The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Basic Books, 2014, 264 pp., $26.99
The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years
Oxford University Press, 2014, 240 pp., $24.95
In the United States and other Western countries, a great deal of thinking about religious history is founded on two misleading assumptions: that America was once a Christian nation, and that it has ceased to be so now. This representation of the history of American religion is familiar to us in part because of its ubiquity: It is constantly projected in the literature of despair that nowadays emanates from sometimes powerful religious and political communities. It is in turn so common because it is so plausible: It structures the spiritual history of the American national community in the familiar terms of the Puritan jeremiad, the literary genre which argues that the past was always a golden age against which the present should be measured. The jeremiad is, after all, a genre that became foundational to the imagination of early America and so inheres in its literary canon. But the jeremiad necessarily undermines its claims. For from the earliest settlers to the present day, the genre has insisted that America was always once a Christian nation, and it has always ceased to be so now.
Far from charting America’s spiritual decline, two recently published books offer an alternative history of recent American religion. Written by George M. Marsden and Steven P. Miller, respectively one of the most widely admired and one of the most energetic and compelling of the younger generation of intellectual historians, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment and The Age of Evangelicalism explain why and how evangelical religion is on the rise in the United States. Challenging easy assumptions about the form of nostalgia most obvious in the rhetoric of the religious Right, these two books make a series of powerful arguments: that the culture of the 1950s, to which so many advocates of traditional religion refer, is much less useful to religious conservatives than is often assumed, even by their antagonists; that evangelicals, the most ambitious and well organized of the subcultures that emerged from the mid-century eclipse of the American liberal mainstream, have projected their cultural power and exported their political aspirations with extraordinary effect, but never without setbacks and self-criticism; and that recent attempts by some radical evangelicals to refashion the social values of the movement in terms of the center-Left have been stymied by the suffocating power of sentimentalism, and in particular by nostalgic invocations of a mid-century cultural mainstream that never, in fact, existed.
Taken together, Marsden and Miller help us to understand evangelicalism as an expression of religious identity that invokes “traditional values”, which it represents as conservatism, even as it constantly undermines their philosophical base. These accounts describe the intellectual and spiritual crisis of liberalism in the middle of the 20th century and the evangelical revival that followed it, while illustrating the extraordinary vitality of the false memories held by the most powerful subculture in the recent history of the United States.
Of course, the jeremiad is partly right: America has never been a Christian nation in a formal constitutional sense. Whatever the religious sentiments of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence (see Matthew Stewart’s new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic), the constitutional separation of church and state has worked to guard the union from dominance by government of any one of its religious communities. Withal, the culture was undeniably Protestant if heterogeneous at the institutional level, and the religious revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries certainly did encourage great expectations in both the spiritual and political realms. In their aftermath, the more respectable of the now more democratized older Protestant denominations began to work together to provide a common code for an American civil religion, an orthodox Protestant mainstream that could encapsulate something essential about the moral character of America.
Throughout this period, however, the literature of this emerging Protestant mainstream increasingly distinguished between evangelical forms of spirituality and traditional theological claims. The more traditional claims gradually adapted to the American egalitarian spirit, and the hierarchies of “high church” Protestantism adapted most, with the result that the energies of upstart revivalism tended to flow into establishment channels. The result was often a kind of hybrid: Most American Protestant denominations became more engaged in proselytizing and missionary work, but save for outlier groups like the Plymouth Brethren, eschewed outright evangelical fervor.
So it was when, toward the end of the 19th century, the new “higher criticism” washed back from Germany to challenge foundational elements of traditional Christian thinking, the mainstream denominations could do little to resist it. The old religious sentiment was unable to cope with the intellectual demands of the new biblical science, and the minority of believers who were prepared to contest the new claims were dismissed as “fundamentalists.” Their number included a few individuals of considerable intellectual achievement, including J. Gresham Machen, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. But those cultural commentators, like H. L. Mencken, who dismissed the fundamentalists as “idiots” were too often correct, and the debacle of the Scopes “monkey trial” confirmed that the protesting pietists had little to offer in reply to the modernists’ arsenal of ideas. Evangelicals learned their lesson, and from the late 1920s until the late 1940s, they quietly disappeared from the realm of public intellectual contestation.
But the evangelicals were to return to triumph. As Joel C. Carpenter illustrates in his account of the movement’s “dark ages”, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997), evangelicals retreated to the cultural margins in order to engage in rigorous self-criticism, to establish new media and educational institutions, and to rebuild their cultural credit. By the end of the 1940s, they were re-energized, with new personnel staffing new organizations and with goals to both save souls and reform the wider culture. Listening to Billy Graham, attending Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary, and reading Carl Henry in Christianity Today, evangelicals re-emerged into the glare of public scrutiny.1 There, throughout the 1950s, they were to flourish. It might not have been obvious at the time, but their new faith was thriving as their old world was dying. As the country’s moral consensus broke down at the end of the 1950s, the new evangelicalism grew out of the fragments of the cultural mainstream from which it had been rejected.
Billy Graham’s new religious movement has, of course, done very well. Millions of Americans now claim that they, too, have been “born again.” Almost every presidential candidate since the late 1970s has felt the need to defer to the movement’s claims, either by referring to his own “born-again” experience or by gesturing toward evangelical assumptions about domestic and foreign policy. The movement’s “soft power” is staggering: “Contemporary Christian music” occupies a greater market share than jazz and classical music combined, evangelical writers regularly appear in the bestseller lists, and one in nine Americans reportedly read an instalment of the prophecy thriller Left Behind. As the political scientist Alan Wolfe has put it, there is “a sense in which we are all evangelicals now.” Perhaps it’s time to revisit the jeremiad: If America was never a Christian country, has it now found its faith for the first time?
George M. Marsden and Steven P. Miller call us to reconsider the character and consequences of the mid-century breakdown of America’s “traditional values”, and the phoenix-like ascent of evangelicals that has followed it. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is Marsden’s most recent reflection upon the place of religion in American public life. Marsden is one of the most important intellectual historians of the past 50 years. His sequence of analyses of the history and character of evangelicalism helped to consolidate a research field that has become one of the most popular among contemporary scholars of religion, and his biography of Jonathan Edwards is arguably the most important study ever written of America’s greatest philosopher and theologian. Marsden’s latest work continues his interest in grand religious-historical themes, but The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is written with a very personal inflection. For in writing about the 1950s, Marsden is writing about his own childhood, and all the stable and comforting cultural assumptions that made the “greatest generation” perhaps the most unified in American history. Marsden is writing a history of his own times, and, in the attention he pays to evangelicals and intellectuals, a history of his own kind, too.
In the 1950s, Marsden argues, Americans lived through a revolution. The surge in the popularity of television created a common culture, with popular shows providing for a language of shared experience that could cross states, generations, classes, and, increasingly, races. But behind the “tremendous optimism” of the generation that had won the war, an intellectual crisis broke out among its leading thinkers. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment offers broad readings of debates between intellectuals across the disciplines, which focussed on the emergence of a mass media, the increasing attention paid to individualism and autonomy, and the dumbing-down of culture. New technology engendered its own set of concerns across these and other subjects. Marsden cites the opinions of those public intellectuals who worried about the enervating influence of the new mass culture. Valuing the classics, they feared that the democratizing influences of television were pandering to the lowest common denominator. “American culture made sense” as the decade began, but the decade ended with the energizing of the politics of identity, and the fragmentation of the American consensus.
In a nutshell, postwar liberalism constituted a creedal system of thought that in many ways competed with traditional Protestant worldviews. Its god was Enlightenment universalism, thought to be entirely consistent with, if not just another way of expressing, the American Protestant common denominator. But, as it turned out, this was liberal Enlightenment gruel too thin for the American soul. When the mainline churches embraced postwar liberalism as their own, they weakened their own brand, opening the door to a spiritual discontent that for some years could not articulate its own uneasiness.
In The Age of Evangelicalism Miller picks up the story by drawing our attention to the subculture that took best advantage of the collapse of America’s Enlightenment consensus. Responding to the new mood of relativism and the fears of thermonuclear war, conservative Protestants spread new principles of social order and religious belonging, constructing an “imagined community” that, ostensibly, sought to preserve the best of “how things used to be.” The success of this evangelical project may be measured by Miller’s argument that “evangelical” is “an age, not a subculture.” It was in the 1970s, Miller argues, that the new movement began to make sense to the wider public. It was certainly then, if not a little earlier, that young “Jesus freaks” began to flow out of the floating village of psychedelia, a microcosm, perhaps, of the reaction against secular excesses and vacuity. Miller notes that the 1976 presidential campaign was the first between competitors who both claimed to be born-again Christians. Jimmy Carter’s victory was a sign both of evangelical success and failure. Evangelicals had elected one of their own, but found that he could not be relied upon to defend moral positions that the movement as a whole found to be obvious.
Carter was, in some ways, the first sign that evangelical politics would not be ideologically constrained. The Age of Evangelicalism recounts the familiar story of the emergence of the Christian Right even as it recognizes that it never monopolized the political sensibilities of born-again Protestants. Politically liberal “red-letter Christians” wanted to pay more attention to the words of Jesus Christ than to the broader canonical contexts of his radical claims. The evangelical Left never entirely abandoned the moral certainties about human sexuality and family life that were increasingly associated with their brethren in the Moral Majority, but they added social justice and the environment to the long list of evangelical concerns.
Of course, much of this ground is familiar. Miller’s argument parallels that of Darryl G. Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (2011). Hart’s book argues that the evangelical appeal to modernity and innovation, which seems endemic throughout the various subcultures within the movement, actually destroys the ecclesial and historical attachments that ought to underlie any authentic appeal to conservative values.
But Miller’s point is perhaps a complementary one, that the growth of the evangelical Left has been stymied by the cultural power of nostalgia. The literature of complaint and concern forged by evangelical writers depicts the culture of the 1950s as the last moment of order before the moral collapse of the decade that followed. And yet, as Marsden’s work so persuasively argues, the 1950s were nothing like the way they have come to be remembered. The 1950s are remembered as conservative, but despite the two-term Eisenhower presidency it was a time of liberal ascendency. The 1950s are remembered as peaceful despite the Korean War, a good deal of rocket rattle, and the first peacetime draft. They are remembered as a time of stable family life, but increased mobility led to a huge spike in both the divorce rate and domestic violence. This is the powerful irony to which both books emphatically point. Taken together, Marsden’s account of the eclipse of Protestant liberalism in the 1950s and Miller’s account of the developments in political thinking among evangelicals since the 1970s offer a powerful argument about the intellectual inconsistencies, or perhaps complexities, that underlie America’s most dominant and politically influential religious style.
Marsden’s book, however, is more than a diagnostic history of the intellectual instability of the 1950s and the ideological fissures that evolved into bitter culture wars. It also suggests a means by which mainstream culture can be reconfigured to create a genuine ethical pluralism. His conclusion draws from the philosophy and political strategies of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the renowned theologian, newspaper editor, and founder of the Free University in Amsterdam, who also found time to become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–05).
Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” incorporated central tenets of the Calvinism he had inherited, but radically reconstructed its traditional political obligations. The Reformed tradition within which Kuyper operated had long assumed that the role of government was to uphold the moral claims of Scripture, and to effect a confessional culture in which societal norms paralleled those of believers. Kuyper’s great contribution to the Reformed tradition was to overturn this consensus, sometimes at substantial risk to himself, arguing for a more limited view of the responsibilities of government, and emphasizing that it ought not to intrude into the “spheres” of family, church, and voluntary associations. Kuyper argued that believers and unbelievers were divided by an “antithesis” that was simultaneously spiritual and existential, and so advocated the establishment of denominational schools and universities within which believers of different kinds could be separately educated.
This intrusion of sharp religious distinctions into the public square was balanced by Kuyper’s advocacy of “common grace”—the notion that all of humanity, as God’s image-bearers, were recipients of divine kindness—which permitted the construction of a public culture that could be non-confessional and non-denominational. Believers, in other words, could organize in robustly confessional institutions within a broader political environment that respected religious difference while enshrining the non-confessional principles of “natural law.” Kuyper’s utopia looked a lot like constitutional Americanisms, however far it would be from the sometimes theocratic assumptions of modern evangelicals.
Kuyper’s argument offers a new way for advocates of conservative religion to imagine their place in a public culture that is broader and more varied than one they might prefer, while encouraging these believers to take a vocal and energetic part in its discussions, arguing not on the basis of a divine revelation in any particular inspirited writing, but on the basis of “natural law”, those ideas and convictions that are commonly accepted.
Marsden’s conclusion is perhaps the least successful part of his book. His account of Kuyperian theory is too brief to be convincing to those who know nothing about it, and seems to represent a shift in his sense of his audience. Marsden’s exposition of Kuyperian theory is developed in a conclusion of fewer than thirty pages, and can only explain the most basic elements of a complex and nuanced system. Many readers would not doubt his most basic conviction, that the individual “spheres” of family, religious associations, and government work best when they take care of their own specific responsibilities. This conclusion does not really seem to be addressed to a general reader, but instead to Marsden’s evangelical peers, particularly to those influenced by the zero-sum thinking of culture war polemics. He seems to be encouraging them to consider whether there might, after all, be a better way of imagining the role of conservative religion in an American culture in which many voices and disparate claims ought to be included.
As members of a movement that is broad-based, diverse, and too often anti-intellectual, American evangelicals regularly fantasize about the conditions of life in the golden age before the “swinging sixties.” Remembering a time when family units were strong, when domesticity and patriarchy were the norm, when media culture was decent and when foreign policy reflected a moral clarity and a national sense of purpose, evangelicals re-create in their imaginations the world from which they believe they have fallen. (The politics of evangelical amnesia may be measured by the elision of the bloody struggle for civil rights and of inquisitorial anti-communism.) Today they worry about gender and the distinctive roles of husbands and wives, about debased culture and moral chaos, moving from marriage enrichment seminars to issues-based protest movements. Across the ecclesiastical spectrum, and most clearly on the political Right, evangelicals project a sometimes tribal, hard-edged, and inflexible caricature of the past, which they wrongly identify as conservative and ironically attempt to make their own.
This is why we must be careful not to assume that America was once Christian and that it has now ceased to be so. If the case presented by Marsden and Miller is correct, the old consensus was neither self-evidently conservative nor Christian, and those trying to replace it are less interested in consensus than in partisan displays of faith and zero-sum strategies to wield power. The culture wars did not so much undermine the public claims of faith as underline its central importance. Evangelicals may now have greater social and cultural capital than ever before. By some measurements, far from being a less religious nation, America may be at its most religious: Perhaps, as Miller argues, America itself has been “born again.” Believers may continue to hark back to the values of the world they lost. But, as Marsden and Miller suggest, perhaps they should rather face squarely the demands of the world they have won.
1Worth noting in this regard is Grant Wacker’s new book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Harvard University Press, 2014).