A Review of Stephen Prothero’s ‘Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)’
REVIEWS, 4 Jan 2016
Social progress occurs because liberal-minded reformers defeat conservative resistance.
That’s how slavery ended – and women gained the right to vote – and couples won a right to use birth control – and Social Security pensions were afforded to retirees – and labor was allowed to organize – and Prohibition was reversed – and blacks overcame Jim Crow segregation – and gay sex was decriminalized – and Medicare and Medicaid were established – and Sabbath “blue laws” were abolished – and censorship of movies and books ended – and health coverage was expanded under the Affordable Care Act – and pollution controls were enforced – and gays gained a right to marry – and many other humane advances occurred.
This week, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero will release his book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). He says conservatives often feel society shifting away from their cherished privileges and prejudices – for example; they feel “anxiety about the demise of the patriarchal family or Anglo-American dominance or ‘Christian America.’” Too late, they raise an outcry and fight a furious resistance, but the trend can’t be stopped.
“In almost every case since the founding of the republic,” Prothero wrote, “conservatives have fired the first shots in our culture wars. Equally often, liberals have won… [and] a liberal win becomes part of the new status quo and eventually fades from our collective memory. No conservative today wants to disenfranchise Mormons or outlaw five o’clock cocktails. So these victories no longer even appear to be ‘liberal.’ They are simply part of what it means to be an American.”
The professor added:
“America’s culture wars are won by liberals … Gays and lesbians get marriage. An ‘infidel’ (Jefferson) and then a ‘papist’ (Kennedy) get the White House. Nearly as predictably as night follows day, those who declare war on ‘infidels’ or Catholics or the sins of the 1920s or the abominations of the 1960s go down in defeat. Liberals win because they typically have the force of American traditions on their side, not least the force of the Bill of Rights itself, which on any fair reading protects the rights of minorities against the impositions of majorities. Liberals also win because the causes conservatives pick to rev up their supporters are, surprisingly, lost from the start.”
Prothero spotlights five religious-racial-moral battles in America to prove his point. The first battle was a showdown in the 1790s when conservative churchmen branded Thomas Jefferson a “howling atheist” in league with violent radicals of the French Revolution. The struggle involved dispute over whether America was “a Christian nation.”
Elections of 1796 and 1800 “turned into a cosmic battle between God and the devil, and America’s first culture war was on,” Prothero wrote. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.” Amid the tumult, “conservatives scapegoated immigrants as ‘hordes of ruffians’ and ‘revolutionary vermin’” (somewhat like today’s Republican denunciations of Hispanics and Muslims).
In the end, Jefferson triumphed, and America became more inclusive of unorthodox people.
The second culture war involved a wave of violent “nativist” Protestant attacks on Catholics around America. In 1844, Catholic-Protestant hatred triggered a cannon battle in the streets of Philadelphia, killing dozens. Anti-Catholic riots and church burning ensued into the 1850s, spawning the “America for Americans” Know-Nothing Party, which won 75 seats in Congress in 1854. Gradually, hatred of Catholics receded, but Protestant prejudice lingered until Kennedy won the presidency in 1960.
The third culture war was hostility and violence toward Mormons and their polygamy practice. Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois in 1844. Also, “Mormon leaders would be sued, jailed, beaten, stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and murdered,” the professor wrote. But this wave eventually faded.
The fourth culture war was Prohibition in the 1920s after evangelists and fundamentalists succeeded in banning alcohol. The struggle included conservative alarms over flappers, jazz, race-mixing, smoking, cosmetics, hair-bobbing, Sunday golf – and even evolution, as crystallized by the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Government-enforced sobriety bred bootleggers, organized crime, and bribery of police and prosecutors. In the end, liberals won the right for Americans to drink if they wished. Conservative churches were defeated, and Prohibition ended.
The current culture war arose as a backlash against the tumultuous 1960s when young Americans loosed the sexual revolution and war-denouncing counterculture. Racial desegregation, women’s right to choose abortion, and the banning of government-led school prayer have further outraged conservatives. The right wing “[has seen] American society drifting away from them, erasing forms of culture they held dear.”
Over time, most Americans have accepted liberal victories, but today Tea Party hard-liners still sound right-wing trumpets. Will culture wars continue forever? Will progressives keep pushing for more personal freedoms? Dr. Prothero concludes:
“Liberals can take comfort in the fact that they almost always win our cultural battles – that the arc of American cultural politics bends toward more liberty, not less.”
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Jan 2016.
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