Book Note: George Marsden’s Twilight of the American Enlightenment

by Will Katerberg

Former Calvin College history professor George Marsden has a new book out this month. He taught in the Calvin history department in the 1970s and 1980s, before moving on to Duke and then Notre Dame, and has returned to Grand Rapids in the past few years, teaching courses at the college and at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Marsden’s book focuses on influential intellectuals in the 1950s whose liberal pragmatism was rooted in the American Enlightenment: a mix of Protestantism, liberal and republican political ideals, and confidence in reason. John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Daniel Bell, and Reinhold Niebuhr, for example.

The liberal pragmatists “agreed that Protestant Christianity provided an important support for the principles upon which the Republic could have been founded,” Marsden notes. But they no longer believed those theological and philosophical foundations.

“That’s what was fascinating to me,” Marsden said in an interview about the book; “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.”

The cultural revolutions of the left in the 1960s exposed and broke weak foundations of the liberal pragmatic center in American public life. A resurgent New Right, with its own young radicals, only added to the fragmentation. A conservative Christian revival reshaped and divided American society in the decades that followed.

Marsden does not just recount this history. He attempts to provide a new basis for common ground in American public life, calling for “inclusive pluralism” rather than a return to the liberal pragmatism of the 1950s or the Protestant-republican worldview of the early republic. He turns to the Dutch Calvinist theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper to make the case for a religious and cultural pluralism in American intellectual and political life today.

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is getting lots of buzz in magazines, blogs, and even a podcast done by Books & Culture.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are intellectual history, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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