Boston University religious studies professor Stephen Prothero has observed that America has been engaged in some form of the culture wars since shortly after the country’s founding. The author, who has been a guest on Oprah, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, among others, explores that long history in his new book, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) (HarperOne, Jan.), pointing out why conservatives start these conflicts over beliefs, and how liberals win them.
Contrary to politicians like Bernie Sanders, who think about the culture wars as a symptom of more serious economic concerns, Prothero told PW that he thinks culture wars arise over “[Americans'] anxiety that the country is slipping away from them.” He further explained his belief that Americans, more specifically the religious right, especially fear the secularization of the U.S. "They have always been a deeply religious people in that they bring their religious and moral concerns into the public space," he said. Religiosity, he added, is why candidates like Ted Cruz have so much appeal. “His father is a preacher, he knows the language, he knows biblical text, and he knows the culture of complaint that remains really strong with older white Christian men—he just mainlines that,” said Prothero.
Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars arrives amid a stormy struggle between a dozen Republicans and three Democrats who are vying for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Mickey Maudlin, senior v-p and executive editor at HarperOne who edited Prothero’s book, told PW, “Our hope is that his book will dampen the hostile rhetoric of the current cultural debates. It is comforting to learn that we have gone through these fights before and came out on the right side.”
When he first started working on Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, Prothero thought it was going to be about the battle between secularism and religion, but now he doesn’t think the culture wars really play out along that divide. “Typically what we have in the culture wars is a struggle between two types of religion,” he said.
In the book, the author points to a time when Protestants frequently discriminated against Catholics for being non-Christian, and anti-Catholic bigotry was as commonplace as homophobia is today. "Right now it's not liberal to think that Catholics should have equal rights," said Prothero. "It used to be, but now conservatives are on board with that. When we are done with a particular culture war battle, we typically come to a consensus.”
One of the main patterns Prothero observes is that culture wars can result in a more unified, inclusive country. “After the liberals win the culture war, a kind of consensus emerges about the liberal position and it sort of ceases to be liberal."