23 March 2014

George Marsden on The End of Enlightenment Consensus

One of the secrets of blogging about books is that one can post some serious comments about a book without having actually read it. I have done so in the past but, like this time, not without disclosure. A book by now-retired Notre Dame (and before that, Calvin College) professor of history George Marsden has recently been published: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York: Basic Books, 2014). You can find what surely are thoughtful reviews here and here. and here. The best review, however, by Wilfred McClay, is still behind a paywall but you can get a sample by going here.

In his book Marsden observes that
Secular liberals believe their freedoms are threatened by a conservative Christian takeover. Conservative Christians believe that secularists are excluding their Christian views and using big government to expand their own dominion." Can both be right? Or wrong? To end the culture war that divides America, we need to recognize that each side has the same roots: the radical democratic individualism of America’s Protestant heritage.
I've made this argument many times. What ails American culture is not that the Left is ascendent but that what passes for the Right shares equally with the Left a fundamental commitment to individual autonomy. As reviewer Paul Baumann elaborates,
Though community values were ritually celebrated, everywhere Americans turned, they now saw individual freedom, self-determination, self-reliance, and self-expression invoked as American absolutes. That exaltation of the autonomous self—whether in the bedroom or the shopping mall—had deep roots in the nation’s Emersonian and radical Protestant traditions, and now, in the new environment created by America’s postwar global dominance, it grew to full bloom
So what's Marsden's solution? A invigorated commitment to liberalism as it was meant to be, a liberalism not so much of individuals but of associations. Drawing on the insights of Dutch theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper, Marsden argues that a truly liberal state would permit groups of individuals--associations--to opt out of individualism--whether economic or sexual; what Marsden calls "inclusive pluralism."

McClay's review suggests the shortcomings of Marsden's approach: "Doesn't the creation and maintenance of a regime of 'inclusive pluralism' require a substantive and not merely procedural consensus among all parties?" And, without such a consensus we're merely pushed back another step without much more hope than we have now to resist the acidic corrosion of individualism.

In two of my published articles I observed that the inherent instability of liberalism pops up in the unlikeliest of places. For an example, you can go here to download my article Principled Pluralism and Contract Remedies where I argued that something so commonplace as the expectation remedy of money damages for breach of contract sits uneasily within a liberal polity.

Or read Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition where I demonstrate that the contemporary liberal accounting for human rights is a house built on a bed of sand. While I am thankful for the blessings of liberalism as a political philosophy, it has functioned well for as long as it has only because it had an underlying religious foundation.

Since the collapse of that religious foundation, which Marsden pegs to the 1950s in America, there has only been a see-sawing battle within liberalism over the post-foundational direction it should take: economic or sexually expressive. The current iterations of the Rights (libertarianism) or the Left (anti-traditional morality) have the same 18th century father. Without a return to pre-modern roots--which is not possible--we can expect no more than a continuing battle on the decks as the ship of Western formerly-Enlightened culture sinks.

So what else might be done? Rod Dreher suggests a new in-the-world monasticism here but that strikes me as implausible, at least on a significant scale. A chastening Augustinianism implies that there is no particular solution. In other words, we'll simply have to keep on keepin' on until the end. Yet, given the hope for the eschatological end confessed in the Christian faith, that should be enough to keep us going.

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