The Next Civil War: Religion

by Bob Schwartz

Lincoln Penny
A few years ago, I proposed that the American divide over abortion might one day reach the dangerous depths of a much earlier conflict over slavery. Not since slavery—not even with still-festering questions about racial and other inequalities—has an issue had such a basic and visceral impact.

The poll numbers on abortion have shifted, the judicial context may be stable (for the moment), but the legislative activity is still a battlefield: among the initiatives, just today Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a law prohibiting insurers that offer abortion coverage from participating in the state’s exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

Yet even with that, abortion will not be the biggest issue that cleaves America in the next few years. It will be, much more than it is now, religion.

Not one religion against another, or one religion-based position against another. We are approaching the point where half of America has an explicit or implicit affinity with some organized religious denomination or belief, and half does not. The not includes a wide range from atheists, agnostics, areligionists or anti-religionists to those who are “spiritual but not religious.”

America is not a theocracy or, officially, a theocratic democracy. But “theocratic democracy” (see Israel) is the way a number of Americans see it approvingly. Our conventions, traditions and even our money support this, and when they didn’t support it sufficiently, it was enhanced—as when during the Cold War against godless Communism, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The dynamic between religious and secular has long played out in America in just about every official sphere. But in the past, those who fought for the secular and even succeeded (prayer in schools) were considered an aberrant and weird fringe. The fringe is now a minority, but still in some eyes, aberrant and weird. What happens when that fringe turned minority becomes an equal partner in American civics, citizens who are guided by bright moral lights, just not those that emanate from lamps they don’t believe in and refuse to support—or allow to rule their lives? What then?

Abraham Lincoln said we could not survive half-slave and half-free. The nineteenth century would not have hinted at it. but the American twenty-first may be half-God, half-not. What might Lincoln say then?