It's a semiannual tradition in America: the culture-war debates. Is there a culture war in America, ask pundits and professors and journalists, or isn't there? And if there is one, is it over yet?
As with any tidy narrative, the culture war can be somewhat shape-shifting, invoked in ways that diverge from how the sociologist James Davison Hunter first wrote about it in 1991.* But the gist is this. In debates over social issues like abortion, homosexuality, and birth control, American culture and politics is divided into two camps: the orthodox—or traditionalists, or conservatives—versus progressives. Often, these issues are discussed in terms of religious values and religious freedom. Accurately or not, "the culture wars" are often referred to in terms of religious America vs. secular America—and, sometimes, the Christian right vs. everyone else.
As Pat Buchanan said in his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself." But today's culture war, if there even is one, doesn't seem to be about winning America's soul—it's about people's right to live their lives according to their beliefs.
The past year saw a renaissance in culture-war thinkpiece writing, with the fight being declared over and not over and over again in many turns. That's because many of 2014's big news stories touched on culture-war standards, like gay marriage, public prayer, and birth control. This year's list of Big Issues could have easily been from the 1980s—the heyday of the Moral Majority—instead of 2014.
But the fascinating thing is that these issues of culture-war vintage have played out in distinctly un-culture-war-y ways. Unlike the alleged culture wars of yore, these legal battles aren't about shaping culture and laws in favor of one side or another—they're about individual conscience.
Gay marriage, for example, has been a long-simmering, divisive political issue. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 35 states, and in nearly a dozen others, court decisions for or against same-sex marriage are pending. In November, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex-marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, which will likely lead to a Supreme Court review of the issue.
Arguably, the many court decisions that overturned same-sex-marriage bans last year were enabled by shifts in public opinion, which has steadily moved in favor of gay-marriage legalization over the last decade. Yet, as I pointed out in March, a slim majority of Americans still think gay sex is morally wrong. What can be made of this apparent contradiction?
The answer doesn't fit neatly within a typical culture-war framework. Unlike Buchanan's 1992 battle cry, many of today's debates over social issues imply a respect for people's private lives. In a March poll of public opinion on gay marriage, 53 percent of respondents said they support gay marriage, while only 43 percent said they morally approve of gay sex. The gap in these numbers—presumably, the 10 percent of respondents who are fine with gay marriage but not fine with gay sex—suggests an interesting posture doesn't quite square with the two-camp logic of the culture war: People can support a law without agreeing with what that law allows.
There's a version of this dynamic at work in another yet-to-be-resolved controversy related to gay marriage: A number of people who bake cakes, cut flowers, and provide other services at weddings have refused to work at same-sex ceremonies and celebrations. It seems likely that many of these people do not support gay marriage at all, but that's actually somewhat irrelevant. This issue is specifically about people's private lives: Should people be required to do work in service of something they disagree with?
This is similar to the central question of last summer's debates over the Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, which prohibited the federal government from requiring closely held private businesses to provide birth-control coverage in their employee insurance plans. Proponents of birth-control access were outraged at the decision. But as John J. Dilulio Jr., the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote at Brookings, "love it or loathe it, the Hobby Lobby decision is limited in scope." Although the case touched on many culture-war themes, including female sexuality and access to contraception, it was really a decision about whether companies can be required by the government to pay for birth control if the owners have a moral objection to it—not whether taking birth control is, itself, right or wrong.
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.