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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  133 Ratings  ·  33 Reviews
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States stood at a precipice. The forces of modernity unleashed by the war had led to astonishing advances in daily life, but technology and mass culture also threatened to erode the country’s traditional moral character. As award-winning historian George M. Marsden explains in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, postwar ...more
Hardcover, 264 pages
Published February 11th 2014 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2014)
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Benjamin Glaser
George Marsden is the preeminent religious historian of his generation. From a biography of Jonathan Edwards to various works concerning Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism writ large there is no question that if you want to understand the religious culture of America you cannot ignore Marsden’s work and this book is no different.
This particular work covers the post-WWII generation of American Protestantism; where it was, how it came to be, where it went, and what it is today. Marsden’s general th
Nov 10, 2015 Jacob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Insightful. Fair. Challenging.

In terms of cultural analysis, it was fascinating to read a book about the 50's and find that many of the issues have remained the same or only worsened over time. I have struggled with these very same ideas: that of balancing my own deeply held convictions with a respect for the beliefs and values of others, and how that to legitimately maintain the kind of "inclusive pluralism" that Marsden argues for in the public square. Marsden offers a valuable and fair analys
Paul D.  Miller
Dec 01, 2014 Paul D. Miller rated it really liked it
Marsden, one of the leading historians of American religion, offers this cri de coeur for greater respect and tolerance for religious pluralism in the public sphere. This short book is a concise intellectual hiistory of American elites in the 1950s; an argument for why their attempt at an informal establishment of generic Protestantism failed; how secularism as an ideology has also failed; an account of the rise of the religious right, and its failure; and a plea for greater understanding and ...more
Adam Shields
Aug 30, 2016 Adam Shields rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Short Review: Books like this remind me of the importance of good history. The thesis is that the upheavals of the 1960s were predicted by the cracks in the foundation of American cultural hegemony. The intellectuals of the 1950s were transitioning into a post-modern world (which has taken 50 years to really filter down to culture). That transition prevented the intellectuals from charting a focused common path for the United States which a culture of progress wanted from the cultural elite. So ...more
Bruce Prescott
Feb 18, 2014 Bruce Prescott rated it did not like it
Marsden paints this picture with a very broad brush. Except for a footnote, Christian Reconstructionism, New Apostolic Reformation Dominionism, and Christian Nationalism are totally ignored. The racist roots of the Religious Right are ignored. In my opinion, he is utterly naive in regard to the threat to pluralistic democracy that would be posed by Kuyperian religiously defined political parties. I do not recommend this book.
May 22, 2014 Scott rated it really liked it
A very fine book from a very fine scholar. Started a little slow but got better and better as the book went along. Chapters 5 & 6 were especially strong. And I am hopeful that his hopes in the conclusion for a more inclusive pluralism beyond the culture wars will be realized -- and I hope evangelicals, in particular, lead the way!

Geoffrey Kabaservice
Here's my review for the University Bookman:
Brian Collins
Jan 03, 2015 Brian Collins rated it really liked it
This brief book of 200 pages looks back to the 1950s and the changes that emerged from that decade in order to better understand our present situation, particularly as it relates to religion and public life.
In his first two chapters Marsden looks at the concerns that intellectuals of the 1950s had about American culture. One of the chief concerns was that mediums such as TV were not meditating high culture to a broader audience. Instead a new mass culture was created that was culturally degrad
John Kaufmann
May 23, 2014 John Kaufmann rated it liked it
Mixed. I liked the diagnosis of the issue, which covered more than half the book. The premise is that the US has has been governed by a cultural consensus based on enlightenment reason and faith. That consensus reached its apogee in the 1950s as Americans united around patriotism coming out of World War II, Cold War anti-communism, and material progress. Part of the ruling consensus was Protestant progressivism. However, the consensus began to unravel in the fifties as a result of that very ...more
John March
Apr 16, 2014 John March rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
Marsden does a good job of highlighting and summarizing the public dialogue about faith and culture occurring in the 1950s. He shows the way leading thinkers on faith and culture were wrestling with major transitions and then trying to envision a future society that maintained some sort of cultural consensus. The 1950s, Marsden shows were a time when Protestant Christianity was losing its voice as the definer of consensus, and in its place a more "liberal" vision was emerging.

What he calls the
Aug 19, 2014 James rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A compact and enlightening history and assessment of American political and social thought in the 1950s (i.e. the immediate post-WWII time period), with special emphasis on the religious aspects of this time. Marsden is particularly interested in the ensuing events for American political, social, and religious life from this time period.

The most convincing part of Marsden's analysis is that the political, social, and religious consensus of 1950s America was constructed with a pragmatism that was
Steve Penner
Mar 30, 2015 Steve Penner rated it it was amazing
One indication of getting old is reading a history book that covers one's own personal history. With this read, I have reached that point. While its focus is on the 1950's (which only slightly precedes my existence), it covers the repercussions of that decade on the following decades and its role in the culture wars of which I am far too familiar and are apparently ongoing if Indiana is any indication. I appreciated Marsden's analysis of the 1950's intellectual, religious and social history and ...more
Aug 31, 2015 Liam rated it really liked it
"Yet the fact was that, despite such disclaimers, the champions of a pragmatically based consensus were themselves moralists. They were passionately committed to principles such as individual freedom, free speech, human decency, justice, civil rights, community responsibilities, equality before the law, due process, balance of powers, economic opportunity, and so forth. And they were morally indignant at those who might subvert those principles. Yet their justification for these principles was ...more
Alex Stroshine
In this short history of the 1950s, George Marsden examines how the "liberal consensus" began to evaporate. He spends the majority of the book investigating and summarizing the key books and their authors that shaped and re-shaped public consciousness, such as "The Lonely Crowd," "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care," B.F. Skinner, Henry Luce and Walter Lippman and the philosophical frameworks these figures worked with, especially natural law and pragmatism. Chapter 5 details the ending ...more
Lori (Lara Britt) Sailiata
Mar 18, 2015 Lori (Lara Britt) Sailiata rated it it was amazing
Perhaps the best introduction to Marsden's thought is this quote from the October 2000 issue of the Atlantic titled, "A Truly Multicultural Society."--

If the United States is to be a truly multicultural society and not just a melting pot, two things are necessary to help maintain healthy subcultures, including subcultures that have a strong religious base. First, such subcultures need to be able to maintain their own distinctive institutions, including educational institutions that help pass the
Jul 13, 2015 David rated it really liked it
Solid survey of the collapse of the Judeo-Christian intellectual hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s. The tension of existential individualism and analytic behaviorism is examined in several realms (psychology, sociology, religion, etc.). It traces the Religious Right backlash in the 70s and 80s in the Culture Wars. The conclusion offers and interesting way forward by incorporating Abraham Kuyper's thought. It offers a civic vision that incorporates pluralism into jurisprudence and civic policy ...more
Daniel Silliman
Jan 20, 2015 Daniel Silliman rated it really liked it
The days of "I Like Ike" and "I Love Lucy," the confident American consensus of the 1950s, fell apart. And hard. There are many accounts of how and why it fell apart, which look at Vietnam and Civil Rights, the sexual revolution and the hippies, etc., etc. There are many accounts, too, of how that consensus wasn't real, but was actually the myopia of gatekeepers who were somehow blind to the injustices of racism, on the one hand, and the rising conservative movement on the other. This book takes ...more
Mark Ward
Sep 22, 2014 Mark Ward rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle, 2014
Perceptive, readable, fascinating. What really stuck out to me was that the intellectuals of the 1950s were facing the same dissolution of moral discourse that I believe we are facing in our generation—and for the same reasons. We're just further along the path of dissolution. Those who sounded the alarm in the 1950s (specifically Walter Lippmann) were pooh-poohed and ignored. But they were right: "the typical consensus outlooks of the time [the 1950s] can be understood as attempts to preserve ...more
May 19, 2015 Ryan rated it it was amazing
I've always wondered what happened between the 50s and the late 60s to make the 60s be the 60s that we all know and love or loathe. I had a vague understanding that the cultural consensus was confused and shallow, not worth maintaining before. Marsden gives substance to that shadowy conception. He shows how American culture in the 1950s was based on two contradictory ideas -- objective science and subjective individual autonomy -- all maintained in a pragmatism that could not maintain that ...more
Stan Shelley
Nov 02, 2014 Stan Shelley rated it really liked it
Was American founded on Christian ideas? Or enlightenment ideas? The answer is both and Marsden gets that. It is refreshing to read an academic (he taught at Duke and Notre Dame) who respects the Evangelical world, even if he does not agree with it. His goal in this book is to help find a path away from the extremes of a strictly Christian America or a strictly secular America. His comments are interesting but I think he does not sufficiently appreciate the frustration Christians feel when ...more
Oct 26, 2014 Tim rated it liked it
Marsden's book is a good, if narrow, intellectual history of consensus thought and its initial dissentors in the American 50s. In his last chapters he draws lines too quickly to announce the arrival of the Religious Right (ignoring anti-segregation, race, civil rights, and the South) and offers Kuyper as a Christian model for reinserting religion thought into American intellectual life. I suppose Kuyper's active Christian thought set in an environment of intellectual pluralism might have been ...more
Matt Pitts
May 25, 2014 Matt Pitts rated it really liked it
If you want to know what the 1950s were really like, or why conservative Christians and secularists can't seem to 'tolerate' each other, you will find here excellent food for thought. Marsden is a perceptive historian who in this book focuses not on events but ideas and assumptions that help explain the last sixty years of public life. His suggestion for a way forward, while not fleshed out in detail, is at least fresh (though not strictly new) and thought provoking. I hope this work receives a ...more
(read in uncorrected proof)

Quite interesting analysis of American political and religious thought in the 1950s and early 1960s, indicating how different intellectual strands contributed to the mindset that the 1960s countercultural approach spent most of its time debunking. However, the author's concluding call for greater 'pluralism' as a possible solution to the fragmentation of modern American political and religious discourse feels too abstract and hesitant in comparison with his retrospecti
Jon Anderson
Sep 18, 2014 Jon Anderson rated it liked it
Good work from Marsden looking at how we have moved from the consensus of the 1950's to the stalemate of today. Main point is that liberalism embraced the American ideals (freedom, for example) but removed the ideals from their original foundations. In place of those, they inserted a belief in scientific progress and a belief in the autonomous self. But when one autonomous self disagrees with another autonomous self, how do you resolve the disagreement? Thus, the crisis of the subtitle. ...more
Mark Robert
Jul 11, 2014 Mark Robert rated it really liked it
The book is vintage Marsden; the same perception, historical breadth and depth found in his work on Edwards, The Soul of the University, and his books on fundamentalism. The Kuyperian pluralistic alternative was predictable coming out of Grand Rapids. It is a viable alternative but it needs to be tweaked for the American situation. I would have liked to see more interaction with other American cultural critics like Christopher Lasch, T. S. Eliott and Richard Weaver.
Josh Skinner
Apr 18, 2014 Josh Skinner rated it really liked it
Interesting look at how our worldviews have been formed. Always good to remind myself that I have never been a "tabula rasa" and cannot divorce myself completely from the reality I inherited from my cultures(family, region, time, etc...)

Good book. Deep and fast at parts and I found myself floundering periodically due to my ignorance of certain aspects Marsden glossed over. Good book, worth the effort.
Aug 11, 2014 Allegra rated it it was amazing
Ok, so this is a great book that takes a realistic look at the "rapid" (which actually have been in existence for a long time) changes that took place in American society after WWII. The start of this book is a little slow... but bang! once you get to chapters 5-6...and read it for the end "Towards a more inclusive pluralism" which may surprise conservative AND liberal readers. Good job, Mr. Marsden, I learned a lot!
Dec 04, 2015 Stephen rated it liked it
This book was a challenging read for me at times. I just wasn't drawn into Marsden's historical narrative and felt the the the first 3 chapters of the book meandered. The last two to three chapters of boom were better and rescued a star for my review. I am much more interested into looking into the idea of "confessional pluralism" and public policy.
Tyler Hurst
Mar 25, 2016 Tyler Hurst rated it it was amazing
Fantastic exposition of the movement in America away from the cooperative pluralism of the founders to the current divisive empiricism displayed in both religious and secular sectors of society and politics.
Hank Pharis
Sep 22, 2014 Hank Pharis rated it it was ok
A cultural, intellectual and religious survey of the 1950s. I was struck by how consumer driven we were and how the undercurrents of the 50s led to the cultural revolution of the 60s. Would like to read this to get more out of it as listened to it while working.
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“The critics of modernity were warning that one must be vigilant against the demands of hyperorganized commercial society and consumerism lest they undermine one’s true humanity.” 0 likes
“Lippmann declared that “if what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent’, then we are outside the traditions of civility.” 0 likes
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