As writers around here have pointed out, a fair number of people have been looking forward to George Marsden's most recent book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.
And, the reviews have begun to come in--from Thomas Kidd, Wilfred McClay (paywalled), and Grant Wacker, among others.
When I first got my hands on the book, I wrote up my own, quick review. In the review, I asserted that it would be very useful to read Marsden alongside Molly Worthen.
Chris Lehmann reviewed the two books in a combination article in The Nation. Also, Marsden offered his own take on Worthen in a February 10 piece in Commonweal (also paywalled).
I stand by my claim that these two books would teach well together. They're an obvious pairing for any graduate seminar. I could also see how using them together could produce fascinating results in a class with advanced undergraduates. I'll be trying such an experiment myself next fall, as I'll be assigning Marsden's book for my "American Religious History" class but plan to bring in Worthen's argument as well.
In the commentary I've seen so far--including Lehmann's--reviewers tend to connect Marsden and Worthen on where they overlap topically--on the development of neo-evangelicals and the origins of the Religious Right. Yet, to my mind, the more important connection is on theme, that of religious authority. From whence does religious and then cultural authority arise?
If Worthen questions the intellectual coherence of neo-evangelicals, Marsden points to parallel problems in the liberal consensus and in the 1950s Mainline. Perhaps evangelicals weren't alone in this conundrum.
Thinking about the Tri-Faith America set-up of the 1950s and early 1960s, surely issues of authority were troubling to Reform Judaism, just as they were to Catholics during and in the wake of Vatican II.
Is this, then, a case where the story of the Post-War upheavals--which reverberate to the present--is really an on-going debate about where authority might come from and then be applied?
Thinking about this question leads into the rather large issue in American Religion: by what warrant do people believe and act?
But stepping back--as historians are wont to do--we might say this has been a bedeviling question for belief in America and one that certainly predated the 1950s.
As I have recently been teaching about the 1920s, it's clear that the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies were rival claims to speak about the world authoritatively. As Barry Hankins makes clear, these debates had important results in the public policy debates, too. That is, debates about authority were also debates about culture, community, and law.
Going back to the 19th century, though, reveals that these debates over authority, although intensified in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, had even longer roots.
Orestes Brownson, of course, tweaked Protestants on the very issue of authority. And, after his many spiritual peregrinations, he adopted Catholicism, specifically because it gave a settled answer to the question of authority.
|From Wikimedia Commons|
At the same time, Antebellum questions about religious authority also did come back to the Bible. As Michael Lee points out in his recent book The Erosion of Biblical Certainty, debates about the character and interpretation of Scripture were roiling both in the late colonial and early republic periods. Lee's book is important, and I'll try to give it more attention in my posting next month.
We've traveled a long ways from Marsden and Worthen, but it strikes me that religious authority remains a contentious matter. It could serve as an organizing principle for understanding how American religion has developed. And, it bids to remain open for debate--even more so now, in an era that increasingly eschews any external authorities.