(I am catching up on some religion and politics books that had been on my list for some time.)
Stephen Prothero, in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even if they Lose Elections) reviews previous culture wars in American history. He defines culture wars as
“angry public disputes that
are simultaneously moral and religious and address the meaning of America.”
I think he is entirely right that we have always had culture wars, and probably always will. We are not more polarized now than we were in past culture conflicts. And some of those fights, against Catholics and Mormons, were more violent than what we have today.
His thesis is really interesting:
Conservatives start culture wars when the imagined past they think they are losing is already lost. Liberals fight back, and eventually win.
Then the new, more inclusive culture becomes normal, the base for the next imagined past.
One big issue he slides past, though, is race. He wants to separate race and culture, though he knows that the two are highly intertwined. In particular, he skips over the Civil War and early Jim Crow. I think this is more wrong than right -- the struggle over the cultural meaning of race and white supremacy is a cultural and religious issue.
Moreover, if he had treated the race fight as the same kind of culture war as the more obviously religious conflicts, his final section on "contemporary culture wars" would be stronger.
His thesis is that conservatives start culture wars. He says that the conservative narrative explaining the current culture war is that the liberals started it by "taking prayer out of schools" and legalizing abortion. Not so, says Prothero -- if you look at the actual chronology of what mobilized the Religious Right, it was the threat to the tax exemption of the "segregation academies" that they created in response to school integration. Race came first; abortion and "family values" were added later.
Prothero frames the core narrative of American cultural struggles as expanding liberty, with liberals including more groups over the resistance of more restrictive conservatives.
I think a stronger way of seeing this same history of struggle is over the equal humanity of different "races" as they were imagined by the competing religious cultures of the day. The opposition to the Irish and the Jews was as racialized a fight as the suppression of black people was, and as today's opposition to Mexicans and Muslims is.