The longer I have struggled to figure out what people want to read, the more I have become fascinated by what we want to avoid or ignore or forget. One would think Christian books on homosexuality would be all the rage, since the church has been so obsessed with the topic for decades. But here is the reality: Books on the subject—no matter which side of the debate—hardly ever do well. Whatever the reason, it is not a topic many people want to explore deeply.
The same dynamic is at work with Islam. With few exceptions, the only books that sell are the ones that tell us why we should fear Muslims. Few people want to hear otherwise. After a terrorist attack by extremists, many people complain that they never hear Muslim leaders condemn the act. Yet when you ask Muslim leaders themselves, they will point out that they did, with press conferences and releases, but no one wanted to listen.
For many categories of thought, even ones in which our future is at stake, we avert our eyes, claim not to see what is before us, or just forget.
In his provocative and strangely comforting book, Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections), religion scholar Stephen Prothero showed me a new way that our cultural forgetting and avoiding works. And it is surprisingly comforting for those depressed about the political turn the U.S. has taken.
Prothero was fascinated with how so many people treated our violent political rhetoric—our culture wars—as a recent phenomenon. But rather than seeing this dynamic as beginning during the Reagan era, Prothero thought this rhetoric of moral outrage and “us” versus “them” sounded familiar. And that is what he found. Ever since the election between Jefferson and Adams in 1800, Americans have been nasty and mean to other Americans. But that is not all he found.
In his historical analysis, Prothero discovered a repeating pattern that guides this politics of culture wars. Here is how it works: Conservatives become aggrieved over some change or loss that is already a fait accompli (“too many Catholic immigrants threaten our ways” after the point at which Catholics were too numerous to do anything about it) and use this nostalgia-fueled rage (“make America great again!”) to wage a culture war for political gain. And here is what is most fascinating about his discoveries: We do not go backward. Catholics come to be seen as full American citizens; women get to vote; racial minorities get equal rights. Throughout our history, our liberal cultural victories in expanding the circumference for who is counted as American become established as the new norm.
And how do we celebrate these liberal victories? By forgetting them. That’s right. After we move forward on our national moral compass and expand on who counts as a true American, we treat them as a new status quo. No one seriously argues that slavery should be reinstated or that women should not be allowed to vote or that we should send the Irish back to Europe: These are now part of everyday reality in America, the new mainstream. Still, neither do we think it strange when members of formerly excluded groups—women, Mormons, Catholics, African Americans—see themselves as conservatives and participate in the latest round of nostalgia-fueled outrage. Because we forget.
During these days of depressing liberal failure, I find Prothero’s discoveries strangely comforting. The story of American politics, while often nasty and brutish, is not one of only peaks and troughs. We need to step back and see how our cultural moral arc has continued to move forward and up, even when we experience what seem like cataclysmic political failures.
But reading Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections) also reminds me not to be lulled into the siren call of forgetting and avoiding. Problems don’t get solved by failing to understand them. As Prothero shows, our culture only moves forward by people embracing our liberal values of freedom, equality, and protection, and getting their hands dirty in order to enact them. So if you are in need of some comfort in these political times, you can find solace in reading Prothero’s Why Liberals Win. But it comes with a cost. Soon you might find yourself getting your hands dirty.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: Why Liberals Win, as well as a few other thoughtful books that address faith and politics, are now available for 30% off plus FREE shipping. CLICK HERE to learn more.