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 R. Prothero
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I took a brief non-fiction break for this book, and it turned out to be a fascinating history lesson. This book goes back to the Founders, and the elections of 1796 and 1800, to weave a well-researched story about culture wars, and oppression, and how, at least in these kinds of fights, liberal progress is inevitably made.
(Also, if you think the 2012 elections were nasty, and this current cycle will be worse yet--well, the Thomas Jefferson of 1800 would like to have a word with you.)
Topics include "The Jefferson Wars," "Anti-Catholicism," "The Mormon Question," "Prohibition and Pluralism," and "The Contemporary Culture Wars." Notice a theme running through these chapters? Yes, fights over religion has been at the heart of most of it. I'd read a bit before about how terribly the Mormons were treated (although, to be fair, they did participate in a few massacres of their own), but I had no idea how deeply anti-Catholic sentiment ran at one time in this country. Convents were burned, discriminatory laws were passed, they were reviled in print and political cartoons, there were anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia and other places, property was destroyed and people died. All because people were afraid there was a "Catholic plot to overrun America." It was enlightening reading, but damn it was hard to get through.
The most interesting chapter, to me, was Chapter 5, "The Contemporary Culture Wars." We think of today's Christian Right as hellbent against abortion and gay marriage, and holding tight to "traditional family values." This is certainly the way they present themselves now, but it is not the way they started out. This chapter tells a little-discussed but fascinating tale as to what really woke this sleeping religious giant in the late 70's/early 80's, and it had nothing to do with any of the above. The author quotes Paul Weyrich, a "conservative strategist who coined the term 'moral majority' and would go on to become a kingmaker in the Religious Right" (p. 194):
"What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the ERA...I am living witness to that because I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation."
You know, I remember reading a quote (and I'll be hanged if I know from who) that said if you scratch any American wound deeply enough, you will find racism and/or a fear of the Other underneath the scab. Certainly that common thread runs through this book. This is quite the interesting history lesson, but it makes me glad to know that, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, the arc of history bends toward justice.
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