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Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson's Heresies to Gay Marriage Hardcover – January 5, 2016
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“Prothero brilliantly shows how the same groups drive conflicts year after year and often lose-and how the results eventually make us stronger. Useful, instructive reading for all voters in the upcoming election.” (Kirkus (starred review))
“A lively, highly readable, and thought-provoking analysis of how culture wars arise, how they are fought, and how they end. Both sides can learn much from this volume.” (Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia Law School)
“Shows how culture-wars battles have been waged since the nation’s founding and have molded the national character and traditions . . . illuminating and absorbing.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“A timely social history that illustrates that the current conflicts are actually part of a much larger story. This book provides social, political, and historical context to the current culture wars and offers constructive and hopeful ideas for defueling the cycle, ideas that are pertinent to liberals and conservatives alike.” (Library Journal)
“This important book is less a partisan victory cry than a potent injection of perspective. Prothero tackles the topic of politics with imagination and verve. And he has a revelation: [why] Conservatives are the ones who generally initiate culture wars and [why] they invariably lose.” (The Boston Globe)
“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…But for Prothero, that’s not quite how it works. As he takes his readers through America’s long history of impassioned debate.” (Sojourners)
“During these frustrating primary-election days, Prothero’s illuminating take on our current hot issues gives us hope that we can move beyond political extremism, with no side having a legitimate sole claim on American values. Liberty will be the ultimate victor, ‘making an imperfect nation a little less imperfect.’” (Bay Area Reporter)
“This book deserves the highest rating and should be read by legislators, religious leaders, those involved in today’s culture wars, as well as informed citizens everywhere.” (Voice of Reason)
“Prothero explains the seemingly inexplicable by mapping the enduring DNA of conservatism. The consistent - and losing - proposition in conservative thinking, Prothero argues, is a cultural one. The right, he writes, always ‘has fought for a more restrictive understanding of the American family’ and who may join in its rights.” (WBUR)
“Well worth reading. . . . Prothero’s historical arguments are insightful, revealing how culture wars are rarely as sudden-appearing as they seem but are often rooted in the last generation’s quarrels.” (Russell Moore, from The Gospel Coalition)
From the Back Cover
Headlines scream that the United States is stuck in the middle of an unprecedented, unsolvable, and vicious political war, pitting Right against Left, Tea Party against progressives, religious against secular. As these battles rage, many worry whether we will survive the cultural fragmentation and political polarization. And this is where Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) offers good news. Stephen Prothero, the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One and Boston University professor of religion, argues that these divisive debates are how Americans have always worked out their thorniest issues.
Prothero reveals that “culture wars” are not a modern invention. They have been the mechanism by which the nation continually wrestles with, and expands on, what it means to be American. After recounting the history of the culture wars that have both rocked and shaped our national identity—from Jefferson’s contested election in 1800 to debates over Catholics, Mormons, prohibition; from abortion to struggles over gay marriage today—Prothero concludes that these conflicts follow the same cycle: Conservatives initiate a war by rallying an anxious electorate to a “cause.” Capitalizing on fear and frustration, conservatives often win the elections but, surprisingly, almost always lose the culture wars. Why? Because they choose causes that are already lost. Solving this historical puzzle, Prothero explains, empowers us to dull the sharp edges of religious and political extremism and advance the winning cause of liberty itself.
Why Conservatives Win Elections While Losing the Culture Wars
New York Times bestselling author Stephen Prothero examines our nation’s long history of culture wars to reveal the surprising news that provides hope for our future.
“Brilliantly shows how the same groups drive conflicts year after year—and how the results eventually make us stronger. Instructive reading for all voters.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“A lively, highly readable, and thought-provoking analysis of how culture wars arise, how they are fought, and how they end. Both sides can learn much from this volume.”—Douglas Laycock, professor at the University of Virginia Law School
Praise for Religious Literacy, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice:
“Provocative and timely.”—Washington Post Book World
“Remarkable . . . especially deft.”—Washington Monthly
“A compelling argument.”—TIME
Praise for God Is Not One:
“Enormously timely, thoughtful, and balanced.”—Los Angeles Times
“2010’s must-read.”—The Daily Beast
Top customer reviews
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“Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars" is a very interesting book that seeks to make sense of American culture wars. New York Times bestselling author and chair of the religion department at Boston University, Stephen Prothero takes the reader on a journey that takes us back to the earliest moments when Americans clashed over moral questions to current hot-button issues. This stimulating 341-page book includes the following five chapters: 1. The Jefferson Wars, 2. Anti-Catholicism, 3. The Mormon Question, 4. Prohibition and Pluralism, and 5. The Contemporary Culture Wars.
1. Interesting, well-researched and well-written book. Fair, civil and respectful treatment.
2. A fascinating premise, why liberals win the culture wars and the recurring patterns. “Today’s culture wars, this book argues, are part of a recurring pattern in U.S. history—episodes in the story of one not-so-indivisible nation forever at war with itself.”
3. Stephen Prothero has mastery of the topic and provides compelling arguments to back his main premise. “In almost every case since the founding of the republic, conservatives have fired the first shots in our culture wars. Equally often, liberals have won.”
4. A comprehensive Introduction where the author explains the culture wars cycle and provides a generous appetizer. “This book is the result of my investigations. It provides a new lens on the contemporary culture wars—a lens that views our current battles over abortion and homosexuality and Islam as part of a long story of cultural conflict dating back to the withdrawal of George Washington from political life.”
5. The book’s approach is episodic rather than exhaustive. It breaks American history into five episodes: the Jefferson wars, the anti-Catholic crusade in ante-bellum America, anti-Mormonism before and after the civil war, prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, and the culture wars of the 1970s and beyond.
6. Defines the foundation and focus of this book, culture war. “The term ‘culture wars’ refers to angry public disputes that are simultaneously moral and religious and address the meaning of America.”
7. Does a wonderful job of distinguishing between conservatives and liberals. “‘The big idea’ behind modern conservatism is this: a form of culture is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive it.” “Conservatives typically choose for their rallying cries causes that are already on the verge of being lost.”
8. Explains the four stages of the culture wars cycle that can be summarized as: conservative anxiety over a cultural issue, liberal counterattack, accommodation, and liberals win. “But the most important reason they win is because their opponents attach themselves to lost causes.”
9. A fascinating look at the Jefferson cultural wars. “The lowest blows concerned Jefferson’s faith. Federalists read his call for national church–state separation—his disestablishmentarianism—as a fig leaf over his alleged atheism.”
10. Repeat-worthy quotes. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” – Thomas Jefferson.
11. A look at the separation of church and state.
12. Explains the perceptions of Catholics in ante-bellum America. Views from Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, “Catholic schools were intended to convert Protestants, overthrow Protestantism, and turn the United States into a papal colony, he reasoned.” “The growing presence of Catholics troubled this vision, threatening to turn the dream of Protestant freedom into a nightmare of Catholic control: a puppet nation run by a dictator in Rome.”
13. Fascinating tidbits during colonial times. “Also outlawed was celebrating Christmas, which Puritans (in the original war on Christmas) saw as a popish festival.”
14. A look at the basis for a secular nation. “There was talk at the founding of turning the United States into a Protestant nation, but the founders decided on a secular state with guarantees of religious liberty and without religious tests.”
15. The Supreme Court and Mormonism. “Even the Supreme Court would weigh in. Its justices, in their first-ever decision on the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause, would rule that religious liberty extended only to belief, not to the controversial Mormon practice of plural marriage.”
16. A look at Mormon defense of polygamy. “Biblically, Mormons argued that polygamy was better than monogamy at fulfilling God’s commandment to ‘multiply, and replenish the earth’ (Genesis 1:28).”
17. A fascinating look at prohibition. “It passed because, as historian Ronald Walters wrote, “Americans had a drinking problem,” and because prohibitionists had a plan to fix it.” “But the most common objection was that prohibition infringed on personal liberty.”
18. A look at contemporary culture wars. “Although he would later repent of his segregationism (and admit blacks to his school and his church), Falwell was at the time a white supremacist.” “Yes, the Religious Right was born of anxieties over racial mixing and the demise of white supremacy.”
19. Interesting factoids. “George W. Bush was different. In the first official act of his ‘faith-based presidency,’ he declared his inauguration day a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. His cabinet meetings began with prayer.”
20. An excellent Conclusion chapter. “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.”
1. Notes are not linked.
2. No formal bibliography.
3. Charts and timelines would have added value.
4. No visual material to complement the excellent narrative.
5. As is the case of most books, the diagnosis is better than the cure.
In summary, I enjoyed this book. Prothero provides readers with an interesting premise and well thought-out arguments in support of it. My only major criticism is the lack of supplementary material and not making use of the links. This is a social science book worth reading, a solid recommendation.
Further recommendations: “Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Separation of Church and State” by Robert Boston, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” by Kevin Kruse, “Nonbeliever Nation” by David Niose, “The Dark Side of Christian History” by Helen Ellerbe, “Birth Control, Insurance Coverage, & the Religious Right” by A.F. Alexander, “The God Argument” by A.C. Grayling, “Freethinkers” by Susan Jacoby, “Moral Combat” by Sikivu Hutchinson, “Republican Gomorrah” by Max Blumenthal, “American Fascists” by Chris Hedges, “Doubt” by Jennifer Michael Hecht, and “Society Without God” by Phil Zuckerman.
It would also have been nice to see the author speculate about what our increasing Liberalism means for the country. At what point do we embrace everything but lose any core commonality that holds us together? Is that a danger? Or is increasing tolerance a pure net benefit? Should we allow Polygamy? Child Pornography? Infanticide? Of course, most people say "no." Prothero's thesis is that most people didn't like Catholicism very much 150 years ago either. It's easy to look back and say, "Those fears were unfounded" -- but some things, like Abortion, require a more nuanced understanding....and sadly, the author doesn't really go there.
Net: This is well written, well researched, but if you're conservative, you will probably feel a pervasive bias in the writing. I still think it's worth a read... it's just worth reading with your eyes wide open. I identify as a Libertarian -- meaning I'm not really in favor of the government spending much time on morality -- so my view is that I don't prefer either party ot legislate their POV via the Federal Government.
The author does make several good points:
*Conservatives tend to be trying to defend the past which is inevitably a losing battle. You can't truly stop progress.
*What was unacceptable becomes the norm over time as moral and political compasses change, almost always swinging towards liberal beliefs in the US. the author claims this as a 100% given. I feel it is more the predominant trend.
*Political disagreements in US have often been even more uncivil than current red/blue controversy.
But the historical rendition of past conflicts siting the extremists on both sides does not include a lot of analysis.