Uncivil Wars of Civil Religion

As we approach the most contentious presidential election in living memory, a recent poll suggests trust among Americans is at alarming depths and fear of civil unrest is at dangerous heights. Is this just another 2020 oddity, or is this a sign of something more virulent in the body politic?

Ever since Angelo Codevilla brought the phrase to light in 2017, we have seen an increasing panoply of articles and podcasts from the Right and the Left on the topic of a “cold civil war” prevailing in America. Radio show host John Batchelor and historian Michael Vlahos, for example, have a weekly series called “The New American Civil War.” I grew so intrigued by the increasing number of articles such as these that I started collecting them and now daily aggregate such articles on a dedicated website for others to follow.

Pundits have been straining to see parallels between current events and those from the 1850s that led up to the American Civil War. An article from Vox called Trump’s election “a kind of political Fort Sumter,” and Sen. Tom Cotton this summer likened Leftist protesters in Portland to southern insurrectionists who “tried to take over Fort Sumter.” Similarly Carl Bernstein referred to the Russia probe and the Kavanaugh affair as “Gettysburg and Antietam.” 

To want to draw these analogies is understandable, but there are two problems with this parallel, one geographic and the other what I call religious. These problems could incline us to see things that are not there and dispose us to overlook things we should note.

Problems with the Civil War Analogy

The first problem is that in the 1850s there was a relatively clear geographic divide that physically separated parties to the disagreement surrounding slavery. When the precedent for this division was established in 1820 through the Missouri Compromise, Thomas Jefferson noted the important fact that “a geographic line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” He saw that a moral division that was made geographic would eventually overthrow James Madison’s logic regarding the beneficial effects of having a variety of factions in an extended republic.  

The 2016 election map reveals something quite different from the division in 1861, and the 2018 election suggests this difference is becoming entrenched. Today we are looking at an urban archipelago of progressive strongholds in an otherwise sea of conservatism. Put another way, there are fortifications of concentrated Left-leaning populations in every State that are nearly equal in numbers of inhabitants to the sprawling conservative countryside surrounding them. If progressives are able to enact the regime-altering changes to the Constitution they are proposing (such as packing the Court and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.), these relatively tiny islands of progressivism would be able to rule the rest of the country like feudal barons ruling over a countryside replete with serfs.  

Such a non-contiguous “moral and political” division tests Madison’s logic. He notes that “in the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects, which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.” I do not believe, though, that Madison would trust the newest addition to the science of politics—the enlarged orbit—to be able to ameliorate sufficiently the ill effects of our current division. He understood that, such “auxiliary precautions” aside, “dependence on the people” is the “primary control on the government.”  

Today, though, who are “the people”? They are divided more or less into two coalitions animated by opposing understandings of justice and the general good. More than that, they are mixed up with one another geographically in such a way that this division is masked in a manner that the divide between slave and free States never was. The effect is that we have remained largely unaware of how quickly and how starkly this division has grown. We are apt, then, not to notice how severe the division is until it is perhaps too late. This point is largely what made Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay so persuasive to many in 2016, and perhaps also his latest book—The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return—so compelling.

What is lost in our infighting is the realization that so long as we share a common space, we share a common good, and the only way to share a common space amicably is with the common language, beliefs, and epistemology of a shared civil religion. 

The second problem with the parallel between the Civil War and our situation today is that the division of the 1860s centered around a single issue, slavery, while reasons for our division today are legion. Our divisions today may begin with lofty differences regarding fundamental questions of justice, but they descend to things like what brand of shoes we wear, what TV shows we watch, what Hollywood actors we like (if any), and even whether or not we choose to sip our drinks with a plastic straw. The political differences today are comprehensive—wholly different conceptions of the good life—and in this way they are variants of religious differences. 

During the Civil War, Lincoln observed that “Both [parties] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Today, however, each side metaphorically prays to different gods and reads different Bibles. 

Analogy with the Wars of Religion

Given the differences between our situation and that preceding the Civil War of the 1860s, I suggest that a more accurate parallel to our situation is the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Our situation today resembles that of the Wars of Religion in that then, as now, the two antagonists were physically intermingled and their religious allegiances emphatically superseded their national loyalties. Protestants and Roman Catholics were mixed throughout European nations, and the fortunes of each changed with the political winds. 

The Edict of Nantes, for example, signed by King Henry IV of France in 1598, granted limited civil toleration to French Huguenot Protestants.* The Edict was an attempt to bring an end to the outbreaks of civil violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in France, like that which happened during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. The Wars of Religion were more or less brought to a close with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, one legacy of which was the principle cuius regio, eius religio, “whose realm, his religion,” which was basically an agreement to disagree but safely along national lines. 

This imperfect model prevailed in most Christian countries until religious freedom was codified in the United States’ Constitution through disestablishmentarianism. Harry V. Jaffa once noted that “indeed, it was only this separation of religious opinion from political rights that enabled the United States to adopt a republican or non-Caesarian solution to the political problem.” 

Jaffa explained that there is a necessary connection between the possibility for republican government and the institutionalization of religious liberty “because it was only by disestablishment that theological differences—differences which cannot yield to the process of compromise—ceased to be political differences.” If Jaffa is right, republican government becomes impossible if political differences begin to take on the color of theological differences because those differences cannot yield to the deliberative process of compromise. 

When such a condition prevails, we are no longer able to govern ourselves through political speech. Deliberation thus gives way to negotiation. The nature of this difference—as I have heard Paul A. Rahe explain—implies that we are no longer civil friends with a common good, but antagonistic adversaries with conflicting interests. 

We compromise when necessary and swindle when we can in order to wrest our perceived good from the political argument, even at the expense of the welfare of the other side. What is lost in such infighting is the realization that so long as we share a common space, we share a common good, and the only way to share a common space amicably is with the common language, beliefs, and epistemology of a shared civil religion. 

We should not be surprised, then, when political divisions take on overtones of a religious war. National Public Radio published an article in 2018 that gathered the arguments from several different opinion pieces, all foreboding ill regarding the political divisions in America of late, and presenting them in religious terms. One of the articles it mentions is William S. Smith’s “The Civil War on America’s Horizon,” in which the author concludes that “ultimately what is most disconcerting is that the divisiveness is not just about Trump: it’s deeply rooted in two diametrically opposed civic religions. America is no longer one country. These two groups view their national story through different symbolic mythologies.”

Civil Religions in America

In his article, Smith describes the political differences between Americans today in terms of competing civil religions. The “culturally radical and postmodernist narratives” of the Left are based on a Marxist model of pitting a supposedly oppressed class against a supposedly oppressor class in terms of race, class, and gender. According to this narrative, Western heritage and most of American history is described as “a great obstacle to the empowerment of oppressed minorities and the central driver of global crises.” The great antagonist in this narrative is of course “dead European white men.” 

If our ability to talk to one another finally fails, we will be left either with the prospect of separating by breaking up the union or appealing to heaven in what would certainly be a most horrible war over dominion for our common space.

Conversely, Smith mentions the competing narrative as “the true American civil religion,” though he does not say much about what that is. That story is the one that has been retold ever since America’s founding by its faithful statesmen, whether Washington, Webster, Lincoln, MLK Jr., and yes, even Donald Trump, who loves to tell “the story of America” as founded on “the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4, 1776.”

That story commences with a statement of objectivity that American government is based on certain truths the American Founders held as self-evident. The implications of those beliefs are that legitimate government is based on consent and recognition of equal natural rights. These beliefs bind the American people together while likewise leading them to recognize the authority of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Vox founder Ezra Klein also recognizes that “there are [two] stories that are fighting each other” in American politics today. On the one hand, there is what he calls “Donald Trump’s sort of cramped defense of national identity.” This is “an America we were”—the original American story, presumably. But Klein chooses to see this original narrative through the same lens he sees the nature of the Left, and so he labels it a project of “white identity politics,” in explicit repudiation of the expressed principles of the Founding. On the other hand, he says, there is “the America we should be.” For this narrative, he claims, “Democrats are going to need to find a message and a story about who we are, who we can be.” He is not making suggestions for a political party platform; he is calling for the founding of a civil religion.

Klein got his wish nine months after making these comments when the New York Times launched its 1619 Project. The project’s original intention (there is now some confusion over the wording of the project’s purpose) was “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”

The peculiar political effectiveness of narrative in the service of civil religion is nowhere better demonstrated than in the 1619 Project and the subsequent responses it elicited, most recently with President Trump’s 1776 Commission. Note that the spokeswoman for the 1619 Project commented that “it would an honor” if this summer’s riots were termed “The 1619 Riots.”

As with the ambitious aspiration behind the Edict of Nantes, is there some civil way we can reconcile our different civil religions peacefully, or must we find a way to part and agree to disagree in the form of the Treaty of Westphalia? 

A typical response to divisiveness is the admonition to be more “open-minded.” But that appeal does not work when trust has broken down and each side is thoroughly convinced that there is nothing good about the other side. Thus the declaration that “hate speech is not free speech” becomes equivalent to “no faith is to be kept with heretics.” 

When Coercion Replaces Persuasion

Today we have two civil religions that are shaping citizens’ souls with opposing understandings of justice. For most of us, so much of how we go about thinking through political questions depends on principles we take on faith. If we begin with different premises, however, we will never end up with the same conclusions. 

The rise of this religious dichotomy explains why it seems as if the only explanation for holding an opposing opinion is a deplorable–or we might say an impious–character. This phenomenon suggests we are approaching the time at which we will no longer be willing or able to talk with one another to political effect. When persuasion through conversation ends, coercion through force begins. 

If our ability to talk to one another finally fails, we will be left either with the prospect of separating by breaking up the union or appealing to heaven in what would certainly be a most horrible war over dominion for our common space. I do not see any other options. Choosing between these two would be dreadful. 

But are we really there yet, and do we not still prefer ballots to bullets? To answer that question we must choose if we can still trust in political speech and particularly the media—both mainstream and social—through which we transmit that speech to resolve our deepening differences. Such a choice requires careful thinking and statesmanship of the highest order. Let us pray we will have both in the days ahead as the election approaches.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article contained two factual errors regarding the Edict of Nantes, both of which have now been corrected. The Edict was signed in 1598 and was not fully revoked until 1685.