Culture wars bring out the worst in Americans. They’ve led citizens to accuse Thomas Jefferson of being a traitor and Catholics and Mormons of being unpatriotic.
More recently, they’ve caused angry debates about President Obama’s religious background and proposals that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed into the U.S.
However, battles over which values Americans should stand for also move the country forward, helping people reimagine what democracy requires of them, argues Stephen Prothero in his latest book, “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections),” which was released in January.
“In the end, the arc of our culture wars bends toward more liberty, not less,” he writes.
Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and author of eight books, including “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” a New York Times bestseller. This decade’s debates over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque inspired his investigation into culture wars, which he defines as “angry, public disputes that concern moral and religious questions, as well as the meaning of America.”
His book offers an overview of five key culture wars: the election of 1800, anti-Catholicism in the 19th century, anti-Mormonism around the time of the Civil War, prohibition and contemporary debates over sexuality and family life, which began in the late 1970s. He argues that the more liberal view, the one that welcomed more cultural and religious diversity, won out in all of these cases while noting that it’s sometimes hard to remember what the counterargument was.
Past culture war victories “no longer even appear to be ‘liberal.’ They are simply part of what it means to be an American,” he writes.
Prothero was in Salt Lake City last week to deliver a lecture on his new book and address how culture wars affect people of faith, including Muslims and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Deseret News spoke with him about the history of contentious battles between conservatives and liberals, asking how we find hope in this aspect of American politics. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Your book traces culture wars all the way back to the time of Thomas Jefferson. Are Americans aware of this concept’s long history?
Stephen Prothero: I think the language of culture wars, or how we describe the kinds of debates and arguments spearheaded by the Religious Right, didn’t emerge until the 1980s.
In the public perception, the concept of culture war is a modern idea.
But if you start to take seriously the idea that culture wars are moments when we have moral and religious disputes that don’t seem amenable to compromise, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that we’ve been having tense fights over the meaning of America since the beginning of the republic.
DN: Another striking conclusion in your book is that liberals always win debates over contentious issues like same-sex marriage or prohibition. Why does this finding feel so surprising?
SP: I think a lot of combatants in culture wars like to think of themselves as losing because that perspective provides some kind of paradoxical empowerment.
When I hang out with liberal friends in Massachusetts, they think they’re losing the culture wars.
When I hang out with conservative friends in Lynchburg, Virginia, they think they’re losing.
There’s a way in which an underdog mentality, whether it’s in sports or politics, gives moral high ground to the loser. Cheering crowds go to the underdog.
And so there’s this besieged minority view on both sides, which makes it hard for liberals to see when they’re winning or conservatives to see when they’re winning.
DN: How do you define the categories of “conservative” and “liberal”?
SP: These terms are not stable in terms of politics. I’m talking about cultural conservatism and cultural liberalism.
Cultural conservatives are people who are nostalgic for old forms of life and fear the changes in society that seem to be taking us away from the forms of life they value.
Cultural liberals are thrilled by these cultural changes. They like the move away from cultural homogeneity toward diversity.
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