Another civil war in America may seem far-fetched, but if you think it can’t happen here, you might want to think again.
The war in Ukraine has diverted attention away from a simmering conflict in this country. The last two presidential elections, marred by foreign interference and charges of wrongdoing, have further divided the country and left our democracy in danger.
“I think we are as divided as we have been since the 1850s,” historian Jon Meacham told NPR. “And we know how well that turned out.”
He said that even before the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol.
Whether the threat of a civil war is real or not, doesn’t it seem wise for Christians and other peace-loving Americans to do everything they can to avoid one?
Scholars have been studying civil wars around the world for decades, and now the subject has gone mainstream in this country, with prestigious outlets and respected authors debating the possibility of civil war or secession.
“We have trusted, for too long perhaps, that peace will always prevail,” political scientist Barbara F. Walter wrote in How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. “That our institutions are unshakable, that our nation is exceptional. We’ve learned that we cannot take our democracy for granted, that we must understand our power as citizens.”
Although Walter’s research indicated that survivors of civil wars in other countries typically didn’t see them coming, Americans seem aware of the potential for conflict. Consider the polls:
- Trust in the federal government has approached historic lows.
- About one-third of Americans think violence against the government can be justified.
- Almost half think another civil war is likely.
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the committee investigating the riot at the Capitol, told The View that civil war isn’t out of the question.
“We’re identifying now by our race, by our ethnic group,” he said. “We’re separating ourselves, and we live in different realities.”
Plus, as Walter noted in her book, social media now acts as an accelerant to conflict.
She has analyzed civil wars in countries like Colombia, Ethiopia, Syria, and Myanmar for more than thirty years. Five years ago, she joined the Political Instability Task Force, a government-backed group that studies these wars.
“Civil war in the twenty-first century is distinctly different from civil wars of the past,” she wrote. “Gone are the large battlefields, the armies, and the conventional tactics. Today, civil wars are waged primarily by different ethnic and religious groups, by guerrilla soldiers and militias, who often target civilians.”
How civil wars start
Jay Ulfelder, the former research director of the task force, said academics generally define civil war in a country as an armed conflict between two organized groups that kills at least one thousand people.
“My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s really unlikely to happen here,” he told The Harvard Gazette. “Last year was extraordinary in recent U.S. history in terms of how politically divided the country is, how violent things got, how tense they were—and you still had a number of deaths that was not anywhere close to civil war.”
But Walter made a compelling case in How Civil Wars Start. Task force research showed that “anocracies”—countries that are part democratic and part autocratic—are most prone to civil war. After the assault on the capitol, the US dipped into anocracy territory for the first time in more than two hundred years, according to a group called the Center for Systemic Peace.
“Democratic countries that veer into anocracy do so not because their leaders are untested and weak, like those who are scrambling to organize in the wake of a dictator, but rather because elected leaders—many of whom are quite popular—start to ignore the guardrails that protect their democracies,” Walter wrote.
Members of the task force identified factionalism—identity-based politics with often-inflexible parties—as the other leading indicator of impending conflict.
“In the twenty-first century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline,” Walter wrote.
White supremacists in the US, for example. Walter cited a 2020 study showing that almost two-thirds of far-right extremist groups have white-supremacist elements.
Experts said that the far right poses the greatest threat of violence today, unlike in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the main threat came from the far left.
And then there’s the possibility of secession.
Will states secede?
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, criticized in February by members of her own Republican Party for speaking at a white nationalist event, has called for a “national divorce” between Republican- and Democratic-leaning states.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, said that would be premature. “I think Texas has a responsibility to the country, and I’m not ready to give up on America,” he said. “I love this country.”
But he said Texas could secede if Democrats “fundamentally destroy the country.”
“If they pack the Supreme Court, if they make D.C. a state, if they federalize elections and massively expand voter fraud, there may come a point where it’s hopeless,” Cruz said. “We’re not there yet. And if there comes a point where it’s hopeless, then I think we take NASA, we take the military, we take the oil.”
Issues like gun control and abortion have split the country today in different, more subtle ways than they did before the Civil War. Christian author David French noted that Democrats control the Pacific Coast and Northeast, with Republicans dominating the South—Florida is a notable exception—and large parts of the West and Upper Midwest.
In his book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, French imagined a scenario where the discontent in states like Texas and California prompted the US to break up into separate countries.
But there is hope.
Historical precedent for hope
Walter noted that South Africa under apartheid faced even deeper divisions than America does today. But when F. W. de Klerk, representing the ruling White minority, became president in 1989, he took steps toward reform, including releasing Black political prisoners.
One of them, Nelson Mandela, had been in prison for twenty-seven years, yet he refused to give in to bitterness. He and de Klerk worked together to end apartheid.
“If South Africa could reform, so can the United States,” Walter wrote.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin takes solace in how America has successfully handled crises like the Great Depression and World War II.
“It’s up to us to write the end of the story,” she told CNN. “We know how the 1850s ended. We know it ended in the Civil War. We’re still writing now the chapter of where this is going to end.”
You don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference. But, as French wrote, “You must be prepared to lead . . . to model tolerance and grace even as you keep to your underlying principles and convictions.”
In other words, model Christlike behavior.
As Jesus said in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (KJV).