Consensus Lost?

The Twilight of the American Enlightenmentby George M. Marsden

Basic Books. 264p $26.99

Historian George Marsden, an influential expert on Protestant fundamentalism and also on secularization in the academy, chooses in this book to critique two ways of conceiving America that he claims prevailed about three-score years ago. That was the zenith time of public Protestantism and “consensus-based” reliance on aspects of the 18th century Enlightenment. In Marsden’s image for the change, “twilight” is now here. Over against the darkness which would naturally follow dusk, he envisions a kind of wan possibility of dawn.


Its final sentences summarize the book and issue a call: “All sides need to recognize that we cannot go back to either a secular enlightenment or a Christian consensus, and that culture-war stances are not helpful alternatives. Rather, all sides need to recognize that they should be searching for ways to build a more fully inclusive pluralism.” Marsden’s own account hardly leads to the conclusion that “all sides” might be ready to see the light. Still, he urges that “journalistic media should provide leadership in cultivating a public domain as fully inclusive of religiously shaped viewpoints as is feasible.” Also, secularist commentators, rather than denouncing religion in the name of “universal reason,” should wrestle with more generous approaches.

A reader may well ask—this one does—why Marsden finds so little positive endeavor or achievement from leaders and movements of the last time around, in those fabled 1950s. Public philosopher Walter Lippmann and public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr do come off with qualified good marks for their efforts, but they fail to do justice to–here’s that phrase again—the “fully inclusive pluralism” which the nation needs. Marsden does sound two cheers for what he calls the “mainline Protestant establishment” which became somewhat tolerant in the mid-20th century. But it promoted only a “tri-faith (Protestant-Catholic-Jew) inclusive pluralism.” Because it was based in liberal religion, it failed to include—count these samples!—“fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and other conservative evangelicals as well as Mormons, Orthodox Jews, conservative Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and many others who did not fit the mainline religious profile.” Now, did any of these other mentioned groups make any contribution to Marsden’s hoped-for “fully inclusive pluralism?” Could they have?

Marsden is a wise, accomplished and fair-minded scholar who knows that if he finds little resource in what is left of the American Enlightenment and even less in Protestantism, he has to come up with some sort of alternative on the horizon of his hoped-for dawn. He has the guts or, his critics will say, the foolishness to suggest that fully inclusive pluralism, so needed in our world of culture wars, is available in modified versions of what we may call Kuyperism, which he describes and advertises in a dozen pages at the end of the book. This “alternative view does not resolve all the remarkably complex problems regarding religion and culture. But it does offer a starting point or framework for thinking about them that differs from the dominant American models.”

Influential chiefly in the smallish high culture of Christian Reformed Protestantism in America, it was developed in the Netherlands by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, churchman, political leader and publicist in the late 19th century. Let’s be clear: pointing to a figure unknown to vastly vast majorities is not by definition pointless or futile. Picture, in a different category, how an obscure Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard, vivified some latter-day Christian circles and also influenced French existentialism decades ago. So, we will pay attention to Marsden’s Kuyper.

Let me spend a moment on Marsden’ context. First, his fine biography of Jonathan Edwards, probably the most profound theologian in our hemisphere’s history, shows that he is not frivolous in his choices and proposals. Second, Kuyper does merit attention. (James D. Bratt has recently published a worthy biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013). Also, to show my readiness to take this alternative seriously, I confess that I could also be described, with Kuyper and Marsden, as an “Augustinian Christian.” Marsden defines such as one whose “commitments involve a recognition that people differ in their fundamental loves and first principles, and that these loves and first principles act as lenses through which they see everything else.” I am a bit wary about Marsden’s added “Augustinian” view that “at the same time, all humans, as fellow creatures of God, share many beliefs in common and can communicate through common strands of rational discourse.”

Marsden generously adds that his own “pluralism” has been fed also by many other sources, but in this book he criticizes, for example, both the ecumenical Protestants like Niebuhr and secular rationalists like Lippmann for “Building without Foundations” (the title of Chapter 3). Lippmann’s citation of “natural law” does, though, attract Marsden.

The author is realistic enough to know that he is asking us to stretch imaginations if we are to include the eight or nine mentioned “others” we counted above, who were not invited to the pluralist table by secular and Protestant establishmentarians at mid-century last. Marsden even hopes to interest some in “mainstream academia” to be friendlier to religions. That old “mainstream,” which Marsden dismisses, was too Protestant-Catholic-Jewish. However, with a Kuyperian “fully inclusive pluralist base,” his alternative framework promotes “equity for communities that represent virtually every religion in the world.”

Some would consider this reach to be utopian. Still, it may be good to have this sweeping vision come from a conservative, some would say “evangelical,” Protestant voice. But if a titanic figure like Reinhold Niebuhr, for all the secular media attention and the large following which was still possible for one to gain in a more coherent, less pluralist time, failed because he lacked some of the Kuyperian-style foundations, what chance is there in the post-modern chaos of today? Marsden writes, as the foundational point, that Kuyper “believed that God had created a reality that all people could know, in part if never completely. So he believed there was a place for shared rationality in holding a society together.” He believed “that since all people share experience in God’s ordered reality, these areas of agreement among peoples of various religious or secular faiths could be considerable.”

I end with questions: doesn’t assent to these propositions demand a great a priori “leap of faith”? And doesn’t it expect a more generous attitude to the near-miss secular and Christian thinkers who lack some of what Marsden called “foundations”? Still, while raising these questions, many of us will participate around the dialogical and political table Marsden would set, instead of getting armed for tiresome “culture wars.”

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