Same-sex marriage is indisputably one of the hottest "culture war issues" of the last two decades. "Culture Wars Go Nuclear," proclaimed Gary Bauer's e-mail newsletter when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2003.
Of course, it's an especially hot issue among the religious. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that opposition to same-sex marriage is waning among the general public but that Christian Americans are most strongly opposed. Of those who attend church at least weekly, 69 percent say they oppose gay marriage.
The debate over California's Proposition 8 highlights American religious opposition to gay marriage. Catholic, Protestant and Mormon groups played a leading role in the public fight to pass the legislation. And when a judge ruled this month that Prop 8 was "unconstitutional," many culture warriors' claws came out.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council declared, "This is far from over" while James Dobson, former head of Focus on the Family called it "a battle we must win." Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Seminary said, "The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit and its future hangs in the balance."
But if this aging generation of culture warriors--Bauer and Mohler, along with Christian Right figures like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson-loses the gay marriage war, will a new generation pick up their fallen standard?
Few seem to be picking up on the palpable silence coming from younger Americans, including rising Christian leaders. This is notable because young leaders are usually quick to speak up on issues about which they are passionate, as the 2008 election coverage illustrated.
But gay marriage seems to be an issue that younger Americans aren't willing to fight for.
In 2009, the Pew Forum reported that 65 percent of religious Americans aged 65+ opposed gay marriage while only 45 percent of those aged 18-29 did. A poll conducted by Public Religion Research one year prior reported that 52% of young evangelicals support recognition of either same-sex marriage or civil unions.
This data say nothing about evangelical views on the morality of homosexuality itself--presumably a large portion of young Christians still hold to a traditional view of sexuality--but they speak volumes about how they're translating those views into the public square.
In 1991, James Davidson Hunter wrote in his book Culture Wars that "America is in the midst of a culture war that has and will continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere." But a lot has changed since 1991. Evangelical spokesmen like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy passed away, while James Dobson has retired. Meanwhile, a new generation of Christians has begun rising into positions of leadership with a plurality of perspectives on faith in public life.
Today's rising religious leaders tend not to view cultural issues as a zero-sum war between "us and them." The talk instead about common ground initiatives, third ways, and shared perspectives on issues like poverty, environmental destruction, and social injustice. The reverberations of the culture war mentality as it has been experienced in the last 30 years seem to be fading.
This doesn't mean that America isn't still deeply divided. But the chasm that seems to separate us now is the vision for the future of America rather than an argument about the moral decline of our society. The generals in today's war are people like Glenn Beck and Tea Party supporters on one side and more progressive supporters of sweeping reforms like cap and trade legislation and healthcare overhaul on the other.
Beck was recently questioned by Fox News' Bill O'Reilly about why he doesn't cover gay marriage. He said he didn't think gay marriage was a "threat" to America and there were more important issues to worry about. His sentiments confirm the perception that our current cultural struggle is rooted more deeply in American historical narrative than American religious narrative.
For better or for worse, for cultural richer or poorer, the public seems far more concerned at the moment with deficits than regulating marriage. If current trends among religious Americans and the younger generation continue, the current battle over Proposition 8 might just be the beginning of the end for the culture wars as we've known them.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (2010). As a respected voice on faith, he has been interviewed by the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and ABC World News and has published articles in USA Today, the AJC, and BeliefNet.com among others.