Social progress occurs because liberal-minded reformers defeat conservative resistance.
That's how slavery ended — and women gained the right to vote — and couples won a right to use birth control — and Social Security pensions were afforded to retirees — and blacks overcame Jim Crow segregation — and Sabbath "blue laws" were abolished — and censorship of movies and books ended — and gays gained a right to marry — and various other humane advances occurred.
Improvements in Western civilization repeatedly have stemmed from progressive victories over conservatives. The tide seems unstoppable.
In 2004, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote a book subtitled Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. He argued that the populace is more compassionate than the tone set by conservatives who dominate government. He said most Americans have "a bedrock sense of public, or common, morality" which sympathizes with ordinary folks, not the privileged elite favored by conservatives. "Republicans have posed the deepest moral question of any society: whether we're in it together," Reich wrote. "Their answer is we're not." But Reich said conscientious people "should proclaim, loudly and clearly, we are."
This month, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero will release a book titled Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). He says conservatives often feel society around them shifting away from their cherished privileges and prejudices — for example, they feel "anxiety about the demise of the patriarchal family or Anglo-American dominance or 'Christian America.' " Too late, they raise an outcry and fight a furious resistance, but the trend can't be stopped.
"In almost every case since the founding of the republic," he writes, "conservatives have fired the first shots in our culture wars. Equally often, liberals have won ... A liberal win becomes part of the new status quo and eventually fades from our collective memory. No conservative today wants to disenfranchise Mormons or outlaw five o'clock cocktails. So these victories no longer even appear to be 'liberal.' They are simply part of what it means to be an American."
Prothero spotlights five religious-racial-moral battles in America. The first was a bitter showdown in the 1790s when conservative churchmen branded Thomas Jefferson a "howling atheist" in league with radicals of the French Revolution. The struggle involved dispute over whether America was "a Christian nation."
Elections of 1796 and 1800 "turned into a cosmic battle between God and the devil, and America's first culture war was on," Prothero writes. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson "an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics." Amid the tumult, "conservatives scapegoated immigrants as 'hordes of ruffians' and 'revolutionary vermin.' " In the end, Jefferson triumphed, and America became more inclusive of unorthodox people.
The second culture war cited by Prothero was a wave of Protestant attacks on Catholics around America. In 1844, Catholic-Protestant hatred triggered a cannon battle in the streets of Philadelphia, killing dozens. Anti-Catholic riots and church-burning ensued into the 1850s, spawning the "America for Americans" Know-Nothing Party, which won 75 seats in Congress in 1854. Gradually, hatred of Catholics receded.
The third culture war was hostility toward Mormons. Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith was slain by a mob in Illinois in 1844. Also, "Mormon leaders would be sued, jailed, beaten, stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and murdered," Prothero writes. But this wave eventually faded, like bigotry against Catholics.
The fourth cited culture war was Prohibition in the 1920s, after evangelists and fundamentalists succeeded in banning alcohol. The struggle included alarms over flappers, jazz, race-mixing, smoking, Sunday golf — and even evolution, as crystallized by the "Scopes Monkey Trial." In the end, liberals won the right for Americans to drink if they wished.
The final and current culture war rose as a backlash against the tumultuous 1960s, when young Americans loosed the sexual revolution and war-denouncing counterculture. Racial desegregation, women's right to choose abortion, and banning of government-led school prayer further outraged right-wingers. Conservatives "saw American society drifting away from them," Prothero says.
As a counterattack, the "religious right" Moral Majority rose, and white evangelicals put Ronald Reagan in the White House. White-only "segregation academies" were started so conservative families could avoid mixed-race schools. "Family values" became a slogan for hating gays.
But slowly, step by step, liberals carried the day. Today, "American culture is much less conservative now than it was in 1999," Prothero says. Young Americans favor marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage.
Prothero concludes: "Liberals can take comfort in the fact that they almost always win our cultural battles — that the arc of American cultural politics bends toward more liberty, not less."
Haught is editor emeritus of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.