The Magazine

The Good(?) Old Days

The postwar cultural consensus was not so stable.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JAMES SEATON
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Neither the authority of the scientific method nor the cult of autonomy provided the grounding for the most impressive moral force of the era, the civil rights movement led by (among others) Martin Luther King. Although the intellectual leaders of the fifties were almost unanimous in applauding the goals of the movement, they were also of one mind in rejecting the notion of objective, God-given standards for distinguishing right from wrong. Yet, as Marsden observes, it was precisely King’s “bedrock conviction that moral law was built into the universe” that “gave such widely compelling force to [his] leadership and oratory.” Marsden notes that, although later movements—“particularly [those for] women’s rights, gay rights, and rights for other minorities”—have echoed King’s “rhetoric of justice and equality,” they have dropped King’s commitment to universal standards of right and wrong in favor of “the frameworks of identity politics.”

If it is impossible to return to the 1950s, and if a return would in any case fail to solve our contemporary problems, then what are we to do? In particular, what role can religion play in the culture of the 21st century? Marsden rejects the “polarizing dichotomies” utilized by culture warriors on both the secular left and the Christian right: The goal, he argues, should be “a more fully inclusive pluralism,” in which there will no longer be “prejudice against religiously based views simply because of their religious nature.” 

Noting approvingly that “during the past few decades, there has been increasing recognition of the need to address the problem of religious pluralism in relation to the public domain,” Marsden comes to the conclusion that “the message here .  .  . is simply that such discussions need to continue.” And if some voices are unfairly silenced or stigmatized, Marsden nominates “university administrators and academic departments” to serve as “referees, ensuring that all responsible voices .  .  . get a hearing.”

Marsden rightly notes that a careful study of prominent intellectuals of the 1950s reveals a “contrast between the perceptiveness of their diagnoses and the inadequacies of their prescriptions.” Unfortunately, the same could be said of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, with its acute analyses and its underwhelming conclusion. 

It is hard to believe that the same author could provide such thoughtful analyses of the cultural past and then, as part of his proposed solution, call upon “university administrators and academic departments” to act as “referees” to ensure that all “responsible voices” are able to speak. 

Academic administrators and professors have been “refereeing” speech for some time now, but the result has not been a renewed cultural pluralism but rather the reign of political correctness using the slogans of multiculturalism and diversity.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States