Seeking Foundations of a New Consensus

A specter haunts George Marsden: the specter of modern liberalism. What did it promise? How did it fail? What comes next? To explore these questions, Marsden’s essay on American public intellectual culture since the 1950s follows some famous middlebrow and scholarly writers—creators of America’s modern “liberal consensus”—into the 1960s. Cover This era, Marsden argues, was the eve of the greatest American crisis since the American Revolution. Even after the guns went silent in 1945, the fragrance of unity that Americans enjoyed during the war still lingered, as the struggle against world communism offered a new rallying point. At the time, Americans wanted a universal, pragmatic foundation for consensus on morals and politics. Marsden hopes that recounting this history can give us perspective on today’s challenges to consensus and inspire fresh answers.

If you’ve read Marsden before, you’ll recognize him here: careful, generous, modest in his claims and earnest in his convictions. He intends to illumine “enlightenment” in its pluralist American version. Chastened by postmodernist critics, Marsden asserts that the Enlightenment project of tolerance, democratic consensus and pragmatism, lacking a foundation in first principles, broke down after the war. The American experiment had united Protestantism to Enlightenment ideas of liberty, encouraging tremendous confidence in technological innovation to solve the challenges of modernity, hopefully to a vibrant pluralist end. A hot war against fascism and a cold one against communism could not have more sharply contrasted with the American ideal, resulting in a further celebration of freedom of expression, capitalism, free markets and tolerance of religious and social difference.

So why didn’t this liberal consensus endure? Because it had no foundation other than epistemological and civic pragmatism. Marsden argues that, though the American Enlightenment gave its great gift of a shared civic moral outlook to later generations, its hidden authority was the moral consensus within a theological framework trusted, taught and lived by American Protestants. By the 1950s, that religious consensus was deteriorating and in disarray, in particular from the corroding effect of modern science’s empirical challenge to religious claims along with the general secularization of American public life. The great instruments of Christian authority retreated from the public world— magazines, universities, mainline churches—while other organs of opinion and imagination—movies, and TV especially—weaned Americans from their influence. In the 1960s, the liberal consensus, captured by the increasingly radical demands of stridently militant pluralists or focused on the civil rights movement, cut its last ties to that Protestant past. By the later 1970s, its offspring, “identity politics,” made liberal unity nearly impossible. Meanwhile, an increasingly politicized evangelical Protestantism pushed back in the halls of power. Hence, the birth of the “culture wars” of the 1980s, which still roil us today.

Marsden highlights two great activists and moral thinkers, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., who rooted their work in their theological outlooks. Their theological and moral conviction, their realism, drew followers from outside their respective confessions, followers who joined them for the seriousness of their thought and the practical possibility that they might just change the world. After Niebuhr and King, the failure of mainline Protestants to secure a leadership role in American public life left a big hole into which stepped the evangelical Religious Right. Marsden’s final chapter asks his readers to consider a twenty-first century theological successor to King and Niebuhr. For one model, Marsden recommends the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s Christian “principled pluralism,” he suggests, has the theological gravitas and pragmatic civic ethos of negotiation to underwrite our search for a new working consensus. As a suggestion, though, this feels oddly halfhearted, and the civic recipe seems quite vague. But perhaps I’m missing the subtlety here.

From another angle, what does this Christian scholar have to offer other citizens who don’t share his faith? Just as he addressed this in earlier work, Marsden defends perspectivalism, lays out his own (Augustinian-Christian) perspective, suggests that some such ruling principles guide all research and recommends Kuyper’s publicly engaged Christian pluralism. I’m no historian of America, so I can’t judge whether Marsden should have spent less time on Reisman and Lippman or more time on some other figures (oddly, the Catholic writers of Paul Elie’s wonderful account of the same period, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” don’t figure in Marsden’s story). But as an Enlightenment historian, I’m suspicious of Kuyper’s guidance here. In his Stone Lectures, Kuyper consistently attacked the Enlightenment as the basis for the radical, democratic and atheistic-materialist work of the French Revolution — an assessment problematic on many counts. On this point Kuyper may be too reactionary to be of much use to us in the 21st century. I don’t see the enemy at the gates dressed as a radical materialist. But others will disagree.

HOUSEBROKEN MODERNITY?

Marsden’s goal here, as with so many other contemporary Christian scholars, seems to be to sketch out a modernity properly housebroken for the Christian faith. Marsden comes to Kuyper honestly; he expresses his distrust of an Enlightenment untempered by religious first principles, of a materialist natural science and its philosophical partners which to him can offer no foundation for the meaning of existence, public morality or civic life. This echoes, to me, the “third use of the law” from the Reformed tradition as well as the legacy of “the godly community.” Whatever such a civic foundationalism might look like, I doubt that it should be couched in Christian worldviewism or some other pseudophilosophical jargon. It will have to be some kind of powerful story, or punctuated by compelling stories. Maybe we leave off making claims about the biblical worldview, discarding autobiographical prefaces so that our readers don’t have to read carefully to figure out “where we’re coming from,” or making claims about the value-added quality of the Christian faith to scholarship of any kind. We do the work as well as we can. Along the way we ask instead, what does a cross-bearing person look like when doing this? What does someone confessing the Incarnate God look like when doing this? When communities confess the incarnation and the way of the cross, what do they look like when at play in the theater of creation?

Nevertheless, Marsden deserves a lot of credit for trying to write history for a wider public, narrating a past for useful guidance for serious moral and civic reflection today. I recommend reading this volume alongside Mary Worthen’s “Apostles of Reason,” Tracy McKenzie’s “The First Thanksgiving,” Jonathan Israel’s “The Radical Enlightenment” or Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation.” We need more of this kind of work, not less.

Michael Kugler is professor of history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.