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.

George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter, Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative, and Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner, will be published on St. Patrick's Day.

  • Rick

    America used to be a “melting pot”, now, it is a “Tower of Babel”. That’s what happens when history is lost.

    • lwhite

      Because America was born “a melting pot”, or a stew of Freemason/Protestant heresy, it is melting. The Revolution of Naturalism, or the rejection of both the Catholic faith and of Her God-given authority over the rule of man was the creating force of this nation. Yet, while living on the heritage of the civilization created by Catholicism, it prospered while it remained nominally within the moral and ethical precepts of Catholicism and the Naturalism of Freemasonry was not dominant. The decline in morality, ethics, and liberty began when the people began disregarding their Catholic heritage and the Freemasons became more powerful. Americans adopted the Masonic inspired French Revolution’s Naturalism in their contraceptive mentality which rejected both God’s Natural and Divine Positive Laws and both are leading the nation into an anti-human barbarity never seen before in human history

      • givelifeachance2

        The naturalism was also expressed earlier than contraception in their willingness to countenance not just slavery but also eugenic slave breeding. This latter evil, founded by the mercantilusts of the 1600s and their “slave codes” , tore through the heart of the American family.

  • Dave Fladlien

    This article raises a lot of issues, and brings up many causes for the ground we are losing.

    If I may add one more, I think one of the many big problems which has led to the “liberal victory” in the US is the replacement of clear thinking with unquestioning sentimentality. It is that which causes people to condemn those who oppose same-sex marriage as people unsympathetic to the sufferings of others. If we are unsympathetic, we deserve criticism, but a moment of logical thought will show that even any lack of appropriate compassion doesn’t justify a clear contradiction like same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage cannot exist because it is a physical impossibility, not because anyone has any lack of sympathy for anyone else. I could site many other examples, including some from economics.

    We need to take a clear role, at all times, in simply stating clear and direct logical thinking. We don’t need to be hostile, uncompassionate, or anything of the kind, in fact I think we should avoid those things. We are losing the war because we have become sentimentalists ourselves.

    • jnnblakemore@neo.rr.com

      Exactly. Clear and direct defense of our values. Why is that so difficult?

    • Craig Payne

      “the replacement of clear thinking with unquestioning sentimentality.”

      Nicely stated.

      When my dog licks my hand, I encourage it with affection. When people respond to issues with sentimentality rather than clear thinking, their masters encourage them with mass-media affirmations.

    • mw006

      I don’t think you can overestimate the power that mass media has played in the cultural triumph of liberalism. Many of liberalism’s beliefs and ideas had been incubated decades before the 1950s but they were largely confined to university parlors and the bohemian fringes. With the rise of TV and rock and roll radio in the 1950s the assault on longstanding traditional values was underway. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the manners, morals and sensibilities of the culture changed more between 1955 and 1970 than they did between 1850 and 1955.(The other cultural earthquake was the advent of the birth control pill in the early 1960s.) This is why any Catholic parent worth his or he weight in salt knows that you must strictly limit your children’s exposure to most media if you want a fighting chance to transmit the faith. The secular left has a virtual monopoly on the noxious brew of ideas and images being circulated through the various media, now more ubiquitous than ever.

      • lwhite

        You cannot exclude the “noxious brew of ideas” circulated within the institutional Church which our Holy popes tried to warn against since the Protestant revolt. The most insidious of these noxious ideas is that of Modernism which has, in fact, become the new religion of the institutional church.

      • Dave Fladlien

        I’m going to disagree to some extent. I grew up on rock-and-roll, once even had a financial interest in a rock band, and hung around with that group to a very limited extent. I still love rock music; I’m listening to some oldies right now. The reason why I’m a Christian today is what God gave me, not what I avoided. God gave me a friendship with Him. It is personal, it is real. It really doesn’t matter what casual external influences I encounter, they are not likely to interfere with my faith, because, just as Jesus said, my Christianity is founded on solid rock, not sand. It is founded on a personal friendship with God and with Jesus Christ (human nature too).

        We can’t greatly limit what people are exposed to. If something is a particular occasion of sin, then of course they should if practical avoid it. But people will be exposed to the secular influences, and if they’ve been overly protected, many will fail. We need to give people a solid foundation so that they are not that vulnerable.

        Every ex-Catholic I know was never really a Christian to begin with. They did a set of rituals, even the Sacraments, but they never *knew* Jesus Christ. I didn’t either, initially; but through no merit of mine, God gave me an experience of Him, an awareness of Him. That carries me through. I don’t mean I never sin, Heaven knows I do, again and again, but I’m not in the same danger as people who have no solidity to their Faith. No casual encounter is likely to forever turn me away from my friendship with God. It would take a lot to do that.

  • Tom Williams

    Great analysis of the progressive path of evil. I was with you until you used the term “Judeo – Christian values.”
    This term is extremely false. The values associated with what Jesus said and taught were rejected by the Jews. Scripture definites the break between the followers of Jesus and the Jews who rejected Him very clearly.
    Judaism today is a construct of beliefs established by the Rabbinical leaders after the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem. They rewrote the Torah into The Talamud where Jesus is mentioned in a very derogatory and blasphemous manner.
    Jews blame Catholics as the cause of anti semitism.
    There are no common values which I see we share.
    The Jews control the debt of the world, profit from the industries that are in direct opposition to what we as Catholics believe to be the evil behind The Culture of Death. So tell me again where you might think our values come together.
    Saul Alynski, a Jew, orchastrated and advanced the revolutionary spirit that has played itself out over these past 50 years, not only in America, but around the world.
    The error of Russia was materialism which Americanism is just the other side of the same coin. This is why the culture is where it is today.
    Our Lady of Fatima warned us about this 100 years ago.

    • Nancy Lynne

      Using the term “Judeo-Christian values” is accurate in my view. When I read or hear the term, I think it refers to our common belief in one God Who created us all and whom we worship and obey; the dignity of each individual and the respect each of us owes to one another; the duty we have to come to one another’s aid; liberty and justice for all. That’s what “Judeo-Christian” triggers in my mind.
      To me calling Saul Alynski a Jew is like calling certain politicians Catholic. If he studied “Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers,” he rejected it.

      • Tom Williams

        Jesus did not speak kindly towards those who rejected him. So perhaps we could say he was anti semetic or John for refering to those who opposed Jesus as Jews.

        • RainingAgain

          “Father, forgive them…

        • Micha_Elyi

          The words of Jesus in Matthew 23:1-3 support respect for Judeo-Christian values.

      • lwhite

        Mr. Marlin stated that: “In the name of human rights, secular humanists have imposed relativist policies that have all but eliminated Judeo-Christian moral restraints…”

        He did not expound on what he believes the Judeo moral restraints are so one can certainly question his use of the term since it has broad meaning and differs in its historical, ethical and political use. Further, the ethical or moral teachings of Jews differs among them and also differ from Catholic moral teachings in some ways. For example, Orthodox Jews teach that male homosexuality is expressly forbidden in the Torah while other Jews view various forms of homosexual behavior permitted by the tradition. Jews also place an emphasis on the ethical treatment of animals and even teach that the cutting down of trees is prohibited.
        You believe the term refers to our common belief in one God. Jews do not believe that Christ is God, therefore, their God is not the one God revealed in Christ. That, I believe, is a serious problem as it forces us to accept the Jew to be outside of salvation and deny the very teaching of Christ that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

        The term “Judeo-Christian”, in its historical sense was coined by a Protestant missionary, Joseph Wolff, in 1829 and the term referred to Jewish converts to Christianity.

        The present meaning of “Judeo-Christian” regarding ethics first appeared in print in a book review by English writer George Orwell in 1939, with the phrase “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals.” The term gained currency in the 1940’s, promoted by groups which evolved into the National Conference of Christians and Jews who intended to fight antisemitism by using a more inclusive idea of values.

        The term became especially significant in American politics, especially when prominent evangelical James Dobson began using it as well as politically conservative Jewish columnist Dennis Prager who wrote: “The concept of Judeo-Christian values does not rest on a claim that the two religions are identical. It promotes the concept there is a shared intersection of values based on the Hebrew Bible (Torah), brought into our culture by the founding generations of Biblically oriented Protestants, that is fundamental to American history, cultural identity, and institutions.”

        Dennis Prager also published a 19-part series explaining and promoting the concept of Judeo-Christian culture, claiming that “…only America has called itself Judeo-Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values. Along with the belief in liberty-as opposed to, for example, the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity-Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries.”

    • kilbirt42

      I think I recognize something of value from Sinai on high, and I am as Irish as Paddy’s Pig

    • mw006

      No common values? How about the 10 commandments?

  • James

    And you describe perfectly the approach employed also by the aberrant left
    within the Church, now grandly on display in Rome. You can’t dialogue with the
    duplicitous. They do not want to advance the Truth, they want their own way.
    Now if the secularists in the political realm and the heterodox in the
    religious sphere are employing the same tactics, what does that say? When are
    we going to have the fortitude to call it what is transpiring in ecclesial life
    what it is? There is an element in control of our Church that is eviscerating the
    Faith while the laity, deprived of catechesis for over fifty years, looks on
    glazed, and the engaged faithful are framed as obstinate, idolaters, Pelagians,
    and other pejoratives.
    We live in the Age of Hydra. Same organism, manifold attire, multiple
    countenances, and a host of vapid insults and arguments. Ecclesiastical Obamas shepherding groundlings over the edge. It is all of a piece.

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent article Mr.Marlin. I love the irony of the term progressive of which liberal are so fond. The progress of which they are so proud is away from reason, away from life, away from God. And towards the absurd, death and the devil. The tragic thing is this philosophy gets very little resistance from the Catholic Church which seems hell bent on iassuring it’s own destruction by joining forces with the Democrat party. I think we can pretty much blame the leadership of the Church for the sorry and sinful mess our country is in today.

    • Margaret

      How right you are, Michael, that “this philosophy gets very little resistance from the Catholic Church which seems hell bent on assuring its own destruction by joining forces with the Democrat party…we can pretty much blame the leadership of the Church for the sorry and sinful mess our country is in today.”

      One of the biggest failures leading to eight years of this Democrat President is failure of Catholic leaders to faithfully and unequivocally clarify the important moral issues first in their own minds and then for the Catholics in the pew. Too many bishops and priests were/are enamored with Democrat stands on so-called “social justice” issues of prudential judgment like health care and immigration. They shamefully ignored (and still do) the priority of the most important social justice issue of all which is the right to life. Church leaders and others who are so blind on this seminal issue can not reason clearly on any of the other important issues that impact the culture for good or evil.

      • lwhite

        As this article points out, there has been a lot of animosity towards Catholics in this majority Protestant/Masonic country which led the Catholic leadership to always be quite cowardly so as not to suffer the animosity and loss of the tax-free status of the Church. Only a few Catholic leaders in the history of this country have been unwavering in their fidelity to and teaching and preaching of the true faith.

        • Micha_Elyi

          [T]he Catholic leadership [appears] quite cowardly so as not to suffer the animosity and loss of the tax-free status of the Church…

          Catholic bishops and parish pastors must ask themselves, “If Martin Luther King, Jr. had been a Catholic bishop or priest would he have preached against legislated racism as he did or would he have held back for fear of the IRS?”

          • lwhite

            More importantly, if Jesus were alive and ministering to Americans today, wouldn’t He be arrested as an enemy of the state, charged with a hate crime, and most likely, judged guilty and incarcerated?

      • Micha_Elyi

        One of the biggest failures leading to eight years of this Democrat President is failure of Catholic leaders to faithfully and unequivocally clarify the important moral issues first in their own minds and then for the Catholics in the pew.

        I agree wholeheartedly. There is no Eighth Sacrament of Catechesis by Osmosis!

        I will hold my hand back and just mention one little possible step forward. Local Catholic radio stations are an underused opportunity for bishops to teach, a bishop could celebrate one cathedral mass per month in which he preaches a teaching homily that would be broadcast later on Catholic Radio followed by discussion among an informed Catholic panel.

  • Mercyme

    G.K. Chesterton — ‘The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.’ There is and has been little to no discernable fight in this war against God – because of a crisis in the ardent love of God. If the head of every Catholic household would refer all authority to Him, there would be a massive influx of souls seeking to be catechised so as to please Him. (There would certainly be no tolerance of the observable absence of moral teaching and the free practice of religion in our publically funded schools. Any school that is a God free zone for our children can not communicate to our children the total and free gift of ourselves that is due to Him in perpetuity.)

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life”. Catholic Supreme Court Justice A Kennedy’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v Casey promoting killing unborn human life. You cover the Protestant anti Catholic anti liberty history well but exclude the monumental betrayal of Catholics not only of the Catholic faith but of liberty itself. The list is long just a few. Fr Andrew Greeley sociologist novelist who recommended that the Church change its moral teaching, Fr Charles Curran moral theologian who advanced the same agenda, Fr Theodore Hesburgh President U Notre Dame who sought to engineer world unity sans cultural distinctions and promoted pro choice politicians Pelosi, Kennedy, Biden. Your salient point is Prof Prothero’s premise that cultural conservatives stand for social exclusivity and cultural liberals for inclusiveness is backwards. As you articulate the converse is historically true. Catholicism holds truth is exclusive insofar as it prohibits evil whereas it is tolerant of socio cultural religious diversity. Liberalism and secularism in America promotes exclusion of diverse religious views namely of Catholicism regarding sanctity of human life, marriage, and sexual practices. Catholics are persecuted for their views, which oppression is encouraged and enforced by Government policy. The Government of the US has assumed the position as supreme moralist de-enfranchising religion from that role. In summary I quote Fr Schall in the previous article “Anyone from or any nation can worship God as a person provided the state does not itself implicitly or explicitly conceive itself as god.” What is missing in us is the spiritual fire of passion.

    • lwhite

      You fail to explain that one has excommunicated themselves from the Church if they do not hold as true and accept all of the teachings of the Church. Kennedy, Fr. Curran, Fr. Hesburgh, and many other theologians, philosophers and laypersons have no standing in the Catholic Church as they are not Catholic since they reject one or more of Her teachings.

  • Thomas J. Ryan

    Shouldn’t anti-Masonry oppose anti-Catholicism ? Marlin is right. The greatest anti-Catholic efforts would be made in the post WWII years through the destruction of the Catholic communities.

  • Fides

    As an example of the torturous track of liberty and society Ronald Reagan signed into law abortion. He, by pen stroke opened the flood gate. The next 40 plus years a constant drumming of variations of mea culpa by himself and some of his like minded. Point: morality is not partisan — Republican, Democrat, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and so on ……. if you make a stand on moral principle — you may be faced with a St. Joan of Arc reality — the very society, group and family that you propose to help may well be your executioner. One pen stroke that could not be unwritten or was it strategic in that the cynic would see that the Reagan political strategy was to get out ahead of the ‘cultural’ issue and then work to reverse —all to maintain that edge. Point: even the best among us is flawed and we need to overcome that shortcoming in our advising of leaders.

  • Quo Vadis

    Between Bishops who support the actions of democrat politicians and Catholic voters who constantly vote them into office what results does the church expect from their policies ? Archbishop Wenski comments on Obama’s Executive Order on firearms is an example where this controversial issue is portrayed as the Church supporting the action by the media. This EO as with many others, is viewed as unconstitutional and the church should stay out of it.

    • appalachian

      Spot on!

    • lwhite

      What does the church expect? Isn’t it the “church” or the leaders of the church who expect the policies of the Democrats, which they support, to be received with approval by Catholics?

      • Quo Vadis

        I think the leaders of the church at times are in a fantasy world. They trust the very people who ardently support the policies that the church is against simply because those people (politicians) provide the comforting talk church leader like to hear.

        For example: Democrats talk all day about the poor and the need for equality but inthe end, their programs only keep the poor ..poor. They keep people in place, dependent on the government, on handouts. They put in place Obamacare but at the sametime force others to pay for the programs and abortions.

        Jesus taught us to take care of the poor but never to foster laziness removing dignity from people. What would He say to these politicians who keep people dependent on Caesar for their votes to stay in power ?

  • lwhite

    I agreed with Boston College Professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft when he wrote over 20 years ago that the cultural war is a spiritual war. I believe that premise is even more obvious than ever as the paths to state-sanctioned death of the soul, led by the demonic influences upon the self-identified liberal/progressive, libertarian, and conservative as well are on the rise.

    Hasn’t the Church taught that man is free to either accept and believe in what God has revealed to man about Who He is and what He expects from man or to reject God and suffer the consequences, but man is not free to hinder the believer in any way from the path towards salvation? This is the true definition of liberty.

    The false and damaging to the soul ideas of liberty, the ideas born out of the rejection of God and His Supreme Authority over man, arouse the mind and passions so that its true meaning is lost, and the end result is always the same-slavery to sin, slavery to the most powerful men, and eternal damnation.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Food for thought. My impression is we’ve won the war with Protestants many who align with us for the ‘Soul of America’ but have lost it with so many Catholics who support secular values.

  • Sir Flatulus

    I think it’s about power, nothing more
    progressivism, leftism, or whatever it calls itself couldn’t care less about minorities or gays or immigrants or the poor or the sick or the unemployed
    it cares about power
    evil seeks territory
    good doesn’t
    evil has weapons
    good has only a shield
    this only goes in one direction
    basically to totalitarianism
    get ready for hilary
    like it or not
    good grief