Distortions Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Stephen Prothero had a recent column in the Washington Post, discussing his latest book, “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, Even When They Lose Elections.” Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University whose previous books—especially “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and Doesn’t”—were New York Times bestsellers.

I found these passages particularly illuminating:

In almost every case, these culture wars have been conservative projects, instigated and waged by people anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. Their anxiety finds expression first as a complaint about a particular policy, and second as a broader lament about how far the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately we need to restore whatever is passing away. Or, to put it in Trumpian terms: The nation has been schlonged, but it will be great again.

Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were right-wing reactions to 19th-century Catholic immigration and Mormon migration, and to the moral, theological, social and economic threats those communities posed to Protestant power. Similarly, the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were conservative responses to the rise of the saloon and the speakeasy — and to the cultural pluralism brought on by rapid urbanization and immigration waves. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives give voice to their anxieties about the loss of the traditional family and a homogeneous society. Cultural politics are always a politics of nostalgia, driven by those who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better way of life.

Father knows best, anyone?

It always amuses me to hear people talk about the 1950s as if the fifties were an idyllic time. I suppose they were— if you were a white, Protestant member of the middle or upper class.

Otherwise, not so much.

I went to college in the South for one year, in 1959; there were separate black and white drinking fountains and restrooms everywhere, and new subdivisions sported billboards informing passers-by that home sites were “restricted” (no Jews or Blacks). In the “idyllic” fifties, women couldn’t generate credit histories separate from their fathers or husbands, and help-wanted ads explicitly excluded women and minorities from the better-paying jobs. That was everywhere, not just in the South. McCarthy and HUAC flourished; dissenters cowered. The list goes on.

As Stephanie Coontz felicitously put it, Americans are notoriously nostalgic for “the way we never were.”

Rose-colored glasses sure can obscure your vision.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I woder if people attracted to Trump see him, his beautiful family members and money as a vision “of the way we never were.”

  2. Growing up as a white Protestant in rural Indiana, I cannot even imagine what it was like to have not been part of this privileged class. For most of my life I also wasn’t aware that I am part of a privileged class because people from other races don’t tend to live in rural areas and I didn’t witness discrimination against them.

    My personal experience with discrimination is because I’m a female and I fully recognized the privileges that boys were given over the girls at an early age. By high school I had pretty much had my fill of it and started protesting my disadvantages. I was not happy that we girls were not allowed to enjoy team sports and I did all I could to change that. It eventually started improving my junior year. The thing that I remember most in school was that boys were allowed second helpings of food at lunch, but girls weren’t. I was always hungry because I worked very hard on the farm. I had to do chores in the hog barn for an hour every morning and then for at least 3 hours every evening. I finally got so mad that I complained to my Dad. He was shocked and immediately called the school superintendent to inform him that I had better get second helpings of any food I requested and it was going to start the very next day. When I asked for second helpings of food the next day the cooks gave me what I requested and the other students were in complete shock. The boys thought it was about time too. The superintendent was not able to provide a reason that they had this ridiculous policy. It was just flat out discrimination.

    I am sure the above story seems silly to many who have suffered much worse discrimination. Being discriminated against just for being female is something that men will never be able to understand. In this country white men have always been in power and they are fighting tooth and nail to keep their power. Their wives or significant others are fighting right along with them since they enjoy the benefits of that power. I am actually rooting for them to lose their power, even though I am of the same race.

  3. Amen Prof. In the “old days”, even in progressive Madison WI it was illegal for men to dance with men. Jail could result and the bar could loose its license. It was legal to put your kid in the mental hospital for being gay. (Until 1973) Nothing all that good about the “Good old days”. Change is painful, and sometimes messy but most of the change is for the good. Going back to bad old days is not the solution.

  4. In 1955 I was a new bride and left Indianapolis on a bus for Quantico, Virginia, to join my husband as he finished his hitch in the Marines. The bus ride was long and tiring; I sat on the seat across the back because it was roomier; a young black soldier in uniform sat next to me. I attempted a conversation but got no response, he seemed uncomfortable, I was used to talking openly (to the disapproval of most white students) to my “colored” friends at Tech High School. Sometime during the overnight portion of the trip; most passengers fell asleep. I awoke when the bus stopped somewhere in Virginia the next morning. The soldier had fallen asleep and slumped over with his head on my shoulder; he woke up, looked at me and jerked away, he appeared to be terrified. I told him it was OK, no problem. He grabbed his bag and actually ran off of the bus and through the bus station – never saw him again.

    Months of living in Fredricksburg, VA, opened my eyes to true segregation. Water fountains, theaters, stores, living conditions, schools, the restroom at the local drive-in movie was poorly equipped and not very clean. I noticed other women staring at me. Went to the drive-in with another couple sometime later; when my friend and I headed for the restroom I started through the door and she grabbed me. I had been using the “colored” restroom. The white restroom was no better equipped and no cleaner. Our apartment was one of 5-6 in one of the old southern mansions; the white section ended mid-way down the slight hill the street was located on and the “colored” section began. The street ended in a Y branching off at the bottom of the hill; in the “V” formed by the streets was the white elementary school. The “colored” school was on the other side of town. Each day I watched as the white children walked on one side of the street, through the “colored” section to reach their white school. The “colored” children from the neighborhood walked on the other side of the street, across town to their own school.

    My pregnancy began showing; me being me and on a limited budget, I wore my jeans using safety pins hooked together to hold them up and wore my few maternity tops. Taking walks and shopping drew stares from everyone everywhere, not only racial prejudice abounded but…pregnant women of any race should not be out in public per their “Gone With The Wind” mind set.

    White folks have often confused, surprised and amazed me since those “good old days”; today they sicken me with the hatred that has become covert, ongoing and organized with double the number of white supremacy groups since the TWO elections of President Barack Obama. The have also instilled deep fear for this country due to the blatant racist, bigoted, anti-LGBT, pseudo religious, anti-Semitic campaign foundation of the group operating under the misnomer of GOP. I’m sorry but…I feel little hope we will escape the onslaught of Donald Trump and his billions in this election as we wait for members of the Democratic party to “grow a pair” and come out in full force to protect America and Americans. My rose-colored glasses are no longer hiding the reality of the human condition infecting this nation today.

  5. On a positive note, the younger generation openly dislikes the various discriminations by the older generations and are much more inclusive. One day they will be in charge. The sooner the better.

    They also are not interested in being slaves to their employers, and that is good.

  6. Once again, Sheila, you are right on target! As William Koss, above, refers to Stephanie Coontz’s book “The Way We Never Were” (1992), “the ‘traditional’ family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. … “. The Way We Never Were examines two centuries of American family life and shatters a series of myths and half-truths that burden modern families. This picture of life in the 1950’s was a conservative response to keep power in the hands of white, protestant men has been brewing for quite a while! Trump has revived this myth once again.

  7. We can’t solve our problems until we admit we have them. I have a young friend who is a Republican. I asked her if she didn’t see racial animus toward the President in the comments of Republican leaders. She said that was absolutley not the case. I think perhaps that is because those Republicans didn’t believe what they said. They merely pandered to their constituents. For years the Republican party has used fear to drive home its message. It’s time to remember FDR. “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

  8. It is noteworthy that in the past few years so much of that right wing anxiety about social change has turned into “They’re attacking my religion!” That bit of hysteria has led to the formation of lobbying organizations to help those so afflicted to get the laws changed so that they do not feel threatened. The simple act by a gay couple of ordering a wedding cake appears to the ultra religious to be a frontal attack on their personal beliefs. Someone needs to be adding a good dose of Xanax to the communion wine.

  9. Theresa; I love your Xanax recommendation as a possible solution to our current religious fanatic problems. Of course; that would only help if they actually attended church and took communion; I doubt that many of them do.

  10. I have been fortunate to have been immersed in many cultures and like most who have experienced life for a relatively long time much change. As an early and passionate and ever curious disciple of evolution I wonder often about culture and the adaptation of those who I consider like me to changing environment.

    Of course among what I notice is that those who call themselves “conservative” don’t adapt but waste their time wishing for a static environment.

    Of course time and tide wait for no man, so those who want to stop the world instead of changing with it merely get more and more dysfunctional.

    I personally have a hard time understanding why people don’t celebrate both progress and diversity – what a dull world it would be with less of either.

    But that’s just me.

  11. America has long had double standards as has the rest of the world. A woman is still not permitted to be a Priest in the Catholic Church. It’s tradition we are told. As Boomer when I entered the work force virtually all managerial positions were held by men. Even the technical (higher paid) positions were held almost exclusively by men. If you look back at the films of the early Space Program you would be hard pressed to find a woman.
    Then we had as Hollywood put it the “casting couch” for woman that hoped to advance. Men were Lotharios, Romeos, and Players. There was and still is not a polite equivalent for woman with multiple sexual partners.
    Interesting but yet disgusting how Monica Lewinsky was vilified and the center of jokes. Monica was in some quarters accused of playing on her notoriety of cashing in, with TV appearances, etc. Bill Clinton moved on to collect millions in speaking fees.

  12. I think the disaster that is the conservative party (Trump! really?) has shown that education should be free so that everyone has a chance to read a damn history book. “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, chronicles the minority treatment in the states. I recommend that everyone read that history book to show that we Americans are a racist society and we were founded that way. Maybe we need to do away with ‘homeschooling’ because those kids are being isolated from reality.

    If you haven’t seen the movie “Where to Invade Next” please try to see it soon. It’s an eye opener. It’s not a war movie.

  13. Occasionally I feel a need to challenge some popular misconceptions regarding stereotypical beliefs about those born in the South. By virtue of nothing more than pure chance I was born in the South as defined as being south of the Ohio River. I cannot undo that fact anymore than I can unscramble eggs.

    On the other hand, by virtue of my birthplace I feel safe in stating that an extremely expensive all-female private college in Columbia, Missouri is not and never was located in the South but rather was located squarely in the Midwest, whether in 1959 or in 2016. Moral of this post is that bigotry, racism, and exclusionary institutions are not limited to the South.

  14. BSH…agree, racism is not only in the south it is everywhere. I remember some of my black friends who were from the South state that in the north racism exists but isn’t in your face. Then again I grew up in Indiana (now living in Tennessee) and I certainly saw more Confederate flags in Greenwood, Plainfield, Mooresville, then I have in the areas around Nashville; but Indiana is known as the middle finger for the south (the south being stereotyped as extremely conservative, evangelical)

  15. @RN, it’s good to encounter a person who’s lived and worked in more than one state and who is cognizant of the racism and bigotry that exists in a systemic fashion without regard to the South or the North. After my living and working in coastal Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky for over 25 years, I discovered upon my 2004 move to Indiana that covert racism existed and ruled and was far more dangerous than the overt ‘in your face’ racism.

    As a matter of fact, I view a Confederate flag each time I leave my home and drive to my neighborhood Kroger just north of Indianapolis. Actually, the flag has been replaced and updated by the owner since the beginning of a new year. Not to be forgotten, but my two adult sons arrived for a holiday visit from South Carolina and Kentucky respectively. My sons were so shocked/surprised by the Confederate flag’s flying openly in Central Indiana that they both snapped cell phone pics to share with friends as proof that Indiana is far more racist than any southern state they’d visited.

  16. Covert racism in central and southern Indiana? Where did you find that? It seems that it was pretty overt until more recently, where it’s now more covert, until you sit down and have a talk with one of our “good old boys” (and sometimes not so good). They have the same attitudes as always, but they have just learned to say it in different ways. Anyone who begins a discussion about the president with “I have nothing against him because he’s black” means that it’s all about him being black. It’s like the people who sue for a zillion dollars and say, “It’s not about the money”. It’s all about the money.

    It’s no accident that the great state of Indiana has lots of counties where the black population is low low low, and that Toyota has built a plant in almost all white Gibson County. I suspect that a frank and honest talk with a few persons of color in those areas would have some interesting stories to tell you.

  17. Regarding racism in Indiana – let’s not forget that the KKK headquarters were once in Elwood, Indiana and they were still holding a parade there until a few years ago. I recall seeing in the news that the KKK was putting fliers on windshields in Kokomo and other nearby cities a couple years ago. It seems the KKK is alive and well in Indiana.

  18. Anyone who tells me that Mike Pence and the right wing legislature don’t represent the prevailing attitudes of most residents hasn’t thoroughly checked out the state. Whether the legislature represents the diversity in the state is something else. Gerrymandering has pretty much taken care of that.

    It’s always mystified me that the worse things get, the more reactionary the old, angry, white male voting public becomes. Instead of understanding the situation as a slap across the face designed to wake up the population, they think it’s a sign from the Lord that we aren’t reactionary enough. Methinks dementia is calling.

  19. Stuart, when you relinquish your ownership of farmland in southern Indiana and the IRS perks that accompany your farmland ownership, then perhaps we’ll take your comments seriously. Admittedly you may not be angry, but the fact remains that you are an old white man.

  20. #Republicans always want to bring back our country “the way it used to be,” “the good old days.” Bring #America back the way it was betrayed in nostalgic movies and 1950s sitcoms. Everyone was white, married, heterosexual #Christians were men went off to work everyday to take care of their lovely home while the Mrs. stayed home to clean, cook, take care of their thoughtful, well-adjusted children and always be available to please her husband in every way wearing her skirt and heels. But reality is THAT society has NEVER existed. #DonaldTrump’s “Make America Great Again” is a message to a very tiny group of citizens. You see if your not an older white, #nonGay, wealthy, suburban Christian male, then your life has never mirrored the life #Republicans promise you they will turn this country into.

    So if their most popular sales pitch is a lie, why would you believe any of their promises? They want a strong middle class? So destroying the unions, cutting salaries, extending work hours, cutting taxes for the wealthy, rewarding corporations who hide their income offshore, move jobs to other countries, repeal safety regulations for their workers, do away with public education making collage unafordable for your children, forcing us into endless wars making combat your childrens only choice, making healthcare a privalidge only the wealthy could afford and divide all the profits between their top executives and board of directors with billion dollar bonuses will make the middle class stronger how?

    You have to start thinking about what’s best for you and your family and stop believing in lies that anyone different than you is out to get you, or that their struggle for equal rights somehow takes away the rights you have because the only people different than you and I who want to take away your rights and your lively hood are the 3% wealthiest Americans and the Republican politicans they pay millions to keep you believing in lies until the 80% of all wealth they own now becomes 100%, including owning you.

  21. An interesting discussion today. I have lived my entire life in the Western United States where native Americans, my father was one, were the under class. I was saddened to read that the group most likely to be shot by the police are native American men under the age of 35, but that is another story.

    What strikes me now is what an idyllic life I lead growing up in the 50s and 60s as an apparently white middle class person in suburban California. My son can have that life because he’s in Tech, my daughter and her husband are struggling because he wants to be a teacher. It is the same old story, student loans, high housing costs, job losses through no fault of theirs.

    In this way I can relate to those who want the old days back, but I want those old days to include my young transgender friends and my gay supervisor, just to mention a few people who deserve better easier lives like mine.

  22. @AgingLGrl, I grant the comment may sound harsh. How would you reword the comment to lessen the appearance of harshness?

  23. Here ‘s a good article on some of the changes that are unavoidable in order to maintain a world suitable for civilization.


    Some of those necessary changes will take us back to conditions that we left 50 – 100 years ago because we could and energy was so cheap. Or so we thought. That might appeal to some of those longing for the past but remember all of the other changes that are one way streets. For instance 3x the population just in my lifetime and global communications.

    So the past as a package is gone even if some features of the future environment will seem familiar.

  24. Pete, interesting article. I have read books on peak oil and global weirding that are much more bleak. I am happy to live in a small space, eat little meat (although cutting down on cheese will be hard) and grow my own vegetables. I have looked into converting everything that I converted to gas back to electricity.

    But this discussion has ignored the role of the super rich in all this. Much of the unhappiness that the evangelicals feel wouldn’t be there if they were making a decent living and their communities weren’t crumbling. Of course it is more complicated than that, but always being guided by profits tends to eliminate concern over sustainability and community.

  25. Good blog as usual, Sheila. The comments are great about our “nostalgia” for the “good ole times”. When you really talk to older people about the past you really find out how difficult a whole host of things were.
    My Mom was married in 1952. I was born in 1953. She was educated to be an interior designer/ decorator and had begun her career after she and Dad were married. She used a diaphragm for birth control. So much for that since I was born 10 months after they married. She was forced to quit working when her “baby bump” showed and they really needed her income since my Dad was finishing his Physical Therapy residency. She quietly supported aspects of the women’s movement. My sister was born 15 months after me. Thank God the Eli Lilly pill hit the market when it did. She and Dad were able to plan the birth of my brother 6 yrs. after my birth. When I was in high school – 1967 to ’71 the economy wasn’t so great and my folks were concerned about paying for college so Mom tried to find a job. She worked for years as a secretary. That was all she could get. The other women and some men she worked with had issues with her education. It was hard on her. When I was in college I read Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. I talked to Mom about it. While my Mom has never been an activist about anything, she did confirm that what Ms. Friedan wrote about was real. SO MUCH FOR THE GOOD OLE 1950’S.

    On the history of religion in this nation, the struggle between “evangelical-fundamental” thought and civic secularism (historically known as forethought) has endured since the time of the creation of the Constitution. It’s a tension running through our history like federalism vs. states’ rights. When I was studying at United Theol. Seminary in Minneapolis I had to take a 2 semester class on the history of religious movements in the United States. Fascinating! I’m currently engaged in reading Susan Jacoby’s book: FREETHINKERS: A History of American Secularism. It traces this tension from Colonial times, through our Declaration of Independence, the creation of the Constitution and on. She quotes extensively from Jefferson, Adams, Paine, etc. It really puts the current trend to try to enshrine Christianity into our laws into its’ appropriate contest. Turns out this is old news. Every high school student should have to read this book as part of American History classes. It puts today’s movement into its’ correct historical context!

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