Stephen Prothero on ‘why liberals win’ America’s culture wars

Stephen Prothero is a religious scholar at Boston University, who gave a talk on October 23rd called Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage.

It’s a preview of Prothero’s upcoming book of nearly the same title; — Why Liberals Win: The Story of America’s Culture Wars and the Lost Causes of Conservatism — to be published in April 2015. (There’s no cover image yet, on Amazon, to display here.)

(I have two of Prothero’s earlier books, Religious Literacy and God Is Not One, one of which I’ve read, and the other is in my to-read stack.)

The video link of his talk reveals that he is not the greatest public speaker; his speech is slow and deliberate, like the careful university professor that he is. Here’s a summary of his talk:

The ‘culture wars’ are nothing new. They are no longer confined to politics; Prothero’s current project examines these issues from Jefferson to Obama. These cultural wars have four features: public disputes, in magazines and newspapers; that these disputes are not purely economic; third, they give rise to larger questions about the meaning of America; and fourth they are heated disputes, with convictions that one’s enemies are enemies of the nation. “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

This is the arc of history, as Prothero describes. He reviews five episodes of American history: the election of 1800 (in which he describes partisanships far more severe than in our time), which keyed off Jefferson’s religion.

The second is the battle between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 1830s and 1840s.

The third is anti-Mormonism, mostly after the Civil War.

The fourth episode is the battle of the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s.

And the fifth: the ‘cultural wars’ that began in the 1970s, over segregation, and IRS rules about tax-exemption, that galvanized the ‘religious right’. (Roe v. Wade wasn’t an issue to the RR, at the time.) This issue pivoted to issues of ‘family values’, to issues of gender and abortion and homosexuality; and to the idea that the IRS was discriminating against religion, in that people who could not discriminate felt themselves to be the victims – not those they were discriminating against [how very familiar, in the current religious right rage against the legalization of same-sex marriage].

It’s all about anxiety about a way of life that’s passing away, the end of the traditional family, or the end of white supremacy. Monoculture vs. Multiculture. Family vs Families. The one or the many.

He disputes several misconceptions about the motives behind the ‘culture wars’.

He has three conclusions:

1, cultural wars are cultural, not issues of morality, or religion, or economics alone;

2, cultural wars are conservative projects; they are morality plays in which actual liberals play very minor roles. “Modern conservatism is rooted in a narrative of loss and restoration; a form of culture is passing away, and it is worth fighting to revive.” Cultural battles are typically started by conservatives – not in reaction to some liberal plot, but by cultural changes in immigration, or progressive social changes.

3, America’s cultural wars have been won by pluralists on the left. Look at the evidence, in all these episodes. Why does this happen? Because conservatives attach themselves to lost causes; they pick fights they were already losing. Their goal is not to win, it’s to “preach a gospel of the fallen and the lost; to demonstrate how far America has descended from the glory of its founding….”

Prothero describes the cycle of cultural wars: it starts on the right, with some anxiety about social change; the left strikes back, often appealing to the principle of liberty; then rhetoric of no-compromise; but always resolved with some degree of accommodationism. And then the liberals win, most of the time. (Exceptions: conservatives defeated the ERA; they reduced budget for the arts; they succeeded in making talk of God more acceptable among politicians; and somehow made ‘liberalism’ a dirty word, as a moral threat.) But conservatives lost the cultural wars overall, badly: tax exemptions for segregation academies, Clinton’s impeachment, school prayer, killing the NEA, casual sex, the counterculture, abortion [which is still legal, barely], marijuana, the traditional family, and about same-sex marriage.

Liberals control the agenda. “Having lost one culture war, conservatives become even more convinced that other Americans are out to get them; they become more fearful that American society is going to Hell. And so they cast about for another complaint, something else that that is precious and is passing away.”

All conservatism begins with loss, says Andrew Sullivan. And so it goes for America’s culture wars…

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