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secular civil war

July 2004

The United States has experienced three civil wars -- the first between America and England in 1776 over the rights of nations; the second between the North and South over the freedom and dignity of entire races, and the third in the 1960s over the rights of individuals. It is a testament to our national character that all three civil wars made the country stronger and more flexible- able to thrive on new challenges and to earn its role as the world's most influential superpower.

To a great extent, these three Civil Wars were an inevitable reaction to the "unfinished business" of the American Revolution. In the midst of war, compromise was expedient, and the founding fathers wisely left several festering issues, such as the division of powers between the states, the status of slaves as human beings, and the new concept of individual rights, either for future amendments or for the creative tensions of our untested tripartite system to address. That, plus 200 years and three civil wars, essentially resolved the outstanding differences.

Save one. The remaining conflict lays between the secular and the religious; between the primacy of human law, and the imperatives of religious faith. The Constitution clearly strikes a neutral tone regarding religion- indeed, in the few places where religion is mentioned, it is always in the context of a prohibition against religious tests for office, or to avoid commingling the secular and eternal. While the Declaration of Independence struggled to find a legal or moral basis for revolt- eventually deriving permission from God who "endowed (man) by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", by the end of the war, Americans no longer sought permission to be free. The Constitution begins with an exuberant"WE THE PEOPLE", rather than "By the Grace of God, we sanctify this agreement"1.

Its silence on religious matters is most eloquent.

Unlike many nations, in the main we have avoided religious unrest, and struck a practical, though uneasy balance between heaven and earth. Despite pressures inflamed by strong emotions post 911, we chose unity over revenge and abstained from widespread attacks on Islamic Americans. That was our finest hour.

Perhaps the uneasy truce will hold. But, a perfect storm is rising in the east, and may yet break upon the shores of the world. The storm is driven by ideas, or rather driven by groups threatened by new ideas- ideas which, in our over-communicated world, force their ways into even the most remote regions and minds. A return to the past and its fundamentally stable religious values seems an antidote to the uninvited and unwelcome- both here and abroad. The storm gains strength from the twin forces of demographics and economics- the Mideast will soon lead the world in poverty and its proportion of teenage boys- colliding air masses that could spin-up into a swirling vortex of anarchy. And it will reach hurricane strength if all sides cannot restrain that most human of all emotions- an "eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth".

   When our opponents justified their attacks as the the Will of Heaven, we wrapped ourselves in God and Country and proclaimed our cause as righteous.
   While we mourned each American lost to terrorism as unique and special human beings, we sacrificed ten times as many civilians whose only crime was to live outside of America.
   When threatened by terror, we responded with terror.

It is a sad lesson of history that protracted wars draw opponents towards the least common denominator- with each side adopting the worst practices of the other. So far, and to its credit, America barely slipped over that line- but then again, the war is far from our shores and in its early days.

We can safely predict anarchy will escalate around the world, and within our nation. The question is, how will we respond? It will be easy to overreact to a diffuse enemy, and destroy those very values we labor to protect. It will be easy to seek moral certainty and justification for our actions through religion and manifest destiny. But, if we take the high road today- including all religions, believers and nonbelievers in our government, demonstrating our concern for human life extends from the footprints of the World Trade Center to the dusty killing fields of Somalia, opening our country to immigrants from all nations, spending as much on the cause of peace as on the equally critical imperative of a strong defense, then we will be able to resist the downward spiral of revenge and the civil war it might entail.

And then the world will adopt our cause and drive the anarchists into a corner from which they cannot emerge.


1 Some excellent letters in the NYTimes from 2010, make this point eloquently. Also see this excellent article from Smithsonian Magazine.

Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.