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Wars for the Soul of America

For decades, most secularists downplayed cultural clashes in America. Conflicts, they claimed, were figments of conservatives’ and Christians’ imaginations, stoked by Wall-Street types who wanted to divert attention from economic equality issues.

Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, for example, told the New York Times in 2004 that culture wars “are a way of framing the ever powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.”

Economics always plays a role in politics, but many distinguished historians, including Richard Hofstadter on the left and Michael Barone on the right, have argued that cultural foundations cannot be ignored.

Prayer-in-schools, immigration restrictions, Prohibition, Civil Rights, feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage – each of these hot-button political issues has had a significant cultural dimension.

Why did secularists earlier downplay culture? Because they hoped we would fall asleep at the switch as they worked quietly, but feverishly, infiltrating higher education, the media, government bureaucracies, and the courts. This led to the imposition of multicultural ideology via judicial decrees and executive fiat.

With numerous victories under their belts, however, emboldened secularists have now gone public. At the 2012 Democratic Convention, to take the focus off the weak economy, speaker after speaker alleged Republicans were waging war against women and homosexuals. Those who disagree, in the public square or on college campuses, are denounced as racists, misogynists, or homophobes.

Since the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, leftist academics have begun characterizing the culture wars from a new vantage point. One such surfaces in the newly-released book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) by Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero. He claims his work describes and explains the cultural battles “that define America from Jefferson’s heresies to gay marriage.” While most of the text is narrative history, the major flaw lies in his definition of two terms he brandishes throughout: conservative and liberal.

Cultural conservatives, he claims, are anxious about passing ways of life and want “to exclude from full cultural citizenship those who are responsible for this loss.” Cultural liberals are defined as people who believe in progress, embrace new forms of culture, and are determined “to include more and more groups in the public life of the nation.”

These definitions confuse rather than clarify. This is most evident in Prothero’s chapter on anti-Catholicism.

“The Promised Land” by Thomas Nast (1870)
“The Promised Land” by Thomas Nast (1870)

He presents an adequate summary of the various anti-Catholic outbursts from the early 1800s until the Civil War. The large influx of Irish Catholics during that period frightened Protestants who feared the pope would soon move to America, overthrow the government, smother our liberties, and impose a Catholic despotism. These ridiculous fantasies fueled the Nativist, anti-Masonic, and Know-Nothing movements that led to riots and the burning of Catholic churches and facilities in several cities.

But these extremists were not “conservative,” they were bigots. And they were not just backwoods rednecks, but members of the more “liberal” wing of the political establishment. For example, at New York State’s first constitutional convention John Jay, our nation’s first U.S. Chief Justice, tried to amend at a religious tolerance clause and exclude those who believed in “the wicked and damnable doctrine that the pope has power to absolve men from sins.” This was sheer intolerance from a man who helped ratify the Declaration of Independence and wrote several of the Federalist Papers.

Prothero’s anti-Catholic narrative conveniently ends at the start of the Civil War. He does not cover the crusades against the growing Catholic presence led by the progressives and liberal populists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan –whose big-government proposals were the foundation of the New Deal – viewed urban centers dominated by Catholics as the “enemy’s country” and opposed immigration because it was responsible for the “dumping of the criminal classes upon our shore.”

It was Progressives who embraced Prohibition as a means to control those whiskey-loving Irish-Catholics. And it was Progressives who embraced eugenics hoping to purify gene pools and ensure the survival of the fittest, i.e., Anglo Saxons, while eliminating undesirable Catholics and Jews. Eugenics expert Daniel J. Keveles, asserted that “the Eugenics movement provided a biological rationale for the Immigration Act of 1924 which discriminated against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.”

Prothero’s description of “critics of hyphenated Americanism” as “conservative” is also misleading. The leading opponent of Catholic-hyphenates was the father of modern liberalism, Woodrow Wilson. He insisted they were “pouring poison into the veins of national life.”

In the 1930s, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party welcomed Catholics not because they were inclusive, open-minded lovers of liberty, but because they needed their votes.

Although Catholic Al Smith was beaten badly in the 1928 presidential contest, he was the first Democrat to carry America’s twelve largest cities. Smith’s candidacy brought out Catholic immigrant voters in record numbers. Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt built a winning coalition of urban Catholics and Southern segregationists that lasted until the Johnson landslide of 1964.

Catholics later left the Democratic Party in droves and became an integral part of the Reagan coalition, because they believed leftist social planners who frowned upon Catholics’ cultural values had largely captured the Democrats.

As for recent leftist cultural victories, they owe a great deal to what Richard Hofstadter called “totalitarian liberals,” using illiberal means to achieve so-called liberal ends. They embraced “hatred as a form of creed” in pursuit of “reform.”

In the name of human rights, secular humanists have imposed relativist policies that have all but eliminated Judeo-Christian moral restraints and have ushered in what Pope Benedict called “a confused ideology of liberty [that] leads to a dogmatism that is proving evermore hostile to real liberty.”

Professor Prothero is right that liberals have been winning the culture wars, but wrongly hails those victories as advancing the cause of liberty itself.