Book Review: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, by George M. Marsden

Book Review: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, by George M. Marsden
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  The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.  By George M. Marsden. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 219pp. $20.33 The most recent book written by George M. Marsden examines the demise of the “American e nlightenme nt.” The term is shorthand for the cultural mix of, one, the liberal  principles on which America was founded and, two, its strong de facto Protestant establishment. 1  Marsden specifically analyzes the religiocultural ethos of the 1950s,  believing it the last flickering of the American enlightenment. In the first 150 pages of the  book he discusses the actors and cultural solidarity of that decade as well as the meaning and challenges of its passing. In the final 27 pages, he addresses these challenges by  pointing “ to an alternative paradigm for thinking about the varieties of religious outlooks in the public sphere and the roles they play within that sphere.” 2  Two caveats are in order. First, the reader should not expect fresh historical insights. The account Marsden offers is a cursory, even checkered, retreading of persons and events, with notable gaps. One of them is a failure to emphasize the importance of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which Professor Otis L. Graham, Jr. correctly called “nationchanging.” 3  This it was. Millions of Third World immigrants have stormed the gates of America’s golden door   and brought with them their own languages, religions, and cultural practices. Radical and widespread religio-cultural diversity did not appear, much less present itself as a problem, in America prior to the enactment of this legislation. A persuasive argument can be made that the end of the cultural arrangements of the 1950s is primarily attributable to these “reforms”  in American immigration law. For Marsden to have all but ignored them is comparable to one’s writing about the history of aviation with only slight attention to the Wright brothers.   2 A second caveat is that the author’s suggestions regarding the direction forward for America in the face of deep-seated pluralism leave one with far more questions than answers. The fact that he spends only one modest chapter explaining his approach to  pluralism hints at frothy academic rumination rather than two-fisted analysis. He looks to Abraham Kuyper, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Dutch theologian, for a  paradigm with which to deal with America’s  current state of religious diversity, and asserts, “A Kuyperian outlook provides a basis for r  ecognizing that there can be both radical differences in fundamental outlooks and also a basis for social and political cooperation, based on the God-given principle of common grace .” 4  Yet we are never led  beyond this and other abstractions to concrete applications of how Kuyper’s  outlook might actually work. Furthermore, as Marsden well knows, there are countless naturalists, along with devotees of world religions, who do not profess belief in either deity or grace. Why he believes a new political and social paradigm, based upon the vision of a beneficent deity, would meet with broad acceptance is baffling. In addition, how much “ cooperation ”  is really possible in a radically pluralistic society? In a public square where Protestants and Catholics hear not only church bells,  but also what (to them) are the cacophonous sounds of Islamic calls to worship, and where they encounter Muslims bowing toward Mecca in congested airport terminals, insisting upon the application of Sharia law in their conflicts with one another, and holding forth for barbarisms such as female genital mutilation, “honor killing , ” and  polygamy, one has to wonder whether these and other such interactions can ever lead to mutual respect and cooperation.   3 When one adds to this morass countless other religiocultural practices, such as  bride burning and human sacrifice, which are at notorious odds with the sensitivities of Western civilization and the religion that gave it birth, the question invariably surfaces: is radical religious pluralism a felicitous development in America? Would it not be best to retrieve, and fine-tune perhaps, a paradigm providing for assimilation to the values of the American enlightenment? Restoration of some variation of an old paradigm, beleaguered  but still functional, rather than adoption of a new one, experimental and half-baked, seems the prudent course. The philosophy of cultural pluralism, initially advanced by Horace Kallen and now fully realized in American life, has according to many observers resulted in a recrudescence of the Tower of Babel . The assumption underlying Marsden’s book is that Americans must resign themselves to this chaotic, fragmenting state of affairs and search for a new approach for dealing with it rather than merely rejecting and labeling it unworkable. Whether his assumption is warranted deserves far more serious examination than this book provides. L. Scott Smith, Ph.D., J.D. 1  Marsden, xxiv. 2    Ibid  ., xxvii. 3  Otis L. Graham, Jr.,  A Vast Social Experiment: The Immigration Act of 1965  (2004), 8, (accessed Oct. 15, 2006). 4  Marsden, 172 ( emphasis added  ).
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