Do Liberals Always Win? An Interview with Stephen Prothero
By Jack West | December 10, 2014
On October 23, Stephen Prothero spoke at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the Danforth Distinguished Lectures, sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and an author of numerous books, including The New York Times bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He contributes regularly to popular media outlets, including USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN’s Belief Blog. A historian specializing in American religion, Prothero’s current projects include his upcoming book titled, Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage, which was the basis for his lecture.
During his visit, Prothero sat down with R&P’s Jack West for an interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: Your lecture at Washington University in St. Louis has quite a provocative title: “Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage.” Can you explain to R&P readers in a few distilled points why liberals win?
SP: The book that I’m working on looks at the culture wars as a recurring phenomenon in American history, from the early nineteenth century to the present. In all the cases I look at, the culture wars are started on the right and won on the left. The reason, I think, for that is that conservatives, in picking these fights and starting these culture wars, typically choose issues that are already going the other way because it puts them inside this narrative of loss and recovery, where the society is moving away from their traditional values. It suits them to pick subjects where they are already losing. If they pick subjects they are already winning, then the complaint that is inherent in this narrative of loss and recovery doesn’t resonate. So they pick an issue such as, ‘There are too many Catholics in America,” at a time when the Catholic population is growing relatively quickly to the point that Catholics are going to become mainstreamed into American life. If they had picked that fight earlier, there would not have been enough Catholics to reasonably be worried about them, and if they picked it later, no one would have cared. They pick it right at the moment when they are losing, and it seems that this recurs and is part of the reason why liberals seem to win these battles.
R&P: Why do those on the right choose that specific moment to raise an issue? Is it to paint themselves as victims?
SP: Yes. Culture wars are often seen as these battles between liberals and conservatives over cultural questions. But I see them more as dramas that are produced and acted in by conservatives. They are conservative projects whose purpose is to drum up support from traditionalists in society who perceive that something precious is being lost to them, and that something precious changes over the course of history. It might be the traditional family, with a man at its center. It might be a society in which the leaders are all white. It might be a society in which the important figures are Protestants. In order to activate that anxiety, which is an important part of my book, which is going to create a political upsurge for your party, you need to find an issue that will agitate peoples’ emotions. The moment of highest agitation seems to be the moment when it’s becoming clear that the liberals are starting to win, the conservative complaint kicks in, but lo and behold, the liberals actually do win. It is a fixed game. It’s not really a fair fight because the conservatives are not picking the issues on which they are winning, which are many. In my lifetime, conservatives have done better than liberals on many political issues. But on questions in the culture wars, they tend to pick the issues that they are losing or are about to lose.
R&P: This lecture stems from your upcoming book of the same title. What led you to pursue this research and this topic?
SP: It started for me in the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. There was a lot of debate whether Muslims could build this Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. I followed the debate because I have always been interested in church-state questions. I was very surprised when it shifted from being a local issue to a national issue, and when some of the leading members of the Republican Party began weighing in against the mosque. I was surprised because it was a clear-cut case where you had two issues deeply held in American society that were in favor of the Muslims who wanted to build the mosque: first, was private property rights—they owned the land—and second was religious liberty. It surprised me that there was so much agitation about it. Since I’m a historian, I tried to understand it in a historical context, by going back and looking at these moments in the past. The moment I discovered was when Thomas Jefferson was accused of being Muslim in the election of 1800, so Barack Obama is not the first American president to be accused of being Muslim. So that is how I got started looking at culture wars before the Islam wars.
R&P: That is very intriguing. Do you think that a lack of religious literacy contributes to some of these religion-state issues, especially with Muslims?
SP: Yes, I think that’s part of it. If we knew more about Islam, which, as a society, we know almost nothing, the culture wars around Islam would be different. They would be more sophisticated. However, we had a huge battle about slavery that was conducted to a great extent around the Bible, and both sides seemed to understand that if they lost that biblical debate, they would lose the slavery debate. People really understood the Bible, not just intellectuals, but ordinary people could comprehend the arguments for and against slavery that could be marshaled based on the Bible. I do not know how the Islam wars would play out differently, other than the fact that they would be more sophisticated. I think some of the dumb arguments would go away, but you would also probably find some smarter arguments against Islam that would potentially take their place. In two other culture wars I address in the book, the anti-Catholicism movement in the early nineteenth century and the anti-Mormonism of the later nineteenth century, both have a quality of talking past each other, where the Protestants, who are typically the conservatives in those culture wars arguing against Catholics and Mormons, stick to their talking points about those traditions and to the stereotypes against them. They didn’t know a lot of Catholics or Mormons. I think if they had had better Catholic or Mormon literacy, those conflicts may have played out differently. But like I said, sometimes that would have provided more arguments rather than fewer. I don’t believe that if we knew more about religion that all of our religious problems would go away. I think sometimes people kill each other for religious reasons because they don’t understand the other religion, but sometimes they also kill each other because they do understand the other religion. So I’m not sure religious literacy is much of a fix for religious violence. I think it is a start, but it does not do that work by itself.
R&P: You have been an advocate of religious literacy. Why do you think Americans generally lack a basic understanding of religions? Has it been something that has been happening throughout history, or is it a relatively new phenomenon because, like you mentioned earlier, during the early nineteenth century, both sides had a very competent understanding of the religious arguments surrounding the slavery debate.
SP: The religious right argues that religious literacy goes away in the early 1960s because of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bans devotional Bible reading and prayer in public schools in 1962 and 1963, which critics argue essentially exiles God from public schools so that they are now religion-free zones. Now, children grow up not only without a reverence for God, but also without an understanding of the Bible and Christianity. The argument I make about religious literacy is that the story actually begins a century earlier. The villains are not secular people in the Supreme Court but actually religious people. It is caused by the Second Great Awakening and the replacement of Puritanism by Evangelicalism as the dominant religious impulse in the country. Before the Second Great Awakening, there was always this conversation among Christians between the head and the heart, trying to get a religion that was both intellectually sound and emotionally resonant. But with the Second Great Awakening comes this new form of religion that really prioritizes feeling and emphasizes loving Jesus rather than knowing what Jesus had to say. This is when religious literacy starts to go away. It doesn’t really matter much what Christianity teaches, what matters is how it feels to be in a relationship with Jesus. Simultaneously, as you have that shift from knowing the doctrine of your tradition to feeling intensely about God, there is a shift toward morality where the focus of the tradition becomes making the society more Protestant by using voluntary associations to get rid of slavery, to make the schools better, to improve prisons. In order to do that, it is important for people to downplay denominational differences. You don’t really want to bring up the distinctions between Methodists and Lutherans because you want both denominations to work together to get the Bible printed and distributed or to do the work of the American Tract Society. So that also pushed people away from conversations about doctrine. As the theology side of religion starts to go away, our collective memory starts to atrophy. That really happens over the course of the nineteenth century.
R&P: How do you think increased religious literacy, not only for the various denominations of Christianity, but also for other major world religions, would change the political landscape in the United States?
SP: I think of the religious literacy problem as happening in two arenas, domestic and foreign. On the domestic side, we have two religious political parties. Since 2004, the Democrats have started doing with religion what the Republicans have been doing since the late 1970s: invoking God, the Bible, and Jesus to support their public policy and politicians. Then we have a public that does not know enough about the Bible or Christianity to dispute whether what they say makes any sense. So when Hillary Clinton says she opposes a Republican initiative on immigration that would demand that citizens turn in undocumented immigrants because of the Good Samaritan story, because the Good Samaritan story tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst and not to turn them in to the authorities, how do we know whether that makes any sense? Many don’t know enough about what the Good Samaritan story says to make a decision. Similarly, politicians will do this with abortion. “Why are you opposed to Roe v. Wade?” “Well, because I am a Bible-believing Christian.” Well, what does the Bible have to do with abortion? What does it say about abortion? If you read the Bible, it doesn’t say very much. Neither, by the way, does it say much about marginal income tax rates, which we also try to debate on the basis of the Bible. You asked how the political landscape would be affected by more religious literacy, and I think that if we were more religiously literate, we would have a lot less Bible-talk and religion in our public space because the silly God-talk would go away.
R&P: They couldn’t make those claims based on religion anymore.
SP: Yes, people would say, “That doesn’t make any sense, we know that it doesn’t make sense to invoke the Bible on that issue because the Bible doesn’t say anything about that issue.” Or, they would be able to say, “Yes, we know you win that argument on the basis of the Bible, we know you have all the goods there.” I think that would have a huge effect, and, of course, it would elevate our capacity to engage in those debates so they would start to look like the slavery debate of the nineteenth century, which was very sophisticated on both sides.
On the international side, the problem is not that we don’t know enough about Christianity and the Bible, it’s that we don’t know anything about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. We can’t really understand what is going in the Middle East or Kashmir or Myanmar or Tibet or wherever we might want to look, because in all those places religion is powerful and a real force politically, economically and militarily. If we had more religious literacy, we would be able to make much better calculations about what we should do, in terms of our foreign policy. There is an argument to be made that we might not have gone into Iraq or Afghanistan if we had understood Islam better. Maybe we would have, but I don’t think we understood what we needed to know about the difference between Sunni and Shia when we initiated those wars. If we had known more, we might not have gone in. Similarly, if we had known more, we might have been much more successful then what we have been.
R&P: In the past, you have advocated teaching religion in public schools. What are the benefits, and how do you think it could be implemented in a sustainable manner? There has been some criticism that teachers would allow their own biases to reflect in the course.
SP: The benefit of a world religions course in high school is to address the international problem, which I mentioned earlier, so that we could better understand what is going on in the world. We would know how to act as better citizens, we would know how to vote and could more effectively criticize our leaders. If you live in a religious world, you have to know something about religion to make sense of it. A public school course on the world’s religions would address that problem so that more would know that the Quran is the holy book of Islam, whereas only half of Americans know that right now, according to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey that was done by the Pew Forum in 2010. We lack such basic information, that we can’t engage in these debates.
As far as how it is sustainable, obviously you need people who are trained, which is a problem because we don’t have a lot of people able to teach a high school course on religion. You have a perception problem as well, where a lot of people think that this course would be unconstitutional. In fact, only one-third of the people interviewed in that Pew survey knew that courses on world religions were constitutional—most thought it was illegal to teach religion in public schools. That is not true if you read what the Supreme Court has written. They have basically endorsed both Bible courses and world religions courses in Supreme Court opinions.
Then you have the problem of bias. As I read the First Amendment, you are not allowed to preach religion or atheism in public schools. So a course on world religions should not conclude that Jesus is Lord, that Allah is the one true God, or that religion is bunk. It should leave those truth questions open. It would be a problem if you had a teacher whose intent is on violating the First Amendment and proselytizing. But I think the scrutiny of these courses would be higher than it is now. Today, we have people violating the First Amendment in public schools. We have biology teachers who are violating the First Amendment by either preaching atheism or a fundamentalist understanding of creation. We have teachers in English schools that are violating the constitution by using conversations about the Bible to preach a particular religious understanding. Some of those things pass under the radar because they are not courses that have the word “religion” in their title. There would be a lot of scrutiny for courses on religion, so those people that would want to seize on that opportunity to push their religious point of view would be exposed pretty quickly.
R&P: You have made the point before that, for example, history teachers must set aside their party affiliations to teach a course on history. Is that similar to a teacher teaching a course on religion?
SP: With religion, you have to be even more careful. You don’t have a First Amendment that calls for the separation of historiography and the state, so there is a higher bar. You see this at state universities. I took courses in college from socialist historians. You knew that they understood history from the socialist perspective and they were not trying to be neutral, they were presenting their point of view. There is a huge place for them in college. In fact, some of the most interesting courses are taught by professors who have really strong points of view. They teach twentieth-century American history and they think that the New Deal is the pinnacle of twentieth-century American history. They are not trying to finish the course with you wondering whether or not they believe New Deal was a good thing. That’s admirable in some ways, and students can either take or leave it. With religion, due to the First Amendment and other reasons, we try really hard not only not to teach our biases but also hide them so effectively that at the end of the class we think we have succeeded if the students have no idea what our religious perspectives are. Religious studies, as a discipline, rely on an effort at objectivity. We need to maintain, in high schools and state universities in particular, this distinction between teaching religion and preaching religion.
R&P: In your last book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation, you discuss specific texts that stir controversy and debate in the United States. What texts or speeches cause similar controversy in today’s politics and culture?
SP: We keep returning to a lot of classics. One interesting aspect about the texts in The American Bible is that they are used by both sides. They are sufficiently malleable, in a way like the Scriptures, hence the title, and, therefore, can be understood in a lot of different ways. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is seen as an argument for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action. But people from Ronald Reagan forward have argued that the speech actually argues against affirmative action. When King talks about imagining a society in which we are all judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, conservatives are saying, there you go: why should we be worried about the color of your skin when you apply to Washington University in St. Louis or when you apply for a job at IBM? The color of you skin should be irrelevant; there should be no affirmative action. The same goes for King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” That letter is an amazing combination of a lot of difference sources, religious and political, from the American tradition, Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition, from Protestants and Catholics. Sarah Palin has looked at that letter and said look at the way King combines religion and politics here, he doesn’t see a dividing line, he is not worrying about injecting too much Scripture or too much Christianity into American politics. If that is fair for people on the left like King, why shouldn’t that be fair for the Tea Party and Sarah Palin and other cultural conservatives? Why can’t they bring the Bible into the public space?
R&P: Do you think improved religious literacy would affect how these documents are interpreted and applied in today’s culture?
SP: Certainly. There are a couple ways to improve. One is the kind of literacy about the documents themselves. When we debate Huck Finn, which is also in The American Bible, some say it is the most racist book in American history and others say it is the most anti-racist book in American history. One of the problems is that a lot of people who engage in the debate have never actually read Huck Finn. If they had, the debates would be more sophisticated and our democracy would be stronger. One of the huge premises behind that project is that an assumption of our democracy is that we have informed citizens. As we vote and engage in politics, it is crucial to know something about the things we are debating. The problem is that we know less than we used to and our politics are more fragile because of it.
R&P: Continuing going through the books you have written, in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World, you argue that the attempts to reconcile differing religions as different paths up the same mountain are, in fact, incorrect. You argue that they are disparate paths that achieve different things. Why is this an important distinction? How should this understanding affect interfaith work, specifically?
SP: It is an important distinction for reason of truth. It is just not true that the religions are basically the same. It is a misunderstanding. Almost always, when people make that claim, it sounds like a pluralistic statement. But when you follow up and have them describe what the religions are all about and what they share, invariably, that description becomes the religion of the person making the statement. “All the religions are one,” really means all the religions are basically like Christianity, or all the religions are basically like Judaism or Hinduism. There is a kind of intellectual imperialism, which is opposed to diversity and demands eliminating the distinctiveness of these traditions so that they conform to one another when, in reality, they don’t conform. There is a straightforward truth aspect. You want to let the traditions be what they are rather than pretending they are something else.
The other feature is that there is confusion about what creates interreligious rivalries and violence. Many assume it is religious difference. I don’t think that is true. Difference does not cause violence or war. We have always had difference, in every society. The student body here at WashU differ with each on all sorts of things, over what movies they think are good, what religions they affirm, or what politics they support. But that doesn’t mean they have to be at each other’s throats. The way we live in a society with difference is through various civic activities and ideologies of tolerance.
There is a confused hope in the “all religions are one” school that we can all be the same. There is a confusion about the danger of difference which is not as dangerous as many others think. The perennial philosophy school that says religions are the same and the clash of civilization school that say they are different, share the assumption that if there is difference, there will be warfare. I don’t think that is true. I prefer to let the religions do what they do, and observe that they are doing very different things.
R&P: With today’s global upheaval, which seems to be ever-present in the media, what is to be done about religious tolerance internationally?
SP: That’s the hard question. You certainly saved the hardest question for last. There is some pretty good evidence, from people who study genocide and the places where the danger of racial or ethnic killing is highest, that there is no civic engagement across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, or religion. If you look at areas that have experienced that kind of killing, it is typically lower in places that have integration. For example, if Muslims and Hindus are engaged in civic institutions, activities, and leadership together, then the probability of violence is much lower than in places that are completely separated. The premise is pretty simple and intuitive: people become humanized as you engage with them. Say you are hostile toward Muslims, and the first Muslim you meet seems to be a good person. You might be able to say, “Well, they are the exception.” But if you meet 12 Muslims and you start working with them on a library committee or a parks committee in the city, you start to see that they have families like yourself and they share in the effort to promote the civic goods that you are also promoting.
Another idea is this diffusion of tolerance, with which you started your question. It is a very laudable goal. However, there are a lot of people in academia who don’t see tolerance as such a good thing. They want what they call pluralism, where difference is celebrated as a positive good, rather then merely tolerated. But tolerance would be much better than what we have in a lot of places. I would add that, and I have written about this, tolerance is an empty virtue unless you actually know something about the people you are tolerating. If you claim to be tolerating Muslims or Christians or Buddhists, but you don’t understand much about them, that is very shallow and a probably less effective form of tolerance.
R&P: Thank you very much for your time today.
SP: Thank you for your questions.
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