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“Most of us live in our own world rather than the world that brought it into being, so we tend to assume that our problems are unprecedented,” writes Stephen Prothero in his new book "Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)."
In a sense, Prothero — a professor of religion at Boston University — is reminding readers that history repeats itself.
As he demonstrates, however, it has done so in some surprising ways. For example, Barack Obama was not the first presidential candidate to face ill-intentioned accusations of being a Muslim. During the election of 1800, Federalist Party opponents said that Thomas Jefferson was “a secret ‘believer in the Alcoran [Quran].' ”
When Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress 15 years later, the Massachusetts representative at the time Cyrus King described it as containing “many books of irreligious and immoral tendency.”
Prothero considers this controversy over Jefferson’s allegedly insufficient Christianity as the first of America’s culture wars, which he defines as “angry public disputes that are simultaneously moral and religious and address the meaning of America.”
These disputes pit liberals, who are eager to embrace change and welcome newcomers, against conservatives, who fear the passing of a cherished way of life and wish to eliminate the threat to it.
In the three consecutive chapters that follow, Prothero explains the culture war in question was instigated by fear of those whose religious views differed from traditional Protestantism. Prothero explores the anti-Catholicism that led to deadly violence in Boston and Philadelphia, the supposed Mormon threat to “Christian civilization,” and the temporary success of prohibition, which was motivated in part to distress Irish Catholic proprietors of saloons.
Culture warriors also use gratuitously harsh language to describe their opponents. For example, Prothero writes, “In the Obama years, you weren’t anybody until somebody labeled you a ‘fascist,’ a ‘socialist,’ or a ‘Nazi.’ ”
Similarly, assessments of Catholics, Mormons and anti-prohibitionists unfailingly included comparisons to slavery.
Prothero writes, “John Adams referred to Catholicism as slavery … [and] Jefferson was of a similar mind.” Believing that Mormons should enjoy freedom of religion was to support polygamy, which some placed alongside slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” Even those who advocated prohibition could quote former slave Frederick Douglass as having written in 1855, “It was about as well to be a slave to a master as to be a slave to rum and whiskey.”
Lest Americans be tempted to take solace in the idea that these days are long gone, let us remember that in 2013, presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson said, “Obamacare … is slavery in a way.” (Shortly thereafter, former vice presidential candidate and current Donald Trump supporter Sarah Palin said something similar about the national debt.)
By Prothero’s measure, conservatives always begin culture wars and liberals always win them. Subsequently, “Causes once labeled ‘liberal’ become ‘American values,’ embraced by liberals and conservatives alike.”
On this point, Prothero is in almost perfect agreement with Mark Twain, who wrote, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” (Interestingly, Prothero does not use this quote himself.)
Readers must keep in mind that Prothero is not using the words “liberal” and “conservative” in the contemporary political sense. Rather, he means them in a broader cultural sense.
Jeffersonians, Catholics, Mormons and anti-prohibitionists were cultural liberals because they wished for a more free and diverse America. In the case of the Jeffersonians, the liberty-oriented Democratic-Republican Party defeated the law-and-order focused Federalists. More than 100 years later, the repeal of prohibition created a more welcoming environment for the “German brewers who supplied the saloons and Irish immigrants who staffed and patronized them.”
Granted, conservatives have a respectable record of winning elections. However, considering that the sites of 18th-century anti-Catholic violence now have two of the largest Catholic populations in the United States, that a Mormon can be one party’s presidential nominee and the other’s Senate leader, that prohibition remains the only repealed constitutional amendment and that same-sex couples can marry, it is hard to disagree with Prothero that liberals have succeeded in moving the cultural center more deeply into liberal territory.
Hence, those nursing fears of a Trump presidency should be comforted when Prothero writes, “Some Americans continue to ape nativists of the past by trying to banish Muslims from the American family. But if history is any guide, they are holding a losing hand.”
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