Out of One, Many?

'The Twilight of the American Enlightenment'

The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
George M. Marsden
Basic Books, $26.99, 209 pp.

Nostalgia, faint but unmistakable, permeates the pages of this book like the aroma of cinnamon in Grandma’s kitchen. Yet Catholic readers of a certain age may catch a whiff of something different and less welcoming.

George Marsden’s chosen subject is the Protestant Establishment and what happened when it went away. For younger readers, regardless of their religious persuasion, the mere phrase “Protestant Establishment” possesses about as much salience as “dial telephone” or “slide rule.” Persuading them that such things once really mattered poses a challenge. In The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, Marsden, a distinguished historian now retired from teaching at Notre Dame, takes up that challenge.

As Marsden reminds us, the Protestant Establishment dominated American politics and intellectual life from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies until midway through the twentieth century. Then, in the course of a decade or two, its authority collapsed, carrying with it the consensus once said to define the “American character.” Matters haven’t been the same since.

Through World War II, Marsden writes, “The United States had been shaped by an alliance...

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.