Of course, it's not the Supreme Court's job to decide what is and is not moral—to a certain extent, rulings are always an act of balancing one group's rights against another, not adjudicating who is or is not morally correct. Besides, the idea of the culture war extends beyond court decisions and government policies. The least tangible, and perhaps most influential, front in the culture war is the public sphere: the talking heads who bemoan the war on Christmas, the liberal pundits who rage against conservative bigotry, the religious figures who rally their flocks to defend traditional values. As Hunter pointed out in a 2006 panel discussion on this topic, if there is a culture war in America, it's not really fought among the American people at large. It's waged and sustained by elites.
But even the standard cast of culture-war characters seems to be losing its influence—or its interest in sustaining a one-note, cliched stream of outrage. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has historically been a strong force in stoking culture-war rage. In 2013, Richard Land, who served as president of the organization's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for 25 years, was forced to retire after making controversial remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. In his resignation letter, he specifically paid homage to the culture wars. "I believe the 'culture war' is a titanic spiritual struggle for our nation's soul and as a minister of Christ's Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle," he wrote.
Yet over the past year and half, his successor Russell Moore has subtly and meaningfully shifted the Baptists' rhetoric. In an interview about the Southern Baptist Convention's stance on sexuality in May, he stood firmly against gay marriage—yet, he said, "You don’t ridicule people into the kingdom." And instead of turning the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner into political weapons like his predecessor, he issued a statement saying that "it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem."
There were other examples of the public-information culture war receding in 2014, especially among conservatives. As Molly Ball wrote recently in The Atlantic, Erick Erickson, one of America's most powerful and outspoken conservatives, has condemned the political right's "constant state of hair-on-fire, yelling anger." Bill O'Reilly even gave up the war on Christmas schtick this year, sort of.
The outrage machine is still alive and well—it pays to rage, especially about ideological differences. But America's most fascinating pluralistic challenges seem to be aligned along a different axis these days: How should the way I want to live my life affect your life, and vice versa? These are battles over private lives, not public communities, which might be a sign of Americans' growing tolerance of others' beliefs—or a retreat from intellectual diversity, a crystallization of the social and economic boundaries between those who see the world differently. The latter seems more likely: From the firing of Brendan Eich to the protests against eating at Chick-fil-A to the cake-baking controversies in Arizona and Colorado and Oregon, some Americans seem to want to go about their private work and lives without exposure to opposing world views.
Then again, it's nothing new to question the culture-war framework. When Hunter's book on the topic was published in 1991, The New York Times ran not one, but two, reviews, with both coming to a conclusion along these lines: "The American people's reaction to cultural conflicts is much more complex, nuanced, ambiguous and ambivalent than any two-category typology might suggest."
* This post originally stated James Davison Hunter's name incorrectly. We regret the error.