“3 Steps Churches Can Take To Help Prevent a Second American Civil War” is written by Joe Terrell, content manager at CareyNieuwhof.com. Joe’s writings for Medium, Relevant, Carey Nieuwhof, and his personal blog, Instrument of Mercy, have been read by over three million people.
It’s worse than you think.
Before we begin, however, I want to apologize for the inflammatory nature of this article’s title. I’m not, typically, an alarmist or prone to hyperbole. I’d charitably describe my disposition as “cautious optimism.”
Many may dismiss the central idea in this article as “irresponsible,” “needlessly inflammatory,” and “implausible.” To be honest, I actually hope that turns out to be the case.
But, in the time it takes you to read this article, I aim to convince you that – while not inevitable – the looming threat of a Second American Civil War is legitimate, and pastors may play a surprisingly pivotal role in the battle for our nation’s future.
The Likelihood of a Second American Civil War
The phrase “America has never been more polarized since the beginning of the Civil War” has become overused to the point of cliche, and I fear our over-familiarity with the sentiment has numbed us to its terrifying real-world implications.
For the record, the United States is probably not on track for a sequel to the nation-shattering conflict that left over 620,000 Americans dead between 1861 and 1865. And thankfully, most American citizens have no interest in instigating open warfare between the federal government and militant separatists.
But just because America isn’t currently standing at the precipice of a Second Civil War doesn’t mean it won’t or that the groundwork for a future conflict isn’t being laid right now.
As conservative Christian lawyer David French writes in Divided We Fall: “It’s time for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality: The continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.“
For example, at least half of Americans believe “in the next few years, there will be a civil war in the United States.” Meanwhile, more and more scholars and conflict researchers are raising alarms that America is headed into dangerous territory.
And that’s nowhere more evident than the animosity and hatred festering between America’s “superfactions” – its two major political parties.
The Rise of the Superfactions
Not too long ago, America’s major political parties – Republicans and Democrats – were relatively heterogenous, meaning they shared racial, ethnic, and religious characteristics.
However, over the past few decades, the two major parties have begun to divide over racial, ethnic, and religious lines, forming superfactions (or “mega-identities”).
A superfaction, according to international conflict expert Barbara F. Walter, is “a group whose members share not only the same ethnic or racial identity but also the same religion, class, and geographic location.”
Sociologists can tell now tell more about a person’s identity – including their grocery story preferences and TV viewing habits – based on who they voted for in the previous election than any other sociological factor. In other words, our identities are becoming increasingly intertwined with our political superfaction of choice.
As a result of America’s baffling two-party political system, politics has devolved into a winner-take-all, zero-sum political competition between two superfactions fueled by vengeance and contempt.
A recent CBS/YouGov poll uncovered that 54% of Americans view other Americans as the biggest threat to their way of life.
In Tribe, combat journalist Sebastian Junger writes,
“People speak with incredible contempt about – depending on their views – the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire U.S. government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens.”
A 2022 Pew Research Report found that a majority in both parties view members of the other party as “more immoral, dishonest, lazy, unintelligent, and close-minded than other Americans.”
Republicans and Democrats are also (hilariously) misinformed about members of the opposite party. In a “perception survey” published in The Journal of Politics, Republicans estimated that 36% of Democrats are “Atheist or Agnostics” (the real number is 9%) and 38% identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (the real number is 6%). Democrats estimated that 44% of Republicans “make over $250K a year” (the real number is 2%).
According to a recent Pew Research poll, 40% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans belong to their party because “they oppose the other party’s values” and not because they stand for what their party represents.
Political scientists refer to this level of polarization as “negative partisanship,” in which superfactions “hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.”
It Could Happen Here
No matter the legitimacy of the claims, we live in a time when nearly everyone – regardless of wealth, privilege, social status, race, gender, religion, political affiliation, and sexuality – feels disenfranchised by the government and a victim of “the system.”
In The Next Civil War, Stephen Marche writes,
“When Democrats feel like they cannot find representation, when Republicans feel like they cannot find representation, the government becomes just another resource to control. Outrage feeds all-consuming cycles of revenge. People retreat into tribes. Once the stability of power goes, it’s easy to come up with an excuse to murder your neighbors.”
I know this sounds crazy.
But let’s take a look at the stats.
The percentages of Americans (both Republican and Democrat) who think “it’s justified for citizens to take violent action against the government” have significantly increased each election cycle over the past decade.
In one comprehensive 2021 survey, 36% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats believe they “feel justified to use violence to advance political goals.” In 2017, that number was 8%.
According to a 2022 YouGov/Bright Line Watch poll, 47% of West Coast Democrats and 66% of Southern Republicans were open to the idea of secession.
In a research report from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 18% of Americans agreed with the statement, “True American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”
Since 2008, the number of armed militia and anti-government hate groups has swelled exponentially. Politically-motivated violence is rising, and political rhetoric on the Left and the Right is trending more militant and violent.
Once fringe ideas, secessionist and “sovereign citizen” movements are growing more mainstream and popular. And firearm sales are surging among members of both political parties – not great news in a country with more guns than people.
Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed mass protest movements marked by street violence and property damage, multiple record-shattering mass shootings, a foiled plot to kidnap and execute a state governor, an assassination attempt on several congressmen, and a frenzied assault on the U.S. Capitol to overturn a presidential election.
These are not the benchmarks of a nation trending toward unity and peace.
Combine all of that with a heavily-politicized pandemic, an explosion of “Deep State” conspiracy theories, growing distrust of large institutions, and foreign-based disinformation campaigns, and you could well argue the opening chapters leading to a broader and more sustained conflict have already been written.
Like the citizens of Pompeii under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, we’re sitting atop a powder keg that threatens to detonate and overwhelm us all. And the next few years likely represent one of the greatest pastoral leadership challenges of the 21st century.
3 Steps Pastors Can Take to Help Prevent the Second American Civil War
“Politics as usual” isn’t going to save us.
We’re probably past the point of a future U.S. president “bringing the country together.” From now on, it’s safe to say that every sitting president will likely be considered the “WORST. PRESIDENT. EVER.” by roughly half the population.
Also, “religion as usual” isn’t going to save us either.
It’s time to admit there are factions and elements within American Christianity contributing to America’s precipitous decline toward sustained civil strife and conflict.
With a few notable exceptions, this isn’t to say that pastors and churches are the problem. Bizarrely, one of the most surprising developments of the rise of America’s superfactions is the increase in people claiming to be “evangelical” who don’t attend church.
As Russell Moore points out in an article for Christianity Today, “Churches are usually the sanest outpost of what now goes by American Christianity.” In other words, people claiming to be Christians outside the pews might be the ones causing a lot of the problems for Christians in the pews.
However, this doesn’t mean pastors are completely off the hook. Churches can still be hotbeds for conspiracy theories and political extremism. And there’s growing evidence some Christians are leaving their churches and gravitating toward more partisan congregations.
Contrary to the rumors of the church’s imminent demise, more people still attend church on Sundays than go to sporting events and movie theaters every week combined. This means we’re probably underestimating the influence of pastors on the nation’s political climate.
Amid simmering friction and increasingly violent rhetoric, pastors in America are uniquely positioned to help turn the temperature down and prevent our fractured nation from boiling over into civil war.
1. Acknowledge that the church has a discipleship problem.
Discipleship, or “spiritual formation,” is a pretty popular buzzword in the church right now. It speaks to the intentional process by which a person aligns their thoughts and behaviors with the lifestyle of Jesus.
Intentional being the keyword there.
Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts and behaviors are being shaped – discipled – by the opinions and information we collect about the world. And, pastors, it doesn’t matter if your congregation attends church every Sunday if they’re being discipled by talk radio and network news every day.
The so-called “politainment industry” has poisoned the well of public discourse in America. And some media outlets (and, unfortunately, some pastors) have found Christian audiences easy to exploit and manipulate by highlighting “cultural war” grievances, shifting demographic trends, and advocating for some form of “Christian Nationalism,” or the belief that God desires Christians to dominate government and popular culture through sheer political force and power.
Teach your congregation to beware of people who claim to “speak for Christians” but who do not live a life defined by the fruits of the spirit, who base their livelihood on stoking outrage and vilifying everyone who doesn’t share their worldview.
Much of the news we consume to “stay informed” doesn’t help us see other people the way Jesus sees them, especially when it’s laced with cynicism and resentment.
“Turning down the temperature” will require all of us – from the most hard-boiled conservative to the most bleeding-heart liberal – to be far more intentional about the news and commentary we absorb on a day-to-day basis (this media bias chart from AllSides would be a great resource to share with your congregation).
If the “news” you’re religiously watching or listening to only makes you angrier and less gracious, then you need to cut it out of your life. Period.
2. Create space for the middle ground (it’s bigger than you think)
So, the good news is that the United States might not be as divided as it seems on paper. I know this appears to contradict everything I wrote above, but it’s true.
Americans are surprisingly united on many issues rarely defined as “bipartisan.” In fact, a majority of Americans don’t feel represented by either political party (especially younger adults), and ideological diversity within each party is much broader than you expect.
The bad news is that one of the major consequences of superfactions is that people are increasingly compelled to support more extreme policies and politicians. That’s because superfactions create the illusion of no middle ground.
People at the “far ends” of the political spectrum tend to be more politically active and vocal than other citizens. These “louder” voices drown out the moderates, who often feel as if they need to “self-silence” to keep the peace. This helps explain why today’s Congress is more divided and polarized than the American public.
(This also applies to social media. As Chris Bail recently said in his podcast interview with Carey Nieuwhof, just 6% of social media users generate 73% of “extreme online content.”)
It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear – that we’re right and they’re wrong – but Christianity has never been about affirming our confirmation bias. Pastors, if your “culture commentary” from the pulpit only blasts one side of the ideological divide, then you’re making things worse. You’re turning up the temperature.
The life of Jesus cuts through the heart of both superfactions, and your preaching on sensitive issues should reflect that prophetic reality. But I get it. Speaking into the “ideological middle” has some risks. You’ll probably step on some toes. But I think you’ll discover that more people will appreciate it than you realize.
3. Equip your congregation to be Peacemakers, not just Peacekeepers.
Christians should never be at the forefront of any movement calling for violence. And they should condemn any publicly-professing Christain who uses their platform to do so. Jesus doesn’t call his followers to be warriors on his behalf but peacemakers and servants.
As such, we’re entering an era in which disciples of Jesus should be first and foremost known for their almost-supernatural ability to make peace in divided times. But it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.
As opposed to peacekeeping, peacemaking is an active process that requires intentionality, engagement, and lots and lots of practice. Grassroots organizations in several states – like Living Room Conversations and Braver Angels – offer workshops and conversation opportunities to depolarize their communities and combat negative partisanship.
In How Civil Wars Start (and How to Stop Them), Barbara J. Walter writes,
“It is at the local level – in churches, voluntary associations, and grassroots groups – that we can once again come together and relearn the power of citizenship and community. Our shared history and ideals can inspire and guide us, reviving our national pride in a system that is truly of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
What if the local church became known as a training ground for grace and reconciliation? A place where hard conversations take place, and both sides are respected? Where people of all political stripes are challenged and encouraged? Sounds refreshing, right?
Well, the church still has a long way to go. But with compassionate and wise leadership, pastors can literally help change the trajectory of our nation while also positioning the church as a beacon of sanity and hope in a world gone mad. Imagine that.
The Point(s) of No Return
So, if worst came to worst, what would a Second American Civil War look like?
For starters, it wouldn’t resemble the first Civil War, with that conflict’s clearly defined battle lines and uniformed troops facing off in open fields. No, a Second Civil War will be less a “war between states” than a “war within states.”
Also, a country can spend years – decades even – embroiled in civil strife without ever descending into a civil war (think of Ireland during “The Troubles” or Mexico’s running conflict with the cartels).
But, here’s one worst-case scenario for the United States:
The “inciting incident” could be any number of cascading catastrophes – an assassination attempt, a coordinated series of bombings, an unprecedented spree of mass shootings, another pandemic, or even a massive natural disaster (like an earthquake or hurricane) crippling a large city. Either way, the government would react, and some people would see the response as too much – others, too little.
“False flag” conspiracy theories would flourish. The Left would blame the Right, and the Right would blame the Left. Protests and riots would paralyze major cities. At some point, the federal government would be forced to respond, possibly deploying troops, further emboldening and antagonizing far-right militias and far-left anarchist groups.
Most Americans would attempt to go about life like normal – going to church, attending weddings, complaining about work – but with every breaking news alert, the facade will begin to crack. Some politicians, seeing opportunity, will take the side of those inciting violence, and their voices will drown out those calling for peace.
Hostile foreign governments, also taking advantage of the situation, will flood social media with disinformation and inflammatory memes. Horrifically, some militia groups will conduct military operations on behalf of some of those hostile foreign governments, unwittingly manipulated by carefully crafted social media profiles and targeted propaganda.
Eventually, interstate commerce and supply chains begin to break down, leading to widespread unemployment. Early-morning lines outside of grocery stores become a common sight. Companies will boycott certain states. As faith in a unified government crumbles, emboldened appeals for secession will increase among political radicals and disenfranchised moderates.
Facing multiple insurgency movements on different fronts with competing ideologies, the federal government and military will have no choice but to wage a slow-motion war of attrition against embedded pockets of resistance – similar to what we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Once background noise, paramilitary groups and provisional governments will shift into the foreground. Pundits on television will debate ad nauseam whether or not America had crossed the threshold from civil strife to civil war. But for those living in conflict zones or forced to become refugees in their own country, the answer will be obvious.
For the record, the above scenario is mere speculation (and worst-case speculation, at that). I don’t share to it scare you but to show you how familiar and logical the progression of events already feels. And that’s not a good place to be.
Again, Sebastian Junger in Tribe (which is a book I quote from so often, you should just buy a copy for yourself already):
“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone.”
It’s Up to Us
This doesn’t have to be America’s story.
But it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.
No one’s coming to save us. The future of the United States will likely depend on ordinary Americans’ ability to reject extremism, unplug from the outrage cycle, and love their neighbors as themselves.
Thankfully, this is something faithful Christians have been called to do for two millennia. But it’s also something that won’t just happen by accident. It’s going to require real leadership. Real leaders committed to the hard work of peacemaking and discipleship.
The church is going to have a significant influence on whether the United States trends toward unity or disunity. It’s time to wake up to that fact and stop playing games. Will your church be a healing balm for our fractured nation, a haven of hope and reconciliation? Or will it be an inflammatory accelerant, just another cultural force bringing out the worst in us?
We reap what we sow, and right now, the crop isn’t looking good.
Christianity has survived the rise and fall of empires before. So, that’s not what’s really at stake here. But it is a question of what the church wants to be during this particular moment in history – and beyond.
And the answer to that question is up to us.