I have long wished the Confederate states had been allowed to secede. My reservation is that secession would have prolonged slavery. Although I have read arguments that even in an independent South, slavery couldn’t have endured, the institution survived in Brazil for another quarter-century to 1888. Slavery is intolerable. So, too, were the deaths of 620,000 Civil War combatants, the even greater number of injuries, and the suffering that went beyond the battlefield. I can do nothing about the past. But it is heart-rending to watch today’s America tear itself apart over a conflict whose true cause no one seems to acknowledge.
What we rightly regard as the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction, the ongoing maltreatment of African-Americans, resulted from the determination of the nation’s leaders to reunite North and South. But this surface unity put in place conflicting concepts of government whose irreconcilability has increasingly corrupted our civil discourse. This divide remains largely geographic, between North and South, with states admitted after the Civil War aligning themselves on one side or the other. No longer about slavery, the divide persists in the rift between social liberals and social conservatives. There are other divides, above all economic, but they aren’t region-specific.
On October 11 last year, Attorney General William Barr inadvertently articulated this social divide in a speech at Notre Dame University when he contended that the founders envisioned America as a Christian country. The Trump administration is an exercise in historical revisionism, and Barr’s claim was revisionist in the extreme. The Declaration of Independence makes no reference to Christianity, and its author, Thomas Jefferson, didn’t call himself a Christian. Likewise, when the founding fathers hammered out the constitution, they mandated the separation of church and state. A government dedicated to religion would be a theocracy. The founding fathers sought to establish a democracy, a concept as diametrically opposed to theocracy as it is to monarchy.
However, it’s undeniable that the notion of America as a Christian society is strongly felt in the South.
Barr doesn’t acknowledge that he is defining an alternative America. Indeed, people who share his views talk about democracy as if they believe in it. But their actions belie their words. Even before Barr’s pronouncement, the socially-conservative majority in the Supreme Court had been fashioning the America he portrays. It has expanded presidential authority, accommodated voting restrictions, and proscribed women’s autonomy. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pursuing an “America First” anti-immigrant—really anti-“other”—policy that favors white Christians. It has set up harsh holding camps at the Mexican border, where parents are separated from their children, in order to discourage Latino immigration. Likewise, with the Supreme Court’s sanction, the administration has severely restricted the issuance of visas to visitors from a variety of foreign countries, most of which have significant Muslim populations. By contrast, similar camps and blanket exclusions have not been established at the Canadian border.
It’s true that advocates for each viewpoint, America as democracy and America as theocracy, come from both North and South. No exceptions to the general rule are more striking than William Barr and Donald Trump, both New Yorkers. However, neither man have much support in their home state or elsewhere in the North. At the same time, my experience in conservative rural North Carolina is that the few liberals there tend to be more to the left of their Northern counterparts.
That said, the predominant accents in the House of Representatives and the Senate are telling. Socially conservative voices are almost all Southern, while liberal voices are almost all Northern and, for the record, Western.
Because we as a country fail to acknowledge the two competing philosophies, each side sees the other as dishonest. Indeed, any objective viewer recognizes that Fox commentators flat-out lie, which they wouldn’t need to if they were open about their desire for an anti-democratic theocracy. MSNBC, the cable network at the other end of the political spectrum, doesn’t lie, but it does engage in unashamedly left-wing polemics. In a society where the ground rules were understood and laid out clearly, MSNBC’s leftist perspective would be fairly matched against a less deceptive but equally contentious conservative network. America does have appropriately opposing perspectives in two major newspapers, with the New York Times‘s liberal op-ed page orientation contrasting with the Wall Street Journal‘s conservative op-ed tilt. Away from their opinion content, both papers do a creditable job of accurate reporting, a harder task than many readers recognize. Unfortunately, such newspapers have less influence than cable networks, which in turn might be less influential than social media, with their accompanying risks of unsound sourcing, conspiracy theories, hacking and foreign manipulation.
We need to end the antiquated Electoral College that has come to undermine our democracy. We need to substitute independent commissions for legislatures in order to minimize gerrymandering. We must bring an end to arbitrary voting restrictions. But these priorities are Northern. The ethos in such Southern states as Alabama and Texas favors preservation of an existing, semi-aristocratic order with a Christian mantle.
Separation might well mean a pair of mass migrations. Just as Trump moved from New York to Florida, though easy for him with all his resources, people in the North who want a Christian government might move South, while my one-time liberal friends in the South might replace them in the North. It would mean a few years of hardship and disorientation, but nothing as drastic or violent as, say, the 1947 Partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. The parallel would be more like the mid-twentieth-century Great Migration of African-Americans from a futureless South to a more hopeful North. Another, perhaps happier model would be the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Of course, many people would stay where they were despite disagreeing with their government’s policies. There is much for a theocrat to love about Boston, as there is for a democrat to love about Winston-Salem. Every nation has minorities. The trouble right now is that a minority is overriding the American majority.
It may seem I am content to have ordinary Southerners languish in the white Christian male theocracy that its leaders secretly or openly espouse. Actually, I suspect that just as slavery would eventually have ended in the South had the Confederate states been allowed to secede, theocracy would also die on the vine. As it stands, that white Christian male ethos is partially disguised by Northern ideals of equality. Once isolated, its true nature would be exposed. Newly independent Southerners might well find themselves looking at the freedoms alive and well in the North and feel the envy and frustration that Eastern Europeans used to experience as they gazed across the literal and figurative Iron Curtain.
Through The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood suggested America risks turning into a theocracy, a dark vision that the Trumpian era has made more believable. Belatedly granting independence to the original Confederate states, along with any Western states preferring theocracy over democracy, is the only way our two unacknowledged nations can pursue their two separate destinies. Better to grant independence to the region that wants a sectarian Christian government so that the rest of us who value the Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom and equality can keep traveling Martin Luther King’s long arc toward justice.
Am I so naïve as to believe secession at this late date is feasible? Making the case at least identifies the real cause of our dangerous political divide. We can then address it honestly, rather than poking around the edges and angering each other over side issues.