Occasionally I start a book thinking, “I’m gonna need a crate of TUMS® to get through this.” I try to read at least 2-3 such books every year. And sometimes these books pleasantly surprise me.
The most recent such pleasant surprise: Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars. Granted, the book’s title and introduction are annoyingly triumphalistic. Prothero’s historical analogies — Jeffersonians, pro-Mormons and pro-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “liberals”; Federalists, anti-Mormons and anti-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “conservatives” — are rather forced. In his treatment of the current wave of culture wars, Prothero grossly understates the significance of the political mobilization of anti-religious Left within the Democratic Party in the 1970s. The historical “wins” Prothero cites are neither so clear nor so stable as he seems to think — I mean, how much of an “expansion of the American family” really occurred when theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Jefferson succeeded theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Washington and Adams as President? And Prothero’s shifts between his own idiosyncratic definitions of “liberals” and “conservatives” and the contemporary, colloquial definitions of those words are often a little too convenient.
Still, by the time I reached the book’s end I was glad I’d read it in full. On church-state relations, Prothero is basically a Jeffersonian — that is, he’s not hostile to religious free exercise, so long as it doesn’t come with de jure or de facto religious establishments or religious tests for public office. Granted, Prothero stands toward the left end of the Jeffersonian ground between Jacobin secularists and religious establishmentarians. But given the current increases in the numbers of both Jacobins and establishmentarians, I’m generally glad to see a man holding onto any corner of the middle ground set forth in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and the First Amendment.