Stephen Prothero on Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars

By Ryan Stewart 1-27-2016
Lightspring / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

The culture wars have always been with us. Conservatives start them. And liberals win them. So argues Stephen Prothero in his new book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).

Americans typically think of the culture wars as a generally 50-50 battle of the past fifty years. Abortion. Prayer in public schools. Gay marriage. We imagine radical feminists trading rhetorical blows with Falwell’s Moral Majority, and, depending on which side we’re on, shake our fists in anger as one side temporarily gains the upper hand.

But for Prothero, that’s not quite how it works. As he takes his readers through America’s long history of impassioned debate, he argues that conflicts over Catholic immigration and prohibition, for example, were just as gridlocked and nasty as abortion debates are today. And judging by how these debates were consistently resolved, Prothero claims liberals almost always win, as “causes once labeled 'liberal' become ‘American’ values.”

Prothero recently spoke with Sojourners about this argument, its impact on liberal activism, and how we can better wage the culture wars. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: So why do liberals win the culture wars?

Lots of reasons. But I think one of the main reasons is because conservatives pick lost causes. And the reason they pick lost causes is because those are the ones that really resonate in the culture war mode.

One of the arguments in the book is that conservatism throughout American history has largely been cultural and it’s about a kind of nostalgia for a form of life or culture that’s passing away. And so you can’t get really get your constituency riled up about a form of life of life that’s passing away unless it actually is passing away.

Q: Are the culture wars good?

I’m really ambivalent about this. In any democracy where you have relatively free speech and a relatively diverse population you’re going to have disagreements about core issues. So a public square where people really fight about things is good.

[But sometimes we say] you’re un-American because you have a different view on abortion, or you’re un-American because you have a different view on immigration. And to me that’s the dangerous part of the culture wars, that they start to border on civil war instead of culture war.

Q: How can we engage the culture wars better?

In the Jewish tradition they have this idea of arguing for the sake of heaven and arguing for the sake of yourself. We all have this experience where you get in argument and you start going and after a while you’re on autopilot and you’re not really thinking anymore. You’re not open to learning anything. You’re just arguing, to win.

But there’s this other kind of arguing, which is the arguing you’re supposed to do in yeshiva, which is arguing for the sake of heaven. An understanding that you and I are in an argument and neither of us has the full truth because only God has the full truth. And so the better we argue, the closer we get to the divine perspective. In my ideal world, we would engage in our culture wars in that way.

Q: Could the rhetoric in your book discourage liberal activism by cultivating a sense that “we’ve already won”?

Well of course liberals don’t win on every issue. So my title is a lie in certain ways. Liberals are losing on gun control, for example. Liberals are losing on the role of religion in the public space.

I don’t believe in the inevitability of history. These victories do not just happen by divine fiat or fate. People make them happen. So if all of sudden liberals withdrew from the fight, then they wouldn’t be winning these fights.

Q: Does Donald Trump change the argument of your book? There’s a sense now that his popularity means conservatives are winning culturally. Many of the things we thought were dead, actually aren’t.

But what Trump issue is going to be a winning issue? To me, Trump is the best advertisement for my book. He’s the king of the lost causes. What are the odds that the United States builds a wall across the entire border with Mexico, and that wall being financed by the Mexican government? It’s a classic case of a lost cause, and so is almost everything Donald Trump is talking about.

The culture wars proceed because conservatives start them, and they start with lost causes that speak to the anxieties and fears of people who see the society as going away from them. And so Trump is tapping into that.

Q: Why are some white evangelicals attracted to Trump?

One thing that has happened in the culture wars and with political polarization is that political identity has become for many Americans their core identity, including for many evangelicals. So many evangelicals are now Republicans first and evangelicals second. And so when the two conflict, they resolve the conflict in the direction of politics rather than the direction of theology. And that’s a really sad commentary.

Q: If liberals are winning these culture wars, will secularity similarly win? Is our country bound to become more secular?

There’s not a lot of signs that America’s becoming secular. My take on the rise of “the nones” is that those people have been misunderstood as secular people. Because if you look carefully at polling of people who have no religious affiliation, they often believe in God, they often go to church, they often say Jesus is their savior and lord.

That cohort, the nones, is not secular. They are more secular than Christians, but that cohort is misunderstood if it’s understood as secular. Those are people who don’t want to affiliate. There’s a general distrust about institutions. You don’t trust the Catholic church, the Republicans, or the Democratic party. What’s going on in people’s minds might not be a shift about religion so much as a disinclination to affiliate.

Q: What’s going to be the next major culture war?

Islam. The way Islam has played out is fascinating, because right after 9/11 George Bush was my hero for saying repeatedly this isn’t a war on Islam, Islam is a religion of peace — all this stuff we think of now as crazy left language. We had this Republican culture warrior president saying this. He said that for very good geopolitical reasons. He didn’t want to get into a battle with the Muslim world. That’s stupid, why would you want to do that?

He wanted to stand on religious liberty ground. He did see a battle between secular and religious people and he saw Muslims as religious people like him, that he could empathize with. These are people who love God, even if he thought they had a misunderstanding of God.

So there was a moment where we were loving on Muslims. But now that’s really changed.

Ryan Stewart

Ryan Stewart is a Masters of Divinity student at Yale Divinity School, where he studies race, religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @RyanMcStew.

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