Prothero (Religion/Boston Univ.; The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, 2012, etc.) gives hope to liberals who think conservatives are taking over.
The author shows how today’s hyperpartisanship is a byproduct of the culture wars. Conservatives disproportionately fire the first shot but often flame out. Prothero focuses on culture rather than race and on tolerance, inclusion, and pluralism. Still, the specters of the Civil War and slavery play a large part in culture wars, with sides still drawn along the North-South divide, and the author examines four particular conflicts in our history: the presidential election of 1800, anti-Catholicism, anti-Mormonism, and Prohibition. The fight between John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans was just the beginning of the current rancor in politics. Anti-Catholicism began during the 1830s, with attackers using faith as a proxy for character. As slavery eased anti-Catholicism, it was the Mormons’ turn, but Stephen Douglas argued against government interference in the “peculiar institutions” of the Mormons’ polygamy and of the South’s slavery. Then came the 18th Amendment and Prohibition; it was the first amendment to limit personal liberty and was happily repealed with the coming of the Depression. As Prothero shows, all of these conflicts were contests between homogeneity and diversity. Conservatives usually strive to preserve their way of life, while liberals cite the Bill of Rights and seek to progress. The cycle repeats itself: the right strikes, the left responds, there is accommodation, and liberals often win with a new consensus. As a way forward, the author counsels to “listen a little less to Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher and a little more to Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, to realize that our cultural contests need not be life-or-death battles between patriots and traitors.”
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 year.