A Not-So-Common Faith

We Americans are a narcissistic bunch. The French, who understand themselves in light of ancient inheritances of language, ethnicity, and culture, have long possessed a swagger born of confidence in who they are as a nation and a people. Americans swagger, too. We may even swagger more, because we are constitutionally confused about who we really are. To be an American is to be vexed about what it means to be an American. It is to gaze at our collective navel and to wonder aloud what our country is, has been, and will become.

Still, Americans have managed on occasion to conjure up more or less convincing answers to this question of national identity. In the midst of the Cold War, we responded to “atheistic communism” with fervent faith in theistic capitalism. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we committed ourselves to indivisibility, of course, but also to liberty, to justice, and to “one nation” under the newly minted Judeo-Christian God. “Not to be—that is, not to identify oneself and be identified as—either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew,” sociologist Will Herberg wrote in 1955, “is somehow not to be an American.” But the 1950s were America’s last decade of the first-person plural—the last moment when we could plausibly speak of “our” common culture, “our” collective political creed, “our” shared Judeo-Christian values.

The 1960s shattered this consensus (or our illusion thereof). In the wake of the decade’s civil rights successes, it became nearly impossible to speak with any certainty about the American character. African Americans argued that what had masqueraded for centuries as “our” culture was actually white culture. Feminists contended that the culture of patriarchy was what its guardians were pleased to call “our” culture. Soon Hispanics, Native Americans, gays, and lesbians were staking claim to their own proprietary understandings of America.

Back in 1955, Herberg suggested that to call oneself a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an agnostic was, in essence, to write oneself out of the American story. Not so after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 widened immigration from Asia and peppered the landscape with mosques, Hindu temples, and Zen centers. Together with the other intellectual and social convulsions leading the country away from its prior consensus, this burst of ethnic and religious diversity (and the identity politics accompanying it) made it clear to most observers that American society was now composed of many different publics rather than just one. Overnight, it seemed, the centripetal forces in American culture had spent themselves, and our newly centrifugal nation was spinning apart.

A soldier guarding the ruins of a building destroyed during the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Washington, DC, April 8, 1968.
A soldier guarding the ruins of a building destroyed during the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Washington, DC, April 8, 1968.

In The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, church historian George M. Marsden sees consensus as America’s longue durée, tracing the “we” of “our” 1950s back to the nation’s founding. From this perspective, the 1960s replace the Civil War as the fulcrum of US history. The decade of Malcolm X and the miniskirt brought on, in Marsden’s words, “America’s greatest national identity crisis since the American Revolution itself.”

As Marsden sees it, American culture was from the beginning a messy mix of “enlightenment rationality and Protestant religion.” At our birth, we heard and heeded the words of Jefferson, but we listened just as intently to the parables and proverbs of the King James Bible. These two inheritances are at odds, of course, and their tense pairing, in Marsden’s telling, eventually gave rise to the culture wars of the 1970s and beyond. But the Enlightenment and Protestantism also shared something essential: namely, the conviction that there are self-evident truths that are absolute, objective, and unchanging. And it is this long-standing conviction, Marsden argues, that exploded in the decade of Woodstock and antiwar protests.

Martin Luther King Jr. was part of this Jefferson-and-Jesus consensus. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 to protest foot-dragging by white liberals on racial segregation, weaves together Socrates and Saint Augustine, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the German theologian Paul Tillich, the words of the Supreme Court and the spirit of the Hebrew Bible prophets, the Declaration of Independence and the letters of the apostle Paul, into a crazy quilt of biblical and Enlightenment arguments. Through these sources, King is convinced, speak the eternal and objective truths of natural law and the Word of God.

From Jefferson to King, Marsden argues, Americans believed in Truth with a capital T. By the time of King’s assassination in 1968, however, this long-standing consensus could only be seen through the rearview mirror. As the political left turned on the founding fathers, accusing them of racism and sexism, King’s vision of “one America, integrated, consensus-based” (as Marsden phrases it) disintegrated into a cacophony of voices, each with its own subjective perspective and its own situational ethics.

To his credit, Marsden, who made his reputation in 1980 as the author of Fundamentalism and American Culture (still the definitive history of this movement), does not trot out the nostalgic truisms of the religious right. He does not call for a return to the “Christian America” of our founders because he knows that few of the founders were conservative Christians and that many were deists and other sorts of freethinkers. But he does not call us forward into a purely secular society, either. Perhaps that is because, as a self-professed “Augustinian Christian,” he cannot abide such a society. Perhaps it is because, as a historian of American religion, he also knows that such a society is as utopian as the “Christian America” of Jerry Falwell and his “moral majority.”

So what is Marsden trying to accomplish here? What are we to make of the snuffing out of the American Enlightenment in the 1960s? Unfortunately, Marsden never quite answers these questions. The book refers repeatedly to its “motifs” and “themes,” but its author never advances any clear argument. He’s clearly marching somewhere, but he seems oddly unwilling to follow his own trail.

As a theologically conservative Protestant, Marsden’s own sympathies in our current culture wars lie closer to the religious right than to the secular left. This affinity comes through loud and clear in one of the book’s central assertions—that the right has a legitimate claim to the intellectual legacy of the founders, since both stood foursquare against the sort of moral and intellectual relativism that overtook the country when being true to your inner Holden Caulfield became more important than being true to the one true God.

Nonetheless, Marsden criticizes the religious right for its failure to come up with any workable theory of how to accommodate non-Christians and nonbelievers in a pluralistic society. At times, American Christians have insisted on playing the quintessential insiders, he observes—casting themselves as scions of a patriarchal and Protestant establishment. At other times, though, they have depicted themselves as victimized outsiders. But they have never quite gotten around to extending the religious liberty they demand for themselves to Buddhists or Hindus, and they continue to demonize secular humanists as threats to the nation.

Meanwhile, the secular left, as Marsden portrays it, continues to live in a fantasy world of its own, in which religion will somehow melt away. As a result, it has done little to think about how to give a diversity of religious and nonreligious groups a voice in our increasingly variegated public culture. So much for the problem. What about the fix?

The closest Marsden gets to any plain proposal comes in the last few pages of the book, where he calls upon the work of a nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian named Abraham Kuyper. Marsden invokes the “confessional pluralism” of Kuyper to argue for a public square that accommodates both secular and religious groups. (The surface appeal of Kuyper’s pluralist thought will disappear quickly for readers who know that his political theology was used to support apartheid in South Africa.) In Marsden’s account, Kuyper rebukes both the hope of a Christian nation purged of secular humanists and the hope of a secular nation purged of fundamentalists. But neither he nor Marsden tells us how Americans might make the move from cultural warfare to this Judeo-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu-atheist utopia.

Part of the solution, surely, is to undercut stereotypes of “fundamentalists” and “secular humanists,” and Marsden does an excellent job with at least the first half of this task, reminding readers that there are, in fact, plenty of evangelicals on the left, in the middle, and on the right. He does a less credible job with nonreligious experience, which also comes in bewildering varieties but melts here into one undifferentiated secular pot.

Perhaps the problem with The Twilight of the American Enlightenment lies in Marsden’s desire to serve two masters. He clearly wants to address both the religious right and the secular left. But he has spent his career conversing with evangelicals and fundamentalists, and is plainly more adept at that task than at addressing the anxieties of American atheists and agnostics.

Or maybe Marsden has just taken on an impossible challenge. Even if cultural conflict isn’t an inherent feature of democracy itself, it is surely baked into the American experiment. In “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” as President Obama referred to the United States in his first inaugural address, perhaps the best we can do is muddle through.

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (HarperOne, 2012).