Friday, February 19, 2010

A New Civil War?

"National politics, always a rough game, has developed into something meaner, more personal--a blood fued.  The primary agenda is now to score points, and to damage the other party whenever possible. . . .The end result is that the United States--like California and several other large states--is becoming ungovernable."

William Falk

Earlier this week I read these words from William Falk in The Week.  They have haunted me ever since.  I fear that Falk is right.  We are so fiercely divided, so angry, so polarized that I doubt even the wisest could rule effectively.  We can be brought together as a people termporarily by an external threat, but even the goodwill and almost universal support President George Bush received after the 9/11 attacks quickly evaporated.  I doubt that today President Obama would receive the same level of support were there to be a second equivalent attack. 

If all this is true, if we are so polarized and paranoid they we cannot be led, why is this so?  We have always had our differences over the role of government.  Some Americans have always seen the government as overly intrusive.  Some Americans have always expected the government to intervene and provide a level playing field.  All Americans have expected government to protect the citizenry from violence and chaos at home and abroad, although they may differ over how it is to be done.  All Americans have an opinion about the role of government and personal responsibility. It is very American, then, to fight over the government's involvement in something as primary as access to health care.  So what makes the conflcits of the last decade seem so different?

I would suggest that the linking of conservative political agendas (e.g. limited government, strong national defense and laissez-faire economics) with critical and controversial moral issues (abortion, homosexuality) in the 1980s meant that on the right issues of political philosophy became part of a moral crusade.  The same thing happened on the left.  "A woman's right to choose" also became a non-negotiable moral and political crusade.  Opposition to the war in Iraq was expressed with the kind moral fervor normally associated with religious faith.  And, in fact, many of the people protesting the war were people of faith--as were the people protesting abortion and gay marraige.   What were once matters of politics subject to compromise are now matters of religious and moral conviction.

The only comparable time in American history, I believe, were the decades leading up to the American Civil War.  On the political side the North and the South were wrangling over a very old issue in the young republic--states' rights.  If this problem had existed in isolation it would have perhaps be solvable through legislated compromise.  But the presenting issue for the supporters and opponents of expanded states' rights was slavery.  I do not mean to make a simplistic identification of the "sides" listed above with the "pro-slavery" or "abolitionist" positions.  I am rather with this analogy raising a troubling question: is the United States in danger of a second civil war?

Before the civil war it became impossible to find a way to compromise over the issue of slavery.  For both North and South it was a political and moral issue of the greatest importance.  Southerners feared any compromise would mean an end to their "way of life."  Northerners feared further expansion of what they considered a noxious institution.  The extremists on either side of the issue scorned any idea that a compromise solution could be found.  It took a violent and bloody civil war to resolve the issue.  I would argue that their failure to find ways to talk about the moral complexities of slavery and pursue non-violent solutions contributed to the endurance and viciousness of racism.  The north in effect won the war and lost the peace.  We are still haunted, nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, not only by the legacy of slavery, but by our inability to address it in the first place in a peaceful and competent manner.

Abortion and homosexuality are not issues that lend themselves to measured conversations and compromise.  What is morally reprehensible to one side is actually a moral good to the other.  The left sees opposition to homosexualty as the moral equivalent of racism.  The right sees abortion as the moral equivalent of murder.  There is not much room for compromise or conversation between those two.  In fact, some in each camp fear that even entering into a conversation implies the possibilty of an unacceptable moral compromise.  These are issues that will not go away.  Does this mean that if we find no way to address these issues and one another, we are doomed to fight?  What role could the church have in fostering such conversations?  Or are we too timid, too unsure of ourselves to even bring them up?  I will try to say more about this in a subsequent blog.

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