Q&A: How culture wars eventually bring Americans closer together

Posted October 12

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University. (Deseret Photo)

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.

We 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.

Your book traces culture wars all the way back to the time of Thomas Jefferson. Are Americans aware of this concept's long history?

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.

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?

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.

How do you define the categories of "conservative" and "liberal"?

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.

You argue that cultural conservatives almost always start culture wars and they do so even when it's pretty clear they've lost majority support. Why pick a fight you won't win?

The force of their argument is that some form of life we value is passing away.

For example, they say we used to be a country that protected life, but now we're a country with tons of abortions. Or we used to be a country that respected biblical teachings about marriage, but now we have gay marriage.

Those arguments don't work unless your side is already losing. If your baseball team won the World Series for five straight years, it wouldn't make sense to say "We have to do better this year."

And so the culture war narrative requires a story of decline and the hope of future redemption.

If the culture war is unwinnable, then what's the point of the battles?

There are two goals.

The first is to create a community with a strong identity. You're fighting for what's right and against what is evil. You're trying to improve the nation and working on the side of God and the Good.

There's also a political mobilization piece. Culture war participants say, "The country is going to hell. We need to get out and vote to fix it."

Does the study of past culture wars help us understand our current political moment?

It's easy for people, including myself, to be very disillusioned about where we are right now.

We're so amazingly polarized. We're in our own thought bubbles, and more and more people are seeing folks in the opposing political party as un-American or evil.

It's a really difficult moment. It's easy to despair and want to move to Nova Scotia.

But I think my research on these episodes did leave me with some hope.

Culture wars do end. We're no longer fighting about whether Mormons can be Americans or whether a Mormon can be president. That's over, just like the Catholic culture wars are over. The same-sex marriage culture war will probably be over in a couple years.

That's not to say there won't be people who still hate Mormons or people who still oppose gay marriage. But they won't be an issue of national debate anymore, and that's hopeful.

After they're settled, culture wars create a kind of consensus. It's a mechanism through which we settle some of our disputes. Conflict yields to consensus.

Of course, sometimes it takes over a century for that to happen, and that may be cold comfort on some of these issues.

But I find it encouraging and gratifying that, in general, culture wars lead to more consensus about a more inclusive country. They helped us see that we're not a country where you have to be a Protestant in order to be a congressperson or president or good neighbor.

We've come to include a more and more diverse group of religious folks in the family of America through these battles.

Is there any way to speed up the path to consensus?

I don't think so. I think that democracy is messy.

One bad way to deal with these problems is by killing each other. A better way is by arguing. We have to argue and figure it out.

Right now, we're in the aftermath of the same-sex marriage debate and we're not trying to decide if two men can marry each other, but, instead, we're trying to decide this question of what kind of religious exemptions to allow. That just has to play out.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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