. Why? Because they did not grasp the main insight of Cicero, Augustine, Luther, or Madison: that true freedom requires submission to sacred principles.
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a short, selective history of American intellectual life since World War II, devoting most of its 264 pages to the 1950s and ’60s. Over the past three decades Marsden has published a stream of well-regarded books ranging from a history of Protestant fundamentalism to the definitive biography of the eighteenth-century firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards. With Twilight he has made his first foray into the history of “mainstream” secular America. He is aiming to convince general readers that the polarized and paralyzed state of American politics today is due not only to conservative backlash against unwelcome change, but also to liberalism’s incoherent moral philosophy. In the end, he recommends that secular Americans revise their assumptions about religion’s place in the public square. His book cuts through the rhetoric of the culture wars to identify some of the basic intellectual problems that divide conservatives and liberals. Ultimately, however, his truncated—and not entirely fair—outline of the liberal tradition conceals secular modernity’s most promising moral resource.
Most of Marsden’s protagonists are secular liberal elites who sometimes called themselves “atheists for Niebuhr.” They shared the theologian’s grim appraisal of human nature without his faith in the divine. In Marsden’s account, their trouble was not only their abandonment of sacred foundations, but a fundamental contradiction between the twin idols that had taken God’s place, science and individual self-empowerment. Which reigns supreme: the unsparing, universalist conclusions of the laboratory, or each human being’s private views and dreams? What happens when they clash? Secular intellectuals neglected the “lurking question as to whether these two great authorities, the one objective and the other subjective, were really compatible with each other. The grand hope in the Western world in the eighteenth century was that they would be—that enlightened science would establish the principles of individual freedom.”
Liberals’ faith in science did have its limits. In the wake of World War II, they understood well that modern science could be the handmaiden of savagery. They acknowledged that a humanistic ideology centered on individual liberty did not, in practice, provide all the tools to correct society’s injustices or purge ancient bigotries. They were, simply put, pragmatists: They took pride in the modern welfare state as an evolving set of solutions to social problems, testable and adaptable, the antithesis of rigid ideology. “Yet the fact was that, despite such disclaimers, the champions of a pragmatically based consensus were themselves moralists,” Marsden notes. “They were passionately committed to principles such as individual freedom, free speech, human decency, justice, civil rights, community responsibilities, equality before the law, due process, balance of powers, economic opportunity, and so forth.” His main complaint is this: Without an absolute and unchanging source of authority, principles turn to ashes.
What would Marsden’s alleged ally Walter Lippmann have said? Lippmann worried about humankind’s need for universal truth, but Marsden (and Lippmann’s contemporary critics) may have misunderstood him. For Lippmann, the “sovereign principle of the public philosophy”—the universal truth that mattered most—was the affirmation that “we live in a rational order in which by sincere inquiry and rational debate we can distinguish the true and the false, the right and the wrong… . Rational procedure is the ark of the covenant of the public philosophy. There is no set of election laws or constitutional guarantees which are unchangeable. What is unchangeable is the commitment to rational determination.” In other words, Lippmann put his faith in the process of human reason. He did not insist that a wrathful Jehovah hover over the voting booths, although Marsden implies that he longed for one. Marsden is hardly the first to suggest that morality disintegrates in the absence of theism. Every religious thinker from Euthyphro to C.S. Lewis has made this argument—and secular liberals have refuted the charge time and again.
Literary critic Lionel Trilling, another intellectual drafted into Marsden’s ranks of well-meaning but misguided liberals, also deserves closer reading than Marsden gives him—because he explains the source of secular liberal morality. Trilling’s 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, is best known for its glib dismissal of conservatism as “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Less remembered is his critique of his own tradition: “Goethe says somewhere that there is no such thing as a liberal idea, that there are only liberal sentiments. This is true.” Trilling noted, however, that “sentiments become ideas,” so understanding both liberalism and conservatism requires taking sentiments seriously. We can read The Liberal Imagination as a kind of preface to Lippmann’s call to public philosophy, a tour of the roots of liberal politics by way of its literature—art being civilization’s richest repository of sentiment.
Trilling would have recognized many of Marsden’s criticisms. He lamented the failure of liberalism to inspire moral action in the masses. He argued, however, that humanity’s capacity for morality depended not on natural law or fear of God, but on empathy—the act of imagining oneself in the place of another and adopting his suffering as one’s own. This, for Trilling, explained the crucial role of art in the moral health of a culture: “Is it not of the first importance that we be given a direct and immediate report on the reality that is daily being brought to dreadful birth? The novels that have done this have effected much practical good, bringing to consciousness the latent feelings of many people, making it harder for them to be unaware or indifferent, creating an atmosphere in which injustice finds it harder to thrive.”
“Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.” Every liberal moralist since E.M. Forster has reiterated that command of empathy. Trilling feared that liberals had lost sight of this basic task. He tried to remind them by calling attention to the central theme of their greatest literature. A generation later, in 1982, Marshall Berman, the great “Marxist humanist,” took up the same project in All That Is Solid Melts into Air: He turned to Balzac, Dostoevsky, and others in the canon of nineteenth-century literature to “help us connect our lives with the lives of millions of people who are living through the trauma of modernization thousands of miles away, in societies radically different from our own—and with millions of people who lived through it a century or more ago.” Empathy is a better antidote than religious dogma—if hardly a foolproof one—to the dangers of egotism and hate.
But can empathy and reason inspire the masses? Marsden is right to be skeptical. In the 1950s, the Ethical Culture Movement hardly rivaled the Southern Baptist Convention or the Roman Catholic Church, and far more Americans read the Bible than Balzac. Historian Kevin Schultz has suggested in his 2011 book, Tri-Faith America, that postwar liberals embraced (and helped confect) America’s emerging “Judeo-Christian tradition” as a politically useful framework for moral claims that seemed to acknowledge the country’s growing pluralism while retaining the rule of a nondenominational deity. This Cold War civil religion “was tolerant but grounded,” Schultz writes. “It was tough, but in its civic guise, not too demanding. It highlighted individual dignity but did not force a confrontation with race directly.” Yet by the 1960s, the moral pageantry of public Judeo-Christianity could not obscure the longstanding gaps between America’s promises of “liberty and justice for all” and the reality of sexism, economic disparity, and Jim Crow.
Marsden accuses liberal intellectuals of a failure of leadership in this crisis: “secular moderate-liberal cultural leaders had little to offer beyond piecemeal solutions to the cultural challenges they identified.” Their inadequate philosophy, he says, paved the way for the rise of the Religious Right—a network of organizations and activists who were not afraid to assert the enduring relevance of God-given moral law. Marsden does not take up the economic backdrop of this culture war, and ignores a central concern of several of his protagonists—their anger at the right’s claim that “liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism were really one and the same thing,” a lie that Clinton Rossiter called the “Great Train Robbery of our intellectual history.” But Marsden’s broader critique is not wholly without merit: The left collapsed upon itself in a welter of identity politics, a splintering of collective vision from which it has yet to recover.
Marsden offers his own solution for the problem of postmodern pluralism. He suggests that Americans embrace the “confessional pluralism” of the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). The Dutch example is an interesting case study—though Marsden misconstrues the lessons that it offers for the United States.
Appalled by secular liberals’ efforts in the mid-nineteenth century to privatize religion and strip Christianity from Dutch public schools, Kuyper affirmed the diversity of cultural and religious expression in public life. He advocated “sphere sovereignty,” the autonomy of each dimension of human existence, such as family life, education, art, and industry. The government ought to settle disputes between spheres and protect the weak against the strong, but no sphere “may be coerced to suit itself to the grace of government. The State may never become an octopus, which stifles the whole of life,” he said.
Kuyper believed that the church should not interfere in other spheres either. When he decided to seek election to the Dutch parliament, he gave up his ordination. Yet by limiting the official reach of institutionalized religion, he did not mean to limit the influence of faith, or the duty of religious politicians to translate their values into law in their capacity as public servants (rather than as official agents of a church). Historian James Bratt has explained that Kuyper “did not want a naked public square but a crowded one.” He desired a political culture that welcomed Protestants and Catholics to debate and shape public policy with nonbelievers without having to drop their dogma at the door.
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