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The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
Alan Brinkley
Knopf, 2010
560 pp., $35.00

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George Marsden


Invisible Faith

The Life and work of Henry Luce.

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In his private life, troubles began with Clare Boothe Luce on their honeymoon and continued periodically until Harry's death in 1967. After Clare's daughter, a Stanford senior, died in a car accident in 1944, Clare joined the Roman Catholic Church. She seems to have taken her Catholicism seriously (it was later a factor in resisting divorce), except that the Luces had in effect an open marriage and each had a number of affairs—a matter that seemed taken for granted in their élite social circles. Harry was the archetypical public figure who knew everyone but had few close male friends, a lack he made up for through a series of intimate relationships with accomplished women.

After World War II, Luce became concerned, as were a number of public intellectuals of the time, to find a higher law that could guide nations and perhaps unite the world. He was unhappy with the sort of relativism that he saw in the pragmatic conception of the law of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He also was unhappy with the Realpolitik of the Truman administration and argued that "the struggle between Freedom and communism is, at bottom, a moral issue … a religious issue." In his quest Luce kept up correspondence with leading theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and others, and Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, became a sort of personal counselor for the Luces in their troubled marriage. Brinkley mentions all this in passing. He does note more fully that for guidance on higher law Luce turned particularly to William Ernest Hocking, an idealist philosopher at Harvard who advocated a philosophically based theism rooted in human experience. What Brinkley does not mention is that Luce's interest in Hocking was almost certainly linked to the philosopher's work in the 1930s as the leading author of the controversial report of the laymen's inquiry into world missions, Re-thinking Missions, published in 1932. In fact Time gave Re-thinking Missions a glowing review when it came out, suggesting that, despite the inevitable carping of critics, its "God-centered" rather than "Christ-centered" religion signaled the wave of the future and might be the key to building one unified world culture.

Nor does Brinkley take seriously Luce's lifelong role as a professing Christian, an active Presbyterian, and even something of a public theologian. In 1969, after Luce's death, John K. Jessup, former chief editorial writer for Life, published a collection entitled The Ideas of Henry Luce. In his introductory sketch of Luce's outlook, Jessup claims that Luce's "faith" as a "Protestant Christian" was his first priority. Perhaps we must take that with a grain of salt, but we also find Luce himself claiming similar priorities. For instance, in a 1946 address to Duke Divinity School he proclaimed that love of country could become for Americans "a barrier between the patriot and love to God." In quite a few other speeches he called for the priority of Christianity. At Princeton Theological Seminary's commencement in 1962 he advocated the theology of Teilhard de Chardin as a way to reconcile evolutionary science and Christian theology. And in 1964 he even published an essay on "The Essence of Teilhard" in Life, suggesting that Teilhard might be "the greatest thinker-prophet of the twentieth century." None of this makes it into Brinkley's book.

While I think Brinkley misses some potentially enriching and intriguing dimensions of his story, it is also easy to understand how an apparently secular biographer might come to the conclusion that the religion of Luce and of the mainstream America he represented so well was epiphenomenal. My guess is that Luce became what in the 1920s was known as a Protestant modernist and remained seriously committed to that quest for the latest and most advanced understandings of Christianity. Modernism, or the more progressive sort of liberal Protestantism, was an effort to save Christianity by emphasizing its ethical and theological essence rather than its historical particulars. For Luce and for many of his generation of élite Protestants, faith in some sort of God, whatever that meant to them personally, played a very important cultural role. In the mid-decades of the 20th century they were desperately struggling to build and to preserve a great national culture, unified on the basis of the best in Western civilization, as opposed to the deadly barbarism of Nazism and the materialism of godless communism. During and after World War II, the future of the world seemed literally to depend on the success of this project.

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