‘It is human nature,” Notre Dame history professor emeritus George M. Marsden writes in “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment,” “to look back on an earlier era, especially the days of one’s youth, as being more coherent than the disruptive times of later days.” For Marsden, born in 1939, those coherent days of youth were the 1950s. In the book’s very first sentences, in fact, he muses, “Many Americans think of the 1950s as a time when American culture made sense. Some of us can remember why.”

Nostalgia of this sort is a dangerous sentiment for a historian to indulge, as Marsden is well aware, yet indulge it he does. The fascinating and unusual book that results bears the burdens of this nostalgia for good and ill. Nostalgia for the 1950s, after all, raises red flags for those who see the transformations of the 1960s in civil rights, women’s rights and social welfare as positive developments. Marsden dutifully acknowledges these concerns, yet persists in characterizing the 1950s as a period of largely beneficent coherence.

According to Marsden, the cultural coherence of the 1950s stemmed from respect for authority and the sense of community it engendered. Socially, this meant reverence for fathers and clergy, but as an intellectual historian — indeed one of the most esteemed intellectual historians of his generation — Marsden thankfully strikes this paternalistic note only in passing and deals mostly with the paradigms that, he argues, made cultural coherence possible. He finds this authoritative framework in the American Enlightenment, a peculiarly American blend of pragmatic liberalism, scientific rationality and Protestant Christianity. The last item here is of special importance to Marsden, who lauds the “cordial working relationship” between Christianity and reason that emerged from the revolutionary period and persisted into the 20th century.

The decade of Marsden’s coming-of-age, it turns out, was the last decade in which this cordial relationship held. “Something like the old alliance was still perceptible in the 1950s,” he contends, but soon secular intellectuals and rebellious youth jettisoned Christianity from this relationship. When the working-just-fine-thank-you modus vivendi died in the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, American public life lost its “first principles.” Uprooted from common moral and intellectual ground, we have been divided and adrift ever since, beset by culture wars, polarization and diminished national purpose.

In many ways the period from 1945 to 1960 was indeed a moment of unusual coherence, especially if one discounts the discontent seething beneath the suburban veneer. But rather than a coherence bred by widely shared and deeply rooted American values, the centrist ascendancy of the period is best understood as a historical anomaly fostered by broad economic opportunity and profound Cold War anxieties. If it was the Protestant-inflected Enlightenment that brought coherence to American life, why was the nation so deeply divided in the 1880s, or the 1850s, or 1800? Marsden uses the mid-century journalist Walter Lippmann to voice many of his concerns, yet neither Marsden nor Lippmann seems eager to acknowledge just how fractured our politics have always been.

’The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief’ by George Marsden (Basic)

Much of the book consists of engaging summaries of popular social science and cultural criticism from the period. Many of these works, such as Lippmann’s, can still be profitably read, and Marsden’s book shines as a clear, if largely uncritical, introduction to the dominant intellectual voices of the era. His full ambition for the book, however, emerges only in its prescriptive final chapter. Here he aims to show us “how American public life might better accommodate religious pluralism.”

For the way forward, Marsden turns to an intellectual giant of his Reformed Protestant tradition, the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Though little known today outside heady neo-Calvinist circles, Kuyper was a formidable thinker with much to offer. His notion of common grace, for example — the idea that God’s providential care extends to all of humanity — presents a useful counterpoint to the narrowness of Christian exclusivism. Yet Marsden invokes Kuyper primarily for his account of public life as an arena of clashing worldviews and for his contention that religious worldviews should be accorded a status equal to secular ones.

Marsden boldly declares that, after the collapse of Protestant authority in the 1950s, “the society was left with no real provision as to how religious viewpoints would be represented in the public sphere,” yet he offers little evidence for this claim. His invocation of Kuyper, in other words, is a solution in search of a problem. It may well be that certain religiously rooted claims, such as the sinfulness of homosexuality, are losing in the court of public opinion (as well as in courts of law), but this is not because religious voices have no place at the table. It’s because a coalition of secular and religious liberals has proved more persuasive legally and morally than the religious conservatives who oppose them. Similar coalitions of religious and secular interest groups, on the right and the left, advocate regularly and openly on matters of poverty, the environment, health care and countless other issues.

Marsden rightly sees Kuyper’s thought as a tempered alternative to the theocratic impulses of the religious right. And we certainly need the wisdom of religious perspectives to enrich our public life. Problems abound. No sane person can look at Congress today and see an effective governing body, and in many other ways our public-mindedness and commitment to the common good are at a low ebb. But the problems of our civic life stem not from too much pragmatism but too little. What’s so desirable about coherence, anyway?

Matt Hedstrom teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of “The Rise of Liberal Religion.”

THE TWILIGHT OF THE AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT

The 1950s and the Crisis
of Liberal Belief

By George M. Marsden

Basic. 219 pp. $26.99