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August 31st, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Is Prop 8 fight the culture wars' last stand?

Editor's Note: Jonathan Merritt is a cultural commentator and author of the new book Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.

By Jonathan Merritt, Special to CNN

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.

“The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit,” said Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Seminary, “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 in 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.

Beck 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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Merritt.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. ByNIq

    840154 221924Thank you for any other informative blog. Where else may just I am getting that kind of info written in such a perfect way? 137988

    August 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  2. moto

    very wel ! l

    January 11, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  3. Jesse

    Religion doesn't make men evil, they do it all on their own. The fervent calls to ban religion or get rid of "fundies" is ridiculous. You don't think evil has been done in the name of science or progression of the human race? People are good or bad depending on their choices. I know plenty of religious people who are awesome and some who are jerks, I know atheists who are jerks and some humanists who are great. A little less greed and a little more charity would make the world a better place. If you want to ban religion, you might as well ban humans because people will always differ in their beliefs. It is in the discourse and compromise that make us civilized.

    September 12, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  4. Lindsay

    I don't want to start a fight. I am asking this in a very sincere way (not the more hateful way that some may read it-it's so hard to convey the tone of a question through a computer). Why is this an issue? I truly don't understand. I really want to know why people are bothered by gay marriage!
    I was raised without religious influence and love reading about it now that I am an adult (though I still don't follow any religion). I love learning about religion but I still can't understand why many religions looks down on the idea of gay marriage.
    If we are all to love one another and we are all equals than why should anyone be denied the right to marry? We say it is wrong to discriminate against someone because of their race, gender, etc. So why should a certain part of the population not be allowed to have the same rights as some others.
    I have heard people say that letting gays and lesbians marry somehow effects the values of their heterosexual marriages. I am not trying to be rude or confrontational in any way but this doesn't make any sense at all to me. How is your marriage in any way effected by someone else's marriage? There are plenty of terrible, abusive, or otherwise awful heterosexual marriages out there. There are lots of marriages that end in divorce at an astonishing rate. I wouldn't say that those marriages hurt the marriages of people who have happy marriages.
    I have known many gay couples in my life know that they have the capability to love and care for each other just as much as any heterosexual couple. I have known couples who have been together for decades (for much longer than the average hetero couple) but they can't marry. A couple of drunk people can go get married in Vegas without even knowing each other as long as there is one man and one woman.
    I am sorry but this just doesn't make sense to me. I have tried for years to understand the other viewpoint on this subject. I pride myself of learning about all points of view before reaching a decision on anything but I have failed with this one and it really bothers me. I simply don't get it no matter how hard I try and I find that most people get very angry and frustrated when I ask them about their thoughts because they seem to think I am attacking them.
    If anyone can help me understand this I would really appreciate it. I am being totally honest when I say that I would love to understand the other side of things and I hope that no one has taken offense to anything I have said.

    September 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  5. dannel

    Heh.. the "Christian Right" don't worry me half as much as most of the folks that posted up above do.. 7th grade pseudo-intellectualism at it's finest..

    September 5, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
  6. HB

    actually any parent that wants to see their child banged in any way by anyone has a real problem.

    September 1, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  7. Jochebed

    We need more men like Asa in this nation.

    September 1, 2010 at 6:11 am |
  8. Jochebed

    Your tolerance is exemplary.

    September 1, 2010 at 5:57 am |
  9. gunshowsigns

    These chick#$%@ socalled conservatives tolerating any gay things is for the birds. You need more agressive support such as Iran who kills their gays. The right refuses to use the tools God has supplied us to keep in check the Hollywood funnyboys by holding Israel hostage. NYC asked for it and got what they earned on 911. Yes Islam will generate the false prophet bringing in the Islamic nations to join the rest of the world to push for the jew superstar antichrist. But there is no arab world empire mentioned in Daniel so why is the right afraid to use them. We know about the jew antichrist and yet the right supports Israel who support gays, abortion, and feminism.

    September 1, 2010 at 1:57 am |
    • David Johnson

      @gunshowsigns

      You said, "why is the right afraid to use them. We know about the jew antichrist and yet the right supports Israel who support gays, abortion, and feminism."

      The Christian Right supports Israel because they believe that it will bring about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which would lead to the fulfillment of the "End Times" prophesy, the Second Coming, the Rapture, and the end of the world.

      To fundies, the state of Israel and the Jews are simly a means to an end.

      This is another reason to fear the Christian Right. They believe in and desire the end of the world. If they gain enough political power, could they insanely work to make the end come true? What if we gave a nuclear war and Jesus didn't show up?

      Darn, people. Don't vote for the Republicans in Nov. Even if you are a Christian, vote for the Democrats. The Dems care about the poor and middle class. All the Religious Right cares about is the power to be the nations god!

      September 1, 2010 at 10:37 am |
    • peace2all

      @gunshowsigns

      Nice.... Very nice..... Way to create peace and harmony.. Yes... kill-ing all the gays, that is a great strategy. You are kidding right...? As @David Johnson said, a good portion of the religious christian zealots in this country are actually welcoming any sign of catastrophy which = god's mad= the coming of anti-christ = coming of the 'end of days.'

      Some are even excited about this, because they will get to be with jc in heaven.

      Please, no more ridiculous bible dribble verses.

      Peace.....

      September 1, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • Nemo Crets

      Did Fred Phelps write that comment under a pseudonym?

      September 1, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • Kate

      @Nemo

      That would require a higher IQ than current evidence supports ol' Freddie possesses. The interwebs are tricky, y'know!

      Just sayin'

      September 1, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  10. maggie sue

    Maybe I am wrong, but I believe the issue about legality of gay couple is not religion related (right or wrong, moral or immoral), but how to deal with all the other legal issues that r related to married couples, as health insurance, life insurance, taxes, property owners, etc. Thats why the goverment have a say on this, and not bc politicians r moral or religious. Gay couples have earns and expenses, too.

    September 1, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • David

      If marriage does not carry government sanctioned rights, responsibilities, and benefits, perhaps, same-sex marriage won't be such a hot issue. But, it does. That is why some have suggested that government should only recognized "civil marriage/union" and not religious marriage/union. After all a wedding is meaningless until you sign the dotted line.

      September 1, 2010 at 3:39 am |
    • David Johnson

      maggie sue

      Gay marriage is an issue of morality. The Christian Right would define what is moral, for the country. Their puppets, the Republicans, would ammend the consti tution to limit marriage to one man and one woman.

      The Christian Right wants to be the voice of god for the nation. They would tell us what is right and wrong.
      You best be voting for the Dems in November.

      September 1, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • NL

      What happens if the Christian Right gains the power it wants? The bible becomes the law of the land? Whose interpretation of biblical law should we all follow? Would it be all right to kill your children for "disobedience"? Would you replace our present criminal code with a biblical legal "standard," maybe regulate the size and weight of stones used for public execution?

      I'm just interested if anyone has really thought about what they're praying for?

      All you would accomplish, I'm afraid, is to simply shift the midfield line. There will always be more radical elements that would want to be able to express their higher level of brutality, and the fight will continue. I'm sure there are groups in Iran that feel that the government isn't enforcing Islamic Law enough. Is that the kind of America you want to live in?

      September 1, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  11. Brad

    As a christian, i feel It's sad what the Christians have done to Christianity. They have made the church a political machine. I'm sure it makes God sad. Jesus said "they will know your are my disciples by your love" not 'by your political power.'

    August 31, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Well spoken, Brad. It doesn't do much to sort out this issue, but it needs to be said.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
    • David

      I am a gay Christian. There are a lot of things I don't have clear answers to, but I am certain that my Creator loves me. Whatever I do is only between Him and I. So, just let me enjoy being a gay Christian. He will take care of the rest.

      September 1, 2010 at 3:30 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Brad

      If you truly feel the Christian Right is too political, then please vote for the Dems in November. If the Christian Right becomes storng enough, they will dictate to every religion and Christian denomination in the country.
      Republicans care nothing for the poor and middle class. Social Security and Medicare are at risk.

      September 1, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
    • Peter F

      Amen, Brad. Christianity is not about convincing you to vote for certain candidates, but living your life for Jesus. Too many have turned it into a political agenda. Jesus did not come into the world to flip the political system on its head, but to show love and hope to his people by dying for their sins.

      September 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.