THE TWILIGHT OF THE AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. By George M. Marsden. Basic Books. 264 pages. $26.99.
George M. Marsden has received glowing reviews from disparate sources for his recent foray into the last half-century of American intellectual ferment. The 1950s saw an explosion of major societal changes. Many new technologies came along to upset a reasonably settled and stable society.
It was a largely Protestant-driven set of values that had been a dominant influence on society, Marsden argues. Although that community was happy to live comfortably with other religions, it was certainly guilty of attempting to quarantine them to their own sub-communities where they would not have much influence, for example, in government.
As technological advances expanded everyone's horizons, self-determination became a more important precept of the American existence. There was increasing freedom to follow your own muse. Civil rights, women's rights and even gay rights became part of our contentious society. No longer would the country be run by WASPs who lived in areas where the zip code started with zero.
As part of the "do your own thing" incentives, secularism became a bigger part of our society. For a while it was presumed by many that as science continued to add greater understanding of nature's laws, secularism would increase in influence and religion would decline. But a funny thing happened on the way to a secular society. Organized religion made a dramatic comeback. Between 1950 and 1960, church affiliation jumped from 55 percent to 69 percent of the total population.
Along the way, society has made great progress in assimilating those who, mere decades ago, were outliers. Now more women than men earn bachelor's degrees, and same-sex marriage could soon be commonplace.
Marsden's thesis is that, while the moderate-liberal thinkers at the center of the cultural establishment embraced the diversity of the secular society, they failed to accommodate the burgeoning, strong religious communities. The religious right has become a powerful political influence with which compromise is rare.
This inability to accommodate diversity among religions, and between religion and secularism, is the issue that Marsden engages. He does so with erudition and profundity. But his erudition comes with a price. I had to reread his concluding chapter in order to be sure I understood his recommendations. One of the clearer pages in that chapter contains two paragraphs comprising a total of nine sentences with an average of 26 words per sentence. An editorial writer he is not. Although this is not a "page-turner," it is an important book written by one of the significant intellects of our day and it is worth reading, even twice.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer.