- - Monday, March 28, 2016



By Stephen Prothero

Harper One, $26.99, 326 pages


There are two ways of interpreting history: You can either follow the facts wherever they lead you or you can begin with a pre-selected conclusion and cherry-pick the evidence to fit your preconceptions. Religious writer Stephen Prothero favors the latter approach. The first thing readers of his latest book will notice is the banner headline above the title on the dust jacket: “The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.” As if Thomas Jefferson’s rather loopy attempt to retool the Bible to fit his personal religious preferences or the emotionally charged issue of same-sex marriage were ever more than noisy sideshows, neither of which has ever decided a national election.

“The approach of this book is episodic rather than exhaustive,” Mr. Prothero confesses in his introduction. And episodic it is, consisting of five “episodes” from American history of varying significance: the election of 1800, “which pitted Congregationalist ministers and Federalist politicians against ‘infidels’ and Jeffersonians.” Subsequent chapters examine four “additional, overlapping episodes: the anti-Catholic crusade in antebellum America; anti-Mormonism before and after the Civil War; prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, and the culture wars of the 1970s and beyond.”

The biggest culture wars of American history, the struggle to abolish slavery and preserve the Union and the subsequent and still ongoing pursuit of a society with civil rights for all and special treatment for none, are given short shrift. “Neither the Civil War nor the civil rights movement commands a chapter of its own,” Mr. Prothero blandly asserts, before diving into the comparatively trivial historical episodes he has chosen to build his case. How come? Perhaps he is bothered by the fact that many of the staunchest opponents of slavery, from Alexander Hamilton and John Adams among the Founders to Abraham Lincoln as wartime leader do not fit Mr. Prothero’s ideal as “liberal” culture warriors, and made the ethical case against slavery drawing on religious and moral values that Mr. Prothero might consider retro.

By contrast, Jefferson, whom Mr. Prothero sets up as the ultimate model of enlightened statesmanship, was the first of three privileged Virginia aristocrats — none of them self-made men like Washington, Hamilton and Adams — who talked a good show about democracy but did everything they could to perpetuate and extend slavery as the nation expanded westward. The ultimate limousine — or coach-and-four — liberals, they owed their electoral successes to a cynical political coalition of poor white southern farmers, the corrupt urban political machines in large northern cities, and the obscene political deal that allowed slave states to pad their electoral votes and congressional delegations by counting black bondsmen, held in slavery and denied any political rights, as part of their populations. Indeed, at least one critic of the 1800 election results sarcastically referred to Thomas Jefferson as “the Negro president” for this very reason.

Fast forward to the present and Mr. Prothero paints a picture of American society as riven between tolerant, “liberal” victories on issues like gay marriage, and stubborn “conservative” rearguard actions fought on the same ground. Underlying it all is the assumption that, thanks to liberal culture war victories, America is becoming ever freer and more tolerant. Conveniently ignored is the dark side of the new “tolerance” and cultural fragmentation: the breakdown of many American families, the drastic increase in children of all races born out of wedlock and living with single parents, the epidemic scale of drug abuse, the collapse of rigorous educational standards in the name of “diversity” and “political correctness,” and other cultural blights that have been piling up even as liberals have been chalking up cultural victories.

Not that there’s anything new about all this. Nero, that model of benevolent Roman emperors, “married” a eunuch named Sporus nearly 2,000 years ago. As a disgusted Roman patrician remarked at the time, “What a pity the Emperor’s father had not chosen such a wife.” To assume, as Mr. Prothero seems to, that American society is on a steady and irreversible march to ever more permissive mores and ever declining spiritual values is to assume that history always marches in a straight line. In reality, the pendulum has swung back and forth many times in the past, from the moral corruption of Georgian England to a period of spiritual renewal and incredible material progress under the Victorians, to cite just one example. The liberals may have won a number of cultural battles of late, but the war is far from over.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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