Book Review: "Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars" by Stephen Prothero

November 9, 2017

Book Review: “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars” by Stephen Prothero

Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage Today, by Stephen Prothero. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016. 336 pages.

Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) was written on the cusp of the epic election of 2016. Even after the results on the presidential election, the question posed within the title of this book is incredibly relevant to issues concerning the ongoing culture wars, rooted in religious and philosophical controversies, which were arguably at the core of this past campaign.

What we in America call the “culture wars” between conservative and progressive values in America have deeper religious roots and a long history going back to the foundation of the United States.

In this historic context, liberal Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero tackles this broad topic by making the case that conservatives tend to start these culture wars while liberals almost always win them because American culture is more prone to so-called progress. In doing so, Professor Prothero selectively examines controversial chapters in American history, arguing that the Religious Right (and conservatives in general) are constantly motivated by a backlash to progressives.

For social conservatives who are Christians participating in the political process, this account seems to implicate their involvement as the fundamental problem, albeit subtly. Blaming the cultural conservatives of the Religious Right for America’s historic controversies underpins his message throughout the book. This is particularly evident in a section on “Christian America” where he denounces any trace of American religious heritage and writes that “the religious right was born of anxieties over racial mixing and the demise of white supremacy… instead of defending white superiority and the ‘Southern way of life,’ they defended ‘Christian America’.”

Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars is openly biased from the onset, in the introduction Professor Prothero explicitly defines cultural conservatism “as characterized by anxiety over beloved forms of life that are passing away, a commitment to restore what has been lost and an effort to exclude from full cultural citizenship those who are responsible for this loss” while on the other hand, he defines cultural liberalism in much more favorable terms: “as an eagerness to embrace new forms of culture, a belief in progress and a determination to include more and more groups in the public life of a nation.” He goes on to write that “America’s culture wars are conservative projects, instigated and waged disproportionately by conservatives anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of news ones. What liberals see as progress, they see as a loss and they are willing to fight to defend what is already passing away…there is much more debate over whether America’s culture wars began on the left or the right – almost as much debate as there is over what the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ mean.”

Furthermore, the book assumes a chronological social history of the United States which surprisingly omits some of the most significant turning points such as the Civil War and civil rights movement, instead examining case studies starting with “the Protestants’ campaign against Catholics in the mid-Nineteenth Century” and “the anti-Mormon crusade of the Victorian era.” In these chapters, he deploys facts in a selective way to once again advance the narrative that Protestant Christians constantly instigate these cultural conflicts which they ultimately loose. In the chapter on “Prohibition and Pluralism” he actually admits that “Prohibition was a product of Progressivism – an effort at social reform aimed at bettering the lives of women and children and undercutting the political power of saloon-based bosses. Yet many of the arguments for real were conservative ones, rooted in concerns about law and order and the family.”

From the era of Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, Prothero jumps ahead and applauds the social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s while narrowing into the “contemporary culture wars of the 1980s-1990s.” After establishing the background historical foundation of his argument, the author then advances his most politicized points:

“It was cultural conservatives who injected into these debates the rhetoric of war, precisely because they saw the issues of matter of absolute morality and eternal truth. They started the contemporary culture wars because once again they saw American society drifting away from them, erasing forms of culture they held dear, channeling Cold War rhetoric into domestic politics, they blasted ‘liberal elites’ as socialists undermining the country from within….with this acceleration came increasing divisiveness as decades of bitterness were compressed…in the contemporary culture wars, the maw of cultural politics opened wide and nearly stalled civil society whole. Culture warriors continued to fight over religion, family, sexuality, race, education, and evolution, but now they fought as well over issues that had previously been considered nonpartisan.”

Here, he reveals the backbone of his argument against cultural conservatives when he observes a phenomenon that although may be considered positive by Christians, he views as negative: “In this way, the Religious Right did more than start another culture war, it began a radical reevaluation of the role of Christianity in public life.”

As a professor of religion who describes himself as “religiously confused,” Prothero was inspired to begin an investigation that became this book after wondering about why conservatives resisted the construction of an Islamic cultural center nearby Ground Zero in Downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Believing that respect for religious liberty and private property would have allowed the project to proceed, he writes, so “why all the fuss?” and explains that now Muslims are the new target in a conflict that conservatives have created against multiculturalism.

Prothero came to the conclusion:

As I investigated America’s culture wars from Jefferson to Obama, I found that they follow a predictable pattern. They tend to start on the right, with conservatives anxious about some cultural change. Yet conservatives almost always lose, because they lash themselves to lost causes. That’s how this latest round in our culture wars is likely to conclude, too. If you fear (as I do) what a President Trump might do, remember that the promise to build a Mexico-financed border wall or to ban Muslims from entering the country are as lost as causes can be. When it comes to the culture wars, conservatism ends with loss, too…

However, Prothero did offer the following clarification in case Trump won the election, which he did:

Trump could still win the presidency. But electoral victories are often distinct from culture-war victories. Indeed, culture warriors often win by losing, as their gospel of salvation to the fallen and the lost yields enthusiasm on the campaign trail and votes on Election Day…to look at our culture wars over the long haul is to see not only how poisonous our politics can get but also how inclusive our nation has become. Conflicts give way to consensus. Causes once labeled “liberal” become “American values,” embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. Same-sex marriage becomes just marriage. Islam is recognized as part of our shared Abrahamic tradition. We cease to view particular immigrant groups as threats — as “drug dealers,” “rapists” and terrorists — and instead appreciate their contributions to our society.

Finally, Prothero wrote that:

These, too, shall pass. The culture wars cycle may be eternal, but individual battles end. But no matter how this presidential election turns out, the arc of American history should continue to bend toward tolerance and inclusion…Nonetheless, conservatives lost the contemporary culture wars and they lost them badly. As the counterculture mainstreamed, American society continued to drift left… but liberals are not just defeating conservatives in the contemporary culture wars. All the culture wars in this book went the liberals’ way…

This overall perspective summarizes the view held by liberals, both secular and religious, although there is truth to the argument that liberals do tend to influence a trend towards a progressive change in culture even when out of political power. Nevertheless, this book attempts to make a sweeping case against conservatives – especially the Religious Right – in a historical context that is neither entirely comprehensive nor coherent. Instead, the book advances the superficial concept that the left is simply on the right side of history while the right is not.


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