Tag Archives: Stephen Prothero

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.