The culture wars have always been with us.
Stephen Prothero reminds us of this in his important new book, “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars,’’ which is less a partisan victory cry than a potent injection of perspective. Read it before the Iowa caucuses, lest they prove disconcertingly maddening.
In this volume, Prothero, whose “Religious Literacy’’ helped fill in the blanks that produce the blank stares when the dinner-table talk turns to religion, tackles that other forbidden topic of conversation — politics — with imagination and verve. The Boston University professor examines specific culture battles beginning with the days of the founding fathers to the present. And he has a revelation for you: Conservatives, struggling to hold onto the status quo, are the ones who generally initiate culture wars, and they invariably lose.
“A liberal win becomes part of the new status quo,’’ he writes, “and eventually fades from our collective memory.’’ As a result, Mormons, women, and blacks now vote; gays marry; and Americans in increasing numbers choose not to practice Christianity, or even not to pray. They can also drink — one of the most contentious areas of cultural conflict as recently as a century ago. They can even drink a toast to Thomas Jefferson (once derided as a heretic) or toast the memory of John F. Kennedy (once derided for not being a Protestant).
“So these victories no longer appear to be ‘liberal,’ ’’ he explains. “They are simply part of what it means to be an American.’’
Which is not to say that the elements of our cultural consensus were not assembled in conflict. Prothero recognizes that the contrary is the truth and that great passions were invoked. After all, he argues, cultural warriors “are citizens who are angry about something,’’ adding “[w]hat sets them off is the decline of American culture and the evildoers who in their view are responsible for it.’’
Cultural wars are “a long primal scream against the rise of ‘them’ in the name of ‘us,’ ’’ in Prothero’s characterization. A major difficulty for those who would try to still the winds of change is that by the time they are apparent enough to draw a sizeable, organized opposition they are already widespread.
The ensuing battles then are often lost causes, beginning with the first cause that was lost, which was the primacy of the white Protestants of New England and the culture of colonial Puritanism they battled to preserve. The election of the not-conventionally Christian Jefferson (the “great arch priest of Jacobinism and infidelity,’’ in the words of Theophilus Parsons, a Massachusetts Federalist) in 1800 was the death knell of that.
Other cultural wars have flared throughout our history, including one resulting in the burning of the Catholic Ursuline convent in Charlestown in 1834. At issue there, as in so many other fights, was whether the United States was a multicultural nation.
Prothero shows how the social warriors who battle outsiders regularly employ the language of American values to deprive their opponents of the most fundamental American values. Consider the advice the child of one reviled president (Robert Tyler, son of John Tyler) gave to another less-than-exalted leader: “[We] can supersede the Negro-Mania with the almost universal excitements of the Anti-Mormon Crusade . . . and the piping’s [sic] of Abolitionism will hardly be heard amidst the thunders of the storm we shall raise.’’ James Buchanan then sent the Army to march on the Mormons. Yet another reason to consider the 15th president America’s worst.
Many of these cultural issues are deeply complex. Prohibition, for example, skewed the normal calculus, for, as Prothero points out, it was a product of progressivism and aimed in part at shielding women and children and at attacking the saloon bosses who corrupted American politics. But it, too, was about homogeneity versus diversity. “During the 1920s,’’ he argues, “the United States was becoming less homogeneous by the day, and the great question of the age was whether you found the new pluralism exciting or disturbing.’’
These battles inevitably spilled over in our time to college curricula (and the definition of the canon of literature), art, music, public sculpture like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, and the role of the National Endowment for the Arts. The commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said during his 1992 presidential campaign that he would “shut down, padlock and fumigate’’ the NEA. Later, during the Republican National Convention, he told delegates there was a religious war underway in the country, adding: “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.’’
In our own decade, of course, the emergence of gay marriage is proof of the principal themes of Prothero’s book. “It is no longer liberal to view Catholics and Mormons as fellow citizens,’’ he writes. “That sort of tolerance is now an American value. Soon it will be simply American to welcome gays and lesbians, too.’’
By Stephen Prothero
HarperOne, 326 pp., $26.99
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.