This latest book by historian George M. Marsden is an insightful history and analysis of the discourse and concerns of U.S. public intellectuals during the 1950s. In a certain sense, the1950s was a time of great national unity, because of the victory during the Second World War, the post-war prosperity, and the challenges of the cold war. At the same time,many of the “liberal” (i.e. center left) intellectuals were concerned about the health of the nation and the need for national cohesion. There was also great concern of a conformity that, it was thought, led to cultural inauthenticity, superficiality, and degeneration. The intellectuals were optimistic that human beings, enlightened by science, can reach sound, naturalistic values on their own, apart from traditional communities (religious or otherwise). .
Dr, Marsden does not oversimplify. He discusses the tensions and contradictions of the age. For example, the public intellectuals often advocated a traditional American moral inheritance while undermining its epistemological basis. He also points out disagreements amongst the cultural elite. For example, he discusses Walter Lippmann’s controverted advocacy for a concept of natural law, Martin Luter King, Jr.’s basing his fight for racial equality on transcendent, not naturalistic, values, and Reinhold Neibuhr’s brilliant, piercing writings on the evil and limitations of human nature.
But this book is not only an academic study. Dr. Marsden is concerned with how a very diverse society can be inclusive of different world views. He notes the weaknesses and limitations of the inclusiveness promoted by the center left intellectuals of the 1950s and its ultimate collapse. It was a secular, white project with (sometimes) a liberal Protestant patina. In the final pages of his book, Dr. Marsden turns for a different approach to the Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper. I am sorry to say I was totally unfamiliar with Kuyper and I wish Dr. Marsden dealt with him more extensively and discussed with greater specificity how his ideas might be adopted in the U.S. context. While I think the somewhat sparse specificity regarding applications of Kuyper’s thought an inadequacy, it does not weaken the history and analysis that precedes it.