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Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections): How America's Raucous, Nasty, and Mean

Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections): How America's Raucous, Nasty, and Mean "Culture Wars" Make for a More Inclusive Nation

by Stephen Prothero

In this timely, carefully reasoned social history of the United States, the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One places today’s heated culture wars within the context of a centuries-long struggle of right versus left and religious versus secular to reveal how, ultimately, liberals always win.



In this timely, carefully reasoned social history of the United States, the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One places today’s heated culture wars within the context of a centuries-long struggle of right versus left and religious versus secular to reveal how, ultimately, liberals always win.

Though they may seem to be dividing the country irreparably, today’s heated cultural and political battles between right and left, Progressives and Tea Party, religious and secular are far from unprecedented. In this engaging and important work, Stephen Prothero reframes the current debate, viewing it as the latest in a number of flashpoints that have shaped our national identity. Prothero takes us on a lively tour through time, bringing into focus the election of 1800, which pitted Calvinists and Federalists against Jeffersonians and “infidels;” the Protestants’ campaign against Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century; the anti-Mormon crusade of the Victorian era; the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s; the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s; and the current crusade against Islam.

As Prothero makes clear, our culture wars have always been religious wars, progressing through the same stages of conservative reaction to liberal victory that eventually benefit all Americans. Drawing on his impressive depth of knowledge and detailed research, he explains how competing religious beliefs have continually molded our political, economic, and sociological discourse and reveals how the conflicts which separate us today, like those that came before, are actually the byproduct of our struggle to come to terms with inclusiveness and ideals of “Americanness.” To explore these battles, he reminds us, is to look into the soul of America—and perhaps find essential answers to the questions that beset us.

Editorial Reviews

Voice of Reason
“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.”
“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.”
The Boston Globe
“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.”
Bay Area Reporter
“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.’”
Douglas Laycock
“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.”
Russell Moore
“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.”
“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.”
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/09/2015
Prothero (Religious Literacy), professor of religion at Boston University, does away with the idea that America’s culture wars are a recent phenomenon, showing how such battles have been waged since the nation’s founding and have molded the national character and traditions. Culture wars, Prothero writes, provoke change, serving as the catalyst for American democracy despite the nasty public disputes between conservatives and liberals over moral, religious, and social issues. Quoting conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan’s 1992 claim that a “‘cultural war’ was being waged ‘for the soul of America,’ ” Prothero assembles five pivotal events as supporting evidence: the gritty election of 1800, the antebellum anti-Catholic crusade, the mid-19th-century anti-Mormon campaign, Prohibition, and the ongoing culture skirmishes that began in the 1960s. The right has taken the fight to the left in the current era of partisan politics, but liberals have had their share of victories: school integration, prayer bans in schools, busing, voting rights, the Equal Rights Amendment for women, the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and marriage equality. Prothero’s illuminating and absorbing take on America’s growing pains reveals that when “each of our cultural battles comes to an end, we are left with a more inclusive country.” (Jan.)
Library Journal
With yet another presidential election just around the corner, America's culture wars are in full swing. Prothero (religion, Boston Univ.; God Is Not One; Religious Literacy) offers a timely social history that illustrates that the current conflicts are actually part of a much larger story that dates back at least to 1796. Using a series of episodes that include the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, anti-Catholicism, anti-Mormonism, and Prohibition, then sweeping through some of the key skirmishes of the past 40 years, Prothero lays out an intriguing proposal. His thesis is that conservatives tend to instigate individual culture wars owing to anxiety that their world is passing away, and that liberals tend to win them, in large part because conservatives usually rally around lost causes. Eventually, the liberal side becomes the default American perspective, leading to an ever-more inclusive culture over time. The conservative side then moves on to the next grievance and the cycle begins again. Prothero demonstrates this pattern repeating itself in each of his chosen historical episodes. VERDICT 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.—Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-09-30
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One and a professor of religion at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, NPR, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, and other publications. Visit the author at www.stephenprothero.com or follow his tweets @sprothero.

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