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In the fourth chapter of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, George Marsden discusses the problem of authority in 1950s America. This problem concerned how to reconcile the authority of the scientific method with the authority of the autonomous individual. At the level of pop culture, the solution was to utilize the former to establish the latter.

On the one hand, the scientific method translated into the burgeoning role of the social sciences, particularly psychology, and thus gave rise to the therapist. Human flourishing was stripped of a moral center and replaced with psychological well-being. To achieve such well-being, the mantra of “be true to yourself” reinforced the consistent claims of social scientists that non-conformity was the path to self-realization.

On the other hand, this method buttressed the role of the expert and thus gave rise to the manager. It was a new paternalism in which human life could be shaped and guided by scientific advice rendered applicable to the American experiment through an ever-expanding government bureaucracy. Utilizing Christopher Lasch’s work, Marsden concluded that the 1950s problem of authority facilitated the rise of the 1970s culture of narcissism in which the therapist and the manager reinforced a move away from community and tradition toward individual self-fulfillment.

Lurking in the shadows of Marsden’s argument is a running twentieth-century debate over the culture created by what Lasch called “bourgeois society.” With its Marxist sheen dulled, much of this debate has ceased to be about class divisions (although it retains that edge in certain thinkers) and more so about mentalités—mindsets or common outlooks—that comprise the beliefs inhabiting the social imaginary.

Christopher Lasch intended The Culture of Narcissism to be against the “psychological man,” which he saw as the final product of bourgeois individualism. Liberalism, according to Lasch, was “the political theory of the ascendant bourgeoisie,” and it had become politically bankrupt by the late 1970s in Lasch’s mind.

Lasch, however, was building on claims that had been made previously by Christian thinkers. In the 1940s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness to save democracy from bourgeois civilization, which he equated with an excessive individualism and libertarianism. Emerging from the Renaissance philosophy of man and the Italian city-states, he saw such individualism as possibly destroying “the individual’s organic relation to the community.” He went on to suggest in The Irony of American History that the exaltation of the individual led to ironies such as the way science and “technocratic” illusions attempt to manage human nature thereby denying human dignity, and yet still failing to make individual liberty unqualifiedly the end of life as bourgeois ideology would have it.

Even Russell Kirk offered pointed remarks against bourgeois society “from which the liberal mentality arose.” Quoting Malcom Muggeridge approvingly, Kirk saw Marx and Freud as classic examples of the bourgeoisie. Muggeridge’s own thoughts—that bourgeois society “was a Prometheus fated to gorge its own entrails”—stemmed from his reflections on certain Anglican bishops he observed in the late 1920s who preached Stalin sanctified and saw the Eucharist as a distasteful form of magic. Such bishops, who clung tenaciously to staff and mitre while discarding church teaching as though it were yesterday’s newspaper, epitomized the tendency to cannibalize within the bourgeois mindset.

The broader discussion about a bourgeois mentality among persons such as Christopher Dawson and Reinhold Niebuhr fueled the current debate within the American Catholic Church. In 1986, then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments about a bourgeois Christianity as being exemplified in forms of American Catholicism prompted George Weigel to ask whether America was in fact bourgeois. Weigel concluded that this view of America was grounded in a particular reading of the Founding that privileged Lockean notions of the individual over against other voices such as John Winthrop and Roger Williams. In short, Ratzinger had overreached in his criticisms of American Catholicism by assuming a particular historical narrative that the American Founding was an exercise in radical individualism. This was Weigel’s way of joining Neuhaus in declaring that a “Catholic” moment had come, but not all Catholics agreed.

Weigel’s article in Crisis sparked a debate among Catholic thinkers as to whether Catholic thought was compatible with the American experiment. This debate today has morphed into a “radical” wing and a “neo-conservative” wing within American Catholicism if Patrick Deneen’s analysis is on target, which seems to be the case given Michael Hanby’s presentation at a meeting in November of last year sponsored by First Things. Hanby’s presentation has been published in the recently released February issue of the journal.

Most notable in this debate was David Schindler’s response, which combined Christopher Dawson’s and Ratzinger’s criticisms of the bourgeois mentality. Schindler postulated that a deficient ontology about personhood lay behind bourgeois notions while Ratzinger went on to talk about “bourgeois pelagianism” as a kind of self-reliant form of Christian existence in which God makes few demands of Christians. Even though Hanby does not mention Schindler by name, the influence of his senior colleague’s indictment of bourgeois individualism is certainly present in the essay.

The challenge of following this debate has to do with the way in which the term bourgeois moves between class and mentality. Christopher Lasch, for example, argued for the need to recover certain features of the nineteenth century bourgeois family in Haven in a Heartless World just shortly after he criticized bourgeois liberalism. He was, in fact, arguing in support of the petit bourgeois of middlebrow and lowbrow America against the ascendant bourgeoisie of the twentieth century. So was Russell Kirk with his championing of regionalism and small-town America over against the “Behemoth State.”

Behind all of the discussion of the autonomy of the individual and the rise of the technocratic society with its managerial experts, one can find both Protestants and Catholics who have argued for the need to mount a critique of the bourgeois world view as, in Niebuhr’s words, the way to save democracy from self-destruction. It is unfortunate that Catholics seemed to have missed the Protestant side of this discussion of the bourgeois mentality—and that many conservative Protestants seem unaware or unconcerned about the Catholic side. 

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