Addressing the Culture War Without Touching the Culture War

In his latest book, historian George Marsden attempts to provide an account for the current state of religion and public life in the United States which he believes is still defined by the so-called “culture wars.”

Yet to understand Marsden’s historical argument for the origin of the culture wars it is essential to recognize that he belongs to a strain of conservative Evangelicalism that stresses social engagement and distances itself from the “God and country” moralism that characterizes much of the Religious Right. To be a Christian, according to Marsden, is to be absolutely concerned about the well-being of those outside the church whether they’re Christian or not. Said differently, Marsden is a theological conservative with progressive political leanings.

This theological commitment looms in the background of Marsden’s historical explanation for “the twilight of the American Enlightenment,” by which he means the cultural and intellectual assumptions of the Founding Fathers: human freedom, equality of rights, rationality, the scientific method and male leadership. Unlike the French Republican tradition, the American Enlightenment involved a “cordial working relationship” with the dominant religious group; namely, Protestants. According to Marsden, despite the diversity of nineteenth century Protestant movements, most of its adherents held a high regard for natural science, self-evident rights, and human liberty, all of which created an overlapping consensus between secular thinkers and traditional Christians based on enlightenment reason or theological belief in objective universal laws.

The fusion of Enlightenment ideals with Protestantism not only provided the principles on which the republic was founded, but also dominated mainstream thinking from the nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century. This will strike many as a historical jump, but what Marsden is actually saying is simply that both Protestantism and American Enlightenment were the major bodies promoting a tradition of moderate reform in the United States (he readily acknowledges minority groups and exceptional individuals outside this tradition who sought to incorporate women, blacks, Jews, etc. into the consensus).

Thus, despite Darwinism, the rise of the social sciences, and an advancing secular culture, something like a coalition once existed between the major Protestant denominations—Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc.—and the secular establishment. Both came together, says Marsden, to “somehow guide the society towards a progressive, enlightened, and human cultural consensus.”

But this coalition was bound to fail, he argues, for two reasons. Foremost, it had for generations excluded women, blacks, Jews, Catholics and other minority religious traditions. Despite being fully intact throughout the 1950s, this liberal consensus lacked the pluralistic framework necessary to deal with the rise of identity politics during the 1960s. Mainline Protestantism’s decline is therefore due to its association with the liberal status quo that was called into question by the baby-boomers.

His second argument is less obvious. The 1950s, maintains Marsden, not only exposed the intellectual contradictions of liberalism but the decade also proved it was living off borrowed capital. At face value, many factors allowed for a consensus in American political and social life: “World War II patriotism, Cold War anxieties, inherited American ideals, similar religious and moral heritages, and a burgeoning economy that provided most people with at least the hope of sharing in the American dream.” However, the justification for American values and ideals were no longer fixed, so Marsden maintains, in a higher law or ideology.

The American Enlightenment ideal of a universal order had been replaced by a philosophy of pragmatism and moral relativism that stressed individual self-fulfilment. This would make a common program for reform impossible. Marsden illustrates this point by drawing on the books of leading mid-twentieth century intellectuals and social theorists, most encapsulated, he suggests, by the sociologist David Riesman’s classic work The Lonely Crowd.

As Marsden puts it:

When David Riesman, for instance, wrote of The Lonely Crowd in his 1961 preface that it ‘was one of a number of books which in recent years have eschewed dogmatism and fanaticism and preferred openness, pluralism, and empiricism,’ he was simply summarizing the consensus liberal ideals of the day. These were ideals held not only by scholars; they were also becoming widely prevalent in business, politics, the media, and everyday life.

This had deleterious consequences, he argues, for any significant project of collective action. Basing such values on pleas for more openness, pluralism, and autonomy only led to the undoing of the consensus, but with nothing to replace it since individual rights now triumphed over a common view of the good.

Thus Marsden’s ironic suggestion that the very consensus thinkers who proclaimed a crisis of liberal belief throughout the 1950s—Riesman, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and others—unwittingly contributed to its demise by doing little more than calling for more openness, pluralism, and empiricism; the very terms by which the liberal consensus would be repudiated in the 1960s, paving the way for what the historian Daniel Rodgers has termed the “age of fracture.”

When a mass program for collective action did get off the ground—the Civil Rights Movement—it explicitly made reference to the moral law built into the fabric of the universe; the core American Enlightenment ideal that most secularists no longer thought philosophically tenable. Hence the idea of borrowed capital.

By the 1970s the liberal consensus had fallen apart. Proponents of identity politics—women and minorities—were disinterested in re-establishing a political consensus. Meanwhile, shocked by the counter-cultural movements, legalized abortion and the Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit prayer in public school, the Religious Right emerged hell bent on taking America back. It pursued this cause by propagating the myth that America had been founded as a Christian nation.

Such evangelicals took their intellectual cue from the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Left Behind author Tim LeHaye who called for an all-out war against the “secular humanist” ideologies of the day. The clash of these titanic forces by the late 1970s, observes Marsden, led to the culture wars that remain with us to this day.

Despite being driven by the hope of overcoming the impasse created by the culture wars, Marsden’s last chapter, “Toward a More Inclusive Pluralism,” fails to offer anything like a public philosophy for how to better facilitate secular and religious diversity. He does, however, point to what he believes each group must overcome for the rebuilding of cultural consensus to take place.

Secular liberals, who are trying to force “religious people to assimilate into a melting pot defined by naturalistic intellectual and cultural norms,” must instead acknowledge that a naturalistically based consensus carries its own presuppositions and thus arbitrarily excludes religious voices. In other words, secularist atheists, according to Marsden, should be sensitive to their own biases and ideological tendencies that are anything but neutral:

Hence, societies, especially in their schooling and intellectual lives, but also in their public conversations and debates about morality, justice, and the like, should be built around the recognition that varieties of viewpoints, including varieties of both religious and secular viewpoints, exist and ought to be included in a genuine pluralism.

On the flipside, the Religious Right needs to give up on the idea of America as a Christian Nation and recognize that some of its most valued ideals—civil freedom and self-determination—have secular enlightenment origins. The Religious Right must learn how to be consistent and determine how the enlightenment principles it promotes can also apply to religious and secular viewpoints it does not share.

But after reading such provocative lines of argumentation, the reader is left wondering what Marsden’s motivations are. The theological justification is clear: Marsden embraces an Augustinian theological outlook in which all humans—regardless of their faith or sexuality—are creatures of God who share some commonalities in experiencing the same created order. Progress can be made and peace maintained through the common grace of God which everyone shares. Thus there is an element of unity in cultural and religious diversity that allows for different groups to find shared “principles on which they can agree for working together,” a theological position, he points out, that is compatible with numerous non-theological outlooks. It provides an alternative to the culture-war mentality that has done so much to prevent social progress in the United States.

Based on this line of reasoning it would seem that Marsden would need to encourage the Religious Right to tolerate gay marriage or abortion rights—but this is precisely where the book become frustratingly fuzzy.

Marsden doesn’t address a single contentious Culture War issue on which he believes secularists and the Religious Right can arrive at some type of compromise or consensus. Perhaps it’s gay rights or global warming, but Marsden fails to give his readers any clue. We might not fault him for this had the book remained simply a historical account of the breakdown of consensus politics and the rise of the Religious Right. But his last chapter leaves the realm of history and becomes a rousing call for a more inclusive pluralism that is entirely devoid of any strategy or theoretical discussion of how such pluralism can be facilitated.

More importantly, Marsden seems reluctant to acknowledge how much of the gap has already been bridged between secularists and religious adherents. Coalitions with significant representation from both religious and secular groups have advocated for numerous causes from ObamaCare to the rejection of a prayer plaque at the World War II Memorial. In terms of the academy, Marsden’s book seems strangely unappreciative of the so-called post-secular turn to religion and its openness to the religious other.

There may be a reason for this. In interviews, Marsden and his circle of friends—the philosophers Nicolas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga—have made abundantly clear how much of a secular bias existed against Christian scholarship in the academy when they were young professors during the 1960s and 1970s. Their aim was to overcome this by providing powerful philosophical and historical arguments against the idea of secular neutrality and the privatization of religion.

In many ways their interventions were successful, as the question is no longer the exclusion of religion from the public sphere, but to what degree it should be a part of the conversation. Reading Marsden’s latest book, however, one wonders whether he and his circle have yet to catch up.