L. Benjamin Rolsky on Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections)
On the morning of May 8, 1970, several hundred high school and college students began organizing along Wall Street in New York City. They gathered in the memory of those murdered at Kent State University less than a week before. The morning’s activities were part of a third day of student-led, anti-war protest in New York’s financial district. The students’ plan was to maneuver their way to the steps of Federal Hall and to the feet of America’s first president, George Washington, hoping their voices would be heard. Their youthful calls had much in common with their larger political times — end the Vietnam War, release political prisoners, and end campus-based military research. By noon that day, unbeknownst to the students, several hundred construction workers had begun congregating in the area largely in response to the anti-war protests. These workers were armed with more than just pipes and their hardhats. Many of them carried signs reading “All the Way, USA” and “America: Love it or Leave it.” At the very least, these tools suggested premeditation in relation to the morning’s student protests. Police attempted to keep the two groups separate from one another, but in short order the workers had pushed through the flimsy barricade in their attempt to reach the students. After the crowd was able to adorn Washington’s statue with multiple American flags, one insurance underwriter observed, “Wow, it was just like John Wayne taking Iwo Jima.”
If you happened to pick up The Wall Street Journal the day after, you more than likely would have read an account of the event framed in terms such as this: “A bloody Melee last Friday, in which construction workers rampaged over antiwar protesters to the cheers of businessmen and office workers, threatens to have designated the heart of New York’s financial district as a battleground for extremists of both sides.” Workers attacked the students with whatever they could find, which often included pliers and “lead pipes wrapped in American flags.” The workers attacked with a sense of organized chaos — attacking some at random while taking aim at others. For those reading the New York Times, readers learned that workers selected “those youths with the most hair and swatting them with their helmets.” As the mob began to move towards City Hall, bystanders on the sidewalks and in the surrounding office buildings either shouted in support of the workers’ cause or stood idly by and watched the melee unfold. One observer thought that the morning’s confrontation was orchestrated by the workers themselves, “These guys were directing the construction workers with hand motions.” The violence, however, was not limited to the students. Democratic candidate for State Senate Michael Berknap, a lawyer in the district, was also attacked by workers who yelled, “Kill the Commie bastards.” He was later treated for a welt on his head, a black eye, and five bootmarks on his back.
By the time the workers reached the steps of City Hall, local police were not sure they could subdue what had become a raucous occasion at the heart of Wall Street. The mob had grown to include other interested parties including businessmen, lawyers, and police. The goal of the workers’ mobilization, one that was difficult to ascertain based simply on the public demonstration, however, seemed to come into view. “The workers then stormed City Hall,” read the New York Times, “cowing policemen and forcing officials to raise the American flag to full staff from half-staff, where it had been placed in mourning for the four students killed at Kent State University on Monday.” The extent to which the American flag could unfurl in the afternoon’s breeze determined the level of the crowd’s rancor for the students’ protests, even if they were in the names of those lost at Kent State. Despite the violent protest that characterized Wall Street historically, the mob’s intensity that morning seemed fairly novel for its time. It also spoke to the burgeoning religio-political alliances taking shape within President Nixon’s “silent majority.” For the Wall Street Journal, “Observers of last Friday’s clashes say that violence set a new mark in its scope, high degree of coordination among the construction workers, and the support they got from many members of the white-collar business community.”
In this sense, the demonstration by the workers was evidence of the inroads that President Nixon’s political agenda had made in America during the early 1970s. For American historian Jefferson Cowie, whose seminal text, Staying Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, does much for our understanding of this period’s economic and cultural history, Nixon made “workers’ economic interests secondary to an appeal to their allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude.” In addition, Nixon also “sought to mobilize their whiteness and their machismo in the face of the inter-related threats of social decay, racial unrest, and faltering national purpose.” Those on the ground that day, both in the crowds and on the streets, witnessed the coming together of two antithetical economic and political agendas through organized violence against anti-war protestors from local high schools and colleges. Not only did this story resonate with the one told in the now-classic 1969 feature film, Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, but it also foreshadowed a contentious decade ahead of cultural warfare over the American family and its economic vitality during a transitional time for the American factory and assembly line worker.
For one worker, “these hippies” got what they deserved. For another, the violence that day served a positive purpose. “I’m doing this because my brother got wounded in Vietnam, and I think this will help our boys over there by pulling this country together.” Apparently, this vision of America, this “pulling together,” did not have room for those killed by the National Guard in Ohio. In fact, their very remembrance, or mere mention of it, angered the mob enough to physically attack teenagers and college students in broad daylight. Difficult as it may be to accept the reality of these statements, we must nevertheless engage them critically if we are to better understand America’s culture wars and their history since the 1960s. The sooner we are able to understand how and why the Wall Street Journal could worry that Wall Street was “becoming a battleground” in 1970, the sooner we’ll be able to appreciate the uniqueness of these wars over American culture and their role in our contemporary political lives.
Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections): The Battles that Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage by Stephen Prothero is the latest attempt to attend to these debates and conflicts in order to understand better the polarization of our own political moment. While Prothero’s political partisanship at times tends to cloud the analytical power of his insights and observations, he nevertheless contributes significantly to our understanding of the culture wars and their history in the American past. This contribution, however, is a somewhat peculiar one, for it depends on what Richard Callahan has called, “a type of history that propels the world it describes,” one that is arguably both product of and at times subject to the very phenomenon it attempts to illustrate — namely, American cultural warfare itself. As a result, culture wars come to be understood not as a historically contingent subject, but rather as a cyclical, trans-historical phenomenon dating back to 1800. Despite these methodological decisions, Prothero’s keen attentiveness to the terminological import and history of “the culture wars” is a welcome addition to an already burgeoning field of culture wars studies of academic and popular readerships.
At its core, Prothero’s story is a pre-history of a largely taken-for-granted cultural artifact of America’s recent past and political present — the culture wars. “As I was digging into these fights over sex and art and family and education,” Prothero remarks, “I quickly realized that in order to understand them I would need to explore earlier moments when Americans clashed over moral and religious questions.” Despite the categorical slippage between culture, religion, and morality in Prothero’s observation, it nevertheless is suggestive of both his novel method and the primary archives of analysis in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars. As a result of his brief survey of America’s tumultuous past, Prothero decided that he “would need to explore the culture wars before ‘the culture wars’” in order to better address his multifaceted and thoroughly mediated subject. Rather than treating his subject as the product of a particular time and place, Prothero instead argues that we must tend to “America’s longue durée of culture wars” to make better sense of contemporary American culture. Rendered in this manner, the 1960s were less a unique moment in the recent past and more an iteration of an ongoing cycle of culture war beginning during Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy in the election of 1800. In short, Prothero’s text foregrounds “culture wars in the plural” across American history by examining five distinct periods of cultural conflict: the 1800 election, antebellum anti-Catholicism, antebellum anti-Mormonism, prohibition, and the contemporary culture wars (1970s to present).
This type of historical narrative would not be possible without a clear definition of “the culture wars.” Unlike other commentators on and historians of the culture wars, Prothero defines them in an interdisciplinary manner that aides both scholarly and popular analyses. “The term ‘culture wars’ refers to angry public disputes that are simultaneously moral and religious and address the meaning of America.” This broad description gives way to further clarification by Prothero. First, they are recorded in public records such as presidential speeches and magazines. Second, they concern moral, religious, and cultural concerns and thus are “less amenable to negotiation and compromise.” Third, they concern normative questions about the meaning of America and who exactly is a “true American.” Fourth, “they are heated, fueled by a rhetoric of war and driven by the conviction that one’s enemies are also enemies of the nation.” And fifth, they are heavily mediated, largely intra–religious debates and disagreements. Prothero’s five characteristics are particularly telling of his overall understanding of and approach to the study of the culture wars in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars as uniquely conservative rhetorical tactics emphasizing cultural and religious declension. In short, they are martial encounters waged by those who cannot envision a future beyond their anxious present. “As Adam and Eve look over their shoulders on their expulsion from Eden — as they mourn their loss and plot its reversal — they become the first conservatives.”
Because of their fueled nature, the culture wars Prothero features heighten those voices that are the angriest within one of five different historical periods in American history. As such, Prothero defines culture warriors as “citizens who are angry about something. What sets them off is the decline of American culture and the evildoers who in their view are responsible.” Relying on the imagery of Mark Juergensmeyer, Prothero contends that culture wars pit “the forces of light and the forces of darkness” together in an epic confrontation between religio-political adversaries. The two most significant combatants in this story have been (and continue to be, problematically so) cultural liberals and cultural conservatives. Prothero certainly attends to the historical particularity of these terms, but such contextualization ultimately recedes into the backdrop in favor of narrative synthesis and trans-historical application. Based on Prothero’s definition, cultural conservatives can be understood as those who have “anxiety over beloved forms of life that are passing away” who labor “to restore what has been lost” by excluding the ones responsible for such losses. On the other hand, cultural liberals embrace new forms of culture as a sign of progress in an effort to include as many as possible within a “vibrant public square.”
In light of these somewhat stark definitions, Prothero ultimately argues that “America’s culture wars are conservative projects, instigated and waged disproportionately by conservatives anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones [my emphasis].” In fact, Prothero contends that “It is the Right that is enamored of the rhetoric of war. Culture war is its invention, and its signature mode of politics.” Culture wars begin with conservative anxiety, yet they end with the national acceptance of what had previously been “liberal” ideals as “American” values. This is largely the case for Prothero because many a conservative cause had already “been lost,” including anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon sentiment. In this way, “Liberals also win because the causes conservatives pick to rev up their supporters are, surprisingly, lost from the start.” The four stages of culture wars that Prothero identifies as taking place during each of the five moments he investigates ultimately produce the same outcome: liberal victory in American cultural politics. This argument resonates with much of the current scholarship on American religious liberalism, which foregrounds cultural victory as a counterintuitive by-product of institutional decline since the Second World War.
Regardless of the historical actor, Jefferson or John Adams as the first contentious pair in the book, the “culture war cycle” churned the same with the same results. In fact, Prothero argues that it was the vicious character of the election of 1800 that generated what we now call America’s culture wars in our contemporary times. In Prothero’s telling, the “culture of inclusion” that Jefferson represented ultimately triumphed over the “culture of hierarchy” defended by Adams and the federalists in America’s first culture war. Prothero replicates this method of analysis and historical description in each of the examples explored in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars: anti-Catholicism, anti-Mormonism, Prohibition, and the contemporary culture wars.
In light of my own interests in the relationship between American religion, politics, and media in the recent past, Prothero’s analyses of the contemporary culture wars are the most salient and the most problematic. Compared to other recent works on the same subject, including American historian Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Prothero argues that “the contemporary culture wars began in the fight over the sixties, not in the 1960s themselves. And that fight did not begin until the Right started to protest.” From this vantage point, liberal progress is America’s societal standard while conservative critique is the angry anomaly. Like many commentators, Prothero’s account of the contemporary culture wars is in actuality a brief history of the rise of “the Christian Right” and its abrasive working-class politics of exclusion and discrimination. Prothero echoes the work of Randall Balmer by arguing that this history cannot be understood without taking into account the spread of “white flight academies” following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 throughout the South. “At this juncture,” argues Prothero, “what came to be known as the Religious Right found its voice and its power.”
Prothero’s observation is a powerful one, especially when connected to recent histories of the Christian Right that examine the spread of conservative business schools, bible colleges, and private businesses throughout the Sunbelt from America’s east coast of Florida to the sunny beaches of Southern California. His statement, however, raises an equally significant question: how did the Christian Right actually “come to be known,” as Prothero suggests? Since the early 1980s, scholars have arguably accepted this term without much critical suspicion. This is largely because, like their fellow knowledge workers, namely journalists and reporters at the time, academics were partially responsible for constructing “the Christian Right” based not only on their own research, but also on a longer history of liberal “framing” of conservative religiosity in public dating back to the Scopes Trial of the 1920s. There are, after all, countless histories on “the Christian Right” or “the Religious Right,” or even still, “the New Religious Right” depending on one’s personal preference.
Unlike its rhetorical equivalent however, the Moral Majority, the “Christian Right” does not have an organizational referent, or even a specific constituency for that matter, that we can examine as evidence for the term’s concrete existence. Individual groupings of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals/charismatics were certainly a part of the religious constellation that we call “the Christian Right,” but as historian Neil J. Young has argued, the allegiances forged between conservative Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants were anything but a forgone conclusion. In fact, were it not for the longer history of interfaith cooperation between these groups, the disagreements between them in the 1970s may have been more pronounced than they actually were. In essence, this research suggests that “what came to be known as the Religious Right” was a much more amorphous and conflict-driven entity than we typically assume — at least internally. By contrast, I argue that the term finds the conceptual coherency we are accustomed to seeing in the academic literature and popular discourse once we understand its origins actively, namely as it is (and has been) articulated from the political left. Once understood in this manner, we are better able to appreciate its discursive context as a chain of memory unlike many others, one replete with the left’s psychological baggage as understood through the images of Tennessee courtrooms and mid-century social science and historical studies of the paranoid and anxiety-ridden conservative right. This left, however, did not have the final say. “After making these two pivots — from race to religion and family — conservatives needed a master narrative to bring everything together,” Prothero argues. “They found it in the story of the rise and demise of ‘Christian America.’ Instead of defending white superiority and the ‘Southern way of life,’ they defended ‘Christian America.’”
In spite of the fact that Prothero’s text arguably contributes to this longer history of liberal framing, it does offer us a key insight into the Christian Right’s legacy in the history of American religion and politics since the 1970s. Echoing the observations of anthropologist Susan Harding, Prothero argues that, “the Religious Right did more than start another culture war. It began a radical reevaluation of the role of Christianity in public life.” In this sense, the very terms of civic engagement themselves were on the line as America considered its bicentennial in the “Year of the Evangelical.” Given the explosion of charismatic and evangelical churches throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, the emergence of “the Christian Right” must have appeared even more ominously on the televisual horizon — especially for those commentating in the pages of The Christian Century about the rise of the “neo-evangelicals.” If the sermons of evangelist Jerry Falwell were any indication, conservative Protestants could not have been less interested in the social relevance of the Christian Gospel. By the time the Moral Majority was formed, however, Falwell had the complete opposite opinion of the Gospel’s application to public life and its political controversies. Despite the fact that this transition in Falwell’s thought remains largely unexplained, it nevertheless captured one of the most significant demographic shifts in recent American history — one that continues to be felt to this day.
Prothero’s arguments along these lines direct us to the conflict at the very heart of the contemporary culture wars: how do we ground explicitly religious claims in reasons/reasoning accessible to all in the public square? For Prothero’s cultural liberals of various times and places, America’s predilection for conciliation, or civility, was a suitable antidote to the otherwise exclusionary politics of fear authored by the conservative right in the public square. After all, it is the political right that most relied on the cyclical nature of the culture wars to voice “cries against what is coming around the next corner. And reality rarely bends to accommodate.” Prothero assists his readers in seeing the longue durée of American conservatism and its less-than-admirable history despite his attention to historical context. Case in point: “The ‘religion of the lost cause’ is the faith of Southerners who lost the War of Northern Aggression, but Federalists who lost the election of 1800 waxed nostalgic about their own ‘lost causes.’ So did the anti-Catholics, anti-Mormons, and drys, who lost their crusades for a more homogeneous nation, and members of the Moral Majority who are a majority no more (and, in fact, never were).” In this manner, Prothero connects the history of America to the unfolding of nationalized liberal values as “American” values in spite of the conservative fight against these very same causes. As Prothero observes, we are all culture warriors now. But if this is the case, can we not also understand liberal counter-opposition to conservative cultural warfare as its own form of cultural war? Attended to by various liberal culture warriors?
“Nowadays, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are increasingly out of touch with ordinary voters on immigration, race, drugs, guns, women, homosexuality, and the environment,” Prothero contends. “FOX News is rapidly being reduced to a rickety shrine to white male identity politics — a wooden bench in front of the town hall where crotchety white men gather to wax nostalgic about the good old days and complain about their increasing irrelevance at work, at home, and in church.” Needless to say, Prothero’s claim is clear: conservativism is, and has always been, connected to and a product of white male anxiety over “things out of place.” The book’s title is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, but an alternative title would speak more to this claim, which posits that cultural warfare typically emerges from the martyred and embattled ranks of conservatism and its supporters. In this sense, a better question might be, Why Do Conservatives [Always] Lose the Culture Wars? With these questions in mind, we are better able to turn our scholarly attention to America’s liberal tradition of an “expansive understanding of religious liberty” and to the equally powerful tradition of consensus-making based on liberal notions of pluralism and religious diversity.
“In almost every arena where the contemporary culture wars have been fought — education, law, media, entertainment, family, and the arts — liberals now control the agenda.” This control has a very long history. It is intimately connected to epistemic practices of rhetorical “framing” of conservative religiosity as always maturing, yet continually undisciplined in public spaces. It is also very creative and creatively fostered, namely in the boardrooms and writings rooms of television and cable networks in New York and Los Angeles. Programs connected to this cultural output, including Modern Family and Girls, receive commendations from Prothero for being “clothing optional” (Girls) and for “featuring a gay couple and celebrating the diversity of American families.” For my money, I would argue (and have here) that Parks and Recreation is the best approximation of the type of liberal storytelling that Prothero identifies with cultural liberalism as understood through the genre of American primetime television. Talk shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report also contributed to this tradition by analyzing the news satirically in the name of certain type of political consciousness.
What we miss by not analyzing these productions critically, however, is not only their political limitations, but also their own contributions to the “culture war of everything” that currently rages around us, in movie theatres and sports arenas, to fast food restaurants and wholesale department stores. What do we learn from these descriptions? Namely that media, and its subsequent technology, has had a disproportionate effect on America’s culture wars since the election of 1800, forcing debates to either slow down or speed up depending on the apparatus involved. This insight, however, means different things to different people who study the culture wars.
For Prothero, 1920s America facilitated “the rise of mass communications with nationwide reach,” which included radio and talking movies. “As a result, the culture-war cycle accelerated, moving…more quickly than ever before.” In this sense, the tools and means of communication in a given historical period of cultural warfare have a disproportionate effect on the speed at which the marital debates unfold — often times in real time. For sociologist James Davison Hunter, still one of the foremost commentators on the culture wars, cultural warfare possesses its own “technology of public discourse.” This helps explain why polarization tends to define culture wars since discourse, and not necessarily the American electorate itself, is more subject to such intensifications then culture warriors themselves. “The polarization of contemporary public discussion is in fact intensified by and institutionalized through the very media by which that discussion takes places,” argues Hunter. “The significance of the media is that they define the ‘environment’ in which public discussion takes place. This is important because the environment predetermines much about the actual substance of what is communicated [my emphasis].” In light of Prothero and Hunter’s observations, we are able to understand better why the communicative possibilities of culture warriors are worthy of our scholarly analysis, largely because discursive options are fundamentally subject to the forms of communication available in historically contingent times and places.
Many of these disagreements, however, stemmed from a difference in vantage point, one that is on full display in Prothero’s text. “The browning of faculty and curriculum in higher education was viewed by most on the left as a social reform rather than a religious crusade.” Despite the fact that liberals at the time intended for their actions to be understood as evidence of “social reform,” one could argue that they are better understood as spiritual causes in the name of a religious crusade — namely the Civil Rights Movement, a religious crusade if there ever was one in American history. Individuals like Lear understood their craft as part of a larger project of remaining relevant by reporting on the times despite their tumultuousness. In this manner, Lear was able to articulate his politics in a spiritual register of progressive politics through his own satirical use of “the bigot” in the name of the public interest. In this sense, Lear understood his own non-profit activism, as seen in People for the American Way (PFAW), as the product of a longer history of liberal religious activism, including the Civil Rights movement. Its absence from Prothero’s text, however, is curious in light of his definition of culture wars, which include very public forms of documentation and activity in its evidentiary base. Perhaps for some, to speak of the “Civil Rights Crusade” is to speak ill of a period of liberal accomplishment against the conservative odds of Southern racists. If this is indeed the case, then these culture wars have found their history in Prothero’s latest text, disclaimer and all, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, Even When They Lose Elections.