March 19, 2014


Faithless : The postwar liberal intellectuals built a political cosmology that rejected religion. But it was still fiercely moral. : a review of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief By George M. Marsden (Molly Worthen, Democracy)

Walter Lippmann's last book, Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), was a long time in the making. In this slim volume, the presidential adviser and commentator on society and politics offered a summary of his "mature thinking," the ideas that he had "fought and struggled through over many years," one of his close friends said. Lippmann had begun the notes for the book on his honeymoon in Naples in 1938, watching dark clouds gather over Europe: "A civilization must have a religion.... Communism and Nazism are religions of the proletarianized masses." The war cast further doubt in his mind on the direction of Western liberalism in the wake of its liberation from traditional religious dogma and ruling dynasties. What supreme authority had taken their place?

Biographer Ronald Steel notes that Lippmann, a secular Jew, was for a time attracted to Catholicism's promise of "communion in a moral order above the whims of transient majorities and the dictates of tyrants." He echoed the Founding Fathers' trepidation at the "morbid derangement" that came when "mass opinion dominates the government" and reduces statesmen to "insecure and intimidated men." By the time he finally published the book, he had opted for a nonsectarian creed: simply the "natural law on which Western institutions were originally founded."

His fellow liberals, however, did not find in Essays a plausible course for the future of democracy. They thought Lippmann diagnosed the wrong problems and offered no real solution. They found his tone far too theological to suit the modern secular age. McGeorge Bundy, then a dean at Harvard, accused him of having "taken refuge in the bosom of God." The New Republic dismissed the book--by one of its own founding editors, no less--as the brooding of "a badly frightened man" with a "bias against democracy."

To George Marsden, however, Lippmann was one of the few twentieth-century liberals who grasped the fatal paradox of the liberal worldview: the growing distance between the ambitions of modern post-Christian liberalism and the tradition's first principles. In Marsden's telling, the liberal intellectuals of 1950s America considered themselves defenders of human freedom--the successors of the Founders, bearing the cause of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment into the fray against latter-day totalitarianism. But in criticizing Lippmann's call for moral law and stronger executive authority, his liberal colleagues failed to see that without these safeguards, their own faith in reason and liberty rested on shifting sands. They tried "to sustain the ends of the American enlightenment, but without that enlightenment's intellectual"--that is, Christian, or at least theistic--"means," Marsden writes in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

Posted by at March 19, 2014 3:13 AM

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