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Transcript: The American Enlightenment at Twilight – A Conversation with Historian George M. Marsden

RAM: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to an intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He holds degrees from Haverford College and Westminster Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Yale University. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books and is one of the most influential figures in evangelical scholarship and the evangelical academy of the last generation. He is one of the most indispensible writers, scholars, analysts, and teachers for the entire evangelical movement. The titles of his influential books include: Fundamentalism in American Culture; The Soul of the American University; and, his magisterial biography of Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  His latest work, published by Basic Books, is The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: the 1950’s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. I’m eagerly looking forward to this conversation with George Marsden. He is such an incredible, insightful historian, and he writes from inside the evangelical movement. He’s written about the history of Fuller Theological Seminary, and basically he’s covered the waterfront of American intellectual and American Protestant and Evangelical life from the period of the founding to the period of the present. But now he goes back to the 1950’s. I find that very curious. And so I’m going to ask him why. George Marsden, welcome to Thinking in Public.

RAM: Professor Marsden you entitled your book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. I think virtually every one of those major words is important, but let’s work backwards. When you’re talking about the American Enlightenment what are you really talking about here?

GM: I’m talking about America having been founded as a nation during the 18th century when Enlightenment ideas were the dominant ideas which involved a high trust in reason, a high trust in the individual, so we talk about individual rights, and the like, and those ideas have left an indelible impression on America. And the American Enlightenment is different from the French Enlightenment in that the American Enlightenment was also friendly to Christianity, that much of the Enlightenment had Christian roots and so although some Enlightenment figures were not particularly Christian. They were theists and the like. People who were orthodox Christians could adopt a lot of the American Enlightenment ideas, so those ideals were more or less a point of departure for the nation.

RAM: You know, in reading your book, I had so many different avenues of fruitful thought. The subtitle of your book of course is “the 1950’s and the crisis of liberal belief.” So to kind of summarize your narrative, at least in some sense, you’re talking about the distance between the time of the American founding when those Enlightenment ideals were supported and accompanied by an overwhelming Protestant sensibility and worldview. Fast forwarding to 1950’s, when at least amongst the secular elites that official Protestantism had past certainly with its theological content, but that led me to want to ask you a question. You’ve written so much about American intellectual life, and a magisterial biography of Jonathan Edwards, after all, but it made me want to go back and ask you when you think of the American Enlightenment , and you’re right that the entire field of intellectual history now speaks of the “enlightenments” in the plural rather than just in the singular, and certainly just the English speaking Enlightenment of which the American Enlightenment was apart was far friendlier to Christian theism, but it made me wonder just to what extend was that American Enlightenment friendly to a rather evacuated form of Protestantism? In other words, how much theology, how much theism, was actually in that official predominating Protestantism of the time?

GM: I guess the best way to answer that would be to say that a theologically substantial Protestantism was not at all essential to the dominant political social ideals of the Enlightenment. Some people who were traditional  Christians brought in the Enlightenment  ideals and blended traditional Christianity with them, so you get all points in the spectrum from people being deists, or very skeptical about traditional Christianity to orthodox Christian believers, and then everything in between and probably most of the American leaders were somewhere in between orthodox Christianity and deism. So there’s sort of cultural blend that’s there that’s pretty hard to identify either with Christianity or with out-and-out secularism. Like a lot of things in life there’s a bit of ambiguity about it.

RAM: You wrote very carefully as you always do. For instance, you wrote, “almost everyone,” speaking of that era, “agreed that Protestant Christianity provided an important support for the principals upon which the Republic could have been founded.” That’s a very chaste sentence. It doesn’t over claim and I think it’s certainly demonstrably true. Virtually everyone agreed that Protestant Christianity was a necessary intellectual support for those principals, but then you fast forward to the 1950’s, the main era of your concern in this really fascinating book, and something has dramatically changed. You got people, especially amongst the elites, looking at the larger culture, who want to maintain those Enlightenment ideals but no longer any confidence at all in that Protestant worldview that helped to support those very ideals they wanted to continue.

GM: That’s what was fascinating to me and it was the era in that I grew up into as a college student in the 50s. To realize that era was one in which leading intellectual figures in America were still affirming the founding ideals and they still believed that the United States stood on a foundation of shared beliefs that could provide a nice consensus for everyone to buy into, but they no longer had traditional foundation for those beliefs. So they had the conclusions but not the foundations that they rested on, so it was a sort of house of cards kind of situation that was ready to collapse when the winds of the 1960s began to blow, that kind of consensus ideals pretty much falls apart.

RAM: You’ve been a conversation partner intellectually and bibliographically for virtually all of my adult life and I say that with a tremendous appreciation and indebtedness to you. And I sat down with this most recent book with a tremendous sense of expectation and the book surprised me in terms of what I found within it because, you know, George, I’ll tell you I’ve read virtually one of the major books you deal with of these very important figures and yet what I had not seen, and I was born in 1959, so I came a long later, what I had not seen was how all of this fits together with a tremendous sense of anxiety and what I would describe as a rather baseless optimism about the possibility of hanging these Enlightenment ideals on a basically secular superstructure, but I’ll tell you the main thing I though as I read your book was I understand my college professors in a whole new way because this is the intellectual context that they cut their teeth. My professors were assigning to me Rogerson, Skinner, and Littman, and Niebuhr, and I was reading all of this but I was reading this as someone born in 1959, not as someone who was doing doctoral work at the very time these very books were so dominant. And that goes back to the organization man, and the man of the grey flannel suit, and all the rest of this. I think your book is a tremendously important window into a particular moment, a very important moment in American intellectual history. I just want to ask you again, in the 1950s what drew you there? What was the intellectual focus or crisis that led you to say I want to invest this much work in what was going on in the 1950s?

GM: It was partly a personal quest that, as I said, that’s when I came of age, more or less, intellectually. I graduated from college in 1959 and I was headed towards religion and American culture and so my first introductions to what is American culture like came from these people and they had many insights that one can appreciate. They were worried about some of the things that were proper to worry about, about what would be the effects of man’s culture, what would be the effects of television on higher culture. They were worried about conformity that everything would be driven by technology and that this would crush the individual. These were things that we’re talking so it was interesting to me after half a century to go back and revisit that time and see how it looks in that perspective in the 1950s themselves. To a young person such as myself these writers seemed very formidable and it’s interesting a half century later they look very dated. That’s a good lesson to think about, about any contemporary thought how it will look in another half century and not to take the writer too seriously. That was one of my motives and then the part of that motive is exactly what you said regarding your college professor. I was visiting at Harvard Divinity School for a year and I was teaching a course—it was very interesting to do there—on the role of religion in American higher education. It struck me how much the intellectual assumptions of academics in the later 20th century was shaped and still being shaped by assumptions that had developed in the 1950s, particularly the assumptions that secular views ought to be preferred over religious views and that in turn had some sort of idea that all right thinking people ought to be able to agree on certain basic rational principles and have some sort of scientific basis behind them and that even though in the 60s and 70s American culture moved in the direction of really intellectual fragmentation when it came to thinking about religion those sorts of ideals were still pretty much the dominant ideals. The ideals that we ought to really think scientifically about that and everybody ought o agree religious ideas are passé. So there’s this interest in the irony that those sorts of ideals had persisted into the later 20th century or at least 21 century.

RAM: It’s a fascinating era. I was born in 1959, the year you graduated from college, and the names you deal with in your book were the people who were not the common conversation in terms of America in the 1970s when I was a teenager, but they really did set the stage for that conversation and these were huge and hugely influential public intellectuals. The Reinhold Niebuhrs, the Walter Litmans, the Arthur Schlesinger Jrs., you go down the list. At least part of what I felt in reading your book was a certain wistfulness for a time when the American public conversation was so dominated by people who had inadequate worldviews by my estimation, but nonetheless, were serious men, and they were men of serious ideals. I feel the absence of robust conversation fueled by crisis though it was that nonetheless was a serious conversation with ideas. I compare the 1950s to our present time and I think we’re missing something.

GM: Yes, and one of the things we’re missing that then there was a real national conversation and there was a sense that people from diverse points of view could disagree on some basic things but nonetheless enter into the same conversation. I begin with a conversation in 1959 that was published in life magazine on the national purpose, and they had I think 9 leading public figures speak about that. One of the figures is Billy Graham, another was Adlai Stevenson who had run for president on the democratic ticket, Walter Lippmann was there, Scottie Reston, a columnist from the New York Times was there. They were all more or less on the same team. They thought of themselves as how should we dye (?) American. Now it was a team of all white males, and since then that’s been something that’s been modified, but it was also more possible to have a civil national conversation than it is today. Now when I say that I have to also qualify there was a lot of political tension in the 1950s. There was all the strong anti-communism, McCarthyism, and some of the same kind of strong political division, including civil rights and the like, that divided people. But this still was a national conversation and in that conversation one could have Christian thinkers and Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent that he could still presume to be speaking for where the rest of American culture should be headed. He tried to bring in his version of Christian morals and views as a guide and people from all sorts of faiths and non-faiths paid attention to Niebuhr and thought this is a good way of shaping the culture in general.

RAM: In terms of those public intellectuals, they not only had this enormous influence in the society and actually both parties of virtually every level of the political process and the larger culture, they also had friends in the media and you give considerable focus in your book to Henry Luce, whose media empire included Fortune, and Life, and most importantly TIME magazine. I want you to describe Henry Luce theologically because I think this is a very important issue. In the 1950s the Christians who were a part of that conversation and those who were publically identified as Christian in that conversation were generally with the exception of someone like Billy Graham those who represented mainline Protestantism which was then very much not only an ascendency but denomination, but also a modernist understanding of Christianity that basically sought to minimize theological truth claims in order to maximize cultural influence.

GM: Yes, and I found Henry Luce very illuminating. What was particularly illuminating to me was Henry Luce was born to conservative Presbyterian missionaries in China and so he grew up with that conservative Presbyterian outlook. He was born in the 1890s. He went to Yale in the teens, when it still had kind of strong Evangelical dimension to it. But like a lot of people of that generation, he lost his traditional phrase but he became the quintessential Protestant modernist and essentially made the American nation his church and he saw his mission as to guide America as a leading publicist in what he called the American century, and to keep religion as one of the dimensions of American life, but he didn’t really care all that much particularly what the religion was. He just thought there was a need for some kind of theism and in this way he was a very Enlightenment figure, but he believed there was a need for theism to provide a basis for a moral law that should be guiding the nation but he didn’t really care about traditional Christianity or about the role of Christ. It was more just true theological modernism where the object of religious belief is guiding modern culture and making a culture that would be a better culture and he saw the American century as time when America was going to be leading the world and he was rightly concerned that there should be moral values involved, but he didn’t ground it in the particulars of traditional Christianity.

RAM: You know, this conversation with professor Marsden that when you think about the present it’s hard to come up with a handful of public intellectuals who can singularly and together establish the intellectual conversation of this country, insofar by the way that there is one. One of the things in retrospect is that the 1950s had a far more robust intentionally and substantially intellectual conversation, especially among the elites and so-called middle brow culture than what we find today.  But what we find today is an intellectual anarchy even where there is an intellectual content. There is no set of authorities who can simply speak to these issues and to American public life and have an immediate response of at least a seasoned consideration of what they have to say. But those men and they were men as George Marsden points out back in the 1950s included figures such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Henry Luce, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, George Kennan, and whole list of others who could basically talk about just about anything and get a sizeable hearing, a sizeable audience. Henry Luce as we were just discussing, is one of those very interesting figures not only did he have his own voice but he became the platform through his massive publishing empire of many others to whom he gave that kind of intellectual platform. To be on the cover TIME magazine was to land in the place of the greatest cultural recognition by the mainstream that is imaginable in America in the 1950s. And he who published that magazine helped to set the agenda for the entire nation and Henry was expected and intended to do just that. One of the men who appeared on the cover of his magazine was a theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr and that gets us into another dimension of this conversation. What do we learn from those like Reinhold Niebuhr, who seemed to have such influence in this tumultuous period of the 1950’s?

RAM: Well, when you talk about the public intellectuals of the 1950s, one of the points well made in your book is that theologians were included in that conversation. They were not predominant but they were included. On the cover of TIME magazine two famous theologians of that era had emerged. One of them was Paul Tillich, and you really don’t deal with him much within the book, however I think that’s justified. But the predominant influence was that of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the two Niebuhr brothers and I am fascinated myself with Niebuhr and currently involved in a writing project and lecture series on him and so your book arrived at a very timely moment. I think you’ve captured the essence of Reinhold Niebuhr in terms of his cultural and intellectual influence. Here’s someone who was a theological modernist who nonetheless was the most influential theologian in America probably of the 20th century, not just the 1950s. He was one who had enormous influence amongst the secular elites because even though he no longer believed in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and some of his own students didn’t think he even believed in a personal God, he did believe in human sinfulness. Why in the world, in the 1950s, did the category of original sin become such an indispensible issue at least for many amongst those intellectual elites who no longer held to any other major Christian beliefs, but they did have, largely thanks to Niebuhr or at least by his codification or expression of a reaffirmation of that fact that original sin is a real problem?

GM: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think it’s related to America had a tremendous amount of optimism which was reinforced by WWII and overcoming the depression so there’s a lot of trust that we can do it, and that we should simply trust in the good of human nature. A lot of modernist religion was reinforcing that sort of ideal and any individual can do anything, that sort of ideal which is still around. If you listen to the Olympics you’ll hear athletes say that it just proves that anybody can do anything they want which is truly false. Anyway, that ideal, those very optimistic ideals about human nature were so prevalent in the culture, yet thoughtful people thought about what had just happened with Hitler and the Holocaust, with the rise of the USSR and mass executions there, and so Niebuhr comes along and says  “wait a minute, human nature is indelibly flawed, it’s deeply flawed, as flawed as it’s very base, and this is really what original sin means, that even the very best things that humans try to do lead to the worst sorts of atrocities. Justice can lead to injustice and that’s just what happens in totalitarian states that they are so convinced they are in the right that they do terribly wrong things, and that Niebuhr says, is human nature. That’s really just an insight that has a lot of truth to it, so it resonates with a lot of people and doesn’t really depend on any theological claims so much as an insight into the Christian account of human nature that in fact we are in our natural condition deeply flawed and Niebuhr ran with that and related it to the cultural situation.

RAM: He thought, for instance, that Genesis 3, was a mythapoetical way of describing that permanent problem of human fallenness and sinfulness. Of course, he also rather deftly tried to remove the responsibility for that sinfulness away from humanity and towards the structures of human civilization. You know, the famous title of his Gifford lecture “A Moral Man In an Immoral Society,” if only it were so simple as that. As it turns out the Scriptural worldview reminds us that the society is simply writ large humanity. It’s a problem in every single one of us. But you know you raise so many really pertinent points in dealing with Niebuhr, it’s tempting just kind of camp out here for just a little bit. For instance, Niebuhr’s influence, it seems to me, had a great deal of influence with the Cold War, and with the fact that he had been proved right in one sense by WWII. His realism, well defined as Christian realism, understood that sometimes force can only be stopped by force. His famous argument with his brother, Richard Niebuhr, at Yal,e that debate in the Christian Century before American’s involvement in WWII that didn’t Reinhold Niebuhr really emerge in this post-war period with intellectual credibility.

RAM: Didn’t Reinhold Niebuhr really emerge in this post-war period with enormous intellectual credibility because he had been right when so many others had been wrong?  Only, even the vestigial Christianity that was in his understanding of original sin could explain Hitler and the atrocities of World War II and the reality of the crisis of the Cold War itself.

GM: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.  A lot of mainline Protestant liberals and moderates had been pacifists before World War II.  Niebuhr’s realism challenged that.  Then America is faced with the U.S.S.R., the Cold War, and the bomb.  Niebuhr resonates with that sort of outlook where there is a real need to provide some sort of counterforce to what’s going on in the rest of the world.

RAM:  With Niebuhr, I want to press the question a little bit further with you here.  Niebuhr seemed to believe that his modernist Christianity could actually serve as a substantial platform for the preservation of human values.  Yet, you document very well the fact that what he thought were simply self-evident values that all right-thinking, intelligent people should come to were no longer held in any secular sense.  Furthermore, you go on to say there was really an absence of any adequate secular substitute for the superstructure of Christian theology to hold those values.  In other words, those values were incredibly imperiled the very time these elites were trying desperately to hold to them.

 

GM:  Yes, that’s correct.  Niebuhr was very insightful in identifying some of the problems, But, he didn’t really offer a larger solution, and his insights into human behavior could be, as the so-called atheists for Niebuhr demonstrate, separated from his Christian theology.  They were insights into the problem.  What’s striking to me is the degree of the lack of solution to these problems that there was at the time.  Often, the solution was simply “we need more individuals who trust themselves” and things like that didn’t really have any substance to them.

RAM:  One of my favorite sentences in your book is this, and I quote, “The grand irony of that strategy, speaking of Niebuhr’s strategy, was that while Niebuhr himself used it effectively as a way to preserve a public role for the Christian heritage, its subjective qualities made the faith fully optional and dispensable.”  That to me is just a paradigmatic portrait of the problem of this mainline, modernist Christianity at the midpoint of the twentieth century.  It was trying to hold on to things that it had effectively forfeited.  Most importantly, there is a sense of authority.  Niebuhr, I guess, believed that these public intellectuals could substitute for a theistic authority and people would listen to them.  By the way, that also helps this era to make sense to me because when you read so many of these works, you read a sense of panic that people aren’t listening to us anymore.  Amongst the elites, you certainly see the fact that people should be listening to them.  They should follow them on their authority.  I think this comes through loudly and clearly in this new volume of letters released – the Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  It comes up rather pathetically, as a matter of fact.  “We know the truth, we want to hold to these values, and people just don’t listen to us anymore.”  It seems to me that that one sentence in your book explains why.  They had made the intellectual superstructure optional.

GM:  Yes, and there was an assumption that societies ought to be guided by the intellectuals, which is a nice idea.  In a way, it goes back to the American Enlightenment where you have an unusual situation during the time of the American Revolution in which you have people who were intellectuals and also guiding the Revolution.  That’s a very unusual sort of time.  But, in the 1950s, there is a sense that these intellectuals have in which “we have the most advanced ideas and everyone ought to be listening to us.”  Most people aren’t really listening to them.  It is an interesting time that they thought they should be guiding the whole nation.

RAM:  I want to test something that came to me while reading your book.  Because so many people, including Peter Berger, Christopher Lash, and others, have written about the rise of the expert, you also deal with that here.  I think you rightly point to the fact that it was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was probably the expert of all experts in terms of influence here.  What struck me, George, was this.  They lost the ability to say “Here is where the nation should go.”  They lost the ability to say, “Here are the huge truths that should be self-evident and embraced by all.”  They were reduced to rather privatized sphere of the family and something like raising children to say, “This is how you’re supposed to do that.”  Dr. Spock had huge influence.  You deal with this in your book, and you’ll remember during the 1960s, he tried to translate that into huge political influence in the anti-war movement.  No one followed him.

 

GM:  It’s symptomatic of the times that you find there that the two great ideals are trust yourself and trust natural science.  Those two ideals don’t really fit together very well if you think about it.  If you’re a true individualist then you’re going to be suspicious of scientific ideals, and you will see them as too regimented.  There was a lack of real coherence in the dominant ideals that were guiding the culture.  The tension between those two comes out in the 1960s as you get radical individualism and people who are following the advice of the 1950s that say, “Let’s get away from non-conformity.”  You get wild non-conformants who are challenging the military, industrial complex, the technological culture, and the likes.  You get a real split in American culture between radical individualism and the scientific-technological side of the culture.

RAM:  Just going back to your meta-narrative, so to speak, in terms of the book, I want to go back to Niebuhr for just a moment.  You have a really key sentence.  You said that “Niebuhr was remarkable in that he was a Protestant theologian who could speak to a wide swath of American liberal culture.  Yet, he was also speaking at the end of the Protestant era, and for all his brilliance, he was like a candle that burns brightest just before it goes out.”  That’s an amazing statement.  Then, a couple pages later, you write this, speaking about the confidence of the elites, at least the Christians here, such as Niebuhr, on how a new consensus could develop.  “That meant that if Christianity was to regain a substantial public influence Christians would have to de-emphasize its devices dogmas and emphasize the essential truths and moral teachings that were compatible with progressive scientific thinking and acceptable in a pluralistic setting.  Yet, that strategy left unanswered the question of why enlightened progressive Christianity should be privileged over any other teachings whether or secular or religious.”  I think that just encapsulates the problem.  If you try to have a form of influence, which is Christianity without Christian content and truth claims, and authority, what you end up with is a situation in which you can find those you’re trying to influence turn right around and say, “Why should we listen to you?”

GM:  Yes, and that’s exactly what happened.  The Protestant establishment was running on momentum that it had as the dominant religion in the culture since the founding, and in the 1950s, Protestant churches were still very crowded and lots of people were going to church and the like.  But, there was a mix between some real Christianity there, but there was also a good bit of a religion of the nation.  There was an assumption that there ought to be one religion that is at the heart of the American nation.  As Chesterton has said, “The United States is a nation with the soul of a church.”  There’s the assumption that we still ought to have some sort of religious basis, but as the nation gets more and more secular and more and more diverse, that religious basis becomes vaguer and vaguer.  Eventually, it simply can’t hold up, but Protestant churches were doing so well in the 1950s that it was very difficult for people to realize how close they were to the end of the era.  That’s another interesting thing about looking back.  It’s a sort of lost era.  It’s a time that you cannot really go back to.

RAM:  No, indeed.  You’ve given us the best view, I think, intellectually of what was going on there.  From a perspective that thoughtful, intellectual Christians will want to know more about.  That leads me to the biggest surprise in your book so far as I’m concerned, and that is how you end it.  Frankly, I didn’t have any clue how you were going to end this.  Once I got into it about three-quarters of the way, I thought that there would be some programmatic suggestion here somewhere, and it surely did arrive.  You basically take us, and I’ll have to fast forward here, from the 1950s to the 60s, 70s, 80s, especially the 80s with the rise of the new Christian Right and the moral, cultural polarization in this country, and you come to suggest that the biggest issue is what sociologists might call the “adjudication of claims.”  You talk about the problem of religious pluralism.  In other words, how can different and incommensurate belief systems find a way to operate within a social compact in a useful way for the United States?  At this point, you turn from the experiment of Reinhold Niebuhr to an even older experiment, and that’s the model of Abraham Kuyper.  How do we arrive from the 1950s back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Netherlands?  How does that happen?

GM:  I was struck by the fact that in the United States, since Protestantism has been dominant or a vague Protestantism had been the semi-official religion for America, there ought to be one religion for the nation.  After the 1960s, it becomes, I think, evident that that’s not going to happen.  That’s impossible, but the way dominant American culture deals with that is to say “Fine, we’ll just privatize religion.”  Religion should stay out of public life.  To counter that, the Christian Right says, “No, we should go back to true Christian principles and have a nation that is truly Christian.”  Both of those are sort of totalistic sorts of views.  Either you are a Christian nation or you’re a secular nation with religion that is privatized.  In the Dutch tradition, Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth century set about to try to develop a way in which you could recognize pluralistic religious and non-religious views in the public domain.  He developed what has since come to be called “Principled Pluralism.”  You recognize that there ought to be Christian voices in society, but then equity demands that there be varieties of Christian voices, some you don’t really agree with, and secular voices as well.  I see that as a more fruitful model for dealing with religion in the public sphere today.  To say, “The principle ought to be equal representation for all ideological viewpoints to the extent that you can practically do that.”  Various religious points of view should not be privatized but should be represented in the public discussion, but not with the assumption that we’re all going to come to agree on everything.  Rather, let’s find things we can agree on, and let’s find the things we disagree on and respect our differences.  If religious people feel very strongly about certain principles, you’re not going to have secular totalists who are going to say, “No, you cannot say that in our society because everyone in our society ought to believe the same thing about gay rights, abortion, or whatever.”

RAM:  Let me ask you a couple of quick response questions.  How do you expect evangelical Christians to respond to your book, and how do you expect secular readers to respond to your argument?

GM:  I don’t know.  I think secular readers will probably say it’s unrealistic.  I don’t know enough about that to say definitively.  Although, I did run into a secular who read it.  He said he agreed with the concluding argument.  It’s hard for me to predict, and I don’t think that the argument is fully enough developed on its own to convince someone who wasn’t leaning in that direction for some reason or read.  But, I present it more as a direction that I hope some people who can provide leadership in these certain areas will think about going.  I’m a historian and not a social philosopher.  From a historical point of view, this seems to me to be the direction to go.  To recognize where we are, and that we are an irreversibly diverse society.  Then the question is, “Where do we go from here to provide ways of relating religion to the public sphere without thinking that we need to take it over and dominate it?”

 

RAM:  I do think evangelicals, who I hope will read this in huge numbers, will come to a better understanding of our own times, the challenges we face, and have a way of evaluating perhaps in a new frame someone like Reinhold Niebuhr but also some of the more recent leaders in the Christian Right.  Let’s just look at this from the perspective of some distance and say, “Well, 2014, if anything, was a different intellectual moment than it was then.”  In terms of the secular side, I have to tell you I thought of a conversation I got to overhear in terms of a rather contentious meeting in New York among some intellectuals.  One was making the case that what we need is the principled inclusion of responsible religious voices. The response from a very prominent law professor was simply, “We tried that, and it led to too much social friction.  We simply can’t let them back in the door because once we do, the theological battles and religious arguments will take over the public square.”  I don’t think that’s the most likely response, but I will tell you that even as you write about the 1950s from some distance that in some ways we’re still having the same arguments and dealing with the same issues.  The people are different and the intellectual conditions are different, but in many ways, the same issues are continuing.  That leads me to a very interesting final question for you.  I’m always interested in how authors and intellectuals know their own thinking.  I want to take you back to 1986 and an article you wrote for the Reformed Journal entitled, “Where Have All the Theologians Gone?”  In this article, you sight Van Harvey at a meeting held and sponsored by the Wilson Center in Washington.  In speaking of the cultural crisis of the 1980s as the question, “Oh, Reinhold Niebuhr, where are you now that we need you?”  You responded at the end of your article by saying, “Oh, Abraham Kuyper, where are you now that we need you?”  So, Niebuhr and Kuyper have been in your mind for some time now.

GM:  That certainly is true.  I learned a lot from Niebuhr, and I think that despite all of the theological defects in Niebuhr, who was a theological modernist, one can learn a lot about one’s self and a lot about one’s own failings and humility from Niebuhr.  I value Niebuhr a great deal in that respect.  In 1986, I was teaching at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, and that’s a place that is very much shaped by the tradition of Abraham Kuyper.  Already then, I was thinking about a version of that problem, and that’s about when I started writing about the soul of the American university.  I reflected on the way in which Protestants had early on run American higher education.  That Protestant establishment had been replaced by a secular establishment so I was thinking that what we need is pluralism in higher education that includes religious pluralism of religious perspectives.  We should be encouraging varieties of religious viewpoints as serious intellectual people.

RAM:  I was actually reassured to find that article from 1986 because it affirmed one of my own intellectual maxims by which I operate and often about which I think.  I believe that the best arguments are almost always long arguments, arguments that persist over time and are developed over years of seasoned thinking, and in your case, so much research, writing, and influence.  We were and are now even more in your debt, Professor George Marsden.  Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.

GM:  Thank you very much.  Thank you for your time.

RAM:  That was a conversation worth having, and this new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief by George M. Marsden is a book worth reading.  I’ve been interested to see some of the secular response to the book.  That’s why I wanted to talk to Professor Marsden about it.  Some of that response has been that it is simply too much of a reminiscence, too much of a warm-hearted recollection.  There is a sense of attempted retrieval of an intellectual authority of the past.  I actually don’t think that’s what Professor Marsden is trying to do.  I think it’s very interesting, and he writes about this in the book.  He’s trying to understand his own times.  He was a young man and a college student in the 1950s, and when he came to his own intellectual understanding, this was the public conversation that was going on.  That’s the same reason why I found the book so indispensible because we’re still talking about these issues and still in the midst of the cultural and intellectual crisis that he so well documents from the 1950s.  There is a sense in which it is very easy to go back and look at the 1950s and say, “That wasn’t a very stable time.”  Of course, it was a time of great anxiety related to the Cold War and all the rest, but it was also a time in which at  least you knew where things were supposed to be.  You knew who was supposed to have authority in the culture.  There were some very smart, very intellectual people in the culture.  Of course, that didn’t save us.

That’s the other point from this.  The problem of Reinhold Niebuhr was not just, for instance, that he had evacuated the Christian faith and its specific doctrinal content and its authority.  The problem is also that it was too late for these kinds of arguments to have the kind of persuasive power that those who made them thought they might have.  You’ll recall that section I read from this book in which Professor Marsden says about Reinhold Niebuhr, “The candle appears to burn brightest just about when it’s about to burn out.”

There are all kinds of issues to think about in this book: cultural influence, intellectual influence in the larger society, the way that issues are adjudicated in the public context, the reality of religious pluralism and divergent, conflicting religious truth claims, the future of theology without theological content, and the destiny of mainline Protestantism, which in the 1950s appeared to be invincible in terms of its domination of the culture and its almost imminent collapse.  Perhaps the metaphor of that candle burning brightest before in burns out is apt.

But, lest there be any sense of evangelical triumphalism, a careful reading of this book will betray the fact that there isn’t any easy way forward in terms of the public conversation and the public future.  It isn’t at all clear that from this book you can gain any real recognition of how evangelicals might be more faithful in the public square, but there are some hints.  For instance, George Marsden says, that evangelical public intellectuals need to be out there in the public culture making the case.  He also makes the case in a very subtle way that evangelical leaders, intellectual leaders, need to be giving a lot of attention to how to bring along grass roots evangelicals into a better understanding, a more biblical understanding, of our times and what’s demanded of us.  I think that’s a very important word.  We need to avoid the kind of triumphalism that could come quite naturally from saying, “Look what happened to mainline Protestantism; evangelicals, we’re still in the game.”  If we look very closely at ourselves, our own churches, denominations, institutions, and all the rest, we have to be aware that sometimes there’s that metaphor again.  The fire is appearing to burn bright might find itself in danger of being extinguished.  We can’t take anything for granted in terms of secular history and in terms of any secular providence, but that’s why I read this book as a Christian, as an evangelical, and why my ultimate confidence isn’t in the American experiment.  It’s not even in America’s unique role in the world as much as I value and respect that.  It’s in a God who rules sovereignly throughout providence and in the affairs of human beings.  That’s why when I read this book, I come to understand that we do have a responsibility, a very important one.  We have an intellectual responsibility, an inescapable one.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t depend on the cogency of our ideas nor even in the ability of us to gather together or try to construct an intellectual authority.  At the end of the day, we have to do what is right and what is faithful.  There is an unquestioned intellectual component to that.  We have to be very clear.  When it comes to enlightenment, even the American enlightenment and the enlightenment that has tried to preserve so many values, if you try to build enlightenment upon an essentially secular foundation, that fire is destined to burn out.  Again, I commend to you this book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief by Professor George M. Marsden.

Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary March 14-15 for the Renown Youth Conference.  This year we’re seeking to equip this generation’s middle and high school age students with apologetic tools to engage our modern culture in this time.  I’ll be joined by Sean McDowell, Dan DeWitt, and special musical guest, Flame.  For more information got to events.sbts.edu.  Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.