Stephen Prothero says liberals always win culture wars

Historians in the News
tags: Stephen Prothero, culture wars

On October 23, Stephen Prothero spoke at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the Danforth Distinguished Lectures, sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and an author of numerous books, including The New York Times bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He contributes regularly to popular media outlets, including USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN’s Belief Blog. A historian specializing in American religion, Prothero’s current projects include his upcoming book titled, Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage, which was the basis for his lecture.

During his visit, Prothero sat down with R&P’s Jack West for an interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: Your lecture at Washington University in St. Louis has quite a provocative title: “Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage.” Can you explain to R&P readers in a few distilled points why liberals win? 

SP: The book that I’m working on looks at the culture wars as a recurring phenomenon in American history, from the early nineteenth century to the present. In all the cases I look at, the culture wars are started on the right and won on the left. The reason, I think, for that is that conservatives, in picking these fights and starting these culture wars, typically choose issues that are already going the other way because it puts them inside this narrative of loss and recovery, where the society is moving away from their traditional values. It suits them to pick subjects where they are already losing. If they pick subjects they are already winning, then the complaint that is inherent in this narrative of loss and recovery doesn’t resonate. So they pick an issue such as, ‘There are too many Catholics in America,” at a time when the Catholic population is growing relatively quickly to the point that Catholics are going to become mainstreamed into American life. If they had picked that fight earlier, there would not have been enough Catholics to reasonably be worried about them, and if they picked it later, no one would have cared. They pick it right at the moment when they are losing, and it seems that this recurs and is part of the reason why liberals seem to win these battles. 

R&P: Why do those on the right choose that specific moment to raise an issue? Is it to paint themselves as victims? 

SP: Yes. Culture wars are often seen as these battles between liberals and conservatives over cultural questions. But I see them more as dramas that are produced and acted in by conservatives. They are conservative projects whose purpose is to drum up support from traditionalists in society who perceive that something precious is being lost to them, and that something precious changes over the course of history. It might be the traditional family, with a man at its center. It might be a society in which the leaders are all white. It might be a society in which the important figures are Protestants. In order to activate that anxiety, which is an important part of my book, which is going to create a political upsurge for your party, you need to find an issue that will agitate peoples’ emotions. The moment of highest agitation seems to be the moment when it’s becoming clear that the liberals are starting to win, the conservative complaint kicks in, but lo and behold, the liberals actually do win. It is a fixed game. It’s not really a fair fight because the conservatives are not picking the issues on which they are winning, which are many. In my lifetime, conservatives have done better than liberals on many political issues. But on questions in the culture wars, they tend to pick the issues that they are losing or are about to lose. ...

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