The Twilight of the American Enlightenment – By George M. Marsden

An excerpt from George M. Marsden’s latest book

[This MRB exclusive is excerpted from The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, by George M. Marsden, with permission from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.]

Marsden Twilight
George M. Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, Basic Books, 2014, 264pp., $26.99

At the same time that faith in individual autonomy and the authority of science was standard fare in so much of midcentury American culture, the United States was experiencing one of the most widespread religious revivals in its history. Record numbers were attending religious services of almost every type and level, from those who went to tent revivalists for healing to prosperous old-line Protestants, from fans of Billy Graham to devotees of Reinhold Niebuhr, from hyper-biblicist sects to broad spiritualists, from the white and the black rural South to the urban ethnic neighborhoods of Roman Catholics or Jews, and including varieties of other Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices. Millions read Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s 1946 number-one bestseller Peace of Mind and the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 counterpart, The Power of Positive Thinking, both of which promised religiously based self-fulfillment. In 1952, a record 75 percent of Americans responding to pollsters said that religion was “very important” in their lives. And in 1957, more than four out of five affirmed that religion was not “old fashioned and out of date,” but rather, “can answer today’s problems.” Between 1950 and 1960, church affiliation jumped an amazing 14 percent, going from 55 percent of the total population to 69 percent. By the end of the 1950s, attendance at religious services similarly reached an all-time peak.

The intriguing question that emerges, then, is this: How did these two simultaneously huge cultural trends — the consensus outlooks celebrating both scientific authority and autonomy, and the religious revival — fit with each other? More broadly, how could a culture that was so modern, secular, and antitraditional in so many of its practices and ways of thinking be at the same time so religious? How did so much religion fit with the rest of the cultural mainstream? How such questions typically were addressed in the 1950s has important implications for the subsequent rise of the religious right by the late 1970s. They also lead into the culminating theme of this book: how best to accommodate a variety of religious viewpoints in pluralistic America.

The story of religion in the 1950s has many dimensions, but at its center is the continuing heritage of cultural leadership of the mainline Protestant churches. These were the predominantly northern, white, Protestant denominations, such as Episcopal, Congregational (United Church of Christ), Presbyterian, American Baptist, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, various sorts of Lutheran churches, and others, that were regarded as constituting an informal religious “establishment.” That is, even though America had not had “established” state churches supported by taxes since its early days, Protestant Christianity still held a privileged place in the culture as the predominant religion. Mainline Protestant leaders were part of the liberal-moderate cultural mainstream, and their leading spokespersons were respected participants in the national conversation.

Protestantism had played a complementary role to more secular outlooks in public life throughout US history, and many Protestants were, of course, eager for this role to continue. It was a role that was embodied, for example, in the US Constitution. Written with remarkably little religious language for the time, the Constitution defined the federal government in a practically secular way. At the same time, the framers took care in the religion clauses of the First Amendment (“congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ”) to guarantee that religion might flourish in many supplemental capacities—even in tax-supported established churches in some New England states. Although the early republic was not a “Christian nation” in the sense that some conservative Christians today claim, neither was it wholly secular. Protestant Christianity retained many public privileges. Some of these were ceremonial and others were substantial. Education, which in Christendom had always had a conspicuous religious component, continued to include Protestant teachings. In the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, even state universities had required chapel attendance and were likely to have clergymen as presidents. Protestants could also form voting blocs large enough to shape religiously based legislation, as in Sabbath laws, or in promoting various social and moral reforms. The last great manifestation of that public influence was in the movement for prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages, culminating in the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

By the 1950s, although Protestants retained disproportional influence, the question loomed as to how such influence might continue. Prohibition itself had brought strong reactions against allowing one religious group to impose its restrictive teachings on everyone else. Moreover, as it was increasingly recognized that the nation included various religious, secular, and simply profane outlooks, the prospects for specific religious teachings to continue to play a role in shaping a public national consensus were looking increasingly problematic.